Review Summary: Almost blown up to a fault, Tales From Topographic Oceans is a flawed, but important piece in Yes' classic years.
How do you, as an artist, follow up a classic album, or just your best work up to that point? It is an issue that has plagued many musical performers, and when Yes released the progressive milestone Close to the Edge in 1972, they faced this very problem. Being ambitious, and familiar with writing large-scale epics, the band took the common decision: to make that next album bigger than anything before it. A 81-minute concept based on Shastric scriptures (Jon Anderson’s fancy), Tales From Topographic Oceans is, for the lack of a better word, huge.
Albums like these are prone to implode because of their own length, and Topographic Oceans is certainly getting in the danger zone. It’s a large pill to swallow, and it won’t be the first Yes album you'll pick up for a listen. Describing all its intricacies would be a long-winded affair, so to keep it short: while this double album contains some of Yes’ most gorgeously-composed passages, it does (surprise surprise) seem a little too stretched out. The band, ambitious composers as they are, would not likely resort to meaningless noodling, so as a whole, the album actually still pretty great. Its lengthiness however doesn’t put it anywhere on the same level as the group’s three greatest achievements, being Fragile, Close to the Edge, and Relayer.
What made Close to the Edge a classic was perhaps that it was a band effort in the end, giving everyone a chance to show their abilities, both alone and in interplay. This is where Topographic Oceans strays off the right path again. The majority of this double concept was composed by Anderson and Howe, and these two are almost constantly in the musical spotlight. On the bright side, Howe’s guitar playing here is among his brightest performances. He was, after all, often enough overshadowed by Squire and Wakeman, and this might have been payback. Wakeman however didn’t take the clear division so well, and left the band to pursue his solo career. Another classic Yes member took his leave, although he was to return later.
Even the biggest Yes followers will have to conclude that the band blew up Tales From Topographic Oceans a bit, but at the end of the day, we still have an essential Yes record with constantly great musicianship here. Being stretched out over 80 minutes, this also is a lot more relaxed to listen to than their classics, so if you’re in the right mood and take your time, it really does pay off. Not the best to start with, but most definitely an important piece in Yes’ career.
Tales From Topographic Oceans’ Yes was:
- John Roy Anderson ~ Lead Vocals, Timpani, Harp, Tambourine
- Stephen James Howe ~ Lead Guitar, Timpani, Backing Vocals
- Christopher Russell Squire ~ Bass Guitar, Timpani, Backing Vocals
- Richard Christopher Wakeman ~ Mellotron, Mini-Moog, Organ, Piano
- Alan White ~ Drums, Percussion
Great album with fabulous moments throughout. Their hardest work ever to get into, and you only can fully appreciate after several listenings, just like any of their classic lineup after all, but this time, it's clearly more experimental, less polished and less structured, but not in a pejorative way. Compositions may seem to drag here and there, but it's not the case at all; It has to grow on you. Musicianship and arrangements are inevitably top notch. Highlights: First and last songs.
Awesome work once again, Nag. Your 1st paragraph speaks the truth. What a pleasant discog!
mmm this album is great, hilarious, and peaceful at the same time. It takes forever to fully absorb if only because you always zone out somewhere in it. "The Revealing Science of God / Dance of the Dawn" is really great, especially the opening (this album might have my favorite Yes opening).
Not your best review, you don't say much other than - its long but well made. I like your focus on Howe's guitar, and it might be stronger if you went in to a few more specifics (songs, moments), even though I know the album's a bear to approach in a review. Maybe that's why you're ending all your Yes reviews in that foreboding "to be continued" lol.. Nice Job
Knowing that Wakeman did a light heart attack when he was 25, I did a research to see when it happened and I found that it was shortly after his departure from Yes. At the same time, and like you said in your review, I found that he left primarily because of musical differences. He felt that TFTO was thin on substance, and did not connect with its themes. Further, he did not enjoy the experience of reproducing the entire work on stage each night. He felt the lenght of the songs prohibited the band from playing many of their classic gems. It must be said that he was also pretty busy with his solo works at that time.