Review Summary: An oceanic and spiritual musical journey.
"Tales From Topographic Oceans" is perhaps one of the more controversial progressive rock albums, and for good reason. Some loathe it, some love it. I fall into the second category. I find the album to be a triumphant work of art from tip to toe. This album is divided into four movements, each taking up their own side on one of the two discs. Each of the four movements has it's own unique characters, and each movement explores different motifs while developing those that have come before. Not only does "Tales" have an incredible contrast in musical styles, but it also has a very large range of emotions that are displayed throughout the whole two discs. Each movement is perfectly placed, and the album is brilliantly formatted.
"Tales From Topographic Oceans" is a concept album based upon Jon Anderson's interpretation of four Shastric scriptures from Paramhansa Yoganada's "Autobiography of a Yogi". Many deem this concept to be an overblown and self indulgent move from Jon Anderson, but Yes really had nothing to lose after releasing the universally acclaimed "Close to the Edge", and new ideas were needed in order to create an album that was to be in any way as good as its predecessor. The concept alone is enough to make some people roll their eyes, but Jon proved it to be successful by creating Yes' strongest and most spiritual lyrics. The concept alone has gained notoriety among critics and fans, and tales of the infamous "curry incident" have long since been shared, in both fondness and in mocking.
I think that an ocean is the greatest non-musical comparison that I can make with this album. The music moves in waves of sound, that create immersive and dreamy atmospheres. Each movement creates an atmosphere that follows the next, like a musical journey. What makes "Close to the Edge" so special is that the emphasis of the music is on the atmosphere that it creates rather than the technical capability of each of its talented contributing musicians. "Tales From Topographic Oceans" takes this to an almost dramatic new level. At times I feel that the atmosphere is so exaggerated that it almost completely strips parts of the album of musical structure, and this is the point when you know that you have moved your art to a point that is further than the its literal nature.
"Disjointed but with purpose..." this line is a great description of this album, as people seem to misunderstand it's raw and oceanic nature, particularly when compared to the immaculate "Close to the Edge". But even with its flaws, "Tales" is an incredibly immersive musical experience. The main gripe that people have about this album is it's length. "Tales From Topographic Oceans" certainly has an incredibly long play time, and being a concept album also means that it demands patience. While I understand that this album is incredibly long, which may make it hard for certain people to follow, I fail to see how this makes it a bad album. The whole point of "Tales From Topographic Oceans" was to explore new territory; musically, lyrically, spiritually and conceptually. And from the mystical and haunting "High the Memory" to the crunchy and adventurous "The Ancients", I fail to see any lack of surprises.
The album begins with "Revealing the Science of God". In my opinion, this track is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. What a climatic composition. A wide variety of emotions are communicated musically through this composition, and each of them is positive. The piece is beautifully formatted, with a beautiful build in the beginning, ethereal passages in the middle, and a climatic ending that bring the piece to an incredible finish. I cannot express my love for this track in words.
"The Remembering" is an absolutely incredible composition. This is one of Yes' most ambient pieces of music. Many people are bored by the lengthiness of this movement, as there is very little to please impatient ears. The movement relies heavily on textures and ambient atmospheres to communicate its ideas, and this is something that loses many impatient listeners. The melody that comes in at around 8 minutes is one of the most subtly powerful musical moments that I have ever experienced. Another incredible movement.
"The Ancients" follows the previous two movements in the perfect direction. This piece is somewhat similar to "The Gates of Delirium", with a slightly King Crimson edge. While this piece continues the etheric and oceanic dreaminess of "The Remembering", it adds a raw and powerful edginess that really pulls the album together. I absolutely love this movement. There is a bewildering sense of dreaminess that is created through the intertwining section, from the menacing stabs in the band to the mystical chants of Jon Anderson. Some people say that they don't understand the experimentation of this movement, but I know that I understand all that I need to fully enjoy and immerse myself within the complex atmospheres that are created here. This movement does not disappoint me in the slightest.
"Ritual" is an excellent end to the album. The upbeat introduction has a folky melody that creates a joyous atmosphere, which is pleasing to the ear after the avante-garde "The Ancients". Soon after, we begin to see some of the previous motifs from the album (and one from "Close to the Edge") revisited in Steve Howe's dreamy guitar solo. The last really obvious motif is then introduced; the sentimental "Nous Sommes Du Soleil". This movement bring the album to a fitting climax, both sentimental and mysterious.
It is practically impossible to follow up a masterpiece like "Close to the Edge" without disappointing a great amount of fans. It has rarely been done. But in my opinion, this was the perfect way to do it. Yes could not keep releasing consecutive album that sound identical to "Close to the Edge". And if they did, "Close to the Edge" would not be such a treat.
"Tales From Topographic Oceans" is one of my favourite Yes albums, and one of my all time favourite prog albums. There is something deeply immersive and very emotional about this album, but it takes a patient listener to unlock all the secrets that are hidden within this masterwork. I do not expect that everybody will understand this album, but I think that this is an essential listen, and one of the most colourful and diverse musical experiences that this wonderful earth has to offer.
Originally written for "progarchives.com"