Wednesday, August 29, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 7: Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973).

The following several posts come from a website I created way back in 2001, in honor of my favorite band, then and now: Yes.

Some of the writing makes me cringe 17 years later, but I feel it's good enough to live on. That Roger Daltrey (yes, that Roger Daltrey) was given some of my text to speak as narrator of the Yesspeak biographical DVD is testament to the quality of at least some of the prose, I guess. 

I pulled down my site, called The Yes Chronicles, years ago. But thanks to the Wayback Machine, which does its part to make sure that nothing published to the internet ever dies, I was able to find archived copies of my reviews. Another site, Yes in the Press -- which appears not to have been updated for about 11 years now -- also saved the reviews. I notice in the introductory blurb that the keeper of Yes in the Press attempted to contact me with no success. I'm not sure what happened, but if that person stumbles across this blog -- hello, it's me. 

All text is original from 2001. Links have been updated where possible. Happy reading.


"I think Topographic Oceans was a sort of meeting point of high ideals and low energy. ... In the middle of it all, there was me, really trying to maybe force the guys into an area that they didn't really know about."
-- Jon Anderson, from the Yesyears video (1991)

"That album was really a horrific album. ... That album almost killed me. ... I think there was a psychological effect of, 'Oh, we're doing a double album; now we can make things twice as long, twice as boring, and twice as drawn out."
-- Producer/engineer Eddie Offord, interview with Tim Morse, from Morse's
Yesstories: Yes in Their Own Words (1996)

"We didn't have two albums' worth of material. ... There was a lot of what I call 'bluff' that went on ... a lot of playing and 'Oh yeah, that sounds pretty good. We'll keep that.'"
-- Rick Wakeman, MTV Rockumentary (1991)

"That's a difficult album for me."
-- Chris Squire, Yes Magazine (1992)

"Tales from Topographic Oceans is like a woman's padded bra. The cover looks good ... but when you peel off the padding there's not a lot there."
-- Rick Wakeman, 1974, as documented in Yesstories (1996)

Tales from Topographic Oceans
Atlantic 1973
Rating: **
Produced by Yes and Eddie Offord
Cover and logo by Roger Dean
Engineer: Eddie Offord
Tapes by Guy Bidmead

Jon Anderson: vocals
Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Rick Wakeman: keyboards
Alan White: percussion, vocals

Track listing:
1st Movement: Shrutis
The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)
2nd Movement: Suritis
The Remembering (High the Memory)
3rd Movement: Puranas
The Ancient (Giants Under the Sun)
4th Movement: Tantras
Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Bill Bruford must have seen this coming and bailed out before he got stuck sharing the blame for it. And poor Alan White must have wondered what he'd gotten himself into.

The key phrase in relation to this sprawling double album is "form over content." I'm sure Jon Anderson had very good intentions when he and Steve Howe fleshed out the idea for this project, and indeed, lyrically this is a very ambitious undertaking, with Anderson doing his best to sing about the triumph of true spirituality over religion, encapsulating Paramahansa Yogananda's philosophy that the paths of all religions (a concept Anderson would revisit years later on the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album) lead to a single, shared destination: a transcendence, in whatever form that may take in each religion -- a realization of "God," attainment of Buddhahood, oneness with Brahman, and so on. Without a doubt, one can also hear references in the album's lyrics to the concepts put forth in the ancient Hindu shastras that Anderson says he studied after reading a footnote about them in Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi. But there is also that strong tie to Yogananda's overall concept of all religions converging at their center, which is laid out in his book The Science of Religion and echoed by Anderson in the first "movement" of this rock symphony, "The Revealing Science of God." (Note that the reason I don't list a "best song" for this album is not because I dislike it, even though I do, but Tales is meant to be taken as onelong song, a symphony, divided into four parts; thus, there can be no superlative. If I had to pick a best movement, I suppose I'd say this very part 1.) This piece opens with Anderson chanting about the "dawn" of all things worldly and within, coming off much like a meditative mantra through which, Yogananda taught, man is able to consciously transcend from the human body into a spiritual realm, where the ultimate answers to both science and religion can be achieved.

If all that seems like a clumsy explanation, it is. But then it's hard to create a Cliffs Notes version of a complex religious/spiritual philosophy, as I'm sure Anderson himself found out as the idea for Tales unfolded in his head. So, I can't dock him for trying to get his point across to his listeners. He gets an "A" for effort.

I can, however, fault Anderson and his bandmates for the pretenses that led to the album's format -- a double album, one song per side -- and the grossly contrived, unfocused, overwrought music that came as a result.

After the phenomenal success of Close to the Edge, there wasn't a lot Yes could do to top it. After all, how does a band improve on its greatest moment, especially a revolutionary one? Well, it can't. It either puts out substandard product, tries to take its music in a new direction, or plays out its career by creating variations on the old themes that brought it success in the first place. Tales has elements of all three, and Bruford wasn't interested in traveling down two of those three avenues -- he felt he'd gone as far as he could with this group of musicians and said he wasn't interested in making "Son of Close to the Edge." So he faded into the Yes sunset, leaving on the highest note possible and taking his music in a radically new direction indeed, with avant-jazz-proggers King Crimson.

In his new band, Bruford would cut one recording with percussionist Jamie Muir, an oddball of a musical colorist who ran around onstage hitting things with chains and biting blood capsules. Somewhere around this time, before Muir quit the music business and retreated to a Scottish monastery (no, I'm not making any of this up), he introduced Anderson to the shastras that apparently sparked the lyrical vision for Tales. It also gave Anderson the excuse he had been looking for to thumb his nose at the critics who scoffed at the loftiness of Close to the Edge and suggested that the next thing Yes would do would be to set the Bible to music. Well, it wasn't quite the Bible, but if "Close to the Edge" was really about Siddhartha and/or the Buddha, Anderson probably felt it was only logical to follow up with a rock 'n' roll treatise on the other major Eastern religious philosophy, from which Buddhism itself emerged: Hinduism.

Well, as it turned out, the lyrics were quite insightful and even beautiful in their cryptic way, but the music is anything but memorable. It is self-indulgence taken to an ugly extreme. It is the result of what happens when a band has achieved such great success that producers and record companies leave them alone to do pretty much whatever they want without any type of constructive input. It is an obscene waste of five musicians' talents. It is what has, more than anything else, painted Yes into a corner as the epitome of progressive rock -- in both its best and worst forms -- and created such lofty expectations from many of its fans (and there are many who love this album, but I have no idea why). It is a bloated monster that helped kill prog and give birth to punk. It is what helped spawn Spinal Tap. And if you don't believe me on that last point, consider that during the recording sessions, hay bales and wooden cows were set up in the studio because some of the band members had wanted to record in the country rather than in the city; Anderson at one point wanted to build a bathroom in the studio because he thought his voice sounded better in his bathroom at home; and on the ensuing tour, Rick Wakeman was spotted eating a curry onstage during a boring moment of a Tales song. Now that I think about it, this stuff is even funnier than Spinal Tap. Hello, Cleveland!

Now, there are some perfectly nice moments on these four sides of vinyl, but as Wakeman himself said, it's like wading through a cesspool to get to a waterlily. To hear Wakeman tell the story, underdeveloped ideas -- actually, any ideas that anybody came up with -- were tossed into the music for no good reason, and riffs and themes were padded and played and replayed and beaten to death, all without little regard for whether the end product made any sense, let alone be even the remotest bit entertaining. It seemed as though the primary goal was to make each song fill up one side of an album -- after all, the band pulled off the sidelong epic with great success on Close to the Edge, right? Well, I'll even concede that there are some decent 10- to 12-minute songs buried in here, but at 18 to 21 minutes, they just collapse under their own weight. It's frightening to think that some of these cuts were originally as long as 28 minutes, before Eddie Offord got out the scissors.

It's also scary to think of what a mishmash the songs must have been in their uncut form, because even truncated to fit on an LP side, there is absolutely no focus. The pieces are mostly flaccid -- they plod sleepily along, with no energy, and meander around with no apparent goal, jump into one idea, play it way too many times, then stretch out with long (no, I mean long) sections of airy Mellotrons, cymbal rolls and guitar/bass trills that never develop at all and serve no purpose, other than to make the song a little bit longer. Then we may jump back into an older theme, played way too long, or sometimes into a new unrelated theme, played way too long, and then back to a pointless free-time passage, played way too long. This goes on for 80 minutes, folks. Oh, and to give the impression that these guys really are pulling off an integrated masterwork, they occasionally reprise themes from other songs (or movements, whatever) -- an introductory passage from "The Revealing Science of God" is heard in "The Remembering," and Howe recycles one of his main guitar lines from "Close to the Edge" on "Ritual." But it's all an illusion, intended to make you think there's something really important, and deep, and thematic, going on here, when in reality those themes are the only thing that add some semblance of continuity to the endless barrage of hopelessly unrelated ideas in between. And don't even get me started on "The Ancient" -- what's supposed to be dissonance, I guess, comes off sounding like a horrible, pointless jumble of random noises, and at that its done to death, again never developing in the slightest. At least there's some interesting percussion at the beginning, with White tapping out an insistent rhythm on the rim of a drum, amidst some horribly grating, neurotic background noise that annoyingly pans from channel to channel. And the ending of this movement is a plesaant little acoustic piece, but of course it has nothing to do with the rest of the movement, except for the ugly chords tacked onto the end that pretend to bring everything full circle. The same goes for "Ritual" -- there's an intense percussion feature near the end, followed by a lovely song finale, but there's no way I'm going to sit through the first tedious quarter-hour of the song to get to it.

Beware that prog snobs will get all bent out of shape when you slam this album -- you're just too stupid to recognize its brilliance, they say. Hogwash. I know good prog when I hear it, and I know justifiable experimental music when I hear it, and this ain't either one. I may not understand The Faust Tapes, for example, but I can appreciate that there's a point to it all. What, on the other hand, is the point of the boring, repetitive, aimless, extraneous music on Tales, other than to fill up each side of an album?

But don't take my word for what I say about the album -- please, listen for yourself. I tried for a long time to like this album, and maybe you'll have better luck than I did. But I'd be surprised if you do, because there's just not that much to like, and even less to try to defend. The best thing I can say for Tales is that, on a lyrical level, it may make you think, or maybe even expand your knowledge. Indeed, the lyrics are among Anderson's most interesting, thought-provoking, and even inspirational. But I suspect the music will turn most listeners off before they ever get that far, which is really a shame. It's hard enough to get such a lofty and complex subject as religion and spirituality across to a rock 'n' roll crowd, but the job is made all the harder, if not impossible, if the music surrounding it bores you to tears.

Always having had one foot in Yes and another in his solo/session career, Wakeman decided to pursue things on his own after the Tales tour was complete -- and who could blame him? But it left Yes in quite a predicament, for Wakeman was arguably the band's biggest star at the time. Somehow, though, Yes rebounded wonderfully, following the horrid musical dross of Tales with an album that would rival the brilliance of Close to the Edge and ultimately would become Yes's last truly great musical moment.
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