Tales from Topographic Oceans

[Blog topic by request of periodical]

Wonders really will never cease. One of the Talking Time fundraiser blog requests I received was about Yes’ album Tales from Topographic Oceans, which you may recognize from its mention on the Prog Rock episode of Retronauts Pocket. Dr. Sparkle and I touched on it just long enough to shake our heads in dismay. It’s not an easy album to listen to — and if you doubt my word, well, I’ve embedded the thing in its entirety right above. Please feel free to take an hour and 22 minutes of your life to see for yourself.

Topographic Oceans has a lot of problems, but when it comes right down to it, the album’s biggest flaw is that it was created not out of sincere love for music or to answer any creative impulse. No, it was recorded as an act of spite. The band had been pushing the boundaries of the rock music format with its past few albums, creating longer and fewer tracks per album, and the band seemingly hit some kind of apex with 1972’s Close to the Edge. In its 36-minute run time, Close to the Edge contained three tracks*, the title track encompassing the entire first side of the album. This inspired some critics to wag their tongues and speculate that Yes’ next act would be to set the Bible to music. Rather than retorting with something sensible like, “No, our next act will be to follow whatever course we deem appropriate to the pursuit of creating great music,” the band — or at least vocalist/ringleader Jon Anderson — responded by saying, “Oh yeah? We’ll show you.”

The result: Tales from Topographic Oceans, four songs stretched over 82 merciless minutes. Loosely inspired by Eastern religion (specifically Shastric scriptures), Tales seems to be an attempt to cram the whole of human existence, from life to death, into four so-called “tone poems.”

For the sake of full disclosure, I don’t hate Tales. I recognize its ludicrous nature and the fact that it’s godawfully boring, and that the liner notes — which discuss the core creative process of Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe coming up with the album’s contents in spiritually intense sessions by candlelight (subtext: dude, we were soooo baked) — are offensively pretentious. But when I was a kid, my mother would dub her record collection onto tape cassettes to take on the road for long car trips, and the first time I sat down to listen to Tales as a teenage music aficionado I experienced a primal familiarity with the album. So I have to assume that we once drove from Texas to Michigan listening to Tales (at two and a half days long, that road trip is just about long enough for a single playthrough of the record).

Intellectually, though, I totally recognize that this album basically embodies every nasty remark every music critic ever had to say about progressive rock. In trying to trump their naysayers, Yes effectively gave them an hour and a half of ammunition. You can tell when a ’70s band was creating a lengthy piece of music from genuine inspiration, and when they were just going to any length to break some sort of record. “Close to the Edge” was the latter, an energetic performance with several musical motifs that develop over the course of the 18-minute song in interesting ways. Almost every piece on Tales, however, was the latter: Sluggish and bloated, with huge passages that seem to have been added just to pad out the running time. Perhaps not coincidentally, it came out around the same time as Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, which was much the same — though Tull dragged things out with a bizarre ballet interlude rather than droning chords and repeating musical phrases.

Even the band didn’t enjoy Tales. Rick Wakeman left immediately after recording was complete, and for good reason; his virtuosic keyboard skills were completely wasted holding down simple Mellotron chords while Howe went nuts with guitar licks. Drummer Bill Bruford actually left (to join King Crimson) before the album sessions began, no doubt thanks to an innate survival instinct. Yes never really recovered from the Tales fiasco; their popularity wouldn’t match the Fragile/Close to the Edge salad days for a decade… and only then because Trevor Rabin came in and completely curbstomped the band’s prog juggernaut sound, turning it into a lean post-New Wave rock outfit whose most popular tune (“Owner of a Lonely Heart”) couldn’t have been further away from Tales in either a musical or spiritual sense.

And yet, there are a few really nice moments on the album. If you could isolate the good parts as stand alone tracks, you’d have one album side of solid material. Howe’s Spanish guitar interlude in “The Ancients” is genuinely wonderful, and Anderson’s vocal performance in that section (“I heard a million voices singing”) is Yes at its purest. I had the good fortune to see Howe perform this passage solo in the ’90s**, and while his voice wasn’t a patch on Anderson’s, it sent shivers down the audience’s spine nevertheless. And honestly, while the drum sequence in “Ritual” goes on a little too long, the whole song is generally pretty great — energetic and varied enough to feel like a legitimate culmination of the whole affair.

I think Tales could be pretty killer in some sort of “super cut” remix that pares the whole album down to about 20 minutes of the best tracks. Unfortunately, the raw production is four times that long. So if you choose to listen to it in its entirety, I refuse to be held responsible for any body parts lost due to your chewing off your limbs in boredom.

*Actually, Close to the Edge contained nearly a dozen tracks due to a technicality carried over from the days in which albums were simply collections of singles: Music labels paid bands per track included on an album. When bands began producing lengthier pieces of music than the two- or three-minute bubblegum confections of the ’50s and ’60s, the labels didn’t adjust their terms to reflect the change in the medium. So bands like Yes would subdivide lengthy tracks into “movements” in order to get a proper paycheck for their work, despite the fact that a track like “Close to the Edge” was one continuous piece of music rather than the four smaller ones listed on the liner. My favorite example of this nonsense is the final movement of “And You And I,” “Apocalypse,” which is basically just a single steel guitar note being sustained for about 10 seconds while being bent into ascending silence — a complete piss take on label technicalities if ever there was one.

**This was one of the most bizarrely mismatched music performances I’ve ever seen; he played live in Lubbock, Texas… at a barbecue restaurant. Dude’s a vegetarian! But he seemed genuinely happy when some dopey long-haired teenager (me) came up to him and asked him to sign his page in the Fragile album booklet, which was published before said teenager was born.

7 thoughts on “Tales from Topographic Oceans

  1. I’ve had a strange time with this album. It’s actually the only Yes album I’ve enjoyed straight through. Not being a fan might be the main reason for my dislike of the bulk of their material. But why did this one somehow (sort of) click?

    Back in the early ’90s, I used to travel alone across the USA, by ground, between Philadelphia and New Mexico. I took loads of books and music for the two and a half day trip. A friend suggested I should listen to this album and I reluctantly accepted a cassette tape he made for me. Figuring I’d fall asleep to it, I popped it in at night while riding a Greyhound bus somewhere around the Texas-Oklahoma border. The sounds of the music blended well with the surreal shapes and silhouettes of the dark landscape…and I was suddenly treated to a display of sheet lightning. Much like the album, it seemed to go on forever. And it was brilliant.

    So, I ended up with a fondness for this album. Even if I never really listen to it anymore.

  2. I bought this album at the maximum of my teenage prog fandom. It served as good background music, with the occasional swell of awesomeness to bring it back into focus. I can still remember the vocal section you mention, even though I haven’t listened to in the better part of a decade.

    And what a great name!

  3. I always preferred Genesis and King Crimson to Yes.

    This album is a very good illustration of why.

  4. For the record I never subjected the family to Tales on a trip to Texas (as your dad and I have way different musical tastes, that would have been bad form on my part). I suspect it was just hearing it as background noise around the house when you were very young was why it seemed familiar.

    • You didn’t take turns listening to stuff? That’s the true and noble road trip compromise.

  5. I made sure we had lots of music your dad would tolerate. Truthfully he didn’t have much of a record collection when we got married. Most of what he had wasn’t anything I would even consider buying.

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