YES – Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)

Review by: Jonathan Moss
Assigned by: Irfan Hidayatullah

 

This is without a doubt one of the best albums Yes have ever done. Easily top five, perhaps top three. Definitely in the pantheon of top prog albums in general. God, its such a fucking good album. Why? The whole package man, its got almost everything that makes Yes good (it is missing one rather crucial element, which should be obvious to Yes fans). Jon Anderson’s esoteric religious lyrics, his bizarrely high pitched but melodically pleasing and strangely friendly vocals, Chris Squire’s thick, busy and catchy bass lines, Steve Howe’s acidic, hooky guitar playing, Rick Wakeman’s ear grabbing, rich keyboard textures and symphonic playing (though at points he does seem to cross into cheesy sci-fi territory, but that gives the album a goofy charm rather than diminishing it in any serious way), and last but certainly not least, co-producer Eddie Offord, who manages to get a nice, clear separation between the instruments. Oh, and Alan White’s competent drumming.

Of course, this album does have a reputation for pretension, and at eighty minutes with four songs, I can’t really argue with that. However, I will argue that there’s nothing entirely wrong with being pretentious. Obviously it can result in a lot of pretty crappy music, but so can music that’s lacking in pretension, like most modern indie bands. So I guess I would call this album an example of successful pretentious music.

Besides, the album manages not to be monotonous through a variety of ways. For one, the four songs all have a different mood from each other, and within those songs there are different moods, and different sections, like an experimental novel written by multiple people, but with a similar vision. It helps, that as Mark Prindle pointed out, the album is not particularly bombastic. All the songs are pretty, and they generally sound too mystical and withdrawn to get extroverted, as bombastic music requires. I swear, if he’d been born later, Jon Anderson would have been a great neofolk artist. And Rick Wakeman would be a synthpop legend!

The way the instruments intertwine is amazing as well, it shows something of a lack of ego in the band, because although the instruments all get their own moments and in general sound fantastic, they work together beautifully at all times, never fighting for supremacy. In this regard they are like a good team of improvisatory comedians (this comparison will definitely be used sardonically).

On to the songs now! It starts off with “The Revealing Science of God”, which is definitely my favourite song on the album. It starts off with these mysterious ambient sounds, then starts to build in intensity, as Jon chants his lyrics, before the bass joins in and launches into a fantastic melody along with a majestic mellotron line from Wakeman. The song just has such a sense of joy to it, it sounds like celebration music for some esoteric religious party. Steve’s guitar playing is clean and melodic, almost byrdsy, but with a jazzy edge. It’s amazing how much the band can get out the beginning, just Jon’s angelic “what happened to wonders we once knew so well” bit, the bouncy guitar, catchy as fuck guitar and heavenly synth. This launches on to a tenser, more hard rocking bit, with aggressive but tuneful guitar playing and an uncertain vocal melody from Jon. And then! A very pretty synth bit, the song can’t stay tense, its just too jolly! It does become more chilled out though, kind of back to the proto-ambient vibe. For a prog epic its not that similar to something like Supper’s Ready, its more like “Close to the Edge”, it has different sections, but it always returns to the same themes. Of course, each times with variations, like a different riff or a frantic piano bit. Layer it more and keep it interesting and multifaceted while following the same melody, which is good, because what a fucking melody it is. Steve gets a very weird guitar solo as well, it becomes more pretty and conventional, but at the beginning it sounds almost like something that could be used in an artsier new wave song as a goofy sound effect. This leads to the “young christians see it” bit, which has an epic and of course, religious vibe, with some mellow synth playing. The song ends on a bouncy, joyous note, with spastic keyboard and bass, before getting more mellow, with dramatic singing from Jon, before returning triumphantly to the central melody.

The next song, “The Remembering”, opens with pretty swirly keyboards. The atmosphere of the song is mellow and lush, this is aided by Steve Howe’s hypnotic guitar line. This gives the song a sleepy energy, like animals napping in a humid jungle. This is followed by an ominous keyboard line and a more energetic bit. The guitar line is poppy and the bass is smooth. Then there is what I regard as the best bit in the song, because during it the percussion is actually punchy! Alan White temporarily stops being shite. Of course, the chiming acoustic guitar helps as well. It reminds me of The Wicker Man, only if it hadn’t been a horror film. The song ends on a cool celestial section, with beautiful guitar and choir like mellotron. The song can get repetitive within its structure but, along no Revealing Science, it is still a very strong song, though not quite a classic.

Admittedly, “The Ancient” is pretty bad. The song has its moments, like a pretty folk pop bit near the end, which could almost pass as its own song, and some interesting noises. But outside of this it has some of the ugliest guitar playing Steve Howe has done on record, just a kind of squealing atonal mess. The percussion doesn’t work either, it is overly busy. It’s just a very formless, confused song. It’s like they tried to go from prog to outright avant-garde. Leave that to Crimson, guys. The noises, for me make me conceptualise it as a kind of proto-Gates of Delirium, even if they don’t actually sound much alike. Ultimately it just sounds like video game music for some forgettable 90s game.

Luckily the song ends with an absolute classic, and the second best song on the album. This is of course “Ritual”. The best bit of the song is the “nous somme du soleil” chant. This occurs twice, relatively early in the song, featuring the beautiful chant of that title from Jon, under carefree, sweeping guitar and catchy bass. It creates this religious atmosphere, but one of joy, like a charismatic Church, but not at all! It’s reprised again at the end, but this time it’s more mellow, with otherworldly tinkling piano. These sections are for me definitely the highlight of the song, they convey something I cannot put to words, a spectral beauty. Something life affirming. However, if the rest of the song was junk, it would still be filler, so luckily the rest of the song is pretty great. Throughout it features various pretty vocal performances from Jon, pretty guitar leads and riffs (including at one point a nice punchy riff) from Steve and Squire’s catchy bass playing. There is also a good hard rocking bit, though it still retains the fundamental optimism of the tune. The song is a beautiful epic mantra, just not as quite as realised as revealing science.

Jesus, look how long this review is. Now I understand why critics hated prog so much, it is hard to review succinctly, unlike a punk song where you can just say “catchy aggressive guitar riff and sneering vocals”. Well, that doesn’t change that this album is great, even if one of the songs blows and it does suffer from padding. The classics make up for it!
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Author: tomymostalas

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