Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tales From Topographic Oceans


Since we’re on the subject of concept albums…might as well haul out the mother of ‘em all, Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes. First, let’s dispense with the usual puns associated with this album: they were in over their heads, adrift in a sea of pomposity, a band drowning in their own self-indulgence, etc., etc. A stunning artistic achievement or an orgiastic example of Prog excess? You be the judge. After a string of popular, pushing-the-musical-envelope albums including The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge, the band was on a roll and in peak form – the newly crowned kings of a fresh new genre that, believe it or not, was actually looked upon with approval by most rock critics at the time (even those notoriously anti-British writers at Rolling Stone). Upon completing their Close to the Edge tour in 1973, Yes hunkered down in the studio and embarked on a project to let it all hang out – immersing themselves in a concept based on the Shastric scriptures, from the book Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. Not exactly a hip topic amongst your typically stoned, drunk-out-of-their-minds rock audiences back then. You can almost hear the collective “Huh??” This was heavy stuff, indeed, set to four album-side musical epics stretched over two pieces of vinyl (a double album), each slowly unfolding (some would say aimlessly meandering) like a long, lazy river of oblique lyrics, occasional mellotron passages, helped along by some killer guitar riffs from Steve Howe to prevent anyone from nodding off. Missing here were Bill Bruford’s laser-like, jazzy drum patterns (he left the previous year to join King Crimson), replaced by pounder Alan White’s more basic hammer-time style. These four massive pieces, with snappy titles like “The Revealing Science of God,” started off slowly, took their good ol’ time getting up to cruising speed, before finally (some would say mercifully) coming to an end. The usual Yes penchant for pristine harmonies, strong melodies, ingenious arrangements and expert musicianship was still there in full glory…provided you were extremely patient and had some time to kill. But when you make it to Side 3 and 4, there’s the uncomfortable feeling that ideas are running dry, with a little too much instrumental noodling here and tribal drum beating there – all, it seemed, just to fill up the obvious spare time and space. Monumental mistake or masterpiece? Then as now, opinions were intensely divided. Hardcore Yes fans launched their crusade to defend Topographic Oceans while fair-weather fans abandoned ship (and most likely never bought another Yes album). It’s hard to believe there was once an era in popular music when an album of this depth (sorry, couldn’t resist) and artistic audacity would actually be released by a major record company (Atlantic Records). Ah, the early '70s. What heady times they were – even though such risky musical expeditions could quite often become a voyage of the damned.

Essential Tracks: “The Revealing Science of God,” “The Remembering (High the Memory)”

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