Thursday, 22 January 2009

Tales from Topographic Oceans

Back in the early 1970s, I was a self confessed lover of earnest progrock and owned all sorts of peer-approved albums by Pink Floyd, Genesis, Curved Air, Jethro Tull and of course, Yes. In those days, no one would accept your music credentials unless a) you sported a beard or b) you had a least a working knowledge of ‘The Yes Album’, ‘Fragile’ and the then Holy Grail, ‘Close to the Edge’ with their far-out Roger Dean covers and increasingly complex musical contents.

But a rift was opened up in 1973 with the release of ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’, the album that split the music industry and fans alike and probably single-handedly paved the way for the punk invasion in 1976. For starters, TFTO was a double album and even for Yes, this was overstepping the mark. The double album was almost universally derided as an indulgence and for a prog band, which already walked a tightrope between being inventive and indulgent, to issue one was an act of suicide. Even worse the album contained a single twenty minute piece on each of its four sides - no snappy 3 minute singles here.

At the time, I quite liked it but I was in a minority and driven by the mood of the day, stopped buying Yes albums. I remember lounging around in a fellow student’s room at University in about 1976 listening to ‘Relayer’, the follow up album and thinking then that I’d made the right decision. I haven’t bought a Yes album since.

But over the years, my initial appreciation of TFTO has grown to a real love of the work and these days would consider it my favourite Yes album. It has a certain individual grandeur that no other ‘pop’ work exhibits. Let’s face it, can you imagine any of today’s bands conceiving, arranging and executing four individual twenty-minute pieces of music based on the Shastric scriptures? Most of them struggle with a decent three minute song. It is the sheer singularity of its design that appeals to me and the fact that there is some damn fine music contained within it. Even after all this time, there are few ventures that have sought to equal its audacity.

Side 1 is probably my absolute favourite (‘The Revealing Science of God’) and has one of those spine-tingling moments about mid-way through (the ‘Overhanging trees’ bit). Side 3 comes next (‘The Ancient’). This comprises some aggressively atonal soloing from guitarist Steve Howe interspersed with moments of real harmonic beauty and finishes with some astonishing acoustic guitar playing. Sides 2 and 4 are not quite as good but very listenable nevertheless. Funnily enough, my least favourite is side 4 (‘Ritual’) which is generally thought of as the most acceptable, commercially and is often played live by the band. Perhaps it’s just me!

I can’t help but feel that enough topographic ocean has passed under the bridge to allow a sober reassessment of this album and that it will not be found wanting a second time around.
Read more about Yes in my book 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive'


Charlie said...

I was one of those who thought Topographic wasn't "close to the edge." I thought it went over the edge. After the triumphs of their 3 previous albums these guys lost me with this one. While TOTO is not a bad record it's only for Yes fanatics while The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge are all essential. I have never owned TOTO and the only 2 I purchased after the essentials are Going For The One and 90125. Overall though, they were a great band.

musicobsessive said...

Hi Charlie! Actually I wouldn't count myself as a Yes fanatic - I only own the 4 LPs you mention. It's just that I'm beginning to find TYA, F and CTTE a little boring and have found myself drawn more and more to TFTO. There again, I've always been a bit out of step with general concensus. I'm used to it now:)

Perplexio said...

When it comes to Yes, I'm likely in the minority in that my favorite Yes album is Drama-- the only one WITHOUT Jon Anderson on vocals. I think it's largely due to the musical chemistry shared by Steve Howe and Geoffrey Downes that would later manifest itself further when the two of them teamed up with John Wetton and Carl Palmer to form Asia. Machine Messiah and Tempus Fugit are must listens from that album. The last re-release included an early demo of Tempus Fugit with Anderson's vocals. Not all the lyrics were written yet so Anderson does a scat guide vocal at times but it's kind of cool.

Have you ever listened to Starcastle, they were often derided as being the American Yes insofar as they sounded uncannily similar to Yes... but they sounded like Yes at a time when Yes had stopped sounding like themselves. Their debut album is actually pretty damn good. The follow-ups Fountains of Light and Citadel have some good stuff too but neither is as good as the s/t debut. Anything after Citadel is weak by comparison.

I've got a friend who is a considerably bigger fan of Yes than I am and he swears by TOTO, so I may have to give it another chance.

musicobsessive said...

Wow! Bold choice! I don't know 'Drama' at all so I'll take your word for it. I gave up after 'Relayer' and never really looked back.

Perplexio said...

For Yes traditionalists I recommend sticking with Tempus Fugit and Machine Messiah... Much of the rest of the material sounds like the Buggles. Understandably so as both Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn were the Buggles and both of them ended up in Yes for that one album and tour. When Anderson returned, Trevor Horn stuck around as producer for a few albums.