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Tales From Topographic Oceans

Review by Gary Hill

This is quite possibly the most derisive Yes album of the entire catalog. Certainly many critics panned it, but that wasn't all that unusual. The thing is fans were divided down the middle with many loving it and others hating it. The division was even felt within the band, with Rick Wakeman citing the eternal "musical differences" when he left the band as his response to this disc, which he at the time dubbed "Tobey's Graphic Go Cart". What is it about Tales From Topographic Oceans that causes it to generate such varied responses in people? Well, at the most basic level this album is one four part composition divided over the span of 2 CD's. Each piece totals about 20 minutes in length. According to the liner notes, the lyrics are based on footnotes in a book by a Yogi, and as undecipherable as they come across, that part is easy to believe.

Over the years, I have really tried to warm up to this album. I can't find anything in it to truly dislike, the problem is, other than a section here and there, and arguably the entire fourth track, there is really nothing to grasp onto. There is no recognizable theme that carries through and recurs, there is nothing that really catches you and holds you. It feels like a lot of seemingly unrelated segments sort of glued together. Much of it feels as if it is delivered with no intensity or sense of inspiration. Since at least one member of the band was not pleased with its direction, that might make a lot of sense. Count me in a group of middle of the roaders when it comes to this one. While I find it listenable, it's really not one that I listen to all that often. I just don't get in the mood to hear it, as it isn't that memorable.

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Track by Track Review
Disc 1
The Revealing Science Of God - Dance Of The Dawn
This one jumps right in with vocals right at the start accompanied by atmospheric music. It starts a slow and gradual, but steady building process from this pint, eventually working up a lot of drama and tension. As this segment resolves, a new melody line, driven at first by the keyboards, takes it. Howe manages some strong soloing here. The band make their way through several reworkings of this theme, eventually giving way to the next verse section. This segment is overlaid with a lot of guitar riffing, even as the vocals carry forward. They continue in this general pattern for quite some time. One of the better vocal segments of the disc eventually comes in here. After they carry through on this for a time, a highly dramatic and hard-edged jam takes over. This is one of the more effective segments of the entire album. It gives way to a slower, more harmonious rather balladic section. This movement drops away and a keyboard segment, quite powerful and pretty, takes it. After Steve Howe uses this as a backdrop for some meaty guitar work, the band moves it into a dramatic vocal section. The lines this time are punctuated by some tasty instrumental work. The riffing in this section is especially effective. This shifts to a fast-paced classic Yes type section that works very well. This resolves into a triumphant segment, then gives way to a frantic jam, one of the coolest of the whole package. They eventually move this out to balladic melody segment that feels a bit mysterious and quite powerful. Then a different, sparse arrangement forms the basis for the next vocalizations. This gives way, eventually, to a new instrumental exploration that includes some great keyboard textures. Anderson adds non-lyrical vocals here, acting as an instrument with the rest of the group as they make their way across the soundscape. This is truly one of my favorite parts of the album, but it doesn't last long. They drop it to atmospheric textures that serve backing to the next vocal segment. This gradual builds up in organic ways to the melody that ends the cut.
The Remembering - High The Memory
A pretty and sedate melody begins this. Anderson's vocals add a verse that feels like a chant, Squire adding his voice alongside. As the next vocal segment, a soaring and powerful one, comes in atop the same backdrop, Wakeman's keys and Squire's bass occasionally shadow the vocal line. This section pulls most of its power and direction from the vocals, the instruments seeming to follow Anderson, changing their melodies essentially to better accompany his performance. After a time this drops to a mysterious instrumental passage, but it isn't content to sit there long, instead moving back to the same place it came from. A new, bouncy melody takes over providing the new backdrop for the vocal arrangement. This carries the piece for a time then moves through several changes before giving way to another dramatic instrumental interlude. A new melody line comes out after this segment, this a catchy and bounce movement and one of the more effective verse segments on show here. Chris Squire's bass provides the majority of the structure for this. As this movement ends, a new instrumental segment takes the piece, then a fast paced prog chorus with Chris Squire laying down a killer almost funky bass beat takes it. This again doesn't overstay it's welcome, dropping to a pretty mellower section that then gives way to a bouncy acoustic guitar melody that serves as the backing for the next verse. A vocal segment from earlier in the piece eventually re-emerges, and the group reworks this into a glorious instrumental excursion before slowing it down for another vocal performance. This one is abase on a jumpy sort of rhythmic patter. It eventually gives way to a rather awesome keyboard solo based movement. The band reworks this as the3y recreate and embellish the them. A new progression comes out of this one and forms the backdrop for the next section. As they work out beyond this, Howe gets in some meaty soloing before the next verse and again after it. This drops down to the more sedate after this resolves out. Wakeman weaves melody lines over top of his own accompaniment to end the piece and the first CD.
Disc 2
The Ancient - Giants Under The Sun
Weird keys and percussion begins this. They work through for a time, then a fast paced, almost funky bass line emerges. Howe eventually weaves angular lines over top of this. The percussion throwing down fast paced rhythms the whole time. The group carries through like this for quite a time, eventually pulling into a mellow melodic segment. They play around this using the rhythm pattern and over layers to create a sense of drama and tension. As the vocals enter, this emerges as one of the most effective segments of the album. After a verse in this mode, they move it forward into an expansive segment focusing on keys, then the opening jam returns for a short time before a reprise of the melody line that came before it. The percussive segment returns, though, then a new dramatic verse element enters, followed by a strong instrumental section before the percussion returns once more. Then an alternation between a solid vocal segment and bursts of inspired instrumental work takes the piece in of the more effective sequences of the album. Eventually this drops to mostly percussive section with small bits of riffing from various instruments. This gives way a cool bit of instrumental interplay and some of the most interesting rhythms the group has ever produced. A guitar solo gives way to a different rhythmically potent segment with funky bass and noisy guitar soloing to drive it. After a short interlude this returns, but this time with mysterious overtones that make it more powerful. This eventually gives way to an acoustic guitar driven vocal segment that is pretty and powerful. This plays through for a time, Howe reworking the melody line in dramatic patterns. He and Anderson create one of the more memorable melodies of the disc here in the "Leaves of Green' segment. This is one of the most cohere and effective sections of the whole album. This format, along with some dramatic acoustic guitar slowing provides the vehicles that drives the piece for its closing segment, a short instrumental passages that leads to a brief reprise of the rhythmic section and then an effects driven conclusion.
Ritual - Nous Sommes Du Soleil
This one starts in dramatic tones, and the band start on a series of musical explorations from there. Anderson's voice eventually joins in, but rather than providing lyrical content, he becomes just another of the instruments as they continue to expand into more musical themes. After a while this drops to a textural, rather effects driven segment and Howe weaves waves of sound over this backdrop for a time. I have to say this is one of the few points in his career where he gets jut a little noodly. They eventually move this to the first real vocal segment of the piece - a highly effective, rather bouncy mid-tempo section, this is quite lush and poignant. Eventually the instruments drop away after a crescendo and the bass drives another verse segment. This whole section is another of the parts of the album that works quite well. This builds and restructures, the segment truly growing by contributions by all of the band members. They turn this into a highly dramatic jam after a time, then drop it to a rhythm structure just overlaid with atmosphere. This gives way to a fast bass driven excursion. The band work through several variants over this main backdrop. It gets very powerful, if a bit weird at times. It eventually gives way to a major tribal sounding rhythmic solo segment, this is rather cool, but truly only shines live. This is rather dark and weird at times. This resolves in triumphant fashion and a pretty and catchy balladic melody section takes it in a very satisfying resolution, providing comfort and security after the chaos that preceded it. They build this into a very effective progression to end. I wonder if one of the reasons this album holds such a high place in some Yes fan's;' hearts is because the ending, after such a long ride, is so strong.
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