We move from one the finest ever rock operas in “Quadrophenia” to one of the dodgiest concept albums in existence. However, as dodgy as the concept of “Tales from Topographic Oceans” undoubtedly is (based on no more than a footnote from ancient Shastric scriptures) it remains – somewhat bizarrely – my favourite ever Yes album.
I’ll be honest and say that my attraction to this album was enhanced by the terrific cover art by Roger Dean. Although he had been working with the band for some time and had produced other beautiful covers for them, “…Topographic..” was the first time I REALLY noticed his artistic skills.
Skills which I openly admit I tried to emulate. Skills and ideas which – at least from the previews I have seen – James Cameron appears to be ripping off wholesale for the general appearance of vistas in his new movie “Avatar”
The album itself is a four-part opus split over two slabs of vinyl. The four cuts are as eccentrically named as the album itself…
“The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)” (Part One / Part Two)
“The Remembering (High the Memory)” (Part One / Part Two)
“The Ancient (Giants under the Sun)” (Part One / Part Two)
“Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil)” (Part One / Part Two)
… and none can be strictly described as ‘songs’. They’re more like noodly compositions that go off an a million-and-one flights of fancy. They were all written by singer Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe and it has often been suggested that the only reason fellow band members Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman and Alan White are credited is because they complained so loudly about their lack of involvement in the process.
It’s certainly not an album for everyone. I remember one of the best reviews of it (and there were lots of negative vibes about it in the music press at the time) said something along the lines of it having ‘no warmth’ and that’s about the best way I can describe it too.
You can’t sing along to it, you can’t dance to it and about the best you can do is mime along to the finger cymbals that make an appearance from time to time. If truth be told I can’t really explain why I like it, but I do. It and “Fragile” are the only two Yes albums I have listened to and stuck with over the years… so it must have something going for it?
It feels haphazard, several pieces sounding as if they’re just made up on the spot, almost freeform. Undermining this though are Anderson’s later public remarks about the recording, saying it was done with meticulous precision. Rick Wakeman has subsequently been VERY critical about it, saying that for much of the time they spent in the studio supposedly laying down tracks he was in a room next door drinking and playing darts. (He left the band following the “Tales from…” tour)
Despite gaining an unfair reputation that this album represented all that was excessive and bad about Prog Rock, it shot to Number 1 on the UK album chart and spent over six months on the American album chart, topping out there at Number 6.