Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tales from Topographic Oceans

I listened to Yes's 1974 Tales from Topographic Oceans album in its entirety today, something I've never done. While I've been a big Yes fan for 25 years, I've not bought or become familiar with all their albums, and this particular release I may have heard a few minutes of 20 years or so ago but that's it. Tales is, according to allmusic.com, the most controversial album in the band's catalog. Released a couple of years after their legendary trio of albums (The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge), Tales was a step even further out - Close to the Edge had only three songs, with the 20-minute title track filling one whole album side; Tales is a double album with four songs, each as long and perhaps even more complex and far-flung. The band wasn't getting along well by this point - drummer Bill Bruford had left before the recording of Tales, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman would leave after it. Singer Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe were beginning to dominate; they wrote pretty much the whole album this time around. The Wikipedia page for Tales from Topographic Oceans has more of the story...the album sold well, though not as well as their previous few, because Yes was very popular at the time already, but the critical reaction to Tales was nothing short of savage. Not that Yes were really critical darlings even before - what prog-rock band ever would be, especially back then - but look up some of the reviews. For many critics, Tales was everything that was wrong with its genre, what they heard as indulgent, excessive, meandering, pointless virtuosity. It was too much for a lot of fans as well, and the band's popularity started fading. The album was fairly hard to find by the time I started listening to the band in the late 80s - it may have been out of print then - and I'd not gotten around to hearing it until today.

So was Tales from Topographic Oceans the Heaven's Gate/Ishtar that critics and many fans said it was? The answer: No, not even close. It's a damn good album, as long as you take it on its own terms. Yes wasn't trying to make another Fragile. Tales is nearly devoid of anything you could call a pop hook - well, there's a catchy refrain here and there, but not for long. It's certainly not the first Yes album I'd recommend to a new listener. It's challenging as hell. Don't even try to figure out the lyrics. But a lot of it's flat-out gorgeous, especially the folky parts and multi-tracked vocals. The songs aren't 15 minutes of disjointed sixteenth-note riffs in 13/8 followed by four boring minutes of Mellotron strings, not at all - they breathe, they evolve and unfold, they take the listener unexpected places. Steve Howe has said that Tales has his best guitar work, and I agree. And there's so much of it over 81 minutes, and in so many styles.

Tales is unmistakably Yes, but it has a wider variety of sounds and styles and textures than any of their other albums. Does it all work? No - there are many stretches where you want to say, okay, let's move it along, fellas. It's bloated and overwritten, though true to the intent of the writers, which I would say is more important: Anderson and Howe weren't interested in a boiled-down, concise version of what they heard in their heads, and they stuck to their guns, and they damn well should have. I respect that a lot more than an artist just doing what's easy and safe. I can see why a lot of people didn't get into Tales, and it's not something I would listen to more than occasionally. Would really have to be in the mood for it. Though on the other hand, it would take ten full listens for me to even start to wrap my brain around this music properly.

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