Back Off, Jerk: Yes – ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’

If prog-nerds were a rougher bunch, there would be a lot of busted noses over Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans. (OK, there may have been a jousting kerfuffle over this album at a Renaissance fair, but that’s about as crazy as we proggies get. We’re not punks, after all.) The album was released in 1973, following three artistic and commercial juggernauts for the band: The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), and Close to the Edge (1972). Before the album was recorded, original drummer Bill Bruford was replaced by Alan White. White is an excellent prog drummer, but Bruford can be transcendent. He can also be domineering, and his heavy hand would have been a bad fit for this music.

Detractors — many Yes fans among them — have denounced Tales’ grandiosity and baggy spirituality. Supporters have celebrated its Wagnerian dimensions and taken its message as a way of life. I’m not about to put this album alongside “Die Walkure,” but I will say that it is a beautiful and uniquely expansive achievement in rock music that warrants a good weekend of listening.

Before diving in, I think it is important to identify some common prog-rock pitfalls that this album avoids. Although the “conceptual” focus of the music is singer Jon Anderson’s exploration of Eastern spirituality, the album is not weighed down by a convoluted story line as is the case with Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Also, Tales is not really an attempt to play classical music with rock instruments, which often sounds trite — at least to my ears. I guess we could call each of the four tracks tone poems, but the band doesn’t seem to be striving for classical form, nor does it “rockify” classical compositions the way Emerson Lake and Palmer did with Mussorsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Lastly, conventional wisdom says that prog-rockers take themselves too seriously. Closer scrutiny reveals this to be false. Canterbury scenesters Caravan always peppered their compositions with punny titles and lyrics, and Ian Anderson has admitted that Jethro Tull’s Thick as Brick was really just a musical pastiche held together by a pseudo-backstory. Say what you will about Yes’ spiritual solemnity: You can go as deep as you want into Tales without worrying about the band laughing at you all the way to the pub.

So what do we have here? Four expansive tracks that hold your attention remarkably well. When I first purchased this album, I figured I needed to do the prognerd version of jury duty. I would sit through the entire album, note a few memorable passages, and lament that these passages were swallowed up by vastly dull soundscapes. Then I would render my judgement: Tales was an album rife with squandered potential. But a funny thing happened. There was no lamenting — no gnashing of teeth. I thoroughly enjoyed Tales from Topographic Oceans.

There are a couple reasons why these long songs are so co captivating, and the first is Jon Anderson’s singing. I’ve never been enamored of Anderson’s lyrics — the ones that get stuck in my head vaguely suggest spatial relations (“Upside down, Inside Out” from “Perpetual Change,” “Long Distance, Run Around” from the tune of the same name, and “I get up, I get down” from “Close to the Edge”). Anderson is not the storyteller Peter Gabriel was when he was with Genesis or the agrarian philosopher that Jethtro Tull’s Ian Anderson has always been, but he can write better melodies than either of those chaps. His swooping and soaring melodies tie the more ambient strands of this music together.

The second reason why this album holds my attention is the fantastic and varied guitar work of Steve Howe, one of the few rock guitarists who does not lean on jazz chords or blues riffs. He has developed his own musical vocabulary that extends from classical music and the English folk tradition. When on electric, he plays clean lines that remind me of the rigorous discipline of Buddhist yogis. When he gets on an acoustic or steel guitar, he evokes a down home feel. Howe’s wide vocabulary forges Tales‘ expansive sound.

The opening track, “The Revealing Science of God/Dance of the Dawn,” has an inauspicious beginning. You get the obligatory ocean waves followed by dulcet but unremarkable tones from Howe. Then Anderson delivers weird prog-robotic singing, sort of like if Siri started chanting directions to Starbucks in 11/7 time. But then, Rick Wakeman plays a majestic theme on his synthesizer, and Anderson’s melodies take hold. Howe’s guitar filigrees float down, pick up a spoonful of grit, and soar off again.

Next, “The Remembering/High the Memory” showcases the full palate of Yessounds. Howe is heard on electric and acoustic; a third of the way in his unplugged plucking takes the band near folky Zeppelin territory. Anderson’s voice is on sustain mode, and his “And I do think very well” brings this Rube Goldberg contraption to a near stop periodically throughout the song. Wakeman’s keyboards remind us that we’re listening in on the 1970s, but not in a bad way. Bassist Chris Squire is here, too, but in a less aggressive mood.

“The Ancient,” the third track, boasts a polyrhythmic percussion pattern that points the way toward “Changes” (from 1983’s 90125) and a Zappa-esque solo from Howe. I hear hints of Ravel’s “Bolero” — a kind of sensual, polyrhythmic march broken up by crashing guitars and basses, which I assume represent the footsteps of this lumbering “Ancient.” Somewhere in the middle Howe goes into a delightful acoustic flamenco bit. Placed as it is in this spacy environment, it reminds me of following Luke Skywalker into that desert cantina and hearing those space-cats swing like mad. The song ends a bit abruptly with one of the aforementioned crashes. (Note: On the original album, this crash must lead right into the final song, “The Ritual/Nous Sommes Du Soleil.” However, I have the remastered CDs, which separate the songs on 2 CDs.)

The kitchen sink arrives with “The Ritual/ Nous Sommes Du Soleil.” Howe offers some pomp and circumstance on his guitar, Anderson throws in a nifty vocalese part, Squire finally has his say in a finger breaking bass solo, and White anticipates the Grateful Dead’s post-1978 concert drum sequences. Oh, yeah, Jon Anderson sings in French, snippets of Frere Jacques float through the ether, and Howe plays a sitar somewhere along the way. (The sitar bit and a few other moments on “The Ritual” point again to 90125 — I guess in Yes’ universe, if you go over the edge of progressive rock, you end up rubbing shoulders with pop hits.) I’d like to say this final track is the Lebowski rug of Tales, but it doesn’t quite pull the album together. Still, the highpoints of “The Ritual” are worth sticking around to the end.

But none of this matters, right? Tales from Topographic Oceans is still self-indulgent sludge spread thickly over two LPs. Well, if I can’t reach you with words, maybe numbers will help. The four songs on Tales run between 18 and 22 minutes. By contrast, “You Don’t Love Me” off of The Allman Brothers’ much revered At Fillmore East album clocks in at over 19 minutes, while “Whipping Post” is nearly 23 minutes and “Mountain Jam” from Eat a Peach is over 33 minutes! Have mercy. The Velvet Underground’s much loved “Sister Ray” drones on for over 17 indulgent minutes. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Personally, I’m a listener who enables musical indulgence. Life without headphones is overrated, anyway.

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20 Responses

  1. Length, in general, is not really the issue for me with this album. I love all kinds of long pieces of music. As a longtime Yes fan, however, there are simply too many musical ideas on this album (including specific riffs and harmonies) that the band pulled off better on previous albums.

    The talent is there. And there are some great moments. But the albums directly before it (“Close to the Edge”) and after (“Relayer”) have more going for them. And, yes, while the story behind “The Lamb” in convoluted, the songwriting is more interesting. “Tales” meanders. When Rick Wakeman says they were padding the songs in order to fill two discs, he is correct. You can *hear* it.

    But opinions about music are subjective, and I respect yours. And I don’t hate this album. I just never really want to listen to it.

  2. This is one of the Yes albums I return to the most, because even 40 years later there are still new things to discover. I love its sprawling, ambitious scope and extreme dynamics, and it features some of Yes’s best melodies. “TFTO” rewards multiple listens like nothing else in their catalog.

  3. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you. Tales, like Stephen King’s books, would have benefited from *some* editing. However it is still one of the best of prog for all the reasons Michael gives above. I think Anderson’s lyrics are true art, painting sound images that call out the soul–both spiritually and musically. Thanks for this appreciation of Tales!

  4. Nice article. I’ve come to love Tales and while i don’t think it matches Close to the Edge which is just so perfectly constructed it does have its own delights and delivers things other than that great album. I much prefer it to Relayer which has so much discord and makes me feel fatigued.

    But Tales you can relax into, it has a sense of space, of invention and joy. And I actually like Jon’s lyrics, they’re very impressionistic, they suggest rather than tell you and because they don’t mean any one definite THING, they can be repeated without wearing out.

    I also find it funny that Rick who has been so outspoken against the album actually has some really great parts, but yes so much in this album is carried by Anderson and Howe. i have a feeling this album is going to be listened to for a long time to come.

  5. One of my all time favorite albums. I also really like the deluxe edition with the two extra studio run through tracks.

  6. Never cared for this album. Maybe I’m not proggy enough. But to the point about Jon’s lyrics, you will find interviews where Jon will flat out tell you he treated his voice as another instrument to blend with the rest of the sounds. The words themselves mattered less than the harmony and emotion carried by his vocals. Once you accept that concept, it relieves the listener of trying to read too far into the message and just enjoy it for what it is.

  7. Just listened to both disks – 4 sides. Takes me back to 1973 (senior year – HS). YesSongs is still one of my all-time favorites, but this is a close second.

  8. Nice to see some love for Tales. I have often thought the bass and grooves in The Ancient had a pre-Primus kind of quirk to it…always a personal favourite from the Yes catalogue.

  9. Had the chance to see all 4 sides performed live and then Ritual done again with Patrick Moraz. Despite protestations from immensely talented Rick Wakeman this is an album that grew on me for one particular reason. It was a melancholy opus statement as if coming down off the ? that sparked the success of the previous 3 albums. For me as a listener and fan for almost a whole lifetime, Tales and Relayer were the companion Yes offerings that separated them from other bands. If you happened to like it there truly was nothing better.

  10. “And through the rhythm of moving slowly – sent through the rhythm work out the story
    – move over glory to sons of old fighters past”

    After this part there is the most lovely Melotron I have ever heard and it needs the volume up. (17:23)

    ! ! !

  11. In my opinion the quality of the two songs in the middle falls far short of the others. Compared to “The revealing science of god” and “Ritual” the middle ones are lacking good melodic ideas and contain lots of filling material like the uninspired percussion-parts in “The ancient”. I can also not recognize a striking formal structure there, sometimes it seems like a collage-style, just putting parts behind each other.
    The other issue of “Tales” is the absence of tempo-contrasts. The whole album stucks somewhere in the mid-tempo-area and the listener easily looses attention.
    But there are still two great, epic songs on this album.

  12. I had all three of their first albums back in the early 70. SOMEHOW Tales escaped my notice until 2012! It was a nice discovery and I enjoyed it as I was hearing it for the first time.
    Drags in a couple places… but I find myself dragged back to it every few weeks. Thanks for the review.

  13. Thanks for the great review. I just listened to Tales (again) today, while driving and then walking. I have been returning to this album pretty much monthly since I first discovered it at the age of 13, in 1977. I listen to a lot of different music in just about every genre imaginable, but Tales is one of those experiences which sustains me, and it forms a significant part of my mental architecture. I’ve tried desperately to find the “filler” that people talk about, and I just can’t find it. Every moment of this album feels vital to me. (I must confess that I enjoy one part of the album somewhat less than the others: the first few minutes of “The Remembering” which feels a bit strained to me and must have been very difficult to perform. However, the last two-thirds of this track more than make up for it, and the end is one of the most inspiring moments in the entire Yes oeuvre.) My favourite tracks are “Revealing” and “The Ancient”. I most thoroughly enjoy the electric middle section of the latter. Most people dismiss this strange and unique third track as somehow deficient, but I think it is one of the rare masterpieces of all of prog rock, or just rock period. After listening to a lot of 20th century classical music (Stravinsky, Bartok, Messiaen, Boulez, etc, etc), The Ancient actually sounds pretty tame, but it is very adventurous for a rock band.

    Anyway, now that I’ve discovered the existence of the new Steven Wilson mixes, I now have something that I really want for my birthday.

  14. You were born well after the 70s, I’m guessing. Otherwise you’d know that the ‘oceanic’ beginning of Tales , side 1, was not part of the original album release. It began with the chant, and that’s how listeners heard it for decades, until the longer, unedited intro version was released in 2003.

    Eddy Offord was right in 1973.

  15. I always thought that Tales would make one really spectacular album. A good friend of mine with a decent Digital Audio Workstation, edited it down to a really awesome 34 minute recording. I think he could have been a little more generous with the some subtle parts, but he confirmed my suspicions. Too bad they stretched instead of contracted.

  16. Well-written article.

    In 1973 as a teen prog-nerd, from the moment I first heard the Gregorian chant-inspired opening of The Revealing celebrating our primordial origins from the slime, all the way to the closing strains of Ritual presaging our universal ascent into whatever our human or trans-human destinies will become, I knew this was a piece of music like none other I would ever hear, and that I would be affected by it as uniquely. Time has borne out this first impression, and TFTO as a grand musical opus remains near the top of my personal pantheon of musical glories, even to this day — I’ve lost almost none of my youthful reverence for it.

    Music inherently penetrates past our surface senses and reaches in to sow seeds into a part of our mentalscape that is so dependent on what soil exists already there, and what it’s prepared to receive and nourish. There are moods when a song will completely fall flat — or worse, even grate — and that very same song is sublime in other frames of the soul, in more amenable emotional circumstances and soil conditions. The negative critical response to Tales is from listeners for whom those seeds simply do not bloom and flourish — not at that moment, or maybe never — nothing to begrudge, just falling into the wrong biome.

    Listened to with one pair of ears, Rick Wakeman’s derision about there being too much “filler” material in TFTO may be accurate — different folks here point out their own passages where it falls flat. But listening with another pair of ears at more auspicious time, perhaps there’s no filler whatsoever; as in Amadeus, there being “too many notes” seems like a pointless critique. So many rock classics include lengthy live solos or instrumental jams, and yet they are often exalted howsoever they may meander, the improvisation in whole redeeming its less purposeful moments. So it is with TFTO: its sprawl and lack of cohesion in places — where it lacks the laser focus of CTTE or the brilliant construction of Heart Of The Sunrise — is precisely how it achieves the expansive and majestic sweep of sound necessary to depict the entire scope of human existence, its ambitious theme.

    To those who resonate with this masterpiece, there are different highlights. Here ( is a paean from someone for whom the peak occurs in the first two minutes, and it’s all downhill from there. No robotic Siri coffee-ordering for this listener!

    To me — and I’m sure I hold a minority opinion — The Ancient is the absolute peak of this extraordinary work. In my interpretation, side 3 represents a microcosm of the opus as a whole. It explodes immediately into the polyrhythmic diversity of humans’ patterns and processes, expressed in all their chaos and frenzy across all the primal ur-cultures of our ancestors, banging away tribally, dramas and lore echoing to all the corners of our habitable terrain of that time, probing broadly our complex organizational possibilities, all fueled by the source of all our energies — the sun. This yields to a higher evolution, as some ways show themselves to be better than others, a crystallization of new modalities of being, of more harmonious and synergistic orderings. This progression finally finds its pinnacle in the insane beauty and lyrical passion of the pure tones and melodies sounded from Steve Howe’s fretboard, representative of the unaccompanied solo exploration of each individual’s potential in its interplay with our joint human existence. Nothing quite matches this emotive level anywhere in all of Yes’s work, and I think it hard to match in all of rock. Whether this progressive vision actually mirrors our ultimate journey as a species, or whether it’s nothing more than 60s/70s idealism borrowed from Eastern spirituality, remains to be seen.

    I’m utterly grateful to the dogged persistence of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe to endure the difficult birth pangs of this visionary work. Perhaps they had a sense, unformed even in themselves, that their wrangling as a band would culminate in a creation that had greater depth and longevity than the restless naysayers and conventional profit motives could anticipate at that time. They fearlessly set aside practicality to tackle these themes of the largest human scope, and pulled it off to the highest degree of excellence. Roundabout may be an amazing musical capsule, a gem digestible by a much broader audience, but Tales is a profound masterwork.

  17. TFTO is near the top of my list for GOAT in ANY genre and I very much enjoyed the review.

    I am especially heartened by the eloquent comments by some of those who, like me, defend and celebrate this masterpiece. Their comments echo many of my thoughts on the importance of TFTO in our lives.

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