Thursday, 6 August 2009

Yes: Tales From Topographic Oceans

Masterpiece. Prog fans, give it a break, buy it, enjoy it.

Warning: this article is a review of an early 1970s progressive rock album!

A poetic grand tour of life, its origins and nature, takes Jon from the shastrick scriptures, on a wonderful adventure of the imagination, yet encompassing every science from evolution - "We fled from the sea ... whole", "As we took to the air", "And we danced from the ocean", to cosmology, "Nous sommes du soleil" - as indeed we are!

In serious mood, Jon's "Dawn Of Light..." quietly heralds the masterpiece first movement, while Steve playfully prepares the main theme in the background, tension building and eventually exploding as Alan's drums cascade towards a comic anticlimax "tap" on the hi-hat; then suddenly, everyone is hitting out the signature refrain that you will never forget. As an incidental touch of genius - surely - the third section of the following theme comprises just the eight notes of an ascending major scale!

Jon soon calms down, and the team deliver a relaxed, harmonious first pass at the famous "moments" theme. By the time they arrive at the second chorus ("What happened..."), there has been just enough variation in the approach to assure you that this piece will evolve intelligently.

As indeed it does, breaking up a few seconds later into a surprising, motoring, rockalong riff reminiscent of the great Siberian Khatru, before collapsing once again into refractory scales and that beautiful refrain. When the riff appears again, it is augmented by Rick's honky-tonk treat, and leads into another section of uplifting scales and surprising key changes. Now Steve takes us into a soft section overlaid with recorders, soon accompanied by some of Alan's remarkably gentle percussion, but building with organ and wordless vocals into a climax of eventual dissonance, and Rick's synth solo.

For the last time Jon takes us back into the main body of the piece, but as the harmonies rebuild, their ambience has changed, phrases are held for longer, and the chorus of voices move down a little in the mix. Yes are about to deliver us into the most beautiful vocal wind-down, a gentle landing that's different from but curiously symmetrical with the introduction, and the only possible ending for this sumptuous, magnificent feast.

Surprise! The second movement starts immediately. Hmmph. Well it didn't do that before, in the vinyl days, thirty years ago. I had to flip over the record, and the temptation was always to play side 1 again. What a difference this makes! Now I'm giving "The Remembering" a fair hearing on a level playing field [Ouch! Metaphor pileup. - Ed], and it's just as beautiful as the foregoing. Steve sets up a nursery-rhyme carousel and harmonising voices join in. The architecture of this piece is a much more gradual build, a gentle progression, twice resolving into a mysterious woodland clearing - but the second time we get there, Steve and Alan are waiting with a surprise acoustic, medieval treat. Then - Relayer! This too sounds different with hindsight, almost like a prequel... The piece repeats this large-scale structure with another variation on the medieval, another Relayer, another forest glade, finally resolving itself with yet another Yes climax-to-calm transition (boy could they knock those out).

Third movement. Gong! Cymbals! Xylophone! A very percussive introduction precedes some very off-the-wall guitar experiments. Then after four and a half minutes of this, a start-stop theme lets Jon get a word in. Strings chug along for a bit, then mix it with the start-stop motif until a very catchy, jaunty tune lifts you and pulls you into a more mathematical area (think Gentle Giant). Percussion and guitar explore their abilities, take us into the jungle, and leave us breathless. Finally running out of nervous energy, we are deposited at Steve's acoustic strings, where we are perhaps reminded of the wonderful Mood For A Day. Jon gently talks us down once again - "Along without you..."

"Ritual" is probably almost level pegging with "The Revealing Science of God" when Yes fans choose their favourite Tales. Chris' bass has much to say here, being turned up in the mix, as the piece emphasises percussion and tribal dancing. Yet another beautifully simple theme runs through this final movement, stopping here and there for a good bit of bass dressing. Jon's triumphant "Nous sommes du soleil" had to wait in the wings for five and a half minutes this time, and he soon settles into his song - during which the anthem from movement 1 is reprised. Half way through, and a lesser climax gives way to the dark stalking bass once more. Here as at the beginning of this movement, Chris' too-short bass solo, laid over Rick's melodic rainfall patterns, somehow manages to evoke a panoramic vista as from some old Western movie. But in another one of those comic asides, it is terminated by a loud blast on a pea whistle!

Frenetic and blistering into two pure percussive / coloured noise sections (ok, drum solos) and falling madly into a remarkable resolution by Steve's sweet electric candy, this stunning piece is carried across the finish line by two verses of Jon's softly sung words - "Flying home, going home...", "We love when we play", as Steve brings out the cast of themes for their final bow, and a single note, repeated and repeated for reassurance and closure, finishes the work so very enigmatically.


So let's get a few things straight. Firstly, the piece is not based on Paramhansa Yoganada's book, as is commonly thought - that's simply where Jon discovered, in a footnote, the shastrick scriptures upon which it is built. Secondly, if this work is flawed, then these flaws are tiny, and two in number. The second verse of "The Remembering" starts out sounding much too like the first, while Steve's singing guitar grates drunkenly for a few seconds at the start and end of "The Ancient". Even mentioning these imperfections raises their profile out of all proportion. Give it a break, buy it, and enjoy it.

First published on, 24th September 2000.

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