Tales From Topographic Oceans was the sixth studio album by British prog rockers Yes, released on January 9, 1974 by Atlantic Records. It pushed (and often passed) the limits of tolerability as far as album-length, epic, orchestral rock music goes; TFTO was a double album, having four vinyl sides, and only four songs. Each piece was a musical interpretation of one theme of shastric Hindu scriptures, which Jon Anderson gathered from a footnote in Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. The core of the album was written and arranged by Anderson and Steve Howe during the band's 1973 tour of the United States. Although the album had a very high concept, it received only a lukewarm reception at the time of its release and did not achieve the lasting popularity of the band's prior album, Close To The Edge.

The album was a failure1 for several reasons. For one, the theme of the album was far too broad to condense into a rock record, and most people simply couldn't connect with what Anderson and Howe were trying to get across. It's one thing to try and learn something about a different culture from yours (in this case, Shankara Hinduism), and kudos to them for trying. But it's quite another to try and condense 3000+ years of a religion and culture that are not your own into a pop record. Although it was probably intended as a documentary of Anderson and Howe's spiritual studies, it came across as pompous, fashionably spiritual fluff. The fact that Anderson was inspired by a footnote in a book didn't help this perception.

Another reason it doesn't work is because you can tell the whole band weren't working as one during the recording. Anderson admits as much in the liner notes, when he says that he and Howe fleshed out most of the record on their own, but as an afterthought adds that "Chris, Rick, and Alan made very important contributions of their own...." Where Close to the Edge came across as vibrant, exciting, and orchestral, Tales From Topographic Oceans came across as 80 minutes of noodling -- some moments of individual brilliance, fewer moments of genuine band cohesion, but otherwise rather lethargic and disjointed. It didn't help that the production was not as good as their previous work, either. It's very sparse and sonically flat; Alan White's drum sound was lifeless and too far back in the mix, and Chris Squire's playing was neither prominent nor inspired. The lack of a solid, coherent rhythm track kills the energy of almost any record, and that clearly happened here.

However, the most important reason the album wasn't a hit is because hardly anybody2 wants to listen to four songs that span 80 minutes. The album literally sprawls, and lacks nearly all of the energy that made its predecessor, Close To The Edge such an amazing success. It's a shame, because there are musical moments on TFTO that are as beautiful and exciting as anything Yes have done, including:

  • the opening few minutes, and jazzy bridge (at around 14:00) of The Revealing Science of God,
  • a large fraction of The Ancient, especially Howe's lovely flamenco guitar solo, and Jon Anderson's "Leaves of Green" section,
  • the instrumental jam in the middle of Ritual, and
  • various parts of The Remembering (particularly the uptempo part in the middle: "Don the cap and close your eyes imagine all the glorious challenge..." etc)

If the band had distilled the songs down to these moments, Tales From Topographic Oceans could've been a classic. As it was, the album was still certified Gold by the RIAA, driven more by fans' hope for another Close to the Edge than by negative critical reviews. Most of the record-buying public merely rolled its collective eyes and waited for the next record if they waited at all. During the tour for TFTO, some concert-goers would get up and leave when they realized Yes would play all four songs in their entirety. At the end of the tour, keyboardist Rick Wakeman left too, complaining of his lack of participation in the work, and his dissatisfaction with the quality of tour performances.

Despite Tales From Topographic Oceans' muted commercial success, and infamy as the most epic of progressive rock epics, the album does have a following among Yes fans. By popular request, Yes played some of the music from TFTO for their "Masterworks" tour of 2000, and apparently they've been playing selections (usually Ritual) off and on since Steve Howe rejoined the band in the mid-90's. You can hear Jon Anderson sing a (drastically shortened) version of "Nous Sommes Du Soleil" from Ritual on the record House of Yes: Live From House of Blues. There's also a brilliant version of Ritual on the Yes Symphonic Live DVD, recorded with the European Festival Orchestra in Amsterdam in November 2001. And yes, I said brilliant -- they made the song come alive that night, and the orchestra was a perfect complement to the band. Check it out if you are so inclined.

Ultimately, Tales From Topographic Oceans was an interesting concept gone awry. Jon Anderson and Steve Howe had an interesting idea, and took a stab at expressing it through Yes' unique brand of musicianship. It could've been a great record, but for various reasons they just didn't pull it off. Instead, it's an "OK" record, and an "OK" record that's 80 minutes long is tough to sit through. As I said above, some parts are very listenable -- I just wouldn't recommend listening to the entire thing at once.

Tales From Topographic Oceans was originally released by Atlantic Records as SD2-908 (a double vinyl LP with gatefold sleeve). Songs are credited to Anderson and Howe (lyrics) and Yes (music). The album cover was by Roger Dean and shows a desolate night landscape filled with floating fish, a Mayan pyramid (mesoamerican, not Hindu) and Nazca lines, interspersed with oases and rocks that look like pudgy sad faces -- it's not one of Dean's more inspired pieces, either. It was remastered and rereleased on a double CD in 1996, catalog number Atlantic 82683-2.

The four tracks (actually called movements 1-4 in the liner notes) are:

  1. The Revealing Science of God: Dance of the Dawn (Shrutis movement). Track time: 20:27
  2. The Remembering: High the Memory (Suritis movement). Track time: 20:38
  3. 'The Ancient': Giants Under the Sun (Puranas movement). Track time: 18:34
  4. Ritual: Nous Sommes Du Soleil (Tantras movement). Track time: 21:35

1. I've felt badly about saying "failure" ever since I wrote this, but I decided to leave it. I must correct myself though: saying a piece of music (or any creative work) is a failure is awfully mean-spirited, and I apologize for it. Creativity is a reflection of what is going on in a person's mind at the time they indulge their creative impulses, whether they're Beethoven or Wesley Willis. Because of that, it's meaningless to say a piece of art is a failure or somehow invalid. Tales From Topographic Oceans is certainly a valid piece of art. It's just that I don't find it as expressive, powerful, well-thought, or well-produced as the two works (Close To The Edge and Relayer) that bookended it. Hence, I used the term failure. Ultimately, the reason I can't latch on to this record the same way I can their other work is that Yes is all about synergy. They are not five guys singing and playing their instruments. They're a band in the truest sense of the word. What makes Yes Yes is the synergy of talent and energy and intelligence and soul that comes across in their music. Ever listen to "Gates of Delirium"? "Awaken"? "And You And I"? "Turn of the Century"? That is synergy. Tales from Topographic Oceans is interesting, and a few times, there's a hint of the magic of the group. But for most of the record, the synergy just isn't there.

2. Yes fans, like myself, excepted, of course.

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