Album Review: Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans by Nathan Brooks

Less is more; a saying found in fortune cookies from Chinese takeaways across the country. Evidently, Yes don’t eat much Chinese food. After scoring two home runs in 1971 and 1972 with Fragile and Close to the Edge, Yes felt it was time to go bigger. Literally bigger. In 1973, Yes released their sixth album Tales From Topographic Oceans, boasting a staggering 81 minute running time. Nearly double that of Pink Floyd’s legendary album The Dark Side of the Moon, and monstrous compared to the mere 37 minutes of Close to the Edge. But is bigger better? And if less is more, is more less?

At this point, I need to clarify that I love Yes. The early ‘70s saw them produce some of the greatest records the progressive rock genre has to offer. They stood out from the rest of the prog crowd thanks to their focus on music. Unlike other bands from the time (I’m looking at you Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Yes weren’t simply flaunting soulless technical skill. Instead, they combined that with exceptional creativity and each member’s unique sound, creating music few could rival. Unfortunately, in 1973, this all changed.

Album Review: Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans

Following Close to the Edge, drummer Bill Bruford made his departure from Yes. This was brought on by his frustration with their new songwriting approach. Developing Close to the Edge was a tedious affair and the lyrics were starting to lean heavily on mysticism. Fortunately, despite dealing with big themes, Close to the Edge never toppled into pretension. Unfortunately, Tales From Topographic Oceans fails to retain this balance. Lyrically, Tales From Topographic Oceans is a needlessly complex, irritatingly ostentatious and ultimately incomprehensible mess. Based on a footnote from Biography of a Yogi – a 1946 book describing the four bodies of Hindu text – TFTO’s concept is coated in more self indulgence than the Oscars. Even vocalist Jon Anderson didn’t fully understand it, and he came up with the concept.

Fortunately for me, lyrics aren’t a deal breaker, provided Yes display their usual musical prowess. Sadly, this is where the album’s length lets it down. Tales From Topographic Oceans is only made up of four tracks, but none of them lasts less than 18 minutes. Now, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with long songs. Close to the Edge‘s title track fills half the album and is, for my money, their magnum opus, because it harnesses every second perfectly. Sadly, no song on TFTO’s earns its length. There’s so much filler, a lot of it from Steve Howe’s horrendously tedious guitar solos. Chris Squire’s bass playing is also uncharacteristically dull, lacking the energy seen on previous albums. It’s like they were both kissed by Dementors.

Anderson’s vocals are the driving force behind the best moments

That said, Tales From Topographic Oceans isn’t without its moments. Many of these are provided by Rick Wakeman, whose keyboard riff at the start of The Revealing Science of God is one of the best things he’s ever produced. New drummer Alan White also flexes some impressive muscles at the start of Ritual. Yet Jon Anderson’s vocals are the driving force behind most of the best moments. Often epic, sometimes beautiful, Anderson’s voice is the soul of this album, even if it deserves better lyrics. Unfortunately, these moments (as numerous as they are) are smothered by the length of the songs. There’s no definitive riff or melody that holds each track together, like the recurring  ‘Father’s Shout’ theme from Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother Suite, or the many elements on Yes’ own Close to the Edge that flow throughout that track. Instead, every song feels like multiple different (admittedly very good) songs awkwardly glued together.

Ultimately, Yes’  sixth album is an ambitious failure. It aims for grandeur, but only succeeds with lengthiness. It sets its sights on significance, but only manages indulgence. There are, however, instances of genius shining through. It’s enough to warrant a listen, even if it isn’t enough to break the thick tedium that clouds this album. It isn’t Yes’ worst release by any stretch (*cough* Open Your Eyes *cough*), but when all’s said and done, Tales From Topographic Oceans is an album flawed by its own ambition.