Yes Sails Topographic Oceans; Returns Home with Rare Catch
McGavock Headliner (Nashville, Tennessee), February 29, 1974
Yes, one of the foremost rock groups in the word today, has released an important new work entitled Tales from Topographic Oceans on the Atlantic label. The long piece, a single song spanning two albums, ranks as one of the group’s best, alongside Yessongs (their three-album life anthology) and Close to the Edge.
The recording is structured around the four-part Indian Shastras, or scriptures covering all aspects of religion, social life, arts, and sciences. Tales is likewise separated into four parts, or movements, after the four scriptures (Shrutis, Suritis, Puranas, and Tantras). Needless to say, the bast scope of this almost cosmic concept makes an exact realization in music an ideal; necessarily, this ideal was not attained in the work reviewed here. Nevertheless, the double album is a tremendous accomplishment. The words are given with an introduction by poet and singer Jon Anderson and are illustrated with small photographs of the sun. As usual, the cover by Roger Dean is fabulous and perfectly captures the mood and essence of the recording.
The first movement is subtitled “The Revealing Science of God, Dance of the Dawn.” Its lyrics by Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe are typical for their thick symbolism. As the preface explains, “The revealing science of God can be seen as an ever-opening flower in which simple truths emerge” when we examine “the magic of the past. . . The knowledge of God is a search, constant and clear.” Since knowledge is often symbolized by light, and the dawn is the coming light, one can observe how the symbols are interwoven in the verse. The search for this knowledge is the device of a “movement” whose “movers” appeared briefly in an earlier album, Close to the Edge. These movers were the first to hear the “song” -- “We should not forget the song that has been left to us to hear.” All of these are important theme which will recur again and again in the lyrics.
The music on the first side is excellent. It is not dynamic, nor is it meant to be. In their effort to capture the feeling of the infinite and the absolute -- as their vast concept calls for them to do -- Anderson and Howe have composed a symphonic introduction which nevertheless is studded with many nice melodies. A fast-paced run of Moog music seasons this first movement, who vocal parts are presented in appropriately swelling choruses.
In the second part, “The Remembering, High the Memory,” a second “song” is revealed. In summer, when days are long ( a day is the period of time in which there is light -- light is knowledge, and generally allows us to see, or to perceive), the members of the “movement” were able to see in to the evening (the end of the day; the dark). There is a hint of “alternate ways” and an “alternate tune” which causes the movers some confusion. They turn to their past lives; each relives his “story” in hopes of finding the truth. Their one desire is to return home, to find their way back to the source, God. They sail upon the Topographic Oceans: “the ebb and flow and depth of our mind’s eye” -- our imagination and our ancestral memory. “All our thoughts, impressions, fears have been developing for millions of years. What we can relate to is our own past.” The lyrics are very beautiful.
New and pleasing patterns of music evolve in this movement. Rick Wakeman’s keyboards are effective in representing the flow of the Oceans, especially his mellotron. On this instrument we find him playing the harmony throughout the recording while he plays melodies on his synthesizers. At certain points, he seems to be playing three or four voices simultaneously -- a feat he usually accomplishes without the use of pedals and without over-dubbing. His electronic keyboards, more then any other instrumentation, truly produce “the music of the spheres.”
“‘The Ancient,’ Giants Under the Sun,” the third side, deals with the “flowering creativity of life” that caused ancient civilizations such as the Aztec and Mayan, Chinese and Indian, and Atlantean to name and worship the sun. The “movement” is questioned, and confusion remains as to which song the movers should follow. Winter is used to symbolized a time in which faith is diminished, owing to the shortened days. Is the movement really searching for the strength to see -- “is the movement really light?” In this respect, the “alternate tune” (or second song) scan be thought of as a search for darkness: the source of evil, just as light is a source of good.
The flavor of past civilizations is captured through the percussion of drummer Alan White and the guitars of Steve Howe. Primitive, native rhythms of drums shadowed by synthesized xylophone and what seems in places to be harp opens the side. Later, there is soft and very nice acoustic guitar that is at once classical and folk-like; the solo vocals and words are done with much feeling.
The last side, “Ritual, Nous Sommes du Soliel,” brings things to a climax. Life is shown to be a struggle between good and evil where “pure love” is used as a synonym for God. The conflict between the two “songs” results in a revelation of a “positive source.” That source of all life and of pure love is the sun: “Nous Sommes du Soliel. We are of the Sun. We can see.”
The final verses are extremely beautiful and humanistic. The message is love; knowing the source, knowing our destiny, we live in peace. As the “sentences move dancing away,” the music lingers upon a few of the earlier melodies, then brilliantly skips away and is done.
Alan Gullette > Essays