The Mystery of Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes

by Rich DiSilvio

I recall vividly when Tales from Topographic Oceans was released in December of 1973. First, was being enticed by Roger Dean's magical artwork. His earlier work on the Fragile and Close to the Edge albums were starting points, indications that even more miraculous visions were yet to come, and Tales delivered. It begged the viewer to "Buy me! Open me up and play me!" And indeed I did. It was a lush monstrosity of symphonic rock, an oddity, a religious journey into mystical realms and ancient worlds, yet despite all the criticism at that time and over the years, it was also a milestone in music history. Why?

Tales confused many fans, it enraged some musicians and prompted them to form Punk Rock in retaliation, it inspired other fans who had an open mind and recognized its impressive strengths as well as its weaknesses. It unintentionally reached the peak of progressive excess, and even caused Rick Wakeman to abandon the band. In all, a powerful precedent.

When I had first heard that Wakeman left I was devastated. Rick’s contributions to the growing band were significant. And while I found it extremely hard to understand how he could dis his own work on this four disc set, in hindsight I came to realize perhaps why that was.

While Yes was recording Tales, experimenting with obscure religious themes and soothing evocations of spiritual mediations, which Rick had no connection to or sympathy for, at the same studio Black Sabbath was working on their epic Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album.

One can envision Rick be bludgeoned by the thunderous riffs of Tony Iommi and the driving bass of Geezer Butler, while Bill Ward’s drums and Ozzy’s howling vocals rattled the studio’s very foundation. Although both great bands were pioneers, Yes’ symphonic rock mixed with some ancient ritual-esque nuances was not as earth-shattering as what was being forged in fire by Sabbath, namely the forging of a completely new genre of music.

1973-74 was an extremely adventurous year, Pink Floyd released their landmark Dark Side of the Moon, Alice Cooper Billion Dollar Babies, The Doobie Brothers The Captain and Me, Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy, Paul McCartney Band on the Run, Mike Oldfield Tubular Bells, Jethro Tull A Passion Play, Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, The Who Quadrophenia, and even Rick Wakeman had released The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

And while all those artists, and others, were breaking new ground, the band that was obliterating the ground was Black Sabbath. And that adrenaline-pumped thunder must have confirmed in Rick that Tales from Topographic Oceans was a meandering monstrosity leading into a misty void of elusive metaphysics, while right next door, Metal pioneers were dynamiting the very bedrock of planet earth. It obviously shook Wakeman to the core, because he covertly joined the band, whereby making valuable contributions to Black Sabbath’s most sophisticated album, one deemed by many as their best.

Yet, where does that leave Tales? Well, as noted, this album has been a mystery to many since its release, and while there are those who never gave it a fair shot, I had loved this album from day one. Sure, it has weak moments, it wanders, it has many cryptic, or rather incoherent lyrics, and it gets stuck in little ruts. But, it also shows that even though the band members were not all on board mentally, their innate musicianship had semi-unconsciously ebbed out, thus making manifest sections of pure brilliance.

The Revealing Science of God is a sublime masterpiece from Anderson’s extremely unique vocal intro to Wakeman’s powerful climax on keyboards that leads into several beautiful melodious sections where the entire band melds together seamlessly, but then breaks out into a frenzied showpiece by Wakeman on keyboards that eventually subsides into a soft spiritual veil of transcendence. How Wakeman could turn his back on this piece is as mystifying as the music he created for it, the music naturally being a wondrous mystery as opposed to Rick’s mysterious critique.

The Ritual and The Remembering both have many gorgeous moments, but each are afflicted by less inspired moments. It’s wise when the band utilizes snippets of these large works in concert, because the sections that shine are spectacular.

Meanwhile, the black sheep of this religious family is The Ancient. While I had recognized some of its inherent beauties back in the 1970s, it quickly was overshadowed by its more illustrious siblings. However, with the advent of computers and sound applications, I have revisited this piece in recent years. And after a bit of editing had produced a 14 minute version that I find extremely unique, archaic, and at other moments, majestic. In total, quite oddly addicting.

Yes had reached for the stars, not those we can see at night from Earth, but those that are hidden in the nebulous regions of a distant universe. And while not always attaining the full luminance of divine perfection, these works had at least shown us what mere mortals can achieve when striving to attain the unattainable. And in that regard, it deserves our admiration.

See the review of Relayer

The Author/Artist

Rich DiSilvio is an author of magazine articles and books, ranging from Western civilization to the fine arts, classical and contemporary music, several historical novels and thrillers, and two YA/children's books. His artwork has adorned book covers and the album covers and animated advertisements for Yes, Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Rolling Stones, Queen,and many more. His website is at richdisilvio.com