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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Exploring Topographic Oceans

The Symphonic Rock of Yes' Most Complex Record.

Original album art for Yes' Tales from Topographic Oceans.Painting by Roger Dean © 1973 by the artist.
It's hard to believe but 2011 marks the 37th anniversary of Yes' sprawling 1974 double-LP Tales from Topographic Oceans. And since the ever-changing English quintet have just released Fly From Here, their first record since 2001's Magnification, it's time to talk about Topographic, one of the most challenging, and yes, symphonic records of all time.

This is rock and roll with a heavy dose of virtuoso musicianship, stretched to a scale that Gustav Mahler would have envied. Each "song" (the word is a convenient label for these massive suites) clocks in at around 20 minutes, taking up the full side of an LP. Although it was slammed by critics as "psychedelic doodling" on its release, there is music of real value in these vast oceans of sound.

The four tracks represent an ideal fusion between the five Yes-men, working towards a unique, if obscure concept. Singer Jon Anderson based his arcane lyrics on the Shastric scriptures, a foot-note found in the Autobiographby of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. (And although I've owned Topographic since 1990, I don't know what he's singing about either.)

By this point, Yes had a habit of choosing words for their sound, not their meaning, even resorting on onomatopoeic scat-singing in order to fit words to music. Jon Anderson's high countertenor soars against the band, an intricate four-piece orchestra that occasionally sounds like a legion of players. And that is the secret of Yes: while every member is a virtuoso, the alchemy of the musicians together creates something new, flexible and awe-inspiring.
Yes, exploring the life aquatic at Madison Square Garden, 1974
on the Topographic Oceans tour. They played the whole album in order.
Steve Howe wrote most of the music on Topographic. Not surprisingly, his guitar is to the fore on the opening (and portentiously titled) "The Revealing Science of God", acting like a concerto soloist against the rhythmic complexity of the other musicians. He duels with Rick Wakeman, who uses Hammond organ, Mellotron, acoustic piano and synths to add impressionistic color to the swirling vortex of sound.

It's amazing to hear how Yes are willing to repeatedly shift gears in "The Remembering," the album's second track. But those gears never grind. In less than a minute, a lilting, acoustic ditty yields to a short baroque theme played by Mr. Wakeman. It is swiftly followed by a potent driving section that has all the musicians playing off each other, reaching as one toward the same musical goal.

Chris Squire is the founder of Yes, and the longest-serving member of the band. Here, his distinctive, fat-toned Rickenbacker bass (always picked) drives the engine forward. That engine is drummer Alan White, in his first studio outing as Yes' stickman--a job he still holds today. Their playing together is amazing, especially in the arcane, arrhythmic sections at the heart of "The Ancient," the third piece on the record.

The album ends with "Ritual (Nous somas de soleil)". This is the finale of the "symphony" and fittingly, the toughest nut for the listener to crack. After a horn-like announcement from Mr. Squire's bass, a majestic, searching opening theme is stated, accompanied by joyfuyl, wordless singing. The theme courses like a hungry greyhound, building to a huge climax.

Suddenly, an acoustic guitar announces "Nous sommes de soleil", a gentle, singing melody. This builds from the folksong-like melody to a vast expanse of sound, underpinned by Mr. Wakeman's under-pinnings on the organ and Mr. Squire's driving bass. It careens into a crazy fast section and then turns into...a drum circle?

On first listen, the giant clash of cacophonous, clattering percussion makes no musical sense: another indulgence on a sprawling, excessive record. But listen closely to the percussion part on the section that comes before, and the roots of this jagged chunk of musique-concrete become clear. Then, Mr. White takes a rolling, percussive monster solo against Mr Wakeman's slashing synths.

The final reprise of "Nous somme de soleil" is the reward for this brief interlude of noise. Mr Anderson's voice, the sibilant bass, slinky guuitar and Mr Wakeman's jazzy piano combine to bring the most ambitous album of the 1970s to a serene, perfect close.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.