The passing earlier this summer of Yes founder Chris Squire has seemingly prompted me to dig into the Yes catalog quite often over the past couple of months. With Yes being my all-time favorite band, it’s not much of a stretch for me to go on week-long Yes binges anyway, but lately those binges have had a bit more profundity.
In particular, I’ve really been reconnecting with two albums in particular: 1973’s “Tales from Topographic Oceans” and 1974’s “Relayer,” which saw Squire, Jon Anderson, Steve Howe and Alan White create epic side-long pieces, with Rick Wakeman providing superlative keyboard work on the former and mid 70s stand-in Patrick Moraz on the latter.
Outside of the record-company disaster “Union,” the Yes-meets-Buggles affair “Drama” and the more recent Jon Anderson-less studio albums, “Tales from Topographic Oceans” stands as Yes’ most controversial recording. Very few artists have managed to issue a double album consisting of four twenty-minute tracks and gotten away with it (I suppose Lou Reed “got away with it” to some extent with his “Metal Machine Music,” an, um, far different approach to the sidelong suite).
The controversy not only lies in the piece’s excess even in the context of the bloated Seventies, but “Topographic Oceans” caused some rancor within the group, as well. Written mostly by Anderson and Howe, Wakeman famously spoke out against the album, claiming the admittedly great melodic ideas were padded out far too much to fill each album side. Wakeman has also gone on record to question Anderson’s understanding of the inspiration for the album: quite literally a footnote from Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi” that briefly outlines the four shastras (certainly the Joe Strummers and John Lydons of the world took note and reacted musically in ensuing years). That and Wakeman’s burgeoning solo career were enough to prompt him to leave the group for three years following the “Topographic Oceans” tour.
Tales from Topographic Oceans may be my most purchased Yes album over the years. I first gave it a go at age 15-16, and bought it on tape (that and Pink Floyd’s not-on-CD “Relics” were my last legit album purchases on cassette). For a high school kid whose income was mostly derived from mowing lawns and pulling weeds, the cassette was far less expensive than the typical $25-$30 going price for a double album on CD at the time.
Eventually I got smart and joined the recently bankrupt Columbia House, and upgraded my copy to CD. Then, a decade later, the definitive Yes remasters were finally released, and you bet I upgraded there too. So, I’ve purchased this album three times, and more recently I snagged a vintage vinyl copy of it from a friend who had little use for it (thanks, Katrina!). So, four distinct acquisitions. Never mind that my favorite Yes album is “The Yes Album,” but that’s a story for another day.
Of the four selections on the album, the two that seem to escape the worst criticism are the first and last tracks, “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” and “Ritual–Nous Sommes Du Soleil.” (Side two, “The Remembering—High The Memory” features some beautiful passages that take forever to get off the ground, and side three, “The Ancient—Giants Under the Sun” is a tough pill to swallow for all but the most dedicated Yes fans).
I’m quite divided over whether my favorite “Topographic Oceans” track is side one or side four. Both have always seemed far more well thought out than sides two and three. “Ritual,” routinely the track represented on live collections and box sets, develops nicely and climaxes with a weird tribal percussion freak-out before wistfully fading into the sunset. “The Revealing Science of God” contains all the great Yes elements: their trademark vocal harmonies, Howe’s otherworldly guitar lines, Anderson’s cosmic word-painting, Squire’s thunky-but-not-clunky bass, and even some truly sublime Mellotron washes from malcontent Wakeman. As a hardcore Yes fan, I can only imagine the exhilaration of hearing them intro this song at their famed San Luis Obispo concerts of 1996, the first time this lineup of Yes had performed live since 1979, and certainly the first time in over 20 years they had performed this piece live.
This track (and album) were in heavy rotation for me on my recent Seattle trip. It was enough to quell the anxiety of sitting on the stalled-in-York-toll-Sunday-tourist traffic bus to the airport, and was truly a pleasant listen at 35,000 feet when only clouds were visible below. “The Revealing Science of God” also gets partial credit/blame for my impulse buy of “Autobiography of a Yogi” at a Bainbridge Island bookshop during the trip (that and my gently developing interest in Eastern ways of thought).
Is “The Revealing Science of God” and “Topographic Oceans” the place to start for Yes? Absolutely not. Always start with the Holy Trinity of “The Yes Album,” “Fragile” and “Close to the Edge,” in that order. It may not be their greatest work, but ultimately it’s one of their most satisfying given the true effort the listener must take to let the piece flow into you.
That said, think I’m going to listen to The Dictators’ debut album now.