SOUNDTRACK: YES-Tales from Topographic Oceans (1974).
After the huge success of Fragile and Close to the Edge (with its 18 minute suite), what could Yes do next? Well first they would release a triple live album, which I’ll get to later. And then? Why they would release a double album with only 4 songs on it! That’s right 4 songs each around 20 minutes long! And it would be ponderous and pretentious and it would be reviled by everyone!
The album shipped gold (because their previous records were so popular) and then sales plummeted. The album is much maligned and, frankly, deservedly so. Now, I love me a good prog rock epic. So, four 20 minutes songs is pretty heavenly for me. But man, these songs just don’t really have any oomph.
My CD’s recording quality is a little poor, but I don’t know if the original is too. The whole album feels warm and soft and a little muffled. You can barely hear Anderson’s vocals (which I believe is a good thing as the lyrics are a bunch of mystical jiggery pokery). But despite the hatred for the album, it’s not really bad. It’s just kind of dull.
Overall, there is a Yes vibe…and Yes were good songwriters–it’s not like they suddenly weren’t anymore. There are plenty of really interesting sections in the various songs. It just sounds like they have soft gauze between them. Or more accurately, it sounds like you get to hear some interesting song sections and then the song is overtaken by another song that is mostly just mellow ambient music.
Without suggesting in any way that this album influenced anyone, contemporary artists are no longer afraid to make songs that are super long (see jam bands) or songs that are just swells of keyboards (see ambient musicians). Yes just happened to put them all in the same song–way before anyone else did.
The album is very warm and soft—rather unlike the last couple of Yes albums which were sharp and harsh. There are washes of keyboards and guitars and Anderson’s echoing voice. But what you’ll notice is that I haven’t really mentioned Chris Squire. He’s barely on the album at all, and when he is, it’s usually to provide very simple bass notes–bass notes that anyone could play–it’s such a waste! And while Alan White is no Bill Bruford (who was off rocking with King Crimson then), he’s also barely there. In fact, Rick Wakeman himself is barely there–the king of elaborate classical riffs is mostly playing single notes at a time. According to Wikipedia,
Wakeman took a dislike to the album’s concept and structure from the beginning. He made only minimal musical contributions to the recording, and often spent time drinking at the studio bar and playing darts. [During the recording session] he played the piano and synthesiser on the Black Sabbath track “Sabbra Cadabra”.
Evidently Anderson wanted a pastoral feeling in the studio
According to Squire, Brian Lane, the band’s manager, proceeded to decorate the studio like a farmyard to make Anderson “happy”. Wakeman described the studio, “There were white picket fences … All the keyboards and amplifiers were placed on stacks of hay.” At the time of recording, heavy metal group Black Sabbath were producing Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in the studio next door. Ozzy Osbourne recalled that placed in the Yes studio was a model cow with electronic udders and a small barn to give the room an “earthy” feel. Anderson recalled that he expressed a wish to record the album in a forest at night, “When I suggested that, they all said, ‘Jon, get a life!'”
So we have an earthy pastoral album. But what about the four sides? Steve Howe describes it:
“Side one was the commercial or easy-listening side of Topographic Oceans, side two was a much lighter, folky side of Yes, side three was electronic mayhem turning into acoustic simplicity, and side four was us trying to drive the whole thing home on a biggie.”
Despite Wakeman’s complaints, he did have some nice thing to say about it. he said that there are
“very nice musical moments in Topographic Oceans, but because of the […] format of how records used to be we had too much for a single album but not enough for a double […] so we padded it out and the padding is awful […] but there are some beautiful solos like “Nous sommes du soleil” […] one of the most beautiful melodies […] and deserved to be developed even more perhaps.”
And if Rick Wakeman says an album is padded, you can just imagine what the rest of the world thought!
The lyrics (and mood) are based on Jon Anderson’s vision of four classes of Hindu scripture, collectively named the shastras, based on a footnote in Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. So if I read this correctly–he wrote 80 minutes of music based ona footnote!
The four songs are
“The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)” [which Howe says is the commercial or easy-listening side] builds slowly and eventually adds vocals. And then come the drums and a decent keyboard riff. There’s some noodling on the keyboards. The riff is catchy but not immediate (which might be the subtitle for the album). At nearly 4 minutes a faster section kicks in and there’s a catchy vocal part, which seems like where Anderson might normally soar but he holds back. The “must have waited all our lives for this moment moment moment” is catchy, but again I can’t help but feel it would have been much more dramatic sounding on an earlier record. At 7 minutes there’s a nice jump to something more dramatic—good drums, but the bass is mixed very low (poor Squire). There’s some good soloing and such but it is short lived and things mellow out again. It resolves into a new riff at 9 minutes, but resumes that feeling of washes and noodling guitars. At 11 minutes there’s an elaborate piano section and the song picks up some tempo and drama. Especially when the bass kicks in around 12 minutes. The most exciting part happens around 17 minutes when the whole band comes to life and adds a full sound, including a good solo from Wakeman. And while this doesn’t last, it recycles some previous sections which are nice to hear.
Track 2 “The Remembering (High the Memory)” [which Howe described as the much lighter, folky side of Yes] has a slow, pretty guitar opening with more harmony vocals. The whole first opening section is like this—layers of voices and keys. Then come some keyboard swells and more vocals. Some bass is added around 6 minutes. And then around 8 minutes the tone shifts and there is a lengthy slow keyboard solo that reminds me of the solo in Rush’ “Jacob’s Ladder” (released 6 years later). At around 9 minutes there’s a more breezy upbeat section with a cool riff. At 10:40 a new section comes in with some great bass lines and guitars and an interesting vocal part. It could easily have been the structure for a great Yes song (vocals are singing “relayer” which of course is their next album’s title). But this is all too brief (it thankfully returns again) and then it’s back to the gentle keyboards. At 12 minutes there’s a new medieval type section with some great guitar work. When the “relayer” part returns around 13 minutes there’s a whole section that is great fun. And even though it doesn’t keep up, the song feels rejuvenated. By around 17 minutes there some interesting soloing going on and then the band resumes to bring it to the end (with a reprise of an early section). And the final section is quite lovely.
Track 3 “The Ancient (Giants Under the Sun)” [Howe: electronic mayhem turning into acoustic simplicity] is probably the most interesting. It opens with some clashing cymbals and then a fairly complex percussion section and mildly dissonant guitar riff. There’s even some staccato bass line. The vocals come in around 4:30 and the song shifts to a less aggressive sound, but the big bass continues throughout the beginning of the song until a fast riff emerges around 6 minutes. But more unusual Yes-type riffage resume briefly before segueing into the next part with lots of percussion. While the staccato bass and drums continues, Howe solos away. Then around 12 :30 the whole things shifts to a pretty, slow acoustic section with a classical guitar and vocals. This entire end section sounds like it could easily have been its own song and it is quite lovely. Howe’s acoustic work is great and there’s even a lengthy solo.
Track 4 “Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil)” [Howe: us trying to drive the whole thing home on a biggie] is also quite good. It’s probably the most fully Yes track of the four, with many sections of “full band” material. There’s a noodly guitar intro switching to an interesting dramatic minor key movement. There’s a pretty, if simple, riff (done by guitar and voice) that is quite lovely. Around 4:30 the guitar solo brings in a riff from a previous Yes song. By 7 minutes, the song settles into a fairly conventional sounding Yes song (with actual bass and drums and…sitar!). Around 11 there’s a bit of Wakeman soloing (he did show up for some of the album after all) and then some wild guitar and bass work. The crazy percussion resumes and there’s a wild keyboard solo on top of it. The end of the guitar solo even has a bit of “Born Free” in it.
I hadn’t listened to this record in probably 25 years. And so I listened to it 4 times in the last few days. And I have to say that I thought it was bloated and awful at first, but it slowly grew on me. I found some really interesting sections and some very cool riffs. If these pieces could have been truncated into individual songs they would be quite good. The biggest problem for me is that so much of it is so slow and mellow–like it’s building up to a big climax which never arrives. On previous albums, Yes had made quite a show of being insane musicians, and that just isn’t here.
So even though I have come around on these songs, they certainly aren’t my favorites. But if you’re at all interested in Yes, there’s some gems hidden away in these monstrosities (just don’t think too much about what Anderson is talking about).
Since almost every Yes album had different personnel, I’m going to keep a running tally here. The band stayed together after Close to the Edge, but this was too much for Wakeman who left after the recording:
Alan White (#2)-drums
Rick Wakeman (#2)-keyboards
Steve Howe (#2)-guitar
[READ: June 20, 2015] Shouldn’t You Be in School?
I am finding this series to be ever more and more confounding. And I know that is its intent, but it is still a challenge. Whenever anyone asks a question someone else replies that it is the wrong question. But they never say what the right question should be (deliberately confusing!). There are also so many threads and confusing characters, that if Snicket didn’t make the story funny and strangely compelling, it would be incredibly frustrating.
In this story, Hangfire, having been thwarted in his previous endeavor to capture children (for what end we do not know) is back with a new plan to capture children. Also, the mysterious (and presumably wicked, but who can be sure) Ellington Feint has returned as well to help or hinder as she sees fit.
The other characters are back too, of course: Moxie is back taking notes, Jake Hix is cooking delicious foods at Hungry’s (in fact there are even some recipes that sound pretty yummy–Snicket himself makes a passable tandoori chicken). S. Theodora is still his mentor (and the pictures by Seth of her are hilarious). Late in the book Pip and Squeak show up. And naturally the policemen and their bratty son Stewie are there too. And we are still wondering what in the heck is going on with the bombinating beast.
There’s also some new characters, like Kellar Haines, a young boy who when we first meet him is typing up something in the offices of the Department of Education (with posters all over the walls that say Learn! Learning is Fun, etc). And his mother is also becoming quite chummy with S. Theodora.
The danger in this book is fire. Building after building is being burnt down. The Stain’d Secondary School is engulfed. Even the library is at risk! And that’s when S. Theodora solves the crime! She gets the library Dashiell Qwerty arrested for setting the fires. And even though it is quickly determined that he did not do it (a building was burnt down while he was in custody), that doesn’t stop S. Theodora and her new friend Sharon Haines (in matching yellow nails) from partying. It also doesn’t stop Qwerty from being taken to prison.
This story is a bit darker than the other ones (which were admittedly pretty dark). Every kid is being drugged with laudanum which makes you sleepy. We’re unclear exactly what they are being drugged for, but Snicket has a plan to stop it. Snicket himself winds up getting beaten up–pretty badly–from Stew and others.
And for the first time, S. Theodora is kind to Snicket (more or less) and apologizes for her behavior (sort of).
By the end of the book a plan is hatched, a bunch of people join the V.F.D. (as seen in A Series of Unfortunate Events) and someone is taken to jail. There’s even a mysterious beast who is living in the fire pond.
As in previous books there is ample definition building–either from people saying they don’t know what a word means so that it can be defined or from Snicket himself simply defining a word. As in “my brother and I played an inane game” “inane is a word which here means that my brother and I would pretend we couldn’t hear each other very well while we were talking.” This game actually sounds fun:
What do you think of the weather this morning?
Feather? I’m not wearing a feather this morning. This is just a hat.
Just a cat? Why would you wear a cat on your head?
A Bat in your bed etc etc.
The artwork by Seth is once again fantastic and noirish.
And the end of the book has a fragmentary plot “a great number of people working together, but they plotted together in such a way that nobody knew exactly what the other people were doing” And finally we learn what the right question is, but it’s the unsatisfying: “Can we save this town?” We’ll have to find out in the concluding book 4.
You can also check out the website for some fun.
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