Famous as the album that drove Rick Wakeman into the arms of an onstage chicken vindaloo, Tales From Topographic Oceans is one of rock’s most derided, divisive albums. An 80-minute mystical monster informed by Hindu scripture, Gregorian chant and the Vietnam War, it has become the go-to folly for anyone eager to mock Yes, Jon Anderson in particular, progressive music as a whole and the 1970s in general. “Tales From Topographic Oceans is like a woman’s padded bra,” Wakeman said. “The cover looks good but when you peel off the padding there’s not a lot there.”
Tales is ridiculous. It’s often nonsensical. It’s occasionally boring. You could chop off the dismal 12-minute clatter from the beginning of The Ancient: Giants Under The Sun and humanity would undoubtedly be better off. But it’s also beautiful, triumphant, optimistic and stunningly ambitious. At its most divine, as on the blissful The Revealing Science Of God (Dance Of The Dawn) and the exultant Ritual (Nous Sommes Du Soleil), it isn’t so much an album you listen to as bathe in.
It’s here that Anderson lays the groundwork for his equally bonkers – and similarly bewitching – Olias Of Sunhillow, with spiritual hippie philosophy eddying crazily into Eastern mysticism. But it’s not just about the singer. Guitarist Steve Howe’s playing is exquisite from top to tail, and while Chris Squire doesn’t dominate as he does on earlier albums, that thrilling Rickenbacker bass rumble is an ominous presence throughout.
Steven Wilson has given the whole thing a fresh lick of sonic paint, spending three years coming up with mixes of ever increasing complexity for audiophiles to bicker about, but for most fans the main point of interest will be a longer version of The Revealing Science Of God which restores the song to its recorded length (the original was too long to fit on one side of vinyl).
Wakeman once said: “Jon Anderson is the only guy I know trying to save this planet while living on another one,” while during 2014’s Scottish referendum on independence comedian David Baddiel asked: “What if Yes wins, but due to a typographical error the prog-rock band gets in and Jon Anderson becomes First Minister?” Seriously, that’s a world we’d all be better off in.
The story behind Roger Dean's artwork for Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans