This album must be evaluated seriously by persons who are familiar with music history and theory. Too many reviews have simply taken the form of saying that it either works or doesn't work for them, with no substantive explanation of WHY.
To allow as much room as possible for a more detailed assessment, I have attached to this message detailed comments concerning each track of the CDs, but this core review contains only a general overview. For more specific musical details, please click on the "comments" text at the bottom of this review entry.
As a long-time listener to classical music, and someone who knows a lot about the history of Western art music, I will first simply state that this is one album that must be taken seriously, out of the entire rock genre, as demonstrating that rock music has occasionally reached historic levels of artistic and musical accomplishment. Persons who are only familiar with popular genres can and do debate forever (as seen on this website) about such totally subjective trivia as whether Jon Anderson's voice is too soft, whether they found the work "boring" or inscrutable, or whether the guitar work "rocked." All of that is quite irrelevant for a serious evaluation of what may turn out to be the most historically significant large-selling album in the late 20th Century rock genre.
The late 20th Century... Rock fans know that 1973 was in the midst of a brief phase where progressive rock actually produced top-selling albums such as this originally was. But a larger view of western music would identify it as a period in which some of the last pre-war master composers were writing their last works (Dmitri Shostakovich died in 1975, Benjamin Britten in 1976...) and when several phases of innovation were taking place: (1) the exploration of total serialism, especially inspired by certain late works of Anton Webern, (2) the avant garde - of the style of Penderecki and Ligeti and Xenakis, in which sound collages and mosaics emphasized new types of tone color as well as new techniques of instrumentation and electronic sound production, as informed by the harmonic accomplishments of pre-WWII composers such as Schoenberg and the Impressionists, and (3) minimalism, in which small musical phrases are repeated and manipulated with few radical variations so as to better realize the significance of each melodic phrase and also to help make music more accessible to mainstream listeners again, and still also to avoid re-using many of the then-standard types of large-scale forms and thematic development procedures, in favor of smaller-scale contrasts between specific and repeated musical ideas.
What is the place of rock music within this scheme? If we ignore for a moment the often artificial distinction between art music and popular music, I consider that the practically all the "popular music" of the second half of the 20th Century has been rooted in exploring the following three innovations:
1. The use of electronic instruments and recording technologies (laboratories had been set up, particularly in Germany, for the formal examination of these innovations, but the relatively small scale and formal nature of that exploration made progress somewhat slow and limited in comparison to the experimentation that occurred with the use of electronic instruments and amplification in rock music and some kinds of jazz. This especially became true by 1965 and afterward, when the Beatles used their popularity and creativity to start bringing some of these new electronic sounds into the mainstream, with their Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper, and White albums. The "progressive rock" genre was made possible by the successful reception enjoyed by these Beatles albums.
2. A more thorough exploration of the types of sounds producable by the human voice. While some of these sounds, in the recordings of some pop/rock groups, can justly be accused of being childish and amateurish and crude in nature, nevertheless popular musics as a whole have been exploring as fully as possible all the types of sounds producable by the human voice, as well as all types of human voices. The use of electronic amplification and the advance of recording technologies made this exporation possible on a large scale, and it still continues to this day with the "new" subgenres of rap and hip-hop. Far too often, people reject a band on the basis of its singer's tone, without really considering the quality of the band's music overall. Tons of famous rock bands can be criticized for not using singers who've received "sufficient" formal training, with the unfortunate result that a lot of interesting music gets dismissed and ignored by those who do research and write textbooks. In the meantime, the untrained go in circles about why Robert Plant's voice is more tolerable than Mick Jagger's, or Mick Jagger's is "more expressive" than Paul McCartney, or why Bob Seger is a better rocker than Jon Anderson. All of that is trivia that will be forgotten in the historical perspective 100 years from now, in which the stylistic similarities of all their music is what will be most obvious... not their vocal differences.
3. The development and use of rhythmic innovations. This is especially true for those who label jazz and world musics (as well as rock) as part of the world of "popular music." Pop music has indeed demonstrated its rhythmic sophistication, and jazz has earned a place in our universities. Whether Led Zeppelin or Rush, L.L. Cool J or Yes, or the Lion King, rock/pop/rap bands have been using lots of different types of syncopation, rhythm (including polyrhythm) and meter (including polymeter) and have done so in ways that have gained much more attention than contemporaneous classical works for percussion ensemble, or tape/electronics, or orchestra. Often, the rhythmic aspects of "pop" music are far better integrated into the work as a whole. (It might be likened to the middle ages, in which rhythm was for secular/profane works while non-rhythm was for artful and sacred works.) Electronics have also proven valuable in developing rhythmic complexity past the point where humans could reasonably be expected to organize such sounds in live performance, as well as to place recorded sounds into such electronically-generated rhythms.
This album fits within this broader context in the following ways:
1. The rock genre makes heavy use of ostinato motifs that can be conceived of as a variant on the style of minimalism. The fact that rock music uses a frequent repetition of melodies, as part of its structure, should not be considered a weakness of the music (at it would have in the days of Schoenberg and Ravel's "Bolero") but rather a defining part of its style and formal organization. One does not justly criticize Mozart or Haydn for including a repetition of the exposition section in a symphony, since it was part of the style of the day, and in accord with the aesthetics of the time. Similarly, this album "Tales From Topographic Oceans" should not be criticized for using ostinato motifs as a backdrop to the main musical ideas and their developments, because that is a part of the musical trends that were being utilized at the time (including classical "minimalism"). Such ostinato should be considered the equivalent of the basso continuo in Baroque music. One doesn't properly criticize Baroque music for the presence of a harpsichord.
2. This album "Topographic Oceans" has a symphonic conception... not in terms of the "classical period" symphony that uses strict sonata form, but rather in terms that are more appropriate for the late 20th Century. It has 4 large movements, with a thematic tie unifying the entire work, and although not using an orchestra for instrumentation, the sounds of the rock (chamber) ensemble prove sufficient to provide a symphonic scale to the sound (tone color), purely because of the late 20th Century innovations in electronic instruments and sound production. Also, as a late 20th Century work, the album makes use of dissonant chords and chromatic melodies and modulations, although usually with enough repetitions to make their point clearer to listeners in a way that most pre-WWII music tended to avoid. There are also many musical ideas that are fundamentally rhythmic rather than melodic, again in tune with broader 20th Century trends.
3. The vocal style frequently focuses on the use of falsetto voices, which should not be criticized from the standpoint of any particular cultural or gender preconceptions, but accepted on its own as part of a legitimate musical choice within the period/style of music this work represents. If one doesn't complain about the lack of classical voice training in the singers, but accepts the singing style as one of the options made possible by electronic amplification, the voices are a vital and often appealing part of this work.
4. The Yes musicians may be numbered among the important innovators in electronic music of the time... especially Rick Wakeman...although the focus is obviously more on the use of new technologies than necessarily on the quality of composition. Nevertheless, the innovative sounds on this double album include two things of probable historic significance: (1) electronically-produced soundscapes (in track 2) of the form that would later be called "New Age" music, which became an entire subgenre in itself, and (2) an electronically-engineered rhythmic section (late in track 4) that has much in common with what would later be called "industrial" or "mechanical" music, which became an entire subgenre in itself.
5. The band "Yes" proved capable of playing and merging many different "pop" styles when it wanted to use them. Their first two albums were heavily jazz-inspired, the next two were heavily folk-inspired. The "Close to the Edge" album was a very carefully balanced mixture of diverse guitar styles, vocal harmonies, rhythmic sophistication, larger-than usual formal structures (for the "pop" genre), and intriguing lyrics. As such, it has rightly earned widespread praise. This "Topographic Oceans" album has suffered undue criticism for not replicating the precise balance that was enjoyed by many on other albums of the band. The band was flexible and not rooted only in a single style of playing. The Topographic Oceans double-album is clearly the band's most classically-leaning work, in that it was conceived and executed on a symphonic scale. What many rock critics have failed to note is that, like "Close to the Edge," this double-album has deliberately avoided the use of improv-styled solo parts and instead the band has taken care that, although many sections are focusing on a guitar or voice or percussion-led idea, nevertheless there is none of it that is actually improvisational in style, as the band was to include in its next album "Relayer" (in that album's emphasis toward the heavy metal subgenre of rock). This double-album is most appropriately evaluated in terms of classical music rather than by the standards of any genre of rock music. Topographic Oceans never takes on the consistent tone of any particular subgenre of rock music that would invite such a comparison... rather, the band uses it's trademark sounds and musician's enormous skills in the crafting of what is perhaps the only widely selling rock symphony to have seriously earned the name. (Works such as Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick" or Rush's "2112" are insufficiently structured in formal terms to qualify, and works such as those by Pink Floyd do not adhere as closely to the traditions of symphonic forms as "Topographic Oceans" does.)
Tales From Topographic Oceans is in four large sections, as follows:
1. Dance of The Dawn
2. The Remembering
3. The Ancient
4. Nous Sommes du Soleil
Comments attached to this review provide additional detail to allow readers to evaluate the merits and functions of each of these sections of music within in the work as a whole.