Full disclosure: 1980’s Drama is my second favorite Yes album. I love the irony that Drama falls outside of what Something Else! reviewer Kevin Mulryne calls the “main sequence” of Yes albums – that is, the period between 1971’s The Yes Album and 1978’s Tormato. Interestingly, this era always featured Jon Anderson, but switched between three different keyboardists.
Imagine the horror of Yes fans, then, after Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman both left the band. That was followed by the aborted Paris sessions with Roy Thomas Baker, then a reinvigorated Yes returned a year later with singer Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoff Downes. Drama burst on to the music scene in August of 1980, and was initially received with shock and disbelief.
Bassist Chris Squire, now the only remaining original member, carried the torch of the Yes faithful – first listening to song ideas from Downes and Horn (both members of the Buggles) then coaxing them to be part of the reconstituted Yes. Long-time Yes engineer Eddy Offord started the recording process, but left soon after the project got underway. Now primarily working with Hugh Padgham, Gary Langan and Julian Mendelsohn, Yes emerged with an album boasting a bright and vibrant sound.
“Machine Messiah,” the lead off track, stands toe to toe with the best Yes epics. Steve Howe’s machine gun-sounding Gibson Les Paul kicks off the 10 minute song. Howe, who recorded many of his guitar parts away from the tracking studio by himself, has never sounded so aggressive. The group composition ties in modern synthesizers parts of Geoff Downes with some of the most aggressive bass work of Chris Squire. Also, unlike Tormato, Alan White’s drums are upfront and clean.
The song, sung by Trevor Horn and Chris Squire, doesn’t sound like Anderson and Squire, but it does sound totally like Yes. Lyrically, “Machine Messiah” is oblique and enticing, matching the swirling keyboard passages and White’s tom-tom fills with precision and passion. The call-and-response vocals by Horn and Squire are challenging and mesmerizing.
The song could end here, but Geoff Downes provides a synthesizer flourish that is tailor made for a Yes album – and the sort that was sorely missing on Tormato from Rick Wakeman. Not to be outdone, Chris Squire proves why he was the maestro. His bass solo and runs are of legend. Alan White’s drumming is among his best, but his tuned percussion and vibraphone work remind you of his multifaceted contributions to Yes.
“Machine Messiah” almost has everything but the kitchen sink, including a good old-fashioned recapitulation of the main theme. The song, like the rest of Drama, stands with the best that Yes has ever released.
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