Thursday, August 30, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 11: Drama (1980).

The following several posts come from a website I created way back in 2001, in honor of my favorite band, then and now: Yes.

Some of the writing makes me cringe 17 years later, but I feel it's good enough to live on. That Roger Daltrey (yes, that Roger Daltrey) was given some of my text to speak as narrator of the Yesspeak biographical DVD is testament to the quality of at least some of the prose, I guess. 

I pulled down my site, called The Yes Chronicles, years ago. But thanks to the Wayback Machine, which does its part to make sure that nothing published to the internet ever dies, I was able to find archived copies of my reviews. Another site, Yes in the Press -- which appears not to have been updated for about 11 years now -- also saved the reviews. I notice in the introductory blurb that the keeper of Yes in the Press attempted to contact me with no success. I'm not sure what happened, but if that person stumbles across this blog -- hello, it's me. 

All text is original from 2001. Links have been updated where possible. Happy reading.


"We'd lost a singer and a keyboard player, and here was a singer and a keyboard player who'd just had a number-one single in every country in the world except America. This made me think these were the guys who could help!"
-- Chris Squire, 1987, as documented in Tim Morse's Yesstories: Yes in Their Own Words (1996)

"It wasn't such a bad situation from my standpoint, because I was the fourth Yes keyboard player, but Yes had never replaced a vocalist before."
-- Geoff Downes, interview with Tim Morse, from Yesstories (1996)

"Joining Yes was one of those stupid things that you do sometimes."
-- Trevor Horn, 1995, as documented in Yesstories (1996)

Atlantic 1980
Rating: ****
Best song: "Into the Lens"
Produced by Yes; backing tracks produced by Eddie Offord
Cover and logo by Roger Dean
Engineers: Hugh Padgham, Gary Langan, Julian Mendelsohn
Tape operator: George Chambers

Trevor Horn: vocals, bass
Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, piano, vocals
Geoff Downes: keyboards
Alan White: percussion

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
Machine Messiah
White Car
Does It Really Happen?
Into the Lens
Run Through the Light
Tempus Fugit

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Call it Yes's contractual obligation album. But it's a good one nonetheless. Very good.

Drama completed the duplication of a cycle that Yes began with Close to the Edge: the release of a top-notch album (Close to the Edge/Going for the One), followed by a resounding disappointment (Tales from Topographic Oceans/Tormato), which in turn was followed by an enjoyably and surprisingly redeeming recording (Relayer/Drama). All that remained to make the cycles identical would be a band hiatus following Drama, just as there had been a break after Relayer. And despite how good Drama would or wouldn't be, a breakup following the album seemed pretty much unavoidable.

One reason for the inevitability was that Yes's brand of music had simply been beaten down by the punk-rock revolution. Of the prog-rock veterans still on the scene by 1980, all of them were in the process of greatly simplifying their approach -- Genesis, with their progressive swan song Duke; Jethro Tull, with the highly forgettable A; the Moody Blues, with a streamlined approach that had begun in 1978 with former Yes man Patrick Moraz onboard; Rush, with Permanent Waves, marking the beginning of the long period, continuing to the present day, during which they have basically released the same album over and over and over again. Pink Floyd, whose status as a prog band was always questionable anyway, had already released The Wall, dripping with so much angst that it nearly beat punk at its own game. ELP was on its way to the scrapyard, and King Crimson would re-emerge in a year with a sound that owed more to the Talking Heads and gamelan orchestras than to the band's very own progressive roots.

Yes had simplified its approach as well with Tormato, but it was a largely failed experiment, in reality reflecting more of a lack of direction -- and record company pressure -- than a willingness to chase current trends. Following a successful tour in 1979, Yes retreated to Paris in a desperate attempt to hold things together, but it soon became clear that the magic was gone. The band seemed burned out, and financial problems only added to the tension that had become evident on the Tormato album. Ultimately, it came down to Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman joining in alliance against the rest of the band, with nobody apparently being able to agree on anything, let alone even show enthusiasm for their project-in-progress. It didn't help that bigshot producer Roy Thomas Baker was foisted upon the band in an attempt to try to squeeze some hit-single material out of them. Finally, when Alan White broke his ankle rollerskating, the band had an excuse to put the fruitless sessions on hold, with the original intention of reconvening in London early in 1980.

That never happened: Wakeman left the band again, this time with Anderson in tow.

Yes had survived the departure of Wakeman before, but it was unthinkable that the band could succeed without its original lead singer, especially one as distinct as Anderson, who not only provided the band with a signature vocal sound but also was the focal point of the band's otherworldly aura.

But it had to, for Yes already had booked and sold out another tour and -- in all likelihood, given the way Yes was known for handling its finances in those days -- had already spent the money from ticket sales. For this reason, and also because the rest of the band simply wasn't ready to give up on Yes, the trio of Steve Howe, Chris Squire, and White lumbered onward, rehearsing together while deciding what to do next. As Yes has always been wont to do, they listened to lots of record-industry suits trying to goad them in a certain direction. They attempted to resist that as much as they could on Tormato, but in this period, when the future of the band was very uncertain, the remaining members were surely more susceptible to the advice -- good or bad -- from well-intentioned outsiders than they ever had been before.

It was on such advice that the members of the Buggles were absorbed into Yes. Both acts were managed by the same person, and it seemed that Squire in particular, now the only remaining original member and therefore the de facto leader of Yes, was able to be persuaded that Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes possessed the sort of musical style that Yes should be pursuing at the dawn of the new decade. As the Buggles, Horn and Downes had scored a huge international hit with "Video Killed the Radio Star," a techno-synth-dance sort of song whose style -- and, indeed, even its rather prophetic title -- signaled a further changing of the guard in rock music, away from bands like Yes and toward the vapid era of MTV and hair bands. ("Video Killed the Radio Star," incidentally, is famous for being the first music video ever aired on MTV, when the network launched in 1981.)

Shared manager Brian Lane got the ball rolling by telling the Buggles, who happened to be Yes fans, of the band's predicament. He asked Horn and Downes to work up a song for Yes to use, and they did. (That song was "We Can Fly from Here," which ended up never being recorded but was played on the ensuing tour, along with another unrecorded rarity called "Go Through This.") This led to a shared rehearsal, and that in turn led to the duo joining the band, in one of the most unexpected and unlikely alliances in rock music up to that time.

Surely there were fans of both bands who saw each as selling out to the enemy -- the Buggles giving in to the old guard, and Yes abandoning its prog credentials in an attempt to modernize its sound. In truth, it was an alliance that never should have worked.

Instead, it made for one of the strongest albums of Yes's career. Perhaps more significantly, it provided an important transition for the band -- a transition from Yes the progressive mega-band of the 1970s to Yes the streamlined popsters of 90125 just a few years later. It's been suggested that Yes may not exist today if not for the phenomenal success of 90125 that brought them back to the top of the rock industry. But perhaps even more importantly, 90125 itself may never have succeeded -- or been made at all, at least under the Yes banner -- if not for Drama paving the way, with one foot planted fondly in the past and another finally ready to step boldly ahead, after being rather reluctant to do so just a few years before.

That Howe, Squire, and White had added some muscle to their music as a "power trio" becomes immediately evident, as Drama fades in with an ominous three-note arpeggio that rises from the depths to slowly bring the tension to its breaking point. Then, without warning, a nearly inaudible voice from the producer's room (or perhaps from an unmiked band member?) shouts the cue -- and smash! -- we're launched into a whole new Yes world, with Howe and Squire hammering away in a slow, dirty, heavy unison groove above White's insistently rock-solid 60 bpm drumbeat. This could pass for vintage Black Sabbath until the mood is properly Yessified, with Howe adding a brittle, downshifting line and Downes introducing a melancholy "sigh" on his synthesizer that will recur throughout the opening piece.

That opening piece is the 10 1/2-minute latter-day Yes epic "Machine Messiah," which finds Yes quoting Blake ("satanic mills") and bringing a dark twist to Yes's usually sunny lyrical universe, unseen since the days of "Astral Traveller," "South Side of the Sky" and "The Gates of Delirium." As the song progresses, though, it begins to alternate between these fearful passages and lighter, more uptempo sections, creating a paradox that is hinted at in the lyrics, which are still a little surreal but not as bafflingly cryptic as Anderson's could sometimes be: In essence, the message seems to be one of the growing dominance of technology, and the fear that it may not just imprison us but that we may willingly allow it to imprison us -- hence the "happier" (but, taken in this context, highly ironic) passages of music that lead us unwittingly to our doom. It's almost as if this "new" Yes is recognizing the sometimes naive optimism of Anderson's Yes and crushing it under the harsh realities of the modern real world, as the "machine messiah" emerges triumphant, the song fading out on the same dark arpeggio that brought us eerily into the song.

A dark mood on a Yes album -- this certainly was a rarity. And it was re-emphasized on the album's cover, where Roger Dean has returned to create an image that is at once familiar to Yes fans and much more threatening than the otherworldly utopias they were used to seeing. Here we are taken into a dark, cold landscape, where icebergs rise against a gray sky, a ship is overturned in the distant water, the traditional Yes logo glimmers overhead in a chromelike appearance, and, very symbolically, three black panthers are seen chasing away a pair of white doves. Can there be any doubt whom the panthers represent, and which doves they have chased away?

Those panthers, incidentally, have loaned their name to the group of Yes fans who support this album in the face of the slings and arrows from others who like to slam it or otherwise try to dismiss it. You see, a band that has gone through as many personnel and style changes as Yes is bound to have fans who prefer one era or lineup to others, and in Yes's case the factions have given themselves names reflecting the type of Yes they like the best. In addition to the "Panthers," we also have "Troopers" (backers of Anderson-led "classic" Yes, from "Starship Trooper") and "Generators" (lovers of '80s Yes, from "Big Generator"). Then there are the "Universalists" (from Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe's "Order of the Universe"), who simply like everything Yes has done. Some cranks like to refer to this strain of fan as a "Yeswhole," but we won't go there.

But back to the album! After a short Downes-dominated piece called "White Car" that very nearly qualifies as a Buggles solo piece, Squire propels us into the world of "Does It Really Happen?" After hearing one song in epic Yes fashion and one in the Buggles style, here we get the first of a few true sonic hybrids on the album, with a clean, streamlined rock feel combined with subtle mood shifts and tricky meters that are camouflaged by White's deceptively straight-ahead beats. This is also where Squire establishes his instrumental dominance over the proceedings, opening with one of two bass-solo introductions on the album that seem to be there almost as a blunt reminder that, even though Anderson is gone, this is still Yes, and to prove it, here's the vintage Yes bass-as-lead-guitar sound. As on "Machine Messiah," Squire doubles Horn on vocals throughout the song (including an attention-grabber of an a cappella section), creating an atmosphere that recalls the first two Yes albums, on which the combination of the members' strong voices were largely the focal point. The result here is a sound that recalls "classic" Yes but, again, looks to the future. Indeed, Horn's voice is similar to Anderson's at times, and the similarity is only heightened with the interweaving of Squire's vocals, which were always the strongest complement to Anderson's lead lines since the arrival of Howe, whose voice has always been anything but strong or pleasant.

But Howe puts in his own impressive performance on Drama. Aside from the menacing riff to open the album, he plays with a fiery confidence that had been missing from Yes music as a whole on Tormato. His lead work on "Run Through the Light" provides an effective contrast with the delicate but intense mandolin trotting through the background; "Does It Really Happen?" and "Into the Lens" mark an impressive return of the steel guitar, not heard since "Going for the One"; "Into the Lens" also features the electric sitar, which had been quiet since "To Be Over"; and the powerful ascending lead-guitar line that closes out "Tempus Fugit" is, simply, a dazzling display of Howe's fingers on fire. In retrospect, we'll see that Drama is Howe's last true work of greatness -- he wanders off into AOR-arena rock territory with Asia and GTR, where his talents aren't utilized to their fullest, and by the time he returns to the Yes fold, it's apparent that when he does try to pick up where he left off, his skills have faded in the interim.

Howe's performance here, though, is just a part of a band that sounds entirely re-energized, standing once again defiant in the face of a changing musical scene and vowing not to go down without a fight. "Tempus Fugit," for one, is full of new-found power -- the clipped rhythm and impatient pace is as close to new wave as Yes would get (Squire even referred to the song as "punky"!), and Squire, who is all over this album, is especially ablaze here with a brisk eighth-note pattern that keeps the Yes trademark firmly ensconced in this alien territory (it's a classic line that Squire has continued to use in his live bass solo), while Howe helps keep the rhythm with short notes on the downbeats. Yes doing ska? Well, whatever the case, it works. To top it all off, we get another taste of Yes's rare display of self-deprecating humor, with both the band members and Downes' Vocoder emphasizing the line "yes, yes" throughout the song. Downes, in fact, deserves a lot of the credit for the fresh, invigorating sound on Drama. His keyboards are a vivid mixture of traditional piano and organ with clean, modernistic synthesizer sounds that come off sounding fat, full and rich -- a welcome contrast to the thin, squeaky synth sounds that dominated Tormato. Speaking of which, the sound on Drama is crystalline clear and expansive, in comparison to the claustrophobic clutter of Tormato. No doubt this was helped along by engineer Hugh Padgham, who had achieved a similar clean, wide-open sound when working with Genesis and the Police, and maybe even by Eddie Offord, who returns to produce to backing tracks on Drama. And finally, there's Alan White, who came out of the power trio sessions with a sharp focus and a hard attack to his percussion style that fits the mood of this album perfectly. 

In short, a masterful job by all.

In addition to the closing "Tempus Fugit," "Run Through the Light" also has a very sleek, modern feel about it, with a vocal style by Horn that suggests Sting as much as Jon Anderson. This is a bit of a surprise, given that this song was actually resuscitated and reworked from the by-all-accounts dreadful Paris sessions. There's also an unexpected twist on this one: Horn plays bass (at Squire's prompting) and Squire sits down at the piano!

This stubborn determination demonstrated by the band to move forward and survive while not completely giving up its roots is reflected not just in the music on Drama but even in the lyrics, especially the recurring themes of time and running -- of inevitably moving forward. "Time is the measure before it's begun/Slips away like running water," from "Does It Really Happen?" "And you may find time will blind you," from "Into the Lens." "Run Through the Light" itself. "In the north sky, time flies fast to the morning," and "Run like an athlete and die like a dead beaten speed freak" and "Born in the night she would run like a leopard," all from "Tempus Fugit," which itself, of course, means "time flies."

But the most poignant lines may be the first ones we hear: "Run down a street where the glass shows that summer has gone/Age in the doorways resenting the pace of the dawn," Horn and Squire sing to open "Machine Messiah." Flash back for a moment to Tormato, which was filled with musical and lyrical ideas reflecting Yes's own past, while Anderson waxed nostalgiac over the "ten true summers long" the band had been together and lamented that "time flies, on and on it goes, through the setting sun." Now, one album later, there is a realization that the "summer" is over, and although a resentment of time flying away -- a desire for days gone by -- may still remain, the aged ones longing for the past at the expense of resisting the new, modern pace of the world will ultimately be left behind if they don't evolve. It's sort of an encapsulation of the spirit of truly "progressive" rock itself!

There's an almost melancholy longing for the past, though, that permeates "Into the Lens," a brilliant musical and lyrical creation that seems to be saying a final farewell to the way things were (both in terms of music and personnel, I imagine), realizing that there's no turning around ("Memories, how they fade so fast/Look back, that is no escape") but promising to take the object of the narrator's affection (the fans, we can assume) along with him into whatever the future may hold -- "Take heart/I could never let you go," we are promised, with the unavoidably uncertain caveat that "all is meant to be."

As for the music of "Into the Lens," well, it's a work of genius, sharing the rarefied air of the greatest Yes classics. The introduction is a mathematical masterstroke, once described very accurately as "egoless" Yes music. Squire and White lead things off with a single-note pattern repeated in 12/8 -- the bass guitar and kick drum hit on beats 1, 4, 10, and 12. After three complete statements, Howe, White, and Downes join in a separate unison staccato rhythm on drums, guitar and piano, filling in the empty spaces between the bass notes so that there are two completely separate ideas going on at once -- a counterpoint the likes of which had not been heard since "Perpetual Change," and with every instrument having a full complement of breathing room, which the (intentional) cacophony of "Perpetual Change" did not offer. The band here and elsewhere throughout the song masters the use of empty spaces, repeatedly using the suspense of an insistent start-stop riff to maximize the drama (appropriately enough!) in the piece's eight incredible minutes. The riff first appears here to wind up the opening salvo, and then after a pause, the opening counterpoint arrangement returns, with Howe playing a wailing steel guitar line over the top. The riff returns, and we gently slide into a gentler section of spacious guitar, piano, and vocals -- this time Horn on his own.

As the piece progresses, the band keeps our attention with alternating moods of free-floating sections suggesting a daydream and full-band passages that charge ahead with somewhat of a swagger, where every instrument strikes a remarkable balancing act between being forceful and giving every other instrument plenty of elbow room. Even the words and music are intertwined in a unique way on this piece: The one dominant recurring line is "I am a camera," spoken in evenly broken tones (I-am-a-cam-er-a, cam-er-a cam-er-a) to suggest the rhythmic flashing of a camera shutter, while musically the same effect is achieved, both in a recurring pattern of four synthesized quarter notes alternating octaves after the recitation of "camera" and with the start-stop rhythm itself, which consists of a unison trill/roll, repeated in ascending notes in groups of three. All of this shutter-clicking suggests somebody taking a lot of pictures, as if in a desperate attempt to capture and freeze a moment in time -- in this case, the past that gives comfort but is, ultimately, "no escape" from the uncertainty that lies ahead.

And as reinvigorated and confident as the band sounds on Drama, the writing was on the wall, and everybody knew it whether they wanted to admit it at the time or not. If there were any illusions remaining after the album was made, the following tour pretty well ensured that this was the band's final gasp, for Horn wasn't comfortable filling in for Anderson (and had to strain to even hit some of Anderson's notes from the back catalog), and some crowds were openly hostile when the tour reached Europe. It was a humiliating way for a legendary act like Yes to bow out, but at least the band got a chance to say goodbye to its fans with a quality album, ending things on a positive note that wouldn't have been possible if Tormato or the Paris sessions had been Yes's parting shot. Drama was a satisfying bookend to the era of "classic" Yes.

But would it really be the end? After the tour, the members scattered into different projects, and it did indeed seem that the band considered the flagship of '70s progressive rock had played its final notes. Ah, but this is Yes, where the unpredictable is standard operating procedure! Though nobody could have seen it at the time, in hindsight it's clear that Drama was more than a farewell to the glory days of the '70s -- it was the catalyst that propelled Yes into the second half of its career.
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