Also a vastly under-recognized 1980 studio album from a unique lineup of the progressive rock band Yes.
Geoff Downes - keyboards, Vocorder
Trevor Horn - vocals, (bass)*
Steve Howe - guitars, vocals
Chris Squire - bass guitar, vocals and (piano)*
Alan White - percussion, vocals
Machine Messiah 10:25
White Car 1:21
Does it Really Happen? 6:34
Into the Lens 8:31
Run Through the Light* 4:39
Tempus Fugit 5:14
Anyone familiar with Yes/rock of this period should notice two interesting things.
First, Jon Anderson is not featured on this album. Drama is the only studio album in Yes's 33 year history not to feature Anderson on lead vocals.
Second, this album features Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, late of the new wave pop group The Buggles, who had an international hit the year before in their "Video Killed the Radio Star."
Yes's Tormato in 1978 was criticized and basically insulted in the musical press by reviewers who were more interested in punk and new wave than in songs about aliens, circuses or harpsichord solos. Yes were still popular among their core audience, but it was shrinking, and while their 1978-9 tour is still fondly remembered today for its energy in the face of general unpopularity, time was running out for their lineup of Anderson/Howe/Squire/Wakeman/White. Rick Wakeman (who'd left the band before) and Anderson (who was one of two remaining original members along with Squire) left the band in 1979. So Yes was left without a keyboardist and a vocalist, a fairly serious problem when they were already ailing.
Meanwhile, The Buggles were at the peak of their success. The Buggles were managed by the same man who managed Yes. The Buggles were a vocalist and a keyboardist. And strangely, but perhaps most importantly, The Buggles were Yes fans. So it seemed to everyone involved at the time that they could join.
The only problem was that their musical styles and focuses seemed to be irreconcilable. New wave was, among other things, a reaction to the very institution that was thought (by new wave bands anyway) to prop up bands like Yes. "Video Killed the Radio Star" could almost be considered an anthem in this respect. If this band were to succeed it would have to either pick one approach -- new wave or old Yes -- or to blend the two and hope to attract open-minded fans of either style.
This album accomplishes the latter tactic magnificently, but no one in 1980 seemed to care.
Every song on the album is credited to each member of the band, but it's easy to see that the Yes-like parts of the composition came mostly from Chris Squire. Squire was at this point basically Yes's leader, and he had contributed enough to Yes's sound over the previous 10 years for his stamp to be evident on pretty much every track. Howe contributes mostly by making crazy guitar solos, writing strange harmonies, and adding weird time signatures (see Relayer, Tormato), and White had only come into his own as contributor at this point by replacing drums with other freaky bits of percussion. (He plays something like 6 things other than drums on Tormato, usually switching between them and drums once or twice per track, but used up liner space naming them all.) Anyway, neither approach is at the forefront here, and both were pretty embarrassing at this point so this is a good thing.
Meanwhile, The Buggles inserted the ironic combination of nostalgia for things past and pragmatism in the face of changes (which made VKtRS what it was) into all the music on the album. So Drama has a special quality, an aura, a vibe to rival what Jon gave Yes albums in better days (like on Close to the Edge, Relayer, or Going for the One).
It also has some modern and sophisticated if not virtuosic keyboard work by Geoff Downes. As a replacement for Wakeman's wild but basically out-of-context arpeggios on tinny keyboards (see Tormato), this approach worked wonders, especially within the context of Drama - change. Downes helped make the album memorable not so much as a pathetic attempt to revitalize an old band in the face of impending collapse (see any Jethro Tull album since Minstrel in the Gallery, IMHO), but as a good album.
Tormato was admittedly a very good bass album, but Drama is the best bass album for Chris since Fragile. White abandoned all those tinkly things for his second best drumming performance (Relayer takes first for sheer force). Howe here maintains the best balance between modern sounding guitar work and his own style ever appearing as Yes. This album's vocal harmonies are not bad at all; if you count the vocorder this is one of only two Yes albums on which every member sings. The lyrics are not mystical, but don't need to be; instead they are often introspective, detached, ironic, and/or poetic without going overboard. I suspect they were written mostly by Squire, Horn, and maybe Downes or Howe. Of course we don't know, due to the group's frequent practice of attributing everything on an album to everyone.
But this album with 6 songs spanning 38 minutes by, ugh, Yes, couldn't have attracted many new wave fans (especially considering that it made no mention of The Buggles’s involvement). Maybe they were a lost cause, but Anderson's distinctive voice and mystical but nonsensical lyrics were also beloved by most Yes fans, who must have been afraid to like this band without him. Wakeman was also a fan favorite, as much for his technical skill as for the fact that he was Rick Wakeman. Geoff Downes certainly was not Rick Wakeman, although he was probably almost as good.
In addition, this album features a compositional style not really seen since Close to the Edge, one that to me represents the best of Yes. Drama is capable of evoking an theme through harmony, rhythm and lyrics, and of altering that theme by changing the harmony, rhythm and lyrics subtly, but still remaining true to it. For example, "The Solid Time of Change," "Total Mass Retain" and "Seasons of Man," all parts of the track Close to the Edge, sound very different from one another. Yet they relate to each other and to the album's theme of existence after death very well because of recurring motifs and smart instrumentation. Many parts of Drama, especially Machine Messiah, achieve this too. Both the tracks on Close to the Edge and those on Drama manage to sound as fresh a conventional rock band's music, despite the fact that a lot of these same tracks sound like they have 12 or so people playing at once instead of 5. There is a general impression of the effectiveness of each note in Close to the Edge, and despite some filler here and there Drama has this quality too.
But the Drama tour did not go well. Trevor's voice was naturally lower than Jon's countertenor, so while he could hit Jon's range on the new work in the studio, he had to strain to sing Jon's lyrics, and by the end of the tour he could barely sing. Fans sometimes harassed Horn and Downes because they weren't Anderson and Wakeman, and apparently Downes gave some hecklers the finger during a concert.
So the band(s) decided to go their separate ways. The Buggles released a second album featuring, among other things, an alternate version of Into The Lens called “I Am a Camera” credited only to Horn and Downes. (The music was reworked and slowed down but the lyrics were intact, making it obvious that Into the Lens must have been primarily a Buggles track.) Yes basically split up; Squire and White worked together off and on for a while. Howe and Downes would go on to found Asia, where their pop-rock styles helped them get a few hits in 1982 along with some other former progressive rockers. Former is the operative word; the older progressive rock bands gradually moved into pop territory or stopped producing records in these years. Yes did eventually reform in 1983 as Cinema around Squire, White and South African guitarist Trevor Rabin. Anderson and original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye soon rejoined, and their "Owner of a Lonely Heart" became Yes's only #1 hit in the USA. Trevor Horn went into producing (including production work on Yes’s next, highly successful album 90125).
Drama is often ignored by Yes fans of today. Because 90125 propelled Yes into fame as an 80s rock band, many fans of Jon's old style start out disliking their 80s work. Then they listen to it more closely, and decide it isn't so bad, but at least it's better than Drama, the ugly lovechild of a stumbling prog rock band and a quirky but interesting new wave band.