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Yes aren't cool. They never have been and I think it's a safe bet that they never will be. Often seen as even worse than 'dad rock', I've heard them described as 'boring old uncle' rock. However, it doesn't detract from the fact that they are one of the most technically brilliant bunch of musicians ever to walk the face of the planet, held in high esteem at the time of the 'musical dinosaurs'.
By the time 'Drama' came out in 1980, Yes had already established themselves as one of the most baffling and (arguably) pretentious bands of all time, most notably on the impenetrable double-album set 'Tales from Topographic Oceans', which was supposed to capture the lifelong process of spiritual enlightenment on record. Or something. And while lengthy suites and complex time signatures and indecipherable lyrics were around to stay as crucial ingredients in the Yes formula, they recruited two replacement members from a very unlikely source. Gone were key members Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, hello to Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of, err, The Buggles. That's right, the ones who did 'Video Killed the Radio Star'.
Armed with this knowledge, I was fairly certain that this album was going to be a disaster. Surely it's impossible for new-wave pop artists to slot into the most bombastic of prog acts? No, it would appear not.
If anythin, the arrival of Horn and Downes spurred them to a darker, more sinister sound than before. Opening with the spooky keyboard runs of 'Machine Messiah', it looms ominously out of the speakers with its demented warnings of the dangers of technology like some robotic messenger from the future. Full of odd sound effects and growling guitar, parts of it are reminiscent of some of Pink Floyds 'Animals', though it doesn't have anywhere near the bite. Especially as it shifts into the more synth-pop sections with falsetto vocals. In typical Yes fashion, it clocks in at over ten minutes, but I didn't really notice its length. I'm oddly surprised that it was as enjoyable as it was.
Then, just to buck the trend, comes 'White Car', which at 1:21 must be one of the shortest Yes songs. It doesn't do much except sound a bit like it should turn into the 'Holidays are Coming' song from the Christmas Coke adverts. It has a few nice Renaissance style harmonies in it, but it sounds like little more than incidental music to a film. Ergo, it's filler and therefore pointless.
'Does it Really Happen?' is a dramatic number, with crashing chords and drum fills. But one gets the impression that the two bands are clashing a bit, and the result is confusing. Horn and Downe's pop sensibilities bring a 'sweeter' sound to it, and it starts to sound either like a pop song drawn out too long, or a really epic number with its vision somewhat stunted.
Similar pop/prog confusion happens on 'Into the Lens', which was nicely referenced by Jack Black in 'School of Rock' with his 'I am a CAM-ER-A' line. Mournful vocals confess similar states of camera-dom, and bizarre gutiar runs from Steve Howe turn up throughout the jarring changes. It seems to start picking up momentum, only to lose it again, then find it once more. 'Run Through the Light' sounds more like Yes as they were, with Horn doing his best impression of Anderson. It's plagued by a horrid drum sound though, and the production is probably this album's Achilles' heel. It's not well-recorded or mixed, and some of the treatments clearly stamp 'MADE IN 1981' all over its brow. I guess that's the risk taken when dabbling with new technology (synthesizer sounds in particular here) - if it becomes unfashionable or obsolete, it's going to show very quickly. Another trouble throughout is trying to make out Horn's lyrics - with the electronic treatments that turn up every now and again to alter his voice, I'm having a tough time deciphering them. And the copy I have doesn't have any liner notes - I don't know if this is as standard, or I was unlucky.
'Tempus Fugit' could well be a crafty play on words, as it yet again employs those finger-melting time signatures and changes that make musicians tremble in trepidation when they see the sheet music. However, it has more impetus than most of the other tracks on here, with some athletic bass and guitar work. It's a strong track to end things on, and equals the opener for its grand sweeping style, interjected with bits of pop harmony and overdriven rock guitar.
In all, this is one hell of a weird album. Not all out pseudo-intellectual prog posing, nor is it a new-wave synth record, it fuses the two genres with mixed results. Most of the songs on here have flashes of brilliance in them, especially the first and last, but all too often they seem to change direction for no reason. It is bombastic, but in an almost non-intrusive way, mainly due to the softer sounds of the synthesizers employed and the pop vocals and harmonies used. Perhaps I'm just not enough of a Yes fan to 'get' it. Even so, it kept me guessing throughout, so I can hardly call it boring. It is a bit old though (two years older than me in fact). But I'm not an uncle. So there.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Machine Messiah
2 White Car
3 Does It Really Happen
4 Into The Lens
5 Run Through The Light
6 Tempus Fugit