Saturday, February 25, 2006

Machine Messiah (1980) – Yes

The new-look Yes’ 1980 release Drama featured vocalist Trevor Horn and his collaborator in The Buggles, keyboardist Geoff Downes, stepping in for the departed Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, respectively—blasphemy in most circles, but to those with open minds, substitutions which were not as ill-conceived as they initially appeared at the time. On this, the opening track of the album, Horn’s voice is veneered with a sense of familiarity due to bassist Chris Squire’s ubiquitous vocal contributions, as if to mitigate the absence of the group’s long-time frontman by introducing a recognizable voice alongside a new one. Unable to rival Wakeman’s virtuosity, Downes opts for atmosphere over ostentation. As a result, the keyboards dictate the song’s direction rather than become ornamentation like Wakeman’s trills, runs and solos. In a sign of things to come, longtime guitarist Steve Howe and Downes play riffs and runs in unison, a motif they would later revisit in their subsequent stint together in Asia.

“Machine Messiah” is a medieval sonic smorgasbord-as-soundtrack to the exploits of jousting knights battling dragons in mystical forests, along with lyrics tracing the evolution of civilization through industry and conquest. Amid keyboard dives à la the opening of Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With The Devil,” a menacing metal riff gurgles and lumbers like a dragon prowling the forest in search of serfs and feudal lords to terrorize. Alan White’s drums catapult projectiles from inside a kingdom's fortress walls to avert the advancing threat. An acoustic guitar enters like an oblivious minstrel in a buoyant stroll through the kingdom over lilting keyboards. Squire’s gritty bass rears back like a knight’s steed gearing up to charge, then gallops past the citadels out from the kingdom. Chordal triplets spring over a 4/4 rock beat as the knight races into the forest. Meanwhile, jubilant guitar riffs soar above a carnival as a court jester frolics about to the interplay of Squire and Horn’s voices. Keyboard runs writhe above a bedrock of bass which, along with the guitar, follows the keyboard’s lead as knights joust in tournament. An anachronistic ragtime piano clatters down into a dragon’s lair as the metal motif returns. The knight finds himself in the calm depths of the forest for rejuvenation prior to engaging the winged serpent. The bard of the forest placidly strums his lute, invoking the Machine Messiah—the deus ex machina that allows the kingdom to prevail despite a seemingly insurmountable conflict. Emerging from the forest, the knight slays the dragon, whereupon his return the kingdom erupts in jubilation as the King’s subjects celebrate victory with a feast. Howe’s rapturous guitar fanfare elicits grimaces of utter ecstasy. Eventually the festivities wind down, and the knight returns to the forest to pay homage to the Machine Messiah. Unfortunately, a legion of dragons encircle him amid a gaggle of frothing guitars.

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