I've been waiting quite some time to write this review. A thorough LP remaster of Yes' sometimes overlooked, generally under-appreciated and frequently under-rated transitional album Drama has been long overdue. The album was revitalized in the CD realm in 2004 which marked a great step in the right direction. But, the LP versions remained mostly out of print and sorely in need of a sonic facelift.
Back in 1980 when Drama was released, I was more than a little surprised and disappointed. Core members Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman were not on the record, having been replaced by the singers from The Buggles, a one-hit novelty new wave wonder from 1979.
I sort of knew about The Buggles and their catchy song "Video Killed The Radio Star" (co-written with Bruce Wooley, it was the first video ever played on MTV). However, I had not really connected with their music on a grand scale like I had with Yes.
That Summer on break from college, I reconnected with one of my high school buddies who was also a big Yes fan; Chris assured me that Drama was a good record and that I should give it another chance. I eventually did, but something about it still wasn't resonating for me. This new Yes music was not jumping out at me like the others had; it was lying flat.
Was the problem in the music itself, or was it an issue I was having with the recording?
College passed, life ensued and Drama faded mostly from memory and my collection. Eventually I found another vinyl copy but, still, it never grabbed me, so it sat dormant keeping Tormato and some of Yes' lesser works company. Then in the mid 00s, my friend Johannes, a major Yes fanatic, gave me the remastered CD of Drama with its many bonus tracks and that proved to be a revelation! The sound on that CD let the music on Drama come alive for the first time. I realized the problem I was having with the muddy sounding recording likely resided in the LP's mastering.
Over the years I found different pressings of Drama, picked up out of curiosity. I was surprised to find that the stock UK and US promo pressings sounded quite similar (the German pressing, proved to be my least favorite). Poking around on some forums on the Interwebs and discussing this "issue" (if you will) with some other Yes fans on Facebook, it came to my attention that apparently -- and this is information I was given online by another audiophile type collector, so take that for what its worth, folks -- most of the pressings of Drama were done by one mastering house! Looking at the run-out grooves (aka deadwax) on all three of the pressings reveals the stamped impression of the word "Strawberry," the name of the mastering house.
So... as I understand this sordid tale... all those pressings were effectively made from the same stamper (or perhaps copies of the master stamper... or perhaps it was a series of stampers made by Strawberry). Whatever way this sort of global Strawberry-fication happened, it does help to explain the similar sonic signature gracing each of the versions of Drama I've heard -- a sound that is somewhat boxy.
Paraphrasing The Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland: 'It lacked muchness.'
Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of synths, guitars and rocking drums percolating around on the Strawberry pressings. But something keeps the music from becoming exciting and I suspect that something was a certain type of compression or universally applied EQ reigning-in the dynamic range. The CD version, without the added applied tweaks necessary for vinyl pressing, popped better (yes, even with the frequency-challenged 44.1 kHz, 16-bit Red Book standard formatting); the music was jumping out of my speakers, letting me better feel the joy within those performances.
And there is much joy to be found there!
So, now we are in the present and imagine my surprise to find in the stacks at Amoeba Records, a newly remastered LP version of Drama manufactured by Rhino Records , bearing a hype sticker on the cover proudly proclaiming: "cut from the original analogue master tapes by Kevin Gray at Coherent Audio."
I bought the lone copy they had there without blinking an eyelash.
The verdict is: its pretty great! There is more open-ness apparent, a punchier low end and air-y-er highs. The listening experience is vastly improved, even over the UK pressings (which are theoretically the best previous versions). The vinyl is dark, dead quiet and perfectly centered. I'm not sure where it was pressed but the label says it was made in Europe.
Now, you might have noted in the prior paragraph that I used the word " theoretically" to describe this reissue as potentially the best version ever. This is not a CYA move on my part. I say it because some Yes fans online (reaffirmed in various audiophile forums, which you can easily find if you search for key words on the web) have told me that Columbia Record Club editions exist which sound better than any of the Strawberry pressings! I have not heard one of these and have been seeking one ever since I heard of the variation. I have also recently learned there was another record club edition mastered by Atlantic itself, but again, trying to find a copy is a proverbial needle in the prog rock haystack. And then there is that spiffy looking Japanese pressing....
At this stage I would guess that it is safe to say that the prior editions are a moot issue. I mean... I can't imagine a 1980s-era record club edition, likely made off a slave copy -- a generation or more removed from the master -- sounding better than this new version made directly from the analogue master by a respected mastering engineer of the stature of Kevin Gray. (But ya never know. If I ever come across a copy, I'll post and update in the notes below!)
So... what's a Yes fan interested in getting the best possible sounding version of Drama to do? If you love Drama and are anticipating getting it on vinyl again, I would not hesitate to get the new remastered album. Even Roger Dean's cover art looks better, with richer, less washed out colors (more akin to the look of the 2004 CD).
If you've never heard Drama before, the 2004 CD might be a good affordable introductory option. As CDs go, it does sound pretty great! You can also find Drama on HDTracks.com in up to 192 kHz and 24 bit resolution.
There are many ways for you to bring some Drama into your life! For me, the next time I add another version of Drama it will be a 5.1 surround sound remixed version done by Steven Wilson. Of course, I'm not sure if its even on his radar as part of the Yes reissue program he's been driving, but I can hope.