Sunday, May 04, 2008

Old guys still rock – Phoenix by Asia

I was pretty excited for the first Asia album when it was released back in 1982 (a long time ago.) The band was a super group made up of four top-flight members of some of the best progressive rock bands in the world – or at least in England. Steve Howe, the guitar hero from Yes was at the top of my list because his playing always made me sit up and take notice. Geoff Downes, who had recently joined Yes after making his mark with the Buggles' hit "Video Killed the Radio Star," was going to be playing keyboards and, while Downes was no Rick Wakeman, the fact that he had done a stint in Yes put him near the top of my list of cool keyboard players. Carl Palmer from Emerson, Lake and Palmer would be on drums and I thought Palmer was a fabulous drummer so I was stoked for that. In fact, the person who I knew least well was John Wetton, bassist and vocalist for UK and, before that, for King Crimson, a band that I had always held in high regard but one I didn't know too well (yet – I would later listen to them quite a bit.)

In my imagination, the first album from this new supergroup would feature long – very long – songs with multiple sections, long instrumental passages and pompous but often incomprehensible lyrics. There would be a theme – something really huge like "our future as a human race" – that would weave throughout all the songs. And it would have creative artwork which had an other-worldly quality, preferably by Roger Dean who had done most of the coolest Yes album covers. Before I ever heard a single note I had all this figured out. After all, what else could these guys possibly deliver than something that would completely blow my mind?

When I eagerly snatched up their self-titled debut (on vinyl – this was 1982 after all) I was disappointed. I wanted the sequel to Close to the Edge, perhaps Yes' finest moment, or maybe the follow up to ELP's Brain Salad Surgery, both of which had 18-30 minute suites which defined the high point of progressive rock in the 70's. What I got was something quite different. The band decided that they would not go after overly complex heady progressive rock but, rather, they would shoot for short, radio-friendly songs which would actually get played on the radio (or the newly minted MTV) and might even be a hit. They produced songs which showed their love for melody and their instrumental chops without making an album that you needed a long attention span to digest. What I got was the pop sounds of "Heat of the Moment." It wasn't bad. In fact, it was quite catchy. And the synth horns that opened the track were pretty cool. Howe's guitar work was vintage Howe. It was simple but it was still complex in a cool progressive-rock kind of way. It wasn't what I expected but once I accepted it for what it was I liked it. The first album took off big time and was a massive hit. They were everywhere on the radio and on MTV. This was the biggest hit any of these guys had ever had. The four members of Asia had gone from the relative obscurity of the progressive rock confines to being a big arena-rock band. And when I listened with headphones the album had a lot of cool stuff going on. Steve Howe had overdubbed lots of interesting guitar parts and had used a whole arsenal of different instruments to make his patented Steve Howe sound part of the aural landscape. It was a great album. I was excited about the prospect of where they'd be going next.

Unfortunately it didn't last. When their second album, Alpha, was released it sounded like a Wetton/Downes album with Steve Howe relegated to putting a few guitar touches on as an afterthought and Howe left the band soon thereafter. The band tried to continue with other guitar players but they never caught the fire of that first album again. There has been a band called Asia around almost continuously since then but it was mostly Geoff Downes and whoever else he wanted to play with. For most of us Asia was the four guys who started it and the bands that followed may have done some interesting music but it wasn't the same – not even close.

Whatever personal stuff had kept the guys apart for all these years got sorted out and the band got back together a year or so ago and did an oldies tour. That went so well that they recorded an album of new material called Phoenix. I'm glad to say that the classic Asia sound is back. Phoenix sounds like the legitimate follow up to 1982's self-titled debut and, while Howe isn't quite as present as he was on their first album, he's definitely part of the mix. The players have aged, of course, but they still play and sing well. The lyrics still sound a bit pompous but it could be more a function of Wetton's rich baritone voice and of the backing track making almost anything sound that way than any issues with the actual lyrics. Wetton's recent health scares have caused him to reflect on the meaning of life and this comes out in at least a couple of tracks giving the requisite progressive-rock gravitas to some of the songs.

Musically, this album is one of the most melodic progressive rock albums in memory. It could almost be subtitled "the return of the power ballads" as they roll out one after another heartfelt, catchy melodies with powerful hooks and instrumental motifs that get stuck in your head pretty quickly. There are still things I wish for – Palmer's drumming in mostly unremarkable, although there isn't much opportunity for him to show the kind of chops he did on ELP's Tarkus, for example. Wetton's thunderous bass propelled many of the early King Crimson albums (especially Lark's Tongues in Aspic, Red and some of their live material from that era) but his playing on Phoenix is somewhat reserved. And I wish Steve Howe had been part of the basic track on more of the songs instead of being used primarily for instrumental flourishes. But it is the playing and songs of Geoff Downes along with the voice of John Wetton that defines Asia's sound and those pieces are intact. This is a fine album – one that I have found myself listening to a lot more than I expected. While it is quite different than most of the music that is being produced these days, fans of Asia's best work from the 80's will find much to like here and younger listeners might just find something new and interesting to try out.

1 comment:

Isorski said...

OK, you talked me into it. I posted a prelimary review based on some snips I heard and aside from the opening track, I was not overly persuaded to buy the whole album. How are those long tunes?