ASIA: ALPHA (1983)
1) Don't Cry; 2) The Smile Has Left Your Eyes; 3) Never In A Million Years; 4) My Own Time (I'll Do What I Want); 5) The Heat Goes On; 6) Eye To Eye; 7) The Last To Know; 8) True Colors; 9) Midnight Sun; 10) Open Your Eyes.
The follow-up to Asia was much less successful, both commercially and critically. No big surprise there, considering that Howe and Palmer, the two acknowledged «giants» of the supergroup, are now completely missing from the credits — all of the songs are associated exclusively with the Wetton/Downes songwriting duo. Critical hatred may have engulfed «progressive rock» as a whole, and Yes and ELP as its representatives, but it was never targeted against individuals — you could be disgusted with Yes, but not its guitarist, and with ELP, but not its drummer. So, critics were asking, what exactly is the point of having one of the best guitarists and one of the best drummers in the world in your «supergroup» — and relegating them to the position of easily replaceable bit players?
It is true that Howe's role on Alpha is diminished even in comparison to Asia. I do not recall a single interesting or, in fact, noticeable guitar riff or solo on the entire album. But, on the other hand, it's not as if Asia's main points were about guitar work, either — and as for Palmer, he was drastically underused from the very beginning. So my bottomline is clear: if you like Asia at all, get ready to like Alpha, because they are twin brothers, concentrating on bombastic, but catchy arena pop-rock. That's about all there is to it.
I will not talk much about individual songs; they are fleshed out more or less in the same way, and alternate democratically between romantic balladry ('The Smile Has Left Your Eyes', Wetton's signature tune for years to come), upbeat happy arena-pop ('Don't Cry') and slightly harsher, grittier «rockers» ('The Heat Goes On', mood-wise = 'Cutting It Fine' from the previous record and, consequently, my personal favorite). The «progressive» spirit is only present on the coda to 'Open Your Eyes', but only in the form of a catchy and quite commercial «romantic mantra» that will emotionally convert fans of Styx and Journey rather than Yes and ELP.
What has always puzzled me is the question — why is it that I do not actively hate either Asia or Alpha? Both records seem to be the perfect candidates for stirring up green-tinged emotions. One key reason may be Wetton's singing voice: like Greg Lake's, it does not have that «operatic» flavor that so many arena-oriented vocalists often develop, thinking that, the closer you sound to Pavarotti on your records (and never mind the years of training — any idiot can sing opera as long as he ain't completely tonedeaf), the closer they get to Real Art. Wetton knows his limits and is always careful not to overstep them.
But even more important may be the fact that all of these songs are, essentially, quite well arranged. Lack of a distinct guitar sound may disappoint, but I would say it might have been an advantage — otherwise, too many of these songs could sound like Aerosmith power ballads. There is just enough guitar here to avoid the tag of «synth-pop», and the decision to generally avoid solos, or, at least, «egotistically mixed» solos, with the soloist high on top of everything else, was also correct (reducing potential threats of «pretentiousness»).
There may be other things at work, too, but I just want to draw attention to the fact that Asia and Alpha, of all the «dumb» arena-rock out there, are some of the «smartest» records in the genre. This does not mean that the «smartness» blows away the strong cheese smell, or that even a single of these «ecstatic» anthems merits even a single tear out of anyone's eyes (unless it's all about «how low the mighty have fallen»). But I believe this reasoning is at least enough to justify the thumbs up that I would not deny Alpha as Asia's little brother.
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