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Friday, January 27, 2012

Asia: Aqua

ASIA: AQUA (1992)

1) Aqua, Part 1; 2) Who Will Stop The Rain?; 3) Lay Down Your Arms; 4) Heaven On Earth; 5) Someday; 6) Crime Of The Heart; 7) A Far Cry; 8) Back In Town; 9) Don't Call Me; 10) Love Under Fire; 11) The Voice Of Reason; 12) Aqua, Part 2.

Okay, this is where things start to get irredeemably bad. It has little to do with the loss of a crucial member: one needn't really have a problem with John Payne, who came out of nowhere and re­placed Wetton fairly well, with a similarly powerful, but, overall, intelligent manner of singing. New guitarist Al Pitrelli was already a seasoned pop-metal player who'd made a good name for himself playing with Alice Cooper in his Trash/Hey Stoopid period (where he was at least a fair­ly tolerable replacement for the «Rambo» style of the Coop's previous axman). And besides, Steve Howe agreed to guest-play on some of the tracks. Carl Palmer, too, was still an official member when the sessions started (but left to rejoin ELP before they were over).

So the people are okay. What is not okay is a sense of total wretchedness. The style of the band was pathetic enough in the 1980s, but at least it was sort of en vogue at the time, and that pro­vided enough inspiration — not just in order to come up with decent melodies, but to play and sing them like there was some hope for tomorrow, if you know what I mean. By 1992, however, even mainstream tastes were changing, and only those who, for some reason, fell way too deep under the «Eighties charm», could continue enjoying this cr... uh, I mean, «eccentric-romantic» approach to music making.

Aqua does not give out one single bloody hint that the band even noticed the bug of the times, let alone tried to capture it. Same stuffy electronic arrangements, same booming drums, same pathos, same arena-rock choruses — still riding the old formula, and quite depleted and worn out at that. What used at least to be novel is now predictable and utterly annoying; and no matter how much «Authentic Care For The World's Problems» Payne is trying to convey with his voice, nothing works. Personally, I cannot even make myself believe that they really cared about anything at this point — it is as if someone just put the entire band in a state of trance and ordered them to plow through on auto-pilot.

Some of these choruses are still catchy, but why bother? I could imagine someone taking 'Crime Of The Heart' and rearranging it as a moving acoustic folk ditty, but until this is done, why in the world should we bother with the original? Simple, undeserving musical ideas are being puffed up to symphonic size here, the same way a bad scientist, having made a trivial discovery, turns it into a 500-page dissertation, with an emphasis on very long words with very little meaning. The utter banality of it all is best illustrated with the intro to the generic love ballad 'Don't Call Me' — starting, of course, with the sound of a tone dial and a female "Hello?" — you know, to set the proper mood and all. Even Jeff Lynne, with his 'Telephone Line', handled that better.

The more energy there seems to be, the more it seems to be fake, fake, fake. Fake rockers ('Back In Town'), fake power ballads ('Love Under Fire'), fake prophetic anthems ('Who Will Stop The Rain', cautiously titled with the full form of the auxiliary so as not to offend fans of CCR), even fake acoustic prayers ('The Voice Of Reason') and fake intro/outro «atmospheric» instrumental pieces ('Aqua') built on clichéd classical guitar figures and boring sound effects. Some fans say that Geoff Downes at least renewed and remodeled his synthesizers. But is this supposed to mean they sound any more alive than they used to? The fact that he managed to achieve the highest standards of adult contemporary is not particularly recommendable.

Fun fact — although Aqua, almost predictably, failed to chart in either the States or the UK, it still went all the way to No. 1 in Japan. (Then again, I suppose everything goes to No. 1 in Japan sooner or later, since they live in a parallel reality where time flows ten times slower than in the preoccupied Western world.) On that happy note, let us simply issue the expected thumbs down, and move along: the real Trail of Tears has only just begun.

Check "Aqua" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Aqua" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. You must have a mean streak of masochism to embark on a long series of exhaustive Asia reviews! Then again, I suppose this is your way of marking time before you have to review the Beatles catalog again! :-)

  2. Honestly, for a moment I thought George started reviewing Aqua. Not that they ever released an album called Asia, but still.

  3. At least the artwork is still good.

  4. Hah, by this point, they could have just giving everyone (and good taste) the finger and hired Micheal Bolton or Richard Marx as lead.

  5. That's it.This is your review since you put down Yes' "Awaken" that has driven me the craziest. So this is my first ever flame message. Here's my review.
    Hey, THIS is different! New lead singer who gets gruffer as he gets higher, and while most of the lyrics are the same as on Astra, about love and war and the planet, the songs are very much different- much heavier, more epic, more catchy . As you said, the intro to "Don't Call Me" is the most annoying, and the rest of the song isn't much better- I'd rather see the song covered by Def Leppard.
    But, the title track is one of Howe's classical guitar pieces, made even more beautiful by Downes' keyboards, which are actually FANTASTIC on the record by the way. "Who Will Stop the Rain" is an awesome eco-rocker with excellent Def Leppard-ish harmonies, an awesome keyboard riff, awesome lyrics and catchiness like in no other Asia song up to that point. "Back in Town", aside from the really weird intro, rocks with a vengeance, with more of those GREAT keyboards that Downes for some reason never used before."Love Under Fire" is really pretty, and though I would have like it more if it were quieter, without as much emphasis on the synths, it's quite alright as it is. "Someday", then, has more excellent harmonies, a kinda-"Gypsy"-ish guitar riff, a super-catchy chorus, and a REALLY pretty quiet acoustic section at the end. "The Voice of Reason", then, is awesome. With lyrics like no others on an Asia album, it is the epic, with a really nice acoustic section going on for some time (with gorgeous "crying" electric lines in the background), until it, in a blaze of a choral power chord, becomes a heavy rocker with clavinet, synth riff and more excellent harmonies, which is cool, until suddenly, near the end, it becomes an INTENSE orchestral piece. Wow.
    "A Far Cry" has a really cool groove with more of those Leppard-ish harmonies, based on a piano riff that would later, on Phoenix, become "No Way Back". But "Heaven on Earth" is the power ballad that got me loving the power ballad genre. Its opening is quiet and quite moody thanks to Downes, and the chorus is really, really, epic, with the best harmonies on the album, although you might not notice it until it suddenly gets LOUD and bowls you over in a sea of awesomeness, with a gorgeous guitar solo at the end (and this one sure don't seem cheesy at all). There's just no way I can see not to like the song- it's technically perfect, singable, mysterious and rocking, immaculately produced, well keyborded, and, well, I could just go on and on. After that, there's the bonus track "Obsession", which is no WAY as great as "Heaven...", but is really, really good- my favorite parts include the piano line in the verses and, of course, the CREEPY "Can you hear those voices...". "Aqua II" is an interesting stab at an epic keyboard-only instrumental.
    Seriously, though. Most of these songs are great, have immaculate harmonies, are catchy, are rocking, are more diverse than the Big Three, are TIMELESS- surely you don't pay attention to that year it was released, do you? Adele's 21 belongs in the 70s, maybe 60s! Caravan's Battle of Hastings belongs in 1978! Also, you accuse these songs of being fake. Let me let you in on a secret- David Bowie's the fakest person alive. You never put him down for being fake! How about Freddie Mercury, huh? In fact, you even SAID that "You Take My Breath Away" was just "artificial beauty" and then proceeded to tell us you loved it! I really really thought you'd like Aqua. Am I the only person on Earth who likes this?

    1. well I'm glad that one person likes it but to my ears, for all the brilliant musicianship that might be in here, it doesn't amount to much. Def leopardish sounds are half the problem especially for a early to mid 80s sound in the early nineties, would be possible but not here

    2. No, there's me as well. It's a fine album, and the start of a new era for Asia that stands apart from the original line up, and deserves to be considered as a splendid and sparate entity.


    3. Apologies to Def Leopard fans because I heard animal on the radio today and it had tons more life than the warmed over prog lite that served up here.

    4. Thank God for Philip.

  6. Dear Ross,
    You're the only person on Earth who likes "Aqua". Even Geoff Downe's accountant regrets "Aqua".

  7. What an awful creature on the artwork. If it existed, i'd club it to death.

    1. Thank God for Philip. And please do not club beautiful creatures. Why do you think the passenger pigeon's extinct?

  8. Giving prominence to photos of Howe, Pitrelli and Palmer in the CD sleeve was an attempt to try and convince everybody that this Asia was an old/new actual band (sort of like the endless permutations of Fleetwood Mac). But Downes and Payne are operating in Steely Dan mode. Whether they were once in the band or not, everyone else is a session musician. Palmer did drum on some songs, but where? If you look at the fine print, even more sessioneers were involved -- two more drummers, three more guitarists (!),and Payne played some guitar, as well.

    And you're right -- several tracks are rejects from failed Downes projects. "Who Will Stop the Rain?", "Someday", "Crime of the Heart" and "Don't Call Me" were originally intended for an album called "Rain" featuring (Ugh! Ugh! Ugh!)GTR singer Max Bacon. (See, it could have been worse!)

    "Love Under Fire" is one of two things that surfaced from an abortive collaboration with Greg Lake called "Ride the Tiger" (the other being ELP's "Affairs of the Heart".) Notice how Payne imitates Lake's phrasing to a "T". Too bad the song sucks. And "Heaven on Earth" was written by Payne and his partner Andy Nye for ELO, Part 2 (See, it could have been a LOT worse!).

    My problem is not that the album sounds fake, exactly. Most of the songs just aren't very distinctive. For the most part, we've either got pseudo-tough rockers or, as you said, power ballads that are overdone unnecessarily. "Crime of the Heart" is probably the best, but it's still quite cliched. Payne turned out to be a decent replacement for Wetton, although he tends to bellow and get gruff in the higher ranges.

    I do like four songs, though. "Who Will Stop the Rain?" and "Lay Down Your Arms" are throwbacks to Asia anthems of the past, but Downes makes them work with his keyboards. "..Rain", in particular is very intricately produced, and it's the first time Asia indulged itself in any mysticism. And I really disagree on the "Aqua" instrumentals. I think Downes shows much more creativity with these than most of the rest of the album. These four songs, despite the mediocrity of the rest, offered a bit of (as it turned out, totally misplaced) hope in the group.

    I caught the group on its club tour --before I knew Wetton had left! Steve Howe was billed as a "special guest". But then Downes walked on stage with these three dudes, none of which were Steve. They then played a few songs from "Astra" and "Aqua". The two new guys were a guitarist named Vinny Burns and a drummer called Trevor Thornton. Despite being introduced as "new members of Asia", neither made it further than the tour. As it turns out, Burns was there because Howe refused to play on any song he did not record.
    Howe then came out playing "Aqua, part 1" and followed with an extended acoustic set -- which was his condition for joining the tour. That was most interesting. He joined for the band for the rest of the show. He was the one that made me feel like I was watching more than an Asia cover band that just happened to have Geoff Downes in it, although Payne did just fine. But, of course, this wasn't bound to last..