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.
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