ASIA: ASTRA (1985)
1) Go; 2) Voice Of America; 3) Hard On Me; 4) Wishing; 5) Rock And Roll Dream; 6) Countdown To Zero; 7) Love Now Till Eternity; 8) Too Late; 9) Suspicion; 10) After The War.
By 1985, Asia had pretty much squandered all of its critical credit (never impressive to begin with), and sales were also dropping — perhaps because that sole characteristics they were still retaining from their «progressive» past, their stern pompous solemnity, was getting on the nerves of the MTV generation. Too adult, too boring.
The last straw was the departure of Howe, replaced by former Krokus guitarist Mandy Meyer. (John Wetton, too, was kicked out of the band for about a year, with Greg Lake replacing him on tour; but he managed to find his way back in before that lineup had a chance to record a new LP). The happening was more symbolic than substantial, because Howe's contributions to Alpha were minimal (at least, the ones that could be defined as «uniquely Howe-style») — but an asset is an asset, and the loss of an asset is always painful. Inspired by this misfortune, critics had a field day — and the album never even made it to the Top 50.
However, looking back on the entire sequence, it is really hard to tell why Astra should be «disappointing» after Alpha and even Asia. The only reason I would dock it half a star in comparison, were I still «starring» albums, is that it lacks a song in the style of 'Cutting It Fine' or 'The Heat Goes On', that is, a touch grittier than the rest. On Asia, Wetton functions in two modes only: (a) «exuberant» and (b) «lamenting». But, let us face it, both of those were his preferred modes on the earlier records as well.
Most of Astra is simply the same old catchy, shallow, but generally non-disgusting arena-pop. New guitarist Mandy Meyer does, unfortunately, bring in more of a pop-metal sound compared to Howe (most clearly evident on the lead-in single 'Go' with its steroid-muscular riffs), but, like Alpha, the music is mainly driven and dominated by Downes' keyboards, so it does not matter all that much. A few of the melodies are actually quite nice, e. g. the rhythmic ballad 'Wishing' (very close in style to The Alan Parsons Project — I'm fairly sure Alan would have arranged it far more tastefully, though); the «apocalyptic» mid-tempo rocker 'Countdown To Zero'; and the nuclear war «epic» 'After The War' (quite sincere in nature and relatively complex in execution). The only pieces that really overdo the pomp thing are 'Voice Of America' — an almost Diane Warren-ish power ballad with unbearable pathos — and 'Rock And Roll Dream', which commits the ultimate crime of stuffing the words «rock and roll» in the title of a song that has nothing whatsoever to do with rock and roll. (Perhaps if it weren't seven minutes long...).
Okay, so perhaps 'Suspicion' moves the band way too close to adult contemporary and Bryan Adams, but on most of the tracks, they still manage to stay one tiny step ahead of the pack, even though I can hardly prove that gut feeling.
I used to roll along with the critics at one time, thinking of Astra as a huge dip in quality — perhaps as the consequence of being way too appalled by the anthemic low points. But it may be ridiculous in general to speak of the «quality» of Asia from a 2012 point of view. Their entire sound has been discredited so much that there is really no point in listening to the band at all these days, unless you are a real sucker for that Eighties keyboard sound (understandable, for me, only as a nostalgic side effect). These days, they are just a historic curio. And taken from that point of view, it does not seriously matter if your personal favorite is Asia, Alpha, or Astra. The melodies are always comparable in catchiness, and Wetton's singing is always comparable in tone and pitch — what's to worry about? The same tepid, historically stimulated thumbs up as always.
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