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Friday, February 10, 2012

Asia: Arena


ASIA: ARENA (1996)

1) Into The Arena; 2) Arena; 3) Heaven; 4) Two Sides Of The Moon; 5) The Day Before The War; 6) Never; 7) Falling; 8) Words; 9) U Bring Me Down; 10) Tell Me Why; 11) Turn It Around; 12) Bella Nova.

One would expect Asia’s heroic ambitions, already well above and beyond their songwriting abi­lities and sonic taste, to burst right through the roof — with the release of an album titled like that; and Roger Dean’s winged lion on the sleeve is like a pre-ordered symbol of unbearable pathos. But, in a suprisingly unpredictable move, Arena turns out to be just the opposite: Asia’s most «restrained», even «down-to-earth» offering so far.

It must have been an intentional shift of style: the lineup is more or less the same here as on Aria, with the exception of guitar duties, for which the newly departed Pitrelli is now replaced by two players: Aziz Ibrahim, formerly of Simply Red, and Elliott Randall, formerly of whatever God wants. But there have always been two and only two instruments in Asia that really mattered: the synthesizer (still manned by Father Downes) and the drum (still kicked by Mike Sturgis). Plus the human voice, of course, still provided by John Payne. And all three have been toned down for Arena, although the most obvious change is in the drum sound — Sturgis pretty much renoun­ces the big, electronically enhanced, 1980s sound, going for a softer, more natural approach.

There are, in fact, congas on the opening track instead of basic drums, played by guest percus­sionist Luis Jardim, as the whole instrumental is set to more or less the Latin rhythm of Steely Dan’s ‘Do It Again’. This does not save it from sounding like unremarkable elevator muzak, but it is still the most unusual introduction to an Asia album since first we learned what a typical Asia album looks like. Experimentation? In some cases, even unsuccessful experimentation is better than continuing to sink in the same boring dreck — and since, on the whole, I ended up getting more kicks from Arena than from either of the preceding records, this must be one of those cases.

So as not to make the review too long, I will briefly list what it is that does not suck about Arena. The way ‘Heaven’ begins — with echoey guitars lifted directly from ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ and then the echo waves suddenly transforming into synthesizers and then the whole thing just going away into the background to give way to an upbeat pop song (which, in itself, does suck rather badly). The silly catchy chorus to ‘Two Sides Of The Moon’ which is so very un-Asia-like, more like simple generic 1980’s synth-pop (perhaps Downes was feeling ever more nostalgic about the young and innocent days of The Buggles). ‘Never’ and ‘Falling’, two more okayish pop rock contributions that do not provide much happiness but do not overreach or annoy, either. And ‘Turn It Around’ has a tiny pinch of clenched-teeth grit that always made Asia albums easier to assimilate (and an ear-catching guitar lead from Randall).

Basically, it’s just a livelier, slightly more diverse, and slightly less pompous proposition than it used to be. This does not excuse the nine minutes of ‘The Day Before The War’, the album’s sor­ry excuse for a «prog epic», or that the «big drums» finally start announcing their presence on tracks like ‘Words’, or, let us be frank, that the very concept of the band known as «Asia» still ex­isted in 1996. But in our quest for musical justice, we cannot not acknowledge that «…at least they tried». The title track states that “Into the arena we climb / We look to the sky” — words that might easily be interpreted as a new declaration of the right to fight for their artistic freedom and expect support from where it can least be expected.

Plus, an arena is the place to deal out thumbsets, isn’t it? The only problem is, when no one really gives a damn about the fight, it becomes somewhat irrelevant whether the fighters in question live or die at all. I would prefer to withdraw judgement as well — giving a thumbs up to a Payne-era Asia album is strictly prohibited by the Laws of Adequacy, but giving a thumbs down to Arena in particular would not acknowledge its honest attempt to break away from the formula, and I do not want to propagate the wrong concept that «All Asia (var.: All Payne-era Asia) sounds the same». That’d almost be like saying that all Asia looks the same, and that would be racist.


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

3 comments:

  1. Wow, an Asia album that only intermittently makes me cringe and wince! That's the first time in over a decade.
    I wouldn't even mind terribly if I heard "Arena" (the song) at my local supermarket. I'm never gonna chose to listen to it again of course, but still, that's high compliments as far as Payne-era Asia goes.

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  2. Hey, guess what? This album cover was not done by Roger Dean. Neither was Aqua's. Or Silent Nation's or Rare's. Or any of their live albums'. Or Aurora's. It's beautiful, though.
    This is even MORE worldy and even LESS worldly. You can tell from "Into the Arena" and "Arena". "Arena", by the way, is a really really good song, quite inspiring, and it has nice chords. So. "Heaven" is alright, gotta catchy chorus, whatever. I cannot stand "Two Sides of the Moon"- waaaaaay too generic 80s for me (and yes, I loved Aqua), with a dumb chorus, dumb verses, dumb lyrics, dumb "rock" part (with an okay guitar solo anyway) but kudos to the reggae section near the end! Wasn't expectin' that, even though it's REALLY dumb. God, I'm overusing the word "dumb". "The Day Before the War" may be way too long, but all of the musical elements here are really really great. Seriously! And the actual "song" part is quite alright. "Never" is just a cute li'l pop-gospel song. (Oh, come on, listen to the chorus and the lyrics and tell me there's no gospel in it!) "Falling" has the catchiest section in the album ("Help me, now I'm faaaalling"), even though the backup vocals sound kinda stupid during the verses. And it's in D major, my favorite key! "Words" is nice, and has a really nice guitar line. And it's in D major! "U Bring Me Down" is truly excellent, though it too is overlong. It's one of those anthems, ya know, but it brings you down instead of up. Dark! Cool organ riff! Even though the unuse of the word "you" in the title is the worst idea since the unuse of the word "for" in the title of "Prayin' 4 a Miracle". "Tell Me Why" is SO STUPID! UGGGGGGH! Well, really just the chorus- the verses are nice. But it's one more example of the proven theory that the Beatles did the only "Tell Me Why" that was a good song. "Turn It Around" is really good! Nice chorus ("You don't have to be strong for me...") and chimey keyboard line right before it. "Bella Nova" is a cute ending, but slightly boring and 80s-ish. "That Season", a bonus track, kinda reminds me of ABBA for some reason. Ah well, see, it sounds a lot better here than on Archiva.
    Ugh! I have nothing to do. So I'm just gonna fill up some space on some Russian dude's blog. That's right. And who here thinks the Police's "Does Everyone Stare" might be their best song? I think so!

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  3. Just as "Aria" was the worst of the Payne era, this is the probably the best. What a huge improvement. Dumping Pitrelli and getting two replacements who have a lot more variety in their playing styles was smart. And this does actually sound like a real Payne/Downes collaboration this time around, with his keyboards everywhere.

    Let's see -- we get Asia trying to be Santana in the first two tracks. Yes, David Gilmour was the first thing I thought of when I heard "Heaven". They aren't very original ("Heaven on Earth, anyone?), but at least it's a better song. "Two Sides of the Moon" is an interesting Asia/Police/Santana hybrid. (And there's a bonus track of a live version with just acoustic guitar, piano and a bit of synth that's good, too) There's throwbacks to the anthemic Asia of old ("Never", "Words")and Buggles-type staccato synths ("Falling").

    I like the folkie/hard rock ballad "Tell Me Why". Yes, Ross, it's not as good as the Beatles', but it's at least better than Genesis'. The Indian sounds on the intro to "U Bring Me Down (first Wetton, now Payne -- don't try to be Prince, please), followed by the creepy, Tull-like organ make the apocalyptic lyrics work. Of course, Payne has to make yet another Big Statement with "The Day Before the War", and it probably could have been cut a couple of minutes, but at least there's a lot of variety in the track. "Turn it Around" could have done by Journey, I suppose, but Payne at least restrains himself.

    A solid album, not a classic, but full of diversity and mostly enjoyable songs. I like it better than "Alpha" (not to mention "Aqua" and "Aria"). But the market didn't exist for this by 1996..

    Bob

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