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.
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