ASIA: RARE (1999)
1) The Waterfall; 2) The Journey Begins; 3) The Seasons; 4) The Gods; 5) The Whales; 6) The Journey Continues; 7) The Reservation; 8) The Bears; 9) Under The Seas; 10) At The Graveyard; 11) Downstream; 12) The Ghosts; 13) The Sun; 14) The Moon; 15) The Sharks; 16) The Journey Ends; 17) The Indians; 18) The Angels; 19) The Horizons; 20) To The Deep; 21) The Game; 22) The Exodus.
Without a doubt, this is the most unusual album in the Asia catalog; and since, for Asia, the more «unusual» their music is, the better it is by definition — few things can be less exciting in this world than «usual» Asia music — Rare is not only «rare», it is also curious, and, on particular days of the week, may even be enjoyable.
Essentially, this is a joint combination of two different soundtracks that were commissionned for the band, or, rather, for its crucial members (only Downes and Payne were involved in the project, recording all of the parts): one for a documentary on the migrations of salmon (!), another one for a SEGA game that ended up unreleased. With the release of Archiva, the rulers of Asia had already shown how much they care for their residue, so it was probably predictable that these atypical sessions would find their way out to the general public as well.
But this time, the decision was right. If anything, Rare reminds us of the fact that Geoff Downes, behind all the stiff commercial glitz, started out as an innovative professional composer, capable of stringing together interesting sequences of notes — exploring the ways of music, rather than choosing the safest, easiest way into the hearts of people whose emotional receptors do not work well on levels beyond formulaic soap operas and Broadway shows. He was never all that great at this kind of exploration — one reason, probably, why he ended up drifting towards the lowest common denominator — but he was hardly talentless, either.
Take these two soundtracks, for instance. They actually defy straightahead categorization. There is a lot of New Age influence here, of course, but the salmon journey is hardly generic «ambient»: there are numerous classical and pseudo-classical piano themes, there is some dissonant avantgarde, there are a few «ethnic» themes (ʽThe Reservationʼ, with Indian motives), some elevator muzak, some electronic grooves, etc., all of which can make a salmon's life pretty colorful. The themes usually match the titles — ʽThe Bearsʼ is stern and menacing, with heavy emphasis on mock-Wagnerian synth-horns; ʽThe Whalesʼ goes heavy on special effects to imitate the animals' breathing and other activities; ʽThe Sharksʼ sends the keyboards swooshing back and forth to mimic fast underwater travel, etc. — so I am pretty sure that whoever actually watched the documentary must have walked away a deeply changed man, one who will no longer crave for salmon roe, but will instead work hard to make the world a better place. By all means, Geoff Downes and salmon were made for each other.
The second soundtrack is louder and more dynamic — no big wonder, since no video game developer would probably want the music to be done Brian Eno-style — eventually diving into a mix of trip-hop and heavy guitar rock (ʽThe Gameʼ) and then into techno (ʽThe Exodusʼ). It is also fairly diverse, but, in general, sounds cheesier and lacking «naturalistic inspiration». Still, there are quite a few impressive musical ideas out there, be it in the heavenly synth overdubs on ʽThe Angelsʼ or in the pipes-and-guitars combination on ʽTo The Deepʼ.
In short, I have no problems about giving the whole thing a thumbs up. It goes without saying that it sounds remarkably fresh and even stupefying when surrounded on all sides by the ugly walls of Payne-sung non-hits (I did not explicitly mention that there is not one bit of vocals on the entire album, except for some atmospheric backing harmonies), but even out of context, it is, at the very least, a perfectly «okay» specimen of a multi-purpose soundtrack. In a better world than the one that made the existence of «Asia» possible, Geoff Downes would be spending most of his days recording projects like these — and John Payne would be there to assist him, wisely keeping his mouth shut and helping people to get more kicks out of their video games rather than spoiling their tastes with corny pomp. Of course, it also happens to be one of the few Asia albums that are now strictly out of print.