ASIA: AURA (2001)
1) Awake; 2) Wherever You Are; 3) Ready To Go Home; 4) The Last Time; 5) Forgive Me; 6) Kings Of The Day; 7) On The Coldest Day In Hell; 8) Free; 9) You're The Stranger; 10) The Longest Night; 11) Aura.
A return to the tried and true. As on Rare, the list of steady personnel only includes Downes and Payne, but this time it is unnatural — Aura is not a side project, but a typical Asia album, and the fact that the duo either did not manage, or did not bother to assemble a steady line-up is a hint at the degree of disarray in which they had thrust their affairs. No less than five different guitarists make guest appearances (including Howe on two tracks and Arena's Elliott Randall only on two other ones; Ian Chrichton of prog band Saga and Guthrie Covan of nowhere in particular handle most of the duties), and no less than four different drummers are there to help them out (including Chris Slade of AC/DC fame and Michael Sturgis from Wishbone Ash).
Musically, Aura tries to carry on the aura (sorry) of Arena: rhythmic adult contemporary synth-pop with decreased emphasis on symphonic pomp and fanfares and increased emphasis on «moodiness», vocal hooks, and overall danceability. The songs, however, are generally weaker, and the little odds and ends that made Arena a bit of a well-welcome surprise after the early Payne years are nowhere to be found. Alas, it says a lot about the album that, of all things, they chose a late period 10cc cover (ʽReady To Go Homeʼ) as the lead single — a big word of welcome from one dreadfully dull mainstream pop outfit to another; they might as well have covered Michael Bolton or Bryan Adams, to let us know for sure where their loyalties truly lay.
The only song here that got me interested a bit was the title track, a somewhat tepid instrumental prog-rocker that still sounds mighty energetic and inspired relative to everything else. Fast, not too spoiled by layers of production, and with plenty of aggressive soloing from Crichton that clashes nicely with Downes' keyboard riffs, it is intelligently designed and cheese-free. But it is the album closer, and thus, seems to represent a last-minute donation to «serious Asia fans» who are always willing to humiliate themselves by paying good money for all of the pop crap in order to get around to a few minutes of «prog lite».
Other songs that are probably intended to deserve mention are ʽFreeʼ, an eight minute monster with Howe throwing on some respectable licks in the instrumental section, but, otherwise, quite unremarkable; ʽAwakeʼ, an underproduced anthem to open the album that is modestly catchy but far more straightforward and generic than ʽArenaʼ; and a few tunes that also have annoyingly catchy vocal choruses but are disgraced by the lack of interesting chord sequences (ʽYou're The Strangerʼ, ʽLongest Nightʼ).
Anyway, it's all just a big bunch of mediocre supermarket muzak, easily disposable upon one or two listens. Big fans of Howe will need it for his signature presence in a couple of spots, but otherwise... even for generically mainstream tastes, the sound of Aura, in the 21st century, can only be appreciated on a nostalgic kick, and probably by the same people who get a nostalgic kick from The Blue Lagoon or something comparable. (Actually, we could think of at least one understandable reason for The Blue Lagoon, which could definitely not be applied to Aura). Thumbs down, of course.
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