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Friday, March 16, 2012

Asia: Fantasia - Live In Tokyo


1) Time Again; 2) Wildest Dreams; 3) One Step Closer; 4) Roundabout; 5) Without You; 6) Cutting It Fine; 7) Intersection Blues; 8) Fanfare For The Common Man; 9) The Smile Has Left Your Eyes; 10) Don't Cry; 11) In The Court Of The Crimson King; 12) Here Comes The Feeling; 13) Video Killed The Radio Star; 14) The Heat Goes On; 15) Only Time Will Tell; 16) Sole Survivor; 17) Ride Easy; 18) Heat Of The Moment.

Most likely, it was just a matter of time before the original Asia came back — old proggers, lite or hardcore, are particularly prone to nostalgia kicks. As far as I know, the breakup between Dow­nes and Payne happened somewhat unexpectedly, and not very politely: according to one version, Downes simply «dumped» Payne once he had perceived a serious chance for the original lineup to get together once again. As a result, the insulted Payne formed his own Asia («Featuring John Payne»), and the two bands currently co-exist — although, fortunately for us all, only one of them records new studio albums.

Anyway, somehow the stars aligned into a position that brought all four original band members back together in 2006 — and they have never been apart since, although most of them wisely al­ternate their duties between Asia and other projects (Howe with Yes, whom the reunited Asia ac­tually supported on their tours; Palmer with occasional reunions of ELP, etc.). To celebrate the rebirth, they started out «modestly»: with this 2-CD live set recorded in... well you know. And, although I am not reviewing Asia's entire live catalog due to its hugeness, this particular live re­cord certainly deserves a mention, at least as a historical event.

The setlist is telling: they play Asia in its entirety (not a single song missing!), plus only a hand­ful of hits from Alpha, and nothing whatsoever not only from the Payne era, which is understan­dable, but even from Astra as well. Instead, they occupy the remaining space with songs from their progressive past — each member gets to choose one track that will represent him. Howe chooses ʽRoundaboutʼ from Yes career; Palmer chooses ʽFanfare For The Common Manʼ; and Wetton, oddest of all, chooses ʽCourt Of The Crimson Kingʼ even though he was not a part of King Crimson in 1969, and, in fact, I do not think he has even performed the number in concert during any of his shows with Fripp and company. As for Downes, he gives us a new rendition of ʽVideo Killed The Radio Starʼ — what else? (Something from Drama could be imaginable, but the Yes hotspot is already occupied with ʽRoundaboutʼ).

All of this means that the reunited Asia tries hard to defend its «progressive honor» — implying that Asia was actually a serious prog effort, deserving to be mentioned on the same plane with the best of Yes and King Crimson, but also indirectly admitting that everything after it was a failure in terms of artistic integrity. We need not buy it (there is no abysmal gap whatsoever between the­ir debut and everything that followed), but it is an interesting, somewhat unexpected stance. And as the Asia songs themselves get expanded with various instrumental passages, occasionally rearranged and reinvented (ʽDon't Cryʼ, for instance, is redone as a weepy acoustic ballad), and mixed in with the old classics, the illusion almost works.

Concerning the way they sound, my only disappointment — but one that has to be dealt with — is the deterioration of Wetton's voice. It has not lost much in range, but it has lost a lot in sheer power and volume: an old man's voice that can no longer rise to the epic heights demanded by the material (never mind if these are «poor man's epic heights», they still need to be scaled). If you think of it from a different angle, the singing has become less pompous and more homely, but it's not as if it was a conscious choice or anything. Then again, he can still master the required grit and spite for such numbers as ʽCutting It Fineʼ and ʽThe Heat Goes Onʼ...

...and, furthermore, the band does everything in its power to ensure that it does not exclusively depend on superhero-style vocal hooks. The real star of the show is certainly not Wetton, nor is it the omnipresent Downes, but Howe — who, I would think, only agreed to join the band under the condition that they'd finally let him have his way. And they do; and this is the only reason, really, to own this album other than out of a sheerly documentary interest. Howe plays lots more guitar, and in a lot more prominent way, than on the original album — just listen to the wah-wah having a field day on ʽSole Survivorʼ, both for the solo and the lead flourishes between the verse lines, where formerly it used to be so reserved and shut out. He gets a brief acoustic solo spotlight all to himself (incorporating parts of ʽThe Clapʼ and something else, I think), and we also get to hear the ecstatic battle cries of the instrument during the climactic moments of ʽOnly Time Will Tellʼ that no other player was able to perfectly reproduce.

Thus, if the brand new Roger Dean cover is not worth the thumbs up all by itself, Howe's pre­sence nails it for me. The songs have not become any better (they do cut a fine ʽRoundaboutʼ, and Downes' Mellotron imitations on ʽCourt Of The Crimson Kingʼ come quite close to the real thing), but they are performed as close to «non-commercial mode» as possible. I have also heard com­plaints about sound quality that I do not quite understand — they do not have poor recording standards in Japan, and I, for one, can hear each of Howe's notes perfectly well, and that's pretty much all that matters here. Final judgement: «passable» for «passive» Asia fans, but a strict must-own for Steve fans. Like it or not, on those joint Asia/Yes tours he was equally committed to both projects. (And it's a pretty tough fare, to be playing both for the main and the opening act).

Check "Fantasia - Live In Tokyo" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Fantasia - Live In Tokyo" (MP3) on Amazon

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