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Friday, March 23, 2012

Asia: Phoenix


1) Never Again; 2) Nothing's Forever; 3) Heroine; 4) Sleeping Giant / No Way Back / Reprise; 5) Alibis; 6) I Will Remember You; 7) Shadow Of A Doubt; 8) Parallel Worlds / Vortex / Déyà; 9) Wish I'd Known All Along; 10) Or­chard Of Mines; 11) Over And Over; 12) An Extraordinary Life.

Uh-oh. Here we go inflating the old balloon again. As you might recall, the one thing that made «late-period-Payne» Asia slightly more palatable than «early-period-Payne» Asia was that the band considerably toned down their ambitions, positioning themselves as relatively «humble» adult contemporary artists rather than the save-the-world type. Now that Payne is out and Howe, Palmer, and Wetton, the authenticated mastodonts of prog, are back in, the new old Asia's first stab at a studio album is re-brimming with ambition.

Yeah, let us face it, «pretentious» is a fairly appropriate word to use in the negative sense when you have to review a record that immediately greets you with such lyrics as "I saw the universe, I held it in my hand / The planets and the stars, merely grains of sand". (This seems to be an Asian translation from Yesian, which makes it more understandable for the people at large, but also more vulnerable to vitriolic critical stabs). The words come riding on the back of a Big Genera­tor-style pop-metal riff, and eventually burst out in an anthemic chorus where we learn that "Ne­ver again will I bear arms against my brother, never again will I dishonour anyone", which Wet­ton sings with such passion, bravour, and authenticity that I am actually inclined to take a cauti­ous look into his criminal record.

Apparently, it was decided that there was no point in making another Asia album if it did not try to take the band to the next level, rather than just being an exercise in nostalgia. As a result, this particular Phoenix seems to have risen out of anabolic ashes: almost everything is loud, big, sprawling, multi-layered, «cosmic», whatever. Unfortunately, everything is still Asia, and that means more often silly-sounding than cathartic. The illusion might be that they have reinvented their sound, and are now trying to conjure the classic «progressive» spirit — in reality, though, they are still spinning rather trivial arena-pop, whose triviality is only barely covered with layers of keyboards and guitars.

One thing to say, though: Steve Howe. Either they begged him, seeing the error of the old ways, or he blackmailed them, having nothing to lose either way, but more than half of the songs fea­ture fabulous guitar playing from Steve, and I don't mean the Big Generator riffs: I mean richly me­lodic, free-flowing, complex solos that the man normally reserved for Yes or his solo projects. It starts already on the second track, the happy-sad anthem ʽNothing's Foreverʼ, but peaks later. The opening to ʽAlibisʼ, for instance, is clearly reminiscent of the heavenly pedal steel playing on ʽAnd You And Iʼ, and the song's coda, where Howe duels with Downes' harpsichord, is far more imaginative and elegant than the vocal part.

The most depth and complexity is attained on the ʽParallel Worldsʼ suite, where the vocal part only functions as a thematic introduction ("There's a vision I see..." and the rest is self-understo­od). The voyage through a ʽVortexʼ and into the psychedelic world of ʽDeyaʼ is excellently struc­tured, going from a dynamic, swirling section that features Palmer's most energetic drumming for the day, into a paradisiac section, first with a bit of cheesy Spanish guitar, but then with an elec­tric solo that, to tell the truth, is mood-wise more Steve Hackett than Steve Howe (replete with prolonged wailing notes so typical of the other Steve), but is nevertheless quite moving.

Besides, Howe is the only one in the band who remembers anything about subtlety. One of my fa­vourite tracks here is ʽOrchard Of Minesʼ (no, no, it is not about Bosnia or Iraq; it is actually a cover of a song originally done by the Globus «ensemble», of Immediate Music), if only for tho­se barely audible high-pitched notes that Steve plays against Wetton howling "to know... to feel... to play me once again" during the song's climax. If you ever happen to listen to that song, don't forget to tune your ears in at around 3:45 into the song for some elite aural delight. (I'm sure there must be other moments like these on here, but I couldn't bring myself to waste time on additional listens: Howe or no Howe, this is still an Asia reunion, and there is only so much time one can allocate oneself on an Asia reunion).

As for the pop stuff, well... it's manageable, not too annoying arena-pop with moments of genuine catchiness. Trivial, but sincere: ʽAn Extraordinary Lifeʼ was apparently written by Wetton after a risky surgery, and reflects all the honest joy that one usually does not feel about life until after ha­ving been exposed to the risk of losing it, so, no matter how banal the sentiment, I cannot bring myself to feel too bad about it. And Wetton's aged voice actually serves him well: even a ro­mantic ballad as straightforward as ʽHeroineʼ is sung normally, without trying to rise to operatic heights (but when will these lyricists ever learn not to use the word "heroine" in a love ballad? Don't they understand that this brings an entirely new light to the line "I hold the razor blade up to my face" that begins the song?).

On the whole, Phoenix is probably as good as Asia could ever get at that point, and almost probably better than everyone believed it could get. The old boys handle their pomp with care, allocate plenty of time to their best musician, and get away with at least one complex prog instru­mental. Of course, trying to convince us that they are continuing the tradition of classic Seventies' progressive rock rather than their own one is useless: to do that, they would have to get rid of Geoff Downes and John Wetton and bring in Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson... could be a great band, come to think of it. But, in any case, Phoenix upholds and strengthens the modest reputa­tion of Asia. Had they simply disbanded around 1985, it would have been an old men reunion. Instead, it is a semi-successful attempt at setting things straight. Thumbs up.

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


  1. Their best since the debut, imo. Parallel Worlds is lovely.

  2. Yes, surprisingly good. Downes, in particular, seems to have learned a lot, production-wise, during the Payne years. On the first two albums, Mike Stone used a lot of echo to make the band sound bigger than it really was and evened out the frequency response to favor radio play above all else.

    They figured out they didn't need any of that. Steve, as you said, is finally given prominence in the sound. Downes is showing greater range in his keyboard sounds than in his earliest days. Palmer seems to be weaker here, though. He did really well on the reunion tour, but here he's a lot more generic. (Then again, most of these songs don't give him much to work with). The two extended suites show the band tackling the potential they should have from the beginning.

    Wetton's voice has thinned out a bit, but not too badly (he's held up better than Justin Hayward or Greg Lake, that's for sure!). Plus, he provides some really good lyrics, rather than the phony teenage misogyny that ran rampant through "Alpha", in particular. "Never Again", "Nothing's Forever" and "An Extraordinary Life" are strong anthems that he really puts his heart into. He does get a bit corny on "Heroine" and "I Will Remember You", but at least they aren't as sappy and more sincere than "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes".

    The influence that seems to show up, surprisingly enough, is latter day ELO, which surfaced occasionally with Payne. The synths and harmonies in "Alibis", for example, could have come straight from Jeff Lynne. But they allow other sounds to creep in, too -- the Latin rhythms in "Wish I Had Known All Along"; the Phil Spector offbeat in "Shadow of a Doubt."

    All this gives the album at lot more variety than the first three with Wetton had. It's still out of time in the 21st century, but it's a winner with any Asia fans still left out there.