ASIA: PHOENIX (2008)
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.
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