ASIA: SILENT NATION (2004)
1) What About Love; 2) Long Way From Home; 3) Midnight; 4) Blue Moon Monday; 5) Silent Nation; 6) Ghost In The Mirror; 7) Gone Too Far; 8) I Will Be There For You; 9) Darkness Day; 10) The Prophet.
If I were a musician, and if my career had started at any point after 1985, I would have thought thrice about writing a song called ʽWhat About Loveʼ. Not only does the title ring stupid as such (what about love?), but it had already undermined the coolness of one formerly good band — and I am pretty sure that, in 2004, there must have been quite a few people looking at the track list and going, «oh no!... covering a Heart power ballad now?.. what next, Diane Warren?»
On the other hand, accusing Asia, especially in its Payne/Downes configuration, of showing inexcusable lapses of taste is like accusing Gene Simmons that his tongue is an inch too long: he can't help it, and neither can these guys. Instead, let us look on the bright side of things and admit that Silent Nation represents a brave, and not entirely unsuccessful, attempt at «rebooting the entire franchise», as they say. Indeed: for the first time ever, a «proper» Asia album whose title does not consist of an A...A word, and whose album sleeve is not designed by Roger Dean. An album released with a more or less stabilized lineup, without a host of extra musicians cluttering the proceedings with close-to-zero efficiency. And, most importantly, an album that, for once, tries to be denser, more complex, more musical, and more «progressive» than it ever used to be — at least, in the Payne era. You have to admit that all of this at least sounds curious.
The overall sound has definitely changed. The songs are bigger, with more numerous and lengthier instrumental passages; guitarist Guthrie Govan gets to have a bigger impact all over the place than even Steve Howe was ever allowed; and Downes himself generally plays a normal organ (or, sometimes, a normal piano) — so consistently that, when he eventually jumps over to a cold synthesizer on ʽDarkness Dayʼ, this may be greeted as a welcome sign of diversity. Clearly, clearly, the band is trying to push up its status, migrating from «arena synth-pop» to «classic prog-lite for the masses». Should we welcome the transition?
I would, except there is still one thing that bugs me — Silent Nation takes itself way too seriously, perhaps even more so than on the average Asia album. Most of the songs are social anthems, with one or two love ballads mixed in for «balance», and, although they raise important subjects, they usually do so in trivial ways, further losing adequacy points for oversinging and «overacting» — Asia bombast is, of course, easier to take when it is delivered through old-school instrumentation than through the usual Downes-synthesizers, but it is still Asia bombast.
ʽWhat About Loveʼ, unlike the Heart song, is not about a power chord celebration of amorous relationships between two people, but is dedicated to the entire human race — built on a catchy, brawny pop melody, but delivered without any sort of finesse: the chorus barges in with as much brute force as in the Heart song, yet its anthemic aura, as interpreted by Payne, sounds reserved and insincere. (The benchmark for such choruses is always ʽLove Reign O'er Meʼ the way it was carried out by Daltrey — at the top of his capacities and perhaps even overstepping them, which made it fully believable. Payne always keeps himself in check).
The «epic», multi-part compositions, such as ʽMidnightʼ and ʽBlue Moon Mondayʼ, have their share of moodiness, but still end up sounding like «prog theater». Payne is one of the culprits, but it's all in the air — the way they overdub the choral harmonies, the way they still utilize these pop-metal Eighties-style riffs, the way they pair feather-light acoustic guitars with big bashing drums (ʽGhost In The Mirrorʼ)... this band just cannot be «good», no matter how much they try, and on Silent Nation they try very hard.
I still give the album a light thumbs up, partly out of the general feeling of surprise (as it was with Arena, when the Payne lineup first tried to shake things up), partly because... well, you have your catchy choruses, your occasionally pleasant guitar solo, your goofy impersonation of a modern-day Gregorian chant (ʽGone Too Farʼ) — although the album is stretched over an entire hour, it does not feel overlong because of all the different tricks they try, and that is worth some respect. As for longtime fans of the band who are used to approaching them from a different perspective, I am sure most of them will be delighted with Silent Nation — the finest of all theoretically possible conclusions to the Payne period.
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