ASIA: SYMFONIA – LIVE IN BULGARIA 2013 WITH THE PLOVDIV OPERA ORCHESTRA

(FRONTIERS MUSIC; 2017)

Ain’t gonna lie… Asia’s self-titled debut album was one of my favorite – if not my absolute favorite – and most listened-to releases of 1982. Why? This type of supergroup progressive pomposity was well out of favor by the time of its release. Well, first and, perhaps, foremost was the fact that I would buy anything… make that ANYTHING that featured John Wetton on bass and vocals; the former Mogul Thrash, Family, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, UK and Wishbone Ash player was and remains one of my all-time favorite singers and bass players. Mister Wetton did not disappoint with this record! Next, Carl Palmer (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Atomic Rooster and Emerson, Lake and Powell… er… Emerson, Lake and Palmer) was much more than a drummer… he was a percussionist who could pound out a beat like John Bonham or lay down a swinging Jazz groove, a la Bill Ward or any number of his early influences like Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich, plus… BRAIN SALAD SURGERY and “Karn Evil 9.” Need I say more? The final pieces to the puzzle were 40 percent of the band that recorded my favorite Yes album, 1980’s DRAMA: Steve Howe, an innovative and virtuoso level guitarist and Geoff Downes, keyboard genius and former Buggle. I was in Prog Nerd Heaven even though I had been listening to tons of Punk Rock back then, including the Damned, XTC and the Jam (though those bands had taken their music down a more inventive, progressive path by that time). So, anyway… I was hooked from that very first power chord to “Heat of the Moment.” These guys were the real deal and I was more than ready to snatch up their next offering, ALPHA, released the following year. Yeah… it suffered from what many call “the (dreaded) sophomore slump” and the discouraging reception to the album led to the exit (temporary, though it was) of Wetton. John was back in time to record the next set, ASTRA, though Steve Howe had headed out the back door as the bassist was reentering through the front; Wetton’s return and Howe’s replacement, Mandy Meyer, couldn’t salvage the sinking ship and Asia became a distant memory as everyone moved on to other projects. The original four (Downes, Howe, Palmer, Wetton) reformed in 2006, releasing three albums of new material before Howe left once again in early 2013 (citing the wear and tear of juggling touring and recording schedules with both Asia and Yes). Which brings us to this album, featuring current guitarist Sam Coulson on what was his first tour with the band; released, unfortunately, six weeks after John Wetton lost his years-long fight with cancer, the quartet is in fine form – even if the set list is a bit spotty, which may have to do with the involvement of the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra during the second half more than anything else.

ASIA (Carl Palmer, John Wetton, Geoff Downes) (publicity still)

The album is broken up into two distinct parts: Asia performing as a standard four-piece rock band (Disc 1 of the 2 CD set) and accompanied by the orchestra on a somewhat more sedate set (Disc 2). The first set gets off to a rousing start with “Sole Survivor,” a track from the debut album. The core members of the group – Wetton, Palmer and Downes – are in fine fettle here. John’s voice is strong; Geoff’s keyboard work enters into (Jon) Lordian realms, heavy and intense; Carl’s drumming borders on hyperactive, with thunderous fills and a slightly quicker tempo than I remember from the original. Sam Coulson’s guitar parts offer a bit more heft than did Howe’s original which, alongside Palmer’s jackhammer delivery, gives a certain urgency to this updated arrangement. “Time Again” is a propulsive proto-metal behemoth, somehow reminiscent of Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” The guitar is more in line with the original and the backing vocals are on point, as well. It’s another great version of one of the prime cuts from the first record. Truth be told, when I first heard the lead track to 2012’s XXX album, “Face On the Bridge,” I did not like it. At all! It sounded like a sappy, sentimental “time has passed me by” ballad from a band whose time had, indeed, come and gone. Brother, was I wrong! How could I have missed on this one so badly? Here, the song bristles with a vigor that belies that inevitable passing of time. Compared to the original, though the song was barely a year old (release wise), in this setting, Wetton’s voice sounds even stronger, Downes delivers some inspired live flourishes and Coulson’s guitar adds a little somethin’-somethin’ that even the legendary Steve Howe couldn’t bring to the original. “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want),” from the group’s second record, is very much a product of its time. ALPHA saw the band move further into the realm of schmaltzy MTV/Journey balladry, leading to divisions within and an eventual split. This particular song isn’t really too bad, just not what Asia’s fans were expecting after that monster debut; now, thirty years later, the tune seems to take on a new relevance, especially with Wetton fighting various major illnesses. I’m sure the other three men on stage felt the emotional power that their singer put behind these lyrics during this tour.

ASIA (Carl Palmer) (publicity still)

Holy War,” a song from the OMEGA record, is a heavy prog ballad propelled forward, primarily, by Carl Palmer’s ferocious percussion and Geoff Downes’ keyboard artistry. Wetton seems to be loosening up by this point as his vocals become a bit more aggressive with a raspy sort of growl that fits perfectly within the context of the tune. An overblown symphonic intro from Geoff leads into the overblown progressive balladry of “An Extraordinary Life.” The lyrics are this number’s saving grace. John delivers his words with conviction, though – in the hands of lesser singers – such fare could well have been expressed in an overly dramatic, overwrought fashion. Finally… going all the way back to THEN AND NOW, the 1990 compilation of new and old, comes a power ballad that actually works! “Days Like These” is a great example of how well the Palmer/Wetton rhythm section complimented each other. This version also features a simple organ part from Downes and a spot on solo from Sam Coulson. It’s very nice to hear this one in a live setting. With “Open Your Eyes,” a weird vocoder intro turns into a very nice mid-tempo rocker featuring Wetton’s newly-positive and uplifting lyrics. Carl is particularly… uh… restrained here, showing us that, yes, he can be a true team player. There are more vocoder shenanigans during the middle break, which is a very operatic, chorusy thing that simmers just below John’s improvised vocals. Sam’s guitar fits quite comfortably within the confines of the song, shining especially bright on some very tasty solos and, his interplay with Downes’ organ to end the number is just awesome.

ASIA (Sam Coulson) (publicity still)

As the album’s name implies, Asia is joined for the second set by the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra. The first song with the orchestra, “Only Time Will Tell,” one of the many favorites from the group’s stunning debut, still sounds as fresh and vibrant as it did the first time I heard it, with Sam Coulson echoing that amazing Steve Howe riff, while adding a bit of his own flair to the tune. At this point, I’m not certain how the addition of the orchestra is going to work, as everything in this arrangement sounds exactly like Downes’ original keyboard embellishments. Even with the inevitable intermission between the band set and the introduction of the orchestra factored in, it seems strange to bookend the progressive power of “Only Time Will Tell” with a pair of the group’s more sedate numbers, “Open Your Eyes” and ALPHA’s “Don’t Cry.” With a slightly quicker tempo and Downes pretty much sticking to piano on the latter, the orchestra definitely adds to the overall sound of the piece. I’ve already praised John Wetton’s vocal performance but, really haven’t mentioned his bass work; as always, it is superb (in my estimation, Wetton was one of the best ever) and especially so on this song. Palmer again proves to be a master craftsman, playing deep in the pocket and offering a tasteful fill only when required. Next up is “Heroine.” Uh… okay… not a fan of this one. At all. Wetton’s voice is okay, Downes’ piano and the orchestra sound fine but, “Heroine” is just… BAD! It’s a sappy ballad that simply cannot escape its own sappiness.

ASIA (John Wetton) (publicity still)

I’m not too sure what this says about Asia’s recorded output but, with five songs from their stellar debut and another four from the artistically disappointing follow-up, ALPHA, it certainly seems that, as of 2013, the group was content to bask in the glory of those two records. “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes,” the fourth tune from that sophomore release, starts slow and features the epic build inherent in all early ‘80s power ballads, though with a bit of an edge due to Carl driving the band and orchestra with an accelerated tempo that is not unappealing for an all but forgotten thirty year old single from a mostly forgettable album. The final two numbers come from the formidable ASIA album. “Wildest Dreams” somehow seems more relevant today than it did 35 years ago. I’m not even sure how they even managed to pull this off (unless the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra also brought along a hefty chorus) but, the massive background vocals sound… if not over the top, at least completely out of place. Regardless, this is the quartet hitting on all cylinders, with an aggressive arrangement that highlights a cool duel between Sam and Geoff. The first song on the first side of that first record, “Heat of the Moment” may sound somewhat dated lyrically (featuring one of the most well-known couplets in Prog Rock history, “And now you find yourself in ‘82/The disco hotspots hold no charm for you”), but the power of the music and the conviction in Wetton’s voice still make it a crowd-pleasing sing-along… even in Bulgaria. The sheer firepower that the combined talents of John Wetton, Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer and then-newcomer Sam Coulson bring to bear on this version delivers a fantastic finish to a rather uneven show that may very well have suffered due to the limitations of playing with an orchestra.

I fully understand that this is a very different band than the one that recorded that 1982 debut offering… they are far more thoughtful and introspective, particularly after the health scares faced by their frontman throughout the latter part of their history and, well… let’s face it, apart from Coulson, they aren’t exactly young men. Even when considering the phenomenal accomplishments of Palmer, Wetton and Downes before and after ASIA, it must have been a hard pill to swallow realizing that the group was at their creative peak on their first album; it couldn’t have been easy trying to equal or outshine a record that could quite easily be released under the title ASIA’S GREATEST HITS with no additional material needed to bolster the original nine-track sequencing. However, having said that, shortcomings aside, this album does work as a fitting memorial to John Wetton, one of the true legends of Progressive Rock. I should point out here that I was privy only to the music tracks that make up just a part of the SYMFONIA package, which also contains a DVD (or Blu-Ray) of the concert; there is also a double vinyl set available, without the additional video media.


100 GREATEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME (ACCORDING TO ME), NUMBER 100

If you’re here looking for a Jann Wenner/ROLLING STONE/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame style affirmation of how great Bruce Springsteen is, move on… there’s nothing here for you; Springsteen’s indecipherable vocal grunts have never appealed to me and – like Kurt Cobain’s – his lyrics are a tick (well, okay… several ticks) below that “Friday” girl (Rebecca Black). So, with that out of the way, I can pretty much guarantee that this list will not look like any other such list. Why? Okay, while there are albums that are obviously classics, landmark releases or “must hears,” most of those don’t manage to meet my stringent requirements for this list. Do I like Miles’ BITCHES BREW, Dylan’s HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED or the Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON? Absolutely! And, just for the record, I do actually like a lot of Nirvana’s stuff, IN UTERO being my favorite. But, and here’s the major prerequisite for this list, how often do I listen to them? Not as often as I listen to the records that made the cut and, to these ears, that’s what counts. So, there you go… that is my stringent requirement: How often do I listen to the album and, to a lesser extent, how vehement am I about forcing said album on everyone else with whom I come into contact. A few minor things to consider (or not): There are no live albums (that’s a completely different list); these are all full-length releases (no EPs or singles); every album on this list is an official release (no bootlegs or “promotional only” items); “Greatest Hits,” “Best of… ” and singles collections are strictly verboten.

Ask me again next week and this list will probably look quite different; in fact, it’s already changed significantly since I decided to do a list. I started at 20 (in line with my list of favorite live albums). The list quickly ballooned to almost a hundred before I started whittling it back down to 50. I then found myself adding, deleting and substituting the other nearly 50 albums, so… what’s a music lover to do? The answer was obvious: Make the list a firm Top 100, regardless of the massive undertaking. If you wanna call this a “guilty pleasures” list, if that’ll help you sleep better at night… that’s okay with me. What I hope to accomplish with this list is to get you to take a closer look at some albums you may have crossed off after a spin or two or to get you to check out something that you may have never even been familiar with. It ain’t rocket surgery, kids; it’s just me telling you what I like and why – maybe – you should like the stuff (or at least give a listen), too. With that said, and heading from the bottom of my humble list to the top of the heap, here’s…

(100) KING CRIMSON: DISCIPLINE

(WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS/EG RECORDS; 1981)

Discipline cover

I likes me some King Crimson! No… really, I do! I like RED (mostly because I have long been enamored of the bass playing and vocal talents of one John Wetton) and, honestly, who doesn’t like IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING? My favorites, though, have always been the triptych of early ’80s albums after Robert Fripp reconvened the project following a six year break: BEAT, THREE OF A PERFECT PAIR and the one that started this new phase, DISCIPLINE. Why, then, if I am such a fan of the band, is this the only Crimson album to make the cut and why at the bottom of the list? Well, first, it really is my favorite King Crimson album and, second… with a collection nearing 10,000 full-length albums, being considered one of my top 100 favorites of all time ain’t too shabby!

King Crimson (Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, Robert Fripp) (publicity photo)

King Crimson (Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, Robert Fripp) (publicity photo)

This was a distinctly new Crimson, with Fripp’s songwriting and guitar gymnastics (ingeniously dubbed “Frippertronics”) falling more in line with his concurrent project, the League of Gentlemen. Toss in Adrian Belew’s equally quirky guitar meanderings (alongside his abstract lyrics and unique vocal style) and the masterful stick (and bass) playing of the incredible Tony Levin and that means that the only constant and true link to the original Crimsons is the powerful, jazzy drumming of Bill Bruford.

King Crimson onstage, circa 1982 (Tony Levin, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford) (uncredited photo)

King Crimson onstage, circa 1982 (Tony Levin, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford) (uncredited photo)

The album is short, but so incredibly dense musically that you don’t realize the brevity. It starts, as these things generally do, with side one, track one: “Elephant Talk” is Fripp’s mission statement for this new Crimson, laying out everything in one blast of avant-garde progressivism. Tony Levin uses the stick like a lead instrument, butting up against Adrian Belew’s whammy bar tomfoolery and Bob’s manic Frippertronics. Belew’s lyrics and crazed vocal delivery is basically an A-B-C (and D-E, too) of terms for human communication, sounding particularly verbose on the word “bicker,” which is repeated with extra venom a few times. Through everything going on over the top, Bill Bruford sounds almost like a beginner with his minimalist time-keeping approach. “Frame By Frame” has an almost orchestral feel, even with Levin and Bruford double-timing the stick and drums. Levin adds his backing voice to a nice Belew vocal as Fripp continues to get “loopy” amid an air force of skittering, dive-bombing guitar effects. A laconic soundscape, Matte Kudasai,” features Fripp egging on Adrian’s melancholic delivery of his own tortured lyrics. Side one ends with “Indiscipline,” a song about “it” and how “it” can consume and destroy you. Belew speaks matter-of-factly between “21st Century Schizoid Man” blasts of blistering metallic riffing. The tune may best be known as the “I repeat myself when under stress” song, a phrase repeated several times as Belew is driven to distraction over “it.”

King Crimson (Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp) (photo credit: PHILIPPE HAMON)

King Crimson (Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp) (photo credit: PHILIPPE HAMON)

Aside from “Elephant Talk,” the track that opens side two, “Thela Hun Ginjeet” may be the most well-known number on DISCIPLINE, maybe more for the title than anything else, though the song is certainly of the highest quality. Belew’s tale of fear and loathing on the streets of New York plays out in a “tape-recorded” narrative, an instance of art imitating life (or vice-versa). The adrenaline-fueled pacing features tribal percussion, stinging guitars, Levin playing a real, live bass guitar and another inventive Frippertronics loop running throughout. The momentum and the paranoiac vibe of the tune is just right for the subject matter. In a rather quirky move (is there another kind where Fripp’s King Crimson is concerned?), the album’s final two tracks are instrumentals. It may have been more prudent to flip one of these two numbers with one from the first side. So, anyway, “The Sheltering Sky” opens with Bruford’s African hand drums and Belew’s understated rhythm guitar before Fripp and Levin launch their tonal assault. A soundscape that lasts well over eight minutes, “The Sheltering Sky” is at once pastoral and moving, calming and exciting; a true dichotomy… just like this new Crimson. As the name implies, there is a degree of “Discipline” in the title track, with more looped guitar and a rhythmic simplicity that connotes the disciplined musician. As further textures are introduced (especially more adventurous drumming and another guitar), the whole thing threatens to come undone before Fripp regains control.

King Crimson on the 1996 HORDEFEST main stage (Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

King Crimson on the 1996 HORDEFEST main stage (Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Even though this may not be the archetypical King Crimson record, if you’re Crimson-curious, it may just be the best place to start, as it tends to be the most “conventional.” After DISCIPLINE, you’ll want to check out some of the band’s more diverse offerings, such as RED (featuring the trio of Fripp, Bruford and John Wetton, with David Cross – who left during the recording – on violin) or IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (the band’s debut album, with Greg Lake on bass and vocals and featuring the most well-known Crimson song of all time, “21st Century Schizoid Man”).

The most recent version of DISCIPLINE was released in 2011, part of the band’s “40th Anniversary Series.” The CD features a new mix of the original record plus some bonus tracks. In addition, there’s a DVD with seven (yes, seven!) different mixes of the album (two of which feature the bonus material). It also features three videos recorded live for the OLD GREY WHISTLE TEST television show, including the one above.