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.


CHRIS SQUIRE: THE ULTIMATE YES MAN

(A heartfelt goodbye by KEVIN RENICK)

Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

The “Fish” swims no more. Chris Squire, bassist and co-founder of legendary prog-rock band Yes, has passed away at age 67 from complications of leukemia. It’s an absolute shock how fast it happened, as we were only informed of his diagnosis this past May. But barely a month later, Squire is gone. As the only member of Yes to play on every single one of their albums, Squire achieved the ultimate in perfect “attendance,” and should’ve been given the opportunity to write a book about what it’s like to survive multiple incarnations of a mega-famous, influential band. The tall, lanky musician developed a signature pulsing, hypnotic style on bass that captivated millions of classic rock fans on Yes’ trifecta of ’70s masterpieces THE YES ALBUM, FRAGILE and CLOSE TO THE EDGE. While other bass players of note may have been more immediately engaging or melodic (Paul McCartney) or anchored their bands with more economy and finesse (John Entwistle of the Who, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin), it was arguably Squire who did the most to make the bass guitar a lead instrument in the ’70s, or to at least show that it could be one of the most prominent sonic elements in complex arrangements. Along with Jack Bruce of Cream and Les Claypool of Primus (who clearly took inspiration from Squire), the Yes visionary demonstrated new horizons for the bass guitar, new ways for lower frequencies and unexpected harmonics to provide dazzling depth and variety to what ultimately was still “rock” music. Squire was revered by fans, and certainly helped write a few new chapters in the book on what bass guitarists with imagination could achieve. It was easy to take his virtuosity for granted; he made it look easy. But it wasn’t. No way, or lots of guys would’ve done it.

A young Chris Squire, back row, center (uncredited photo)

A young Chris Squire, back row, center (uncredited photo)

Squire was born Christopher Russell Edward Squire in March 1948 in a northwest suburb of London called Kingsbury. He sang in choirs as a boy, and was greatly affected by the Beatles and Paul McCartney as a teenager. He dropped out of school in 1964, and soon formed his first group, the Selfs. A bad experience with LSD and subsequent recovery at his girlfriend’s apartment apparently led to Squire’s developing his unique style on the bass guitar. He purchased his signature Rickenbacker 4001 in 1965, and soon spent time in promising British bands the Syn and Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, a kind of precursor to Yes featuring Peter Banks. Influenced by Jack Bruce, John Entwistle and Larry Graham (bassist for Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station), Squire had a fateful encounter with vocalist Jon Anderson at a Soho bar in early 1968. The two men shared a love for vocal harmonies and the melodic records of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and the Fifth Dimension. Together with drummer Bill Bruford and keyboardist Tony Kaye, the band Yes was formed, releasing their self-titled debut in 1969. While the first two Yes albums hardly made the band superstars, interesting originals like “Beyond and Before,” “Survival” and “Time and a Word” complemented ambitious covers to reveal a band definitely aiming high and displaying a fearless attitude. THE YES ALBUM, their third effort (released in 1971), shot them to a whole new level as guitar genius Steve Howe joined and completed the “Anderson/Howe/Squire” co-composing credit that would grace many a classic at the time. “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “Starship Trooper” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” were all from this great album and remain staples of classic rock radio to this day. Squire’s inventive, riveting playing on these tracks was impossible to ignore, and by the time of 1972’s FRAGILE, on which keyboardist Rick Wakeman now completed a truly virtuoso lineup, Yes were one of the most popular bands on FM radio, and Chris Squire began topping magazine polls of beloved bassists. The band’s second release of the year, CLOSE TO THE EDGE then sealed the deal for the whole band, becoming one of the most enduring prog rock masterpieces of all time and greatly expanding the sonic palette for ambitious, large-scale rock music. It’s astounding, the distance the band traveled from covers of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield on their first two records, to the side-long “Close to the Edge” and dense, wildly ambitious pieces like “Siberian Khatru” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” The music sounds thrilling even today.

Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

Chris Squire (uncredited photo)

There will be many tributes to Yes and Chris Squire in the days ahead. It’s not necessary to talk about their many personnel changes and controversies, or the way the band (and prog rock as a genre) fell out of favor many times. Here’s what is worth mentioning: Chris Squire hung in there, like the most stalwart, dedicated musician imaginable, through ALL of the band’s 21 studio albums (this does not count all the live recordings). When Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman departed for 1980’s DRAMA, Squire spearheaded a new version of Yes, with a pair of Buggles in tow. When things really got bizarre between 1982 and 1983, with Steve Howe nowhere to be seen, and a group called Cinema featuring Squire and new guitarist Trevor Rabin somehow turning into yet another version of Yes, one that would invite Anderson back into the fold, ride the early wave of the MTV video era, and have their first top 10 single with the song “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” well, imagine how it must have felt to be Chris Squire at the time, enjoying a level of success that even he had to be surprised by. And thereafter, a whole series of members that came and went, came and went, sometimes old and sometimes new, with hugely controversial developments like beloved singer Jon Anderson being squeezed out of the band for having health problems that took too long to improve, and the lead singer of a Yes TRIBUTE band actually replacing him for a while. The Yes story kept changing and unfolding in real time, annoying many fans, earning begrudging admiration from others. But always, Mister Chris Squire was there, keeping the flame alive, talking about the value of the music, and showing immense respect for the fans around the world. Squire knew that this prog rock behemoth he’d helped invent was too special to let it die. And apparently even when he knew he could not be part of the band’s scheduled 2015 summer tour due to his illness, he made public statements that the show would go on, and that fans would still get the “Yes experience” they had come to expect. But, would it truly be Yes without THE MAN, the amazing bass player and singer who’d been on every album in the band’s considerable canon? Isn’t a Squire-less YES more of a MAYBE, a true question mark when the chief anchoring force has gone to rock heaven? Let the debate begin. But honestly, I just can’t imagine Yes without Chris Squire. I go back too far with him. I met Chris Squire twice, after legendary shows in the late ’70s in Saint Louis. Dapper, charismatic, and unfailingly polite, Squire was amiable at signing autographs, and never anything less than dignified and attentive when it came to answering questions and talking up the legacy of his band. To be a musician of such stature, doing what you do throughout changing decades and shifting musical tastes, requires a level of resolve and confidence that not all possess, to say the least. Squire’s achievements in Yes and on the bass are staggering; he was unarguably one of the best musicians in the history of prog, and one of the most unflappable. Few fans would say that Yes were still making indispensable music in recent years, and Squire, who only released one solo album (1975’s excellent FISH OUT OF WATER), didn’t seem that set on adding much more solo work to his legacy. Instead, he seemed content to keep changing and adapting Yes to every new challenge that came along. But his illness was one challenge he could not overcome, and now millions of fans will be reeling from the loss of this singular musician. The records will always be there to listen to and rediscover, however. And even if Yes are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as they should be, Chris Squire belongs in any bass player hall of fame, as well as on ANY listing of musicians who proved what dedication, discipline and adaptability are all about through a lifelong body of work. Rest in peace, Mister Squire. You got “close to the edge” throughout your work and life many times, and now you have crossed over. Thanks for “going for the one” in almost every recording you made. It’s a legacy that is anything but “fragile,” for sure. High vibration, go on…

FIVE NOTABLE CHRIS SQUIRE PERFORMANCES:

1. YOURS IS NO DISGRACE – This 1971 fan favorite was a surging, soaring piece of prog rock bliss that featured shifting tempos, dynamic breaks and a stellar early example of Chris Squire’s throbbing, upfront bass playing. The medium had to accommodate a NEW message from here on.

2. LONG DISTANCE RUNAROUND/THE FISH (SHINDLERIA PRAEMATURUS) – Without a doubt, 1972 was the year of YES. These days, it would be hard to imagine an artist putting out two all-time classics in one year, but imagine putting out two gems like FRAGILE and CLOSE TO THE EDGE within mere months of each other. Squire’s supercharged ascending lines on “Runaround” coupled with his 4- and 5-note punctuation phrases while Jon Anderson sings, comprise some of the best bass playing ever recorded. Then couple THAT with his harmonics-laden, experimental solo segue “The Fish,” which becomes transfixing in a short time, and you’ve got, well, six minutes of Squire showing why he’s a legend on his instrument.

3. CLOSE TO THE EDGE – Much has been written about this side-long thematic epic; it is arguably one of the all-time high points of progressive rock performance and arrangement. Squire’s bass becomes a lumbering, wandering beast that stomps its way right through every formula or “template” ever made for the instrument, like a brainy, determined dinosaur. Electrifying in every sense of the word, from the famous opening chords that follow the slow ambient fade-in, to the riveting climax and fade-out. Yes belong in the Hall of Fame for this album alone, damn it.

Chris Squire (photo credit: GLENN GOTTLIEB)

Chris Squire (photo credit: GLENN GOTTLIEB)

4. ON THE SILENT WINGS OF FREEDOM – The 1978 album TORMATO was not a classic by any means, but this amazing song WAS. Co-written by Squire, it’s a propulsive, uplifting gem seemingly about potential and pushing past limitations, something Squire could write the book on. His bass playing is magnificent throughout, featuring a dynamic, repeating 7-note plus sequence that is killer, and some gorgeous, haunting overtones later in the piece. Absolute splendor from their sometimes maligned late ’70s period.

5. OWNER OF A LONELY HEART – One of the most unlikely hit singles in rock history, the epitome of Yes reinventing themselves in the early ’80s after punk and new wave changed all the rules, and after that thing called MTV forced artists to adapt and think of new ways to showcase/present themselves. Chris Squire, Trevor Rabin and Jon Anderson proved they were up to such daunting challenges, and delivered something fresh, sassy, melodic and -gulp – even danceable. WTF? And yeah, Squire’s awesome bass playing still shone through, albeit in a wildly new context.

A FINAL NOTE:

Squire had a pleasant voice, high and slightly reedy, and it blended amazingly well with the even higher-voiced Jon Anderson. Those stellar Yes harmonies were generally the result of the tightness of Anderson and Squire’s vocals offset in an interesting way by the lower, edgier voice of Steve Howe. Subsequent band members changed things a bit, of course, but most Yes classics feature this threesome. Squire’s lone solo album, FISH OUT OF WATER, has some wonderful singing from him and a fresh showcase of his songwriting and arranging talents. “Hold Out Your Hand” is a catchy single, and “Safe” has moments of epic, soulful beauty and more lumbering bass from the master.