(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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.