That damn movie. You know the one I’m talking about. Ever since it came out it’s been very difficult to admit any level of fandom for Asia. Bands like Boston and Toto manage to escape ridicule but poor old Asia just got totally hosed. Now, I’ve been wanting to do a write-up on them for some time now, but unfortunately their latest album (XXX, released this past summer) was god awful and I didn’t really feel like cutting them apart. I’ve decided that, with the release of the new single from Asia featuring John Payne (“Seasons Will Change,” released in December, carries a distinctive seventies progressive edge to it), I should do a spotlight on the band’s strongest progressive material. I decided to single out Asia’s five best records.
Although there is some brief history involving Trevor Rabin and Roy Wood, the first true Asia was formed out of the ashes of the first and only real break-up in Yes’ lengthy and tumultuous career. In 1981, Yes guitarist Steve Howe and King Crimson/UK vocalist/bassist John Wetton were brought together by Geffen Records, who were interested in a new AOR/progressive album. Carl Palmer, of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, was drafted in on drums, and keyboardist Geoff Downes left long-time cohort Trevor Horn and The Buggles to round out the line-up.
1982 – Asia
The band’s self-titled debut is of course one of their strongest. Here, the band’s arena rock sound is still fresh and the performance is of four equal parts. Although the band’s members weren’t quite spring chickens at the time of the recording, one can clearly hear four excited musicians on the cusp of something new. True, the ten minute epics are gone and there are a great deal of bubble-gummy songs on the record, but at its core, Asia represents well the progressive genre’s ‘survival era,’ were prog giants either learned to experiment within the confines of pop or they caught themselves their deaths. Highlights on this record are “Wildest Dreams,” and “Only Time Will Tell.” If you think the block vocals get a little old (you can tell the title of the song without even looking by just listening for the part in the song that has the most vocal layers) get used to it, they feature prominently throughout the band’s career.
The following year, the band released their sophomore album Alpha, and I unfortunately don’t think too highly of it. It seemed to see a shift in writing, eliminating most of Steve Howe’s contribution. It’s worth the neat tune “Don’t Cry,” and that’s about it.
1985 – Astra
While there were alcohol-related complications with John Wetton (Greg Lake was actually brought in to do vocals and bass for a tour. Look it up, it’s pretty sweet to see Greg singing John’s songs instead of the other way around!), it was Steve Howe that was to be the first to leave a band’s album-producing line-up. The third album, Astra, is the band’s only album featuring guitarist Mandy Meyer. The result is more of a full-frontal guitar sound, bringing the band closer to any number of the ‘big guitar band’ clones that so heavily populated the eighties. It doesn’t slight the album, however. Rather it seems to rejuvenate the band’s sound. Tunes like “Go,” “Hard On Me,” and “Countdown To Zero,” are among the band’s finest.
The band disbanded shortly thereafter. Numerous attempts to get things back together resulted in the 1990 release of Then and Now, a compilation of half old material from the eighties, and half new material featuring some decent names like Toto’s Steve Lukather. It featured the tune “Days Like These,” which I rather like. A great live album from Moscow released in 1991 featured Wetton, Downes, and Palmer with Pat Thrall on guitar but John Wetton left shortly after to pursue a solo career.
1992 – Aqua
Steve Howe left Yes again after 1991’s Union tour and a new line-up of Asia was built featuring Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer, and Steve Howe augmented by new players John Payne (vocals/bass) and Al Pitrelli (guitar). The band’s fourth studio album, Aqua, thanks to Payne’s powerful vocal style, gave the band a cutting-edge nineties sound (think early nineties pop, Seattle Sound came and destroyed this sound very quickly and people usually just go on thinking all of the music from the early nineties sounded as bad ass as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, when in fact music like what can be heard on Aqua was dominant up until “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Jeremy”). I especially like “Who Will Stop the Rain?” which is quite progressive and shows off the contrast between the nineties-sounding Pitrelli and the classic-sounding Howe. Those moments Howe has on the record are beautiful, man. Other standouts include “Lay Down Your Arms” and “Heaven On Earth.”
We all know strong progressive rock line-ups seem to be hard to keep running for the long haul. Such was this Asia’s fate as Carl Palmer left during the recording of Aqua to reunite with ELP and Steve Howe left after the tour in 1993. Check out the second half of my article for the rest of Asia’s history and for the remaining two albums in my list of the band’s five most important, including the one I deem best and most important!