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Parallel Worlds: Spotlight on Asia, Part II


People have been asking me and I’ve been wanting to do a write-up on Asia for some time now. I’ve decided that the best way to go about this is to do a spotlight on the band’s strongest progressive material. I’ve decided to single out Asia’s five best records. In the previous article, I covered the first ten years of the band’s history, which contained the first three of their most important records, and left off with the departure of Carl Palmer, during the recording of their fourth full-length album Aqua, and Steve Howe after the subsequent tour.

A fifth album, Aria, was released in 1994 and was the last with guitarist Al Pitrelli. The song “Summer” is my favourite from this release. Aziz Ibrahim was Pitrelli’s replacement on the 1996 album Arena. Both of these albums aren’t terrible but they are basically more of the same as Aqua but with less of the accents that made that album stand out. Arena is slightly better than Aria in my opinion, with
“Heaven” being its best track. Two disc’s worth of unreleased demo material was released in 1996 as Archiva I and Archiva II as well as a ‘best of’ combining material from both of those releases onto one disc.

Asia featuring John Payne

A awkward mixed-bag of an album called Aura was released in 2000. It is notable for featuring at least a billion players, most of which are prominent figures in the world of progressive rock (think Tony Levin, Chris Slade, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Luis Jardim) and still managing to suck sensationally. I like the tune “The Last Time,” but for the most part the album is as patchy and mixed up in its identity as Yes’ 1991 album Union.

2004 – Silent Nation

I feel the band made up for this with 2004’s Silent Nation. Featuring a solid line-up of Payne, Downes, Chris Slade (of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band) on drums, and Guthrie Govan on guitar, Silent Nation is a return to the freshness that made Aqua good. I believe it to be much stronger than that album, however. While the nineties sound is at this point quite dated and Payne’s vocal isn’t really delivering anything new (although the block vocals are a little more subtle this time round), the writing style and production values are quite new millennium. With the help of some really great songs like “Long Way From Home,” “Ghost in the Mirror,” and “I Will Be There For You,” Silent Nation delivered the catchiest, most solid record since the band’s debut album.

It was during the development of their next album that the schism happened. Payne and Downes ended their professional partnership in 2006 and the split resulted in the creation of two Asias. Downes reunited with John Wetton, Steve Howe, and Carl Palmer to reform the original Asia, while Payne, by this time holding as much stake in the Asia name as Downes, took Govan and Jay Schellen and formed Asia featuring John Payne.

2008 – Phoenix

Original Asia went on to release a live album in 2006 before releasing their first studio album since 1985’s Astra. Phoenix is probably my favourite Asia album and, if not, is at least the album I would most recommend to people. Having spent a great deal of the modern prog era with Yes, Steve Howe commanded a large portion of this album’s sound and steered it down a more progressive avenue. With
a few long songs with multiple movements, Phoenix bears many resemblances to Yes records. Howe’s guitar work and writing is in fantastic form here and post-heart attack John Wetton’s vocals sound pristine and stronger than ever. Songs like “Wish I’d Known All Along,” “Orchard of Mines,” and “Parallel Worlds/Vortex/Deya” make the album quite a memorable experience. While there are some
stinkers early on in the album, there are a lot of tracks that are different and stretch the boundaries of what Asia is, while also playing within the original concept and staying true to the fan base.

Asia with John Payne released a live album in 2007 before putting out the Military Man EP in 2009. This featured redos of the Aria track “Military Man,” the Silent Nation track “Long Way From Home,” and a new track by keyboardist Erik Norlander called “Neurosaur.” Original Asia put out a record called Omega in 2010, which was as underwhelming as the album its name was meant to mirror (Alpha). The tune “Holy War” is about the only stand-out I can name at this time.

This brings us back to the band’s latest releases. 2012’s XXX (by original Asia) is unfortunately pretty terrible. There is maybe one song worth listening to (“Face on the Bridge”) but it’s not even very good to tell you the truth. From what I have written here, you should be able to notice that Asia is a band that almost always benefits from a new start. That’s why I am pretty excited about a new full-length album from John Payne and his Asia. While original Asia is still very important to me, I think it’s time we heard from someone excited to deliver something new.

The new Asia featuring John Payne single, “Seasons Will Change,” is very proggy. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed that Payne’s vocals and melodies still lack variation, but I am very impressed by the song’s music and the new band’s sound. The new players are exceptional, and I can bash John Payne’s dated delivery as much as I want but he’s incredibly talented and at least consistent. He hasn’t lost anything of his vocal quality over the years. In the end, “Seasons Will Change” is quite reminiscent of 1982 Asia, but at the same time embraces some classic seventies prog elements. I’m hoping this new band plays around a little with Asia’s formula and puts out its own Phoenix this year.

The latest news is that Steve Howe has once again left original Asia in favour of Yes and other acts. Its a shame the original line-up is once again broken, but I’m very happy that Howe is taking Yes seriously enough to want to focus on them. The remaining members don’t seem to be slowing down, a new album called Valkyrie featuring their new guitarist Sam Coulson is currently being put together.

So that’s my brief history of Asia and a little built in top five list of their most important records. It is my suggestion that if you want to get into the band, you should listen to these five first. Now that I’ve said my bit, hopefully maybe you can take Asia a little more seriously than that damn movie would have you!

Ryan Smith


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9 Responses »

  1. Thank you for writing up these 2 bands! As a fan of both I have to tell you, however, that I disagree with you on a few points (that’s cool, right?). I feel that musically “Aura” may be the best John Payne era release, and I love Original Asia’s “XXX”.

    Just goes to show that different folks have different preferences!

  2. Okay! So I’m going to respond to my own article for the first time ever!!! I’ve drummed up a great deal of conversation with this article and I’m glad! I’m extremely happy that people love Aura and XXX so much, even if I still can’t see why.

    In truth, I love a lot of this stuff more than the article reflects (I’d have preferred to give Arena a greater focus, but I chose my top five and it didn’t fit in), however I decided when I started the article that I would like to present Asia not only to fans but also to people who have either never been or have been improperly exposed to them. It was tough, but I feel I did the best I could to keep it objective whilst also adding my own opinion into the mix. Obviously, as a fan it’s just great that Asia is even still putting records out. I own damn near everything they’ve ever released and will continue to purchase and support new music no matter what it sounds like.

    When XXX came out, it generated mostly positive reviews and I could not and can not understand why for the life of me this is so. In any case, I refrained from writing my own review as I did not want to cut them up. I realise what I’ve said in this article kind of counteracts that but the album clearly has a lot of support and that’s awesome. I’m only one dude saying what he feels.

    So yes, I listen to Aura regularly (I can’t say the same for XXX though, sorry), because in the long run it’s hearing Payne et al. play that’s cool, even if I think the album sucked sensationally. But I am well conditioned to this stuff so I tried to look at it as if I were an outsider judging the band for the first time. What would the weak spots be? And yes, I unfortunately believe the lack of variation in Payne’s delivery would be something people would pick on. It is apparent to me and I love his vocals, so if I take the intense fandom out of the equation, the reality sets in. I truly meant no offense and I am very happy that Mr. Payne and band were gracious enough to post this to their fans.

    Here’s to Americana and Valkyrie!

    Thanks again to Payne for reposting, to Charmaine for letting me run my mouth, and to you for reading and understanding! (thanks Michael for your comment and your own understanding!)

    – rs

  3. Steve Howe left after the second album, not after Aqua, which you mention in your previous article but here it sounds like he never left. He was a guest on Aqua and did the tour
    as Al was with Widowmaker. He was never really back in the band, but just a “special guest”. He also, as you know, recorded tracks for Arena but just too busy.

    And, you may also want to know drummer Chris Slade was not just in Manfred Mann’s Earth Band but achieved a lot of fame from AC/DC. The Earth Band is great, but I think more folks will know him from the later far more successful gig. He’s in the Moneytalks video I believe.

    “by this time holding as much stake in the Asia name as Downes, took Govan and Jay Schellen and formed Asia featuring John Payne” No, they formed GPS for a wonderful album with the keyboardist from Spock’s Beard (if you haven’t heard it, you must) and then Payne was given permission by the ‘original line-up’ to continue as Asia Feat. John Payne which now featured keyboardist Erik Norlander. Payne kept Asia alive well past its commercial days & they honored him with the rights to the name. And, I think, he deserves it. But, it wasn’t his own doing to form a new band. And, Neurosaur is not a new track but had appeared on other albums by Norlander (his 1997 debut Threshold, his group the Rocket Scientists ’98 album, plus two solos album in ’00 & a solo live album in 06) but was given a new recording for the Military Man EP.

    Sorry to correct your facts, but if you’re going to do a history …. there’s skipping around in the history books to not give details and then saying a track is new when really it isn’t is misinterpretting. This is all wiki history too.

    On the other hand, not arguing with you on XXX, though it’s being raved about, as I haven’t heard it yet.

  4. Okay, um, few odd things of history here.

    “In the previous article, I covered the first ten years of the band’s history, which contained the first three of their most important records, and left off with the departure of Carl Palmer, during the recording of their fourth full-length album Aqua, and Steve Howe after the subsequent tour.” In the previoius article you contradict this statement and say Howe left after the 2nd album (which he did) and now he didn’t? He was only a “guest” on the tour and recorded a few tracks for the album and really not a member, but Al was occupied with a Widowmaker tour. Al also left after but less than a dozen gigs into the Aria tour. Howe was going to do a few tracks for “Arena” but it was just that. Not really a member who quit 2x (well, at that point anyways.)

    “Chris Slade (of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band) on drums” You might be interested in knowing that he’s a member of a far far more famous band that a lot of people know him from – AC/DC. I’m shocked you didn’t list that. I think he’s in he Moneytalks video.

    “…while Payne, by this time holding as much stake in the Asia name as Downes, took Govan and Jay Schellen and formed Asia featuring John Payne.” Well, not really, not according to anybody really. Downes left and took the name with him. Payne, Schellen & Goven grabbed the keyboardist from Spock’s Beard and formed GPS (a great prog-metal-ish band if you haven’t heard it – maybe some of the best of the Payne era) and then Payne was given PERMISSION to use the Asia name in honor of his flying the flag after the hits were gone. But, he didn’t just run off and form his own band. And, really, I think he deserves that honor. Do him that justice and get the history right.

    “a new track by keyboardist Erik Norlander called “Neurosaur.”” Well, new for Asia Feat John Payne but far from being new. It was on Norlander’s debut in ’87, a live album in ’06, two more solo albums in ’00 and with his band Rocket Scientists.

    Sorry to correct the history, it’s all wiki level, it’s just that there’s some unclarity here. On the other hand I won’t critique your view of XXX … I haven’t heard it yet.

  5. Aura is by far the best album of the Payne era.

  6. Okay Aaron, I don’t normally do this but I do what I do because I’m passionate about this kind of music and obviously you are too, so I feel you deserve to know where I’m coming from.

    I’m pleased you know your history. The focus here wasn’t on doing an in-depth history. We like to keep the articles down to a five-minute read. As it was I split the article in two to be able to get everything I wanted in there.

    I am an album guy. When I write I just dip into my collection and leap-frog from record to record. I normally operate by highlighting a band’s discography and linking the discs together with history to keep it from becoming disjointed. I would have loved to get into individual histories of members but the focus was on the five albums I selected and I didn’t feel it vital to the article to get into GPS, etc. I did mention that the third record was without Howe and that he did in fact leave the group. Because the article was split in two, yes it seems that it may sound like Howe never left if you just read the second one alone… I suppose. The liner of Aqua lists Howe as an official member, this was my source. In fact, I dislike wiki as much as you and try to use more dependable and official sources as much as possible.

    I think Chris Slade is an incredible drummer, but I write about progressive music. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band is a progressive band and thus is the most relevant to a person who is interested in progressive music. If I were writing an article about meat rock and Chris Slade were mentioned, I would totally drop AC/DC in there, but I cover progressive music. For that purpose, the Earth Band makes more sense.

    What I’ve noticed from reading various comments and conversations is that the Payne fans accuse me of having a Wetton bias and the Wetton fans accuse me of having a Payne bias. In truth, I love both enough to treat both bands as a single group with a single discography. John Payne’s Asia is just as relevant as original Asia and I made it a point to write this article with that in mind. I am nothing if not respectful to Payne and all members involved, but that doesn’t mean I should lie about certain things just to make fans and artists happy.

    Back to the history, in the end, keeping the article simple allows more people to grasp it. If people want to know the particulars they will look into them further on their own. They will check out official websites, pick up albums, etc. My goal is to get people to read about Asia. There’s not a lot of people writing about them, so I would hope that a fan such as yourself can appreciate the fact that this is an honest (if slightly opinionated) stab at sparking interest in a great group that has taken a lot of crap over the years.

    I appreciate that you are a fan of these great bands and that you took the time to express this stuff, but again, I’m only one dude trying to get the word out there about some great music. I’m dismayed that a fan is disappointed, but if I managed to get the word out to even one person who never knew about Asia and is now listening to them, I believe that to be well worth it. When all is said and done, my opinions are my own and the readers will become listeners and will eventually develop their own opinions, many of them different than mine.

    That’s what prog’s all about, good sir: different minds sharing different ideas.

    I hope you understand.

    • “I’m pleased you know your history.” Well, I have a book coming out that includes the history of John Payne era history I’ve spent some years writing. So, I try.

      “The focus here wasn’t on doing an in-depth history.” You’re right, but that’s no excuse for sloppy history if you’re going to include history and you obviously missed that point in my comment. Keeping it simple and keeping it slighly askew are two different things. If in a 5 minute read you don’t want to be clear, then what’s your purpose, particularly when the history is out there on the internet with a 5 minute search. It’s not doing a band any justice to write something that can be misinterpreted, but its also not doing anything for the fans. And, I certainly never accused you of lying, just being sloppy in your clarity and UNINTENTIONALLY misleading and in no way was I accusing you of lying. But, here’s the thing and this is my point and it has nothing to do with cow-towing to the band. In a year from now I see some sentence about the band on the net. I start finding it copied across the net. It’s not accurate. I finally trace it to your article, ah, a little research stops a mad rush of bad info. That’s why folks think Al Pitrelli was in Great White (he wasn’t) and was on the first two Henry Lee Summer albums (he’s on the third – and all it takes is 1 minute on wiki or reading the linear notes to get this major oversight). I can tell you the website they sloppily appeared on first and suddenly now they’ll all over the internet. If you really want to get people into the music than leave all but the most relevant history out of it. I didn’t question you on why you didn’t mention Al leaving after 6 gigs as that is trivial or how Michael Sturgis was the drummer before Aqua, brought back for sessions and then made a member and how he was in A-Ha. That’s super trivial and irrelevant. Just bigger things that are unclear (yes, I read both articles and it remained unclear). I don’t know if history converts anyone to music & I write a near daily music blog. Though, I would highly recommend to anyone that’s interested the book (now in 2 editions) “Heat Of The Moment” by David Gallant which is the history of Asia, very detailed. The second edition is updated for the reunion, while the first mentions more the Payne days.

      “What I’ve noticed from reading various comments and conversations is that the Payne fans accuse me of having a Wetton bias and the Wetton fans accuse me of having a Payne bias.” I certainly thought you had a Wetton bias but were being kind to Payne! In no way was I picking apart your article because of your bias and how you don’t like “my” Asia – there are positive/negatives with BOTH bands, where one has an asset the other has a different asset. And, truly, the are as distinct (today) as the Beatles and the Stones when it comes to the music. Though, your explanation of Chris Slade makes sense, even if AC/DC has far more of a clout than Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and I say that having worked in a music store that sold 60’s/70’s prog/psych and was the only store in NYC that had that speciality. Manfred Mann’s band has not aged well.

      “When all is said and done, my opinions are my own and the readers will become listeners and will eventually develop their own opinions, many of them different than mine. That’s what prog’s all about, good sir: different minds sharing different ideas.” That’s great, but I never criticized your opinions only your research, actually what I really criticized was the way you wrote your research and how it was unclear. If it’s your opinion that facts happen in a different order in the timeline – than I’m interested in that. So, yes, I do understand. I understand you missed my point and I’m really concerned about your opinion on the albums. If I was interested in your opinions I would have questioned your reviews of some of the albums. As it was, I don’t think I did, even mentioning so far that I had no opinion on XXX but seeing how you’ve been criticized for not liking it at all.

    • “That’s what prog’s all about, good sir: different minds sharing different ideas.

      I hope you understand.”

      No, I don’t understand because I didn’t criticize your opinion of what you thought of the albums or the respective line-ups (though I prefer Aria over Aqua by far) nor did I criticize a Wetton/Payne bias (though I thought you were pro-Wetton and workable-Payne, while I’m pro-Payne and uninterested-Wetton) as it seems to be the response around here to your article. I even made a point of saying I wouldn’t discuss your XXX review. What I did was criticized your belaying of history and making a very known basic history suddenly unclear, thus presenting a cloudy picture to those that don’t know the history. I felt you’re more interested in your opinion than getting the basics of history clear to outline your story and not spread bad info … and now that I see you defending your opinion against my accusation, when I don’t have a problem with that, I can only think my assumptions are correct, let alone you greatly missed the point of my comment. I wasn’t talking about opinions, so why are you? Obviously, you must be responding to multiple comments, it just happens to be directed at me. I’m fine with that. You’ve stirred some hot water. I write a daily blog of reviews. I’ve got that too. (It’s worse when you know the person you’re reviewing though and don’t like the album.)

      But, I’ve spent the last 4 years writing a history book that includes a chaper on Asia, particularly the Payne era, detailing the history and albums. Consider my prespective on faulty history: I’ve found this information on line: Al Pitrelli was in Great White and the first two Henry Lee Summer albums. I’ve actually found this vertabum repeated with the same phrasing across the net. But, I could find no Great White albums with Al. While after buying ALL the Henry Lee Summer albums I found he’s on the 3rd album (simple reading of liner notes, but I also e-mailed Summer). I can tell you the source of this bad information though I try to forget how to find the website as its full of such errors. But, it’s out there as ‘formal history’ and now you see it across the net and literally sentences are copied verbatum. So, I can see the future … suddenly Steve Howe left Asia after the 4th album not the 2nd. Well, that’s what this Wave Maker article says! You see, you can’t expect everyone to read both articles and I’m sure if you can see page counts the numbers aren’t the same which proves folks aren’t. I write a blog of interviews that are often split. People read one without the other. So, if criticizing your clarity is a joust to your opinion or calling you a liar is what you think … I would recommend that you re-read my comment as you missed the point, as much as you feel I need to re-read your blog as I missed the point.

  7. Yep, I totally get where you’re coming from and I apologise for any misunderstanding. I’ll certainly look closer at details in the future. I do, however, maintain that I’m not spreading anything false here. The article is labelled ‘Part II’ and it clearly states that previous history was covered in the first part of the article, it also states that the second part is picking up where the first left off. If I had to restate everything I wrote in the first, I might as well have not written the first.

    Steve Howe did leave after the fourth album, and he also left after the second, and after the eleventh, so come on. The only thing I’ll give you as unintentionally misleading is perhaps how Payne ended up with the Asia name, but I heard my version from a prog journal back then (thus proving your point about the ripples of poor research!).

    That’s pretty much the end of what I have to say. I’ve certainly learned a thing or two and there’s nothing wrong with that. Please accept that. Thanks and good luck with your book and your blog.

    – rs

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