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.
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!