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Class ?

Main Category: Synth Pop
Also applicable: Prog Rock
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of an Asia fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Asia fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1982
Overall rating =

Poisonous synthesizers, progressive-scale ambitions, pop melodies. The Eighties at their worst-o-best!


Track listing: 1) Heat Of The Moment; 2) Only Time Will Tell; 3) Sole Survivor; 4) One Step Closer; 5) Time Again; 6) Wildest Dreams; 7) Without You; 8) Cutting It Fine; 9) Here Comes The Feeling.

Journey, Foreigner, and Manfred Mann's (Six Feet Under) Earth Band, eat your inadequate hearts out. As splintered plateaus of the Buggles, Yes, King Crimson, and ELP slowly drift together to constitute a new geological formation not unlike Greenland in its cold oddity, the world witnesses a radically new wedding ceremony. Bridegroom: Mr Arena Rock. Who giveth, etc.? Mr John Wetton, he of the Booming Stadium-Oriented Vocals, and Mr Carl Palmer, he of the Thunder-Percussion. Bride: Miss Synth Pop. Who giveth, etc.? Mr Geoff Downes, he of the Generic Electronic Devices, and Mr Steve Howe, he of the "I Could Have Saved This With My Guitar But Preferred Not To Mess With What Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time" mentality.

The now-happy, although at first a little reluctant, newly-weds aren't messing around - so that it hardly takes nine months to produce their first, and inarguably strongest, offspring, entitled "Asia" for no apparent reason. Maybe the best men deemed it would help crack the Japanese market or something. Under different circumstances, I wouldn't have even dared approach the baby, let alone dabble in his diapers like I'm gonna do in a moment. But considering the impressive pedigree and the fact that Asia seems to find quite a few fans even outside the standard arena-rock or synth-pop fanbase, I was intrigued. And now, here's me humble verdict.

Asia is a very, very, very bad album. Its essence, its stylistics, its aims and purposes - all these feel quite alien to me and I dare say will feel seriously dated to anyone who wasn't 14 in 1982. However, it chanced to come out of the hands of four people who were not only experienced professionals, but also rather talented, each in his own way. Taking a form, an idea whose very core was rote, they did what they could under these conditions. Sure, the natural question is - why would they ever do such a thing out of their own accord? - and the natural answer is - to gain friends and influence people, and let's not forget the financial factor, either. After a phrase like that, I'm pretty sure many a reader will desert this page for something different, and I won't be blaming him. But still, let us not be so hasty. Let us stay and explore the possibilities. Here's me humble verdict again.

Asia is a pretty nice album! Out of its nine songs, not a single one is unmemorable. Not a single one is un-elaborated. Also, not a single one is a ballad: even the sappiest, most sentimental stuff is normally served under a tough rockin' sauce, with occasionally unexpected musical transitions and great drumwork from Palmer. And besides, if you do have to have an overwrought, bombastic lead singer and can't get Greg Lake, you can't go wrong with John Wetton. His voice is powerful so he doesn't need to strain it, and at the same time he's got this nice tendency not to overdramatize things, a nice one considering how most of the lyrics are just generic sappy "romantic collection" pap. (It's interesting, though, that they also mostly deal with lost love and broken hearts - song after song it's trauma after trauma until finally the happy end of 'Here Comes The Feeling' comes around and sweeps away all the damage).

The one exception is the album's one bad track: 'Wildest Dreams', nothing to do with the Moody Blues song of (almost) the same name, but instead an anthemic "mock-prog" composition that tries to lamely dilute this collection with social critique and ridiculously twisted melodies that remind me of Rush rather than Yes or ELP. This, as well as the band members' past bios, is probably the only sane reason for which Asia is sometimes hailed as a "prog" album, which it most obviously isn't, and good for it: 'Wildest Dreams' shows just how truly irksome it would have been had it truly been "prog". In fact, had it truly been "prog", it would have to be placed somewhere in between Yes' Union and Rush' Power Windows - and the only way between the two lies through the county jail sewer. No, this is pop, art-pop, if you like, but if you insist on "art", then I insist on "synth", and we're getting bogged down in pigeonholing instead of concentrating on the songs.

Not that it ever was in my wildest dreams to concentrate on these songs. They're all upbeat, they all feature loud pompous catchy choruses, and as for moods, there's only two of these beasts: "Rousing Religious" and "Troubled Ominous". I personally drift towards the T.O. as my guiding light, because you can just sorta groove along to its beat with sort of a "yeah buddy keep it up like that" thought on your mind, whereas the R.R. might require you to cut off a little piece of your heart and place it on the John Wetton shrine, and it hurts worse than witnessing Springsteen rewrite Steinbeck. Well, no, you're not required to do that, you understand. I can dig the hit single 'Heat Of The Moment' just fine even without it. I can appreciate Howe's delicate guitar flourishes, the song's professional buildup, the energetic chorus and everything else. But when it comes to being moved to tears, no way, sir.

Speaking of Howe, it really is a drag the way he's underused throughout the album. I can only explain it by suggesting that Steve simply wanted to "dissolve" himself for a period of time, intentionally hiding in the background while all the 'others' would be composing, performing, and recording. There's an absolute minimum of guitar solos throughout, and where there are instrumental passages, the guitars are almost always working in tandem with the omni-present keyboards, of which there are normally at least three different layers. Besides, Steve just doesn't really sound like Steve much of the time - and as a result, quite often you're really left stumped, wondering whether you didn't end up listening to an uncredited Duran Duran record instead of an album released by three former progressive rock heroes. So don't forget to come to terms with the record before putting it on: Downes plays the d'Artagnan to the others' three musketeers, always on the initiative, yet counting on the other three to cover his ass whenever the need arises.

Verily and truly and verily again, I like 'Sole Survivor'. Great groove, good catchy synth-pop. Verily and unimstakably, I'm not a big fan of 'Only Time Will Tell', but I will not dismiss it because it has the greatest Howe twist on the entire record - that screaming descending guitar line between the chorus and the next verse. That's one true moment when I'm able to remember this guy was in Yes once. But my favourite tune is, and always will be, 'Cutting It Fine'. Twenty seconds of pleasant acousto-electro-introduction, and then 'Sole Survivor' volume two but with a little bit more pizzazz. (And a bolero-like artsy outro, imagine that). I'd truly like to see the song re-recorded by a four-piece band (say, Nickelback), in a different setting (say, for the soundtrack to Spiderman 3). It then would suck so badly that the original version would finally shine through as the masterpiece it is in a parallel world.

Anyway, cutting it fine (and short), let me just say this: I hate cheese, but not when it's of the highest order, and since I have already lowered my credibility to the levels of letting Meatloaf and Depeche Mode on the premises, there's no reason for me to kill off an album like Asia either. Based on melody, songwriting, and professionalism, it gets a 12. Based on generic production-o'-the-day, it gets one of those shiny points eaten up. And based on the Roger Dean cover, it gets a C- for correlation between sleeve art and album content, but fortunately for all of us, this ain't "George Starostin's Album Sleeve Reviews" you're browsing through at the moment.



Year Of Release: 1983
Overall rating =

Why don't you people like carbon copies? Oh well...


Track listing: 1) Don't Cry; 2) The Smile Has Left Your Eyes; 3) Never In A Million Years; 4) My Own Time; 5) The Heat Goes On; 6) Eye To Eye; 7) The Last To Know; 8) True Colors; 9) Midnight Sun; 10) Open Your Eyes.

Roger Dean's album covers are certainly unique. The man's got style - immediately recognizable out of a million sci-fi illustrators whose cheap imagination rarely runs beyond the idea of BDSM-clad ladies preparing for an act of physical union with a unicorn on the edge of a lake filled with poisonously violet water. His are worlds I'd actually like to pay a visit to some day or other - weird, unpredictable, yet weirdly organic and believable paradises, with a love for strict shapes, forms, and lines to make any math major piss his pants. Curious worlds. Amazing worlds.

Certainly in a world like Roger Dean's, it'd be hard to imagine the kind of injustice suffered by Asia with their second album. Put it this way. You have just taken your reputation as Serious Progressive Artists and openly sacrificed it in favour of keeping hip with the times (and rich). You made the general public a generous gift of a generic synth-pop album - THE generic album par excellence. The general public loved it. You loved that the general public loved it. Here's the start of something better beginning. What next? Capitalize on your success, of course: give the people more of what they want. What's to do? An album that'd be made exactly according to the formula of its predecessor. Why not? All the conditions for success are still in place. The Roger Dean cover. The lineup. The production. The arrangements. The melodies. The catchy choruses. The singles. And yet - it doesn't sell.

Well, it did sell, of course, but Alpha came nowhere near the success level of its predecessor, which caused enormous turmoil in the band. These four guys, after all, weren't exactly born to play together - they were artificially assembled to try out something different that could work. First time around, it worked. Second time around, it nearly didn't. And it culminated in John Wetton actually leaving the band - for the first, but not the last time. (For some of the band's live shows in the interim, he was actually replaced by Greg Lake, believe it or not). So much for the ties that bind.

The reasons of this failure I'll probably never know. Certainly musical tastes had probably evolved in that one year between Asia and Alpha; this was, after all, the age of Thriller, and people were moving away from 'melodic' synth-based music and sucking up to 'rhythmic' synth-based music instead. After all, let us not forget that these guys were old, according to the spirit of the time. They tried to sound hip, but they were carrying over ideals from the Seventies, diluted and trivialized as they might be. It was hard to stand the competition. On the other hand, though, 1983 was the year of 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart', proving that old proggers could successfully combine melody and rhythm, so maybe it's just a matter of accident.

Whatever be, I don't share the widely accepted despisal for Alpha. That it is essentially an inferior rewrite of the debut - there is no doubt about that, no. But just how much inferior? If there ever was such a thing as a "Warrior Code For Creating Asia Records", Alpha follows it to a tee, just like its predecessor. There really is only one truly weak spot in the Dean-decorated fortress: this time, they're a bit more heavy on the sentimental balladeering thing, culminating in the weakest early Asia song, 'The Smile Has Left Your Eyes'. Not only is there absolutely no Howe anywhere in sight, the song doesn't have anything to offer besides pure, sappy Wetton bombast, and thus sinks to the very bottom of the list.

However, in most other places Howe is actually more prominent than on the previous albums! He gets more time to solo and more audible accompanying guitar parts all over the place, which certainly helps stomach even the less catchy material. And speaking of less catchy material... well, you know what I mean: these songs are still pretty well-written. The major highlight is 'The Heat Goes On', whose title unambiguously hints at its being a "sequel" to 'Heat Of The Moment', although in terms of mood it's far more desperate, closer to 'Cutting It Fine', I guess. Wetton's got plenty of vocal hooks on the song, but in the end it's Howe's guitar and Downes' organ solos that give the song that extra spice. The one moment where you feel these guys can really rock. Although it is immediately followed by 'Eye To Eye', whose chuggin' rhythm makes a fun contrast with the overall "dreamy" atmosphere and thus gives 'The Heat' some mighty competition.

I'd really say that the album, contrary to the usual way of life, gets better and better as it moves along. It's the first songs that are the muckiest ones and, IMHO, shouldn't be listened to until you've gained a taste of the nicer plates. 'Don't Cry' certainly has a catchy chorus, but it's just way too syrupy in the "lowest common denominator" way: it's hard for me to sing along to 'Don't cry, now that I have found you / Don't cry, take a look around you'. Maybe it's shiny and upbeat enough to form an optimistic start to the album, but too much optimism can be dangerous. Then there's the draggy ballad stuff and suchlike. But starting from 'The Heat Goes On', they really get a grip on what they're doing.

One other thing that particularly deserves mentioning is the way they bring the album to a close - with two of their 'artsiest' songs yet; some have interpreted them as stately bores, but I beg to differ. 'Midnight Sun', for instance, if written in a different epoch with different ideals and different recording standards, could well function as a beautiful "psych-art" epic, or, at least, purely "art"; it's quite fit for inclusion on any given Moody Blues album of the 'core seven'. The lyrics are, of course, trite, but they're not very prominent, and besides, when given the choice between love, politics, and fantasy, in the case of Asia I'd probably vouch for fantasy. At the very least, it fits the album cover.

And then there's 'Open Your Eyes', a song in which the rich rock stars take shots at young loser girls aspiring to be photomodels for not being true to themselves. Yeah... mmm... right. Well, everybody has a right to speak their minds, even rich rock stars. The song itself isn't nearly as good as its coda - again, I would love to hear it with a real symphony orchestra in the background instead of Downes' soulless machines, but it's still a gorgeous musical landscape out there. Even Howe has a chance to play his heart out, among the choral vocal harmonies and endless layers of keyboards. This is certainly not "synth pop"; this is a clear nod back to the days of good progressive rock. It can be easily missed, but shouldn't. The heat goes on.

I'm still asking myself the question - without any preliminary knowledge, would it be possible for me to guess that we're dealing with "rock mammoths" here? Rock Giants intentionally midgeting themselves? Hard to answer. I'm loaded with these guys' personalities already. But on the other hand, the very fact that this music doesn't blow - in an open and decisive manner - suggests a level of experience and adequacy unattainable by the Common Man. So when I think of these first several Asia albums, I sort of find myself in the position of the average Olympus official watching Zeus turned bull deflower Europa. Let them biggies prank around if they wish to. Better to prank around harmlessly than to have fun with thunderbolts.



Year Of Release: 1985
Overall rating =

I TOLD you not to underestimate carbon copies! Unfortunately, this isn't one.

Best song: GO

Track listing: 1) Go; 2) Voice Of America; 3) Hard On Me; 4) Wishing; 5) Rock And Roll Dream; 6) Countdown To Zero; 7) Love Now Till Eternity; 8) Too Late; 9) Suspicion; 10) After The War.

Please allow me to openly state the lamentable fact that there are, indeed, certain Asia albums that I - surprise surprise - don't like at all. Or at least almost at all. This is one of these.

Now I know I've spent an incongruously huge amount of webspace to complain about the lack of Steve Howe on the first two albums. I take it back: with Steve Howe gone, replaced by whatever good for nothing he was replaced with, I actually begin to understand just how vital Steve's presence was. In the background, yes, but always ensuring that there was something "breathing" about the songs, making sure that they wouldn't come out stillborn, cold, detached, forgettable, robotic entities. At the very least, his presence somehow seemed to stimulate the band, even when he wasn't actually contributing all that much. With that particular stimulus gone, prepare yourself for the big suckjob that Astra is.

The album is entirely keyboard-dominated, and whatever guitar there is is mostly generic Eighties "prog-metal for dummies", yes, very much a la Trevor Rabin and company, only even more sterile (although, fortunately, even less noticeable). Sometimes I get the odd impression that the only guitar-oriented song that new player had ever heard was the Kinks' '(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman', and he's been playing that cool, but monotonous Dave Davies riff over and over and over ever since, and little else. Which, of course, makes Mr Downes even happier, as he's now free to drown every trace of good melody in some of the most sterile keyboard soup ever cooked.

Sad, because the songwriting is still far from hopeless. Once you concentrate on those of the songs that are less pompous and more upbeat and pure-poppy, it's even possible to get into singalong mode from time to time. 'Go', for instance, has a lot of potential. In terms of mood and general "album opener impact", it seems to be stealing the thunder from Van Halen's 'Jump' - I'm a-guessin' they thought that if the idea of making a one-syllable battle cry into the song's main hook worked so admirably well for Van Halen, why the hell couldn't the same thing work for us? well, I have no idea about the commercial success of 'Go' as a single, but apparently it didn't work quite as well, and for good reason: 'Jump' was one of the biggest visit cards for the "optimistic decadence" of the Eighties, while 'Go', pretty much like everything else in the Asia catalog, was sort of too gloomy and 'sensitive' to work as a true stage-kicker. Maybe John Wetton should have thought about making a video in which he'd be jumping over Carl Palmer with a bottle of Scotch in his hand.

Most of the other tolerable tunes are usually hidden in deep dark damp places, and it takes a lot of good will and preferably three letters of recommendation from Asia fans to fish them out because they don't try to grab your attention so hard as the murky stuff. Big exception is 'Wishing' - a song that I find myself liking, probably due to the insane catchiness of the simple, stupid, but effective Hey-Judean chorus at the end, and it helps that the song moves along at a relatively fast pace, too. Which, by the way, leads me into thinking - you know what might be one of the crucial psychological factors for preferring fast songs over slow? Slow songs emphasize their very existence. They sort of address you with that imminent requirement to savour each and every one of their notes: "I'm so goshdarn great that I certainly will take as much time as possible to flaunt my superiority". Faster songs don't do that, sort of just hurrying along saying: "Oh, don't really mind me, I'm just on my way through, catch up if you think I'm deserving, disregard me if you think I'm not". Big fat moral: adequately great slow songs are better than adequately great fast songs, but inadequately shitty slow songs are far, far more painful than inadequately shitty fast songs. Well, part two at least of this statement has always worked for me.

Anyway, sorry about the digression, but then again, it's not really a digression, because I was just about to complain about a particularly inadequately shitty slow song on here - 'Voice Of America'. Now I'm not really pro-American or anti-American, but the thing is, it would take a big pot of gold for me to think of a song with a title like that as a good song, and there's no gold in sight. I've heard this thing called a "powerful ballad", and it is powerful, but only if you accept that every single friggin' song with a multi-tracked repetitive chorus, big booming drums and overwhelming synths is "powerful". Melodically and emotionally primitive, calculated to the extreme, it's totally abysmal. Lyrically, it's supposed to be sort of a nostalgic thing - oriented towards those early boomers who were capturing American sounds on the radio in the Fifties - but, as we all know from the experience of 'Born In The USA' (and hey, what a miraculous coincidence: that album also happened to come out exactly one year before Astra! That makes two calculated stylistic rip-offs in a row!), yes, as we all know from that experience, verses are one thing and choruses are quite a different one, and if you don't listen too close, the only thing you'll get from the song is: 'VOICE OF AMERICA! OOOOH! VOICE OF AMERICA!'. Pathetic.

Moving on down the line, I always feel a little fidgety when I see the words 'Rock And Roll', or even simply 'Rock', in the title of a song written by people who have a very vague idea of what 'Rock And Roll' actually is, and that includes the absolute majority of prog stars, independent of age, status, or experience. True enough: the seven-minute epic 'Rock And Roll Dream' has absolutely nothing to do with rock and roll. Again, it's actually sort of a nostalgic thing, more concerned with overall problems of stardom and growing old than anything else, but the case still stands: you do not utter the sacred name of Rock and Roll in vain, or Rock and Roll will smite you in its anger. The song is utterly stupid and forgettable. Slow. Boring. Brain-pounding, too. I got tired of these "clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap" football stadium arrangements by the thirtieth second, and it's what, 6:52? Golly gee.

Oh well. At the very least the embarrassments on the second side of the album are, if not exactly "so bad it's genius", at least "so dated it's curious". I'm mainly speaking, of course, of the anti-nuclear anthem 'Countdown To Zero', reflecting the SDI madness of the time - replete with heavily muttered slogans of 'DON'T DO IT. LET IT GO' and all. The lyrics are so straightforward it almost looks like the band's first intention was to pack up the tape and send it straight to the White House (or the Kremlin, whichever would get it first). Of course, then they wisely decided to just release it on an album and make some money off it instead. Be humanistic, but don't forget about your bank account either.

All right, so I'm getting a little bit cynical here, but then again, it's Asia I'm reviewing, not even U2; are I or are I ain't entitled to a little bit of fun? In recompense, I'll say that 'Too Late' and 'Suspicion' are both fairly tolerable examples of half-decent synth-pop. There. That's all I'm gonna say in recompense for this more-dead-than-alive album. Oh, you could argue that was the intention - an album with an anti nuke song as its centerpiece should sound dead and robotic, and besides, the difference in album cover style between Asia/Alpha and Astra alone says more than any verbal description - but adequacy of intention and result hardly guarantees effectiveness, anyway.


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