Friday, September 9, 2011

Asia: Asia and Alpha

It’s fairly inarguable that Americans and Europeans love cheese. Whether it’s cheddar, Brie, Camembert or Gouda, somebody somewhere is sinking his or her teeth into it and feeling immediate satisfaction. And when it comes to musical cheese of the ‘80s, few morsels are as tasty as Asia.
Based on the ingredients, they might have been considered prog-rock, but a cursory listen to the music they created put paid to that fairly quickly. This was arena-rock plain and simple, and a welcome infusion into the music scene at a time when disco was dead and metal hadn’t become mainstream. It’s very possible that the eponymous debut “saved” the record industry, giving boys in high school parking lots something to talk about until Led Zeppelin’s Coda snuck out that fall.
But it had its roots in prog, causing those family trees to become even more entangled. On bass and lead vocals was John Wetton, who’d made his name with one of the mid-‘70s King Crimson lineups. On drums was Carl Palmer, having shed the albatrosses of Emerson and Lake. The other two guys came from Yes—Steve Howe, who’d been their lead guitarist for all of the ‘70s, and Geoff Downes, who’d been on exactly one Yes album (without Jon Anderson) fresh from the “success” of the Buggles. (The other Buggle, Trevor Horn, kept himself busy producing the band still known as Yes, along with ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and others.)
Asia is masterfully sequenced, putting the first two singles at the top. Anyone who remembers when “Heat Of The Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell” were on constant MTV rotation will have trouble refraining from singing along. Both songs are chock full of fast guitar, keyboard beds and dramatic shifts, and are pure pop. Past that, there’s still high comedy in the way John Wetton never quite hits the high notes on “Sole Survivor” and “One Step Closer”. “Time Again” begins with a painfully plodding riff, speeding up and slowing down before going to full gallop in the song proper.
“Wildest Dreams” begins the second side with the type of suspended chords favored by old Genesis, before finding its base in the electric piano couplets that shortly would be stolen by Bon Jovi on “Runaway”. “Without You” is the requisite sensitive lost love song, while “Cutting It Fine” begins with a tasty acoustic trill soon picked up by the keyboards, then trampled into the relative minor key. More strained high notes carry the song through to its extended dreamy ending. They pull out all the stops for “Here Comes The Feeling”, lifted nearly wholesale from The Who’s “Had Enough”, throwing in several key changes at the end and finishing on a pointedly stupid flourish.

The album was so successful that a follow-up was in order. However, just like Men At Work alongside them, all of the best eggs had seemingly gone in the first basket. Despite the catchiness of “Don’t Cry”, the aching splendor of “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” and the boneheaded determinism of “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want)”, there wasn’t enough quality, real or perceived, to sustain interest in the rest of Alpha. There were two songs based around the metaphor of eyes, and “The Heat Goes On” tries too hard to evoke a connection to “Heat Of The Moment” without being as good. (Though it does have a pretty decent Hammond B-3 solo.)
They were barely out of the gate before having to replace Wetton on the “Asia in Asia” tour with Greg Lake, of all people, who apparently wasn’t thrilled enough with his old comrade to keep his next band from turning into Emerson, Lake and Powell. A very long two years went by before Wetton was back for Astra, but now Steve Howe had gone off to another prog supergroup (the hilarious GTR, which was produced by Geoff Downes) only to be replaced by a guy from Krokus.
Anytime you see Asia these days, you can bet on having Geoff Downes scowling behind his keyboards, but it’s anyone’s guess whether any of the original other three will be along for the ride. Or, you can look for a guy named John Payne, who was the band’s singer in the ‘90s and has managed to ride that rocket this far into the 21st century. But those of us who remember will pull out our copies of the first two albums, once the pride of the fledgling Geffen label, and smile, and then laugh and laugh and laugh.

Asia Asia (1982)—
Asia Alpha (1983)—


  1. Right on the money, Wardo - but at the time I called it "sell out" rather then "arena rock". Even though I assassinated that first LP every chance I could, I did use some of Wetton's playing to inspire the bass lines on a few of my band's songs at the time.

  2. Well, here I quit. Why in the world would anyone with a taste care about something like Asia? And to rate their debut album the same as "Moondance" seems to me a very bad joke. By the way, I might never get your rating scale: how is it that you can use words like "wondrous", "marvelous", "perfect", "catchy" and so in your review and then give the album a mere 3 and 1/2? (I'm talking of "Moondance", of course). I know, you're gonna say that all makes sense in the big scheme, but frankly I don't buy that. I think it would be better not giving ratings, who needs them if they are not going to relate to anything cohesive and logical?

    Once again, sorry for my English, and adiós, amigo,
    Nacho (from Spain)

  3. Oh Nacho -- such is the conundrum we face when reviewing a guilty pleasure, and I do mean guilty.

    As for Moondance, only half of the songs earned the adjectives I used. Because the rest didn't, it's not a five-star album.

    My ratings are cohesive and logical, but only to me. That's why I state that they're "based solely on my own whims and can change at any time."

    You've been a valuable part of this blog for some time now, so you'll be missed. And I do hope you'll come back and say hello someday.

  4. Hello: here I am. I want to apologize for my tantrum, I was in a very bad mood two days ago, and you are so very kind and don't deserve it.

    Then again, I feel like I was right to some extent; I'm not talking about Asia -I must learn to respect other people's guilty pleasures, even when it is obvious that the cheese they love is the cheese I hate, I dislike prog-rock and arena-rock but I have my own guilty pleasures too...

    But when it comes to the rating thing, I'm not so sure. Maybe it is only that I grew tired of seeing many of my favourite records undervalued or rejected, but that's obviously me, not you; I don't know. Anyway, I'll keep coming, it's only blog 'n' roll but I like it.

    Thanks for all,

  5. Ah, mi hermano -- so glad to hear it was just a passing phase.

    I look over my old ratings from time to time and I amaze myself how many different sounding albums can be given the same score. I know other, more comprehensive sites have much more convoluted systems that can separate the albums better, but for me, 1 to 5 works best.

    More to the point, so far I've only reviewed albums by artists I like, so perhaps the ratings are best taken within an individual context. Maybe one day I'll get to lambasting albums by people I hate, and the fun will truly begin.