Sound: It's impossible to comment on Asia without the automatic references to The 40-Year Old Virgin and Southpark, just as Blue Oyster Cult suffers through the never-ending cowbell reference, so, there you have it. Done; now on to the music. 1982 was a dark year for classic rock fans, and especially fans of progressive rock. Punk and new wave replaced the so-called dinosaurs, resulting in the formerly loved 20-minute suites, impossibly tricky guitar lines, and drums solos to be stored in the attic, seemingly never to return.
Imagine the excitement when prog fans hear that former alumni of recently extinct prog giants Yes (Steve Howe - guitar), Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (Carl Palmer - drums), King Crimson (John Wetton - Bass and vocals), and Yes (! ) again (Geoff Downes - keyboards) had combined forces. Now, never mind that Geoff Downes also was in a techno-pop group called The Buggles (Video Killed The Radio Star), the money was on the table that a quadruple album with 3 tracks was forthcoming and order was to be restored in prog Valhalla. Not so fast there, Mr. T. Arkus.
Prog fans hopes were dashed faster than a Karn Evil Relayer in the Court of a Crimson King when the (single) album came out and the songs were all under 10 minutes and the titles appeared to be cliches of the highest order. But does that mean the product was without any merit? Not necessarily. If anything, the members of Asia - long-term survivors of the rock and roll grind - were smart enough to realize that if they intended to survive, it was time to cut back, simplify, and create material that was much more accessible. ELP had already done this (albeit unsuccessfully) with their Love Beach album, and Yes had also demonstrated restraint and new-wave leanings with their Drama album. And thus, the material on Asia:Asia reveals all the divergent influences inherent in the group members, but with a pop slant in both musical presentation (short songs, emphasis on melody, hooks, limited instrumentals) and lyrics (songs of love, loneliness, and survival; nothing of pixies, pictures, mincers, minotaurs, or gates - Kiev or Delirium).
01.Heat of the Moment: a monster chord intro courtesy of Howe (it's said he does not prefer 'power chording' and had to be talked into it by Downes and Wetton) which has become part of pop culture. The dreamy bridge sequence would be indicative of the keyboard approach taken by Downes: rather than long, extended Moog solos, Downes was much more into creating layers and textures.
02.Only Time Will Tell: a fanfare-like synth intro had the progsters hoping for the best - despite the cliche'd title - but rather than tricky time signatures and jagged guitar lines, huge vocal choruses and dreamy synth layers rule supreme.
03.Sole Survivor: a suitable aggressive riff is somewhat offset by Downes snyth 'clanging', but some nice timing changes - and the occasional 5/4 measure to give it a slightly off-kilter feeling - make this song a solid rocker. Another bridge that relies heavy on Downes' synth paddings as Palmer supports at his most sparingly. ELP fans' pulses quicken as they hear some double-bass work from Palmer on the instrumental fade-out, but it's just that, over the fade-out.
04.One Step Closer: some nice unison guitar-bass playing by Howe and Wetton (historical note: they were the first two to get together) has the band solidly in pop-land, complete with a disco bass drum pattern by Palmer on the choruses.
05.Time Again: a Peter Gunn-like intro and an ominous sounding vocal line has Asia rocking out to Palmer's trademark Fanfare for the Common Man (ELP - Works Volume 1) shuffle. A non-cliched title and lyrics which are more angry and biting make this the the most non-Asia track of the bunch.
06.Wildest Dreams: heavy on snyth-horn stabs and Palmer's accents, this song features a truly prog solo by Howe - heavy on fuzz and sustain with the requisite high number of notes - and an honest to goodness drum solo by Palmer (well, it's more of a drum break, nothing remotely resembling the ELP days).
07.Without You: the slow, grinding power ballad on the album. While the massed vocals on the chorus seem to gather the most attention, Wetton plays an incredible, growling bass line supporting Howe's solo.
08.Cutting it Fine: some prog-sounding guitar by Howe is quickly overshadowed by some Downesian keyboard shimmerings. Palmer plays some nice, rhythm shifting snare work, but then lapses back into a near-disco beat on the chorus. Downes then has what is essentially a solo piece, although it's not listed as such. Known later as Bolero, it became part of Downes' solo spot in concert; massive keyboard sounds build up over a repeated line until slowly fading out.
09.Here Comes the Feeling: another power-positive-pop song offering very heavy on keyboards, Howe's guitar sound is almost completely drowned out. The bridge has some nice timing changes, but Palmer's playing sounds almost forcibly simple as he plays rudimentary rolls and accents, almost hesitant to cut loose with one of this trademark lightning fast fills. // 7
Lyrics: While Wetton does not quite lapse into Bon Jocliche territory, he does come painfully close on occasion. The somewhat more abstract and vague Wildest Dreams and Sole Survivor are more in a progressive vein, with the self-hating/misogynistic Time Again falling somewhere in between the love/lust of Heat of the Moment, Only Time Will Tell, One Step Closer, Here Comes the Feeling, and the pity party of Without You and Cutting it Fine. John Wetton has always displayed a fine English tenor, and Mike Stone (producer) placed it nice and forward in the mix. While at the time some complained he was doing a bad Greg Lake imitation, Wetton's vocal performance has stood the test of time, and the massed church-like vocals on all the song choruses (especially Without You) are notably powerful. // 6
Overall Impression: Pop culture has conveniently caused this album to be forgotten as to what a monster it was at the time and that it did so in the face of all the new wave banner-waving critics. In hindsight, Asia's approach - if they planned it so - was absolutely brilliant. Using their exceptional musical skills, they conveniently straddled the large middle ground between the extreme opposites of the snot-slinging punks and the snobby progs and created something that - quite obviously - had mass appeal; something the punkers and proggers would have killed for in 1982. // 7