Asia – Phoenix (2008, Froniters)
- Never Again
- Nothing’s Forever
- Sleeping Giant/Now Way Back/Reprise
- I Will Remember You
- Shadow Of A Doubt
- Parallel Worlds/Vortex/Déyà
- Wish I’d Known All Along
- Orchard Of Mines
- Over And Over
- An Extraordinary Life
John Wetton – Lead Vocals & Bass
Geoff Downes – Keyboards
Steve Howe – Electric, Acoustic, and Steel Guitars
Carl Palmer – Drums and Percussion
Produced by: Asia & Steve Rispin
Total Time = 1:04:52
Back in 1982, I was a kid possessed by music: when I wasn’t listening to the radio, I was glued to this new TV channel that started on cable a few months earlier…MTV. I had already started down the Metal path but I got hooked to what was popular from listening to the local Rock stations. Add the amazing visuals and magic of music videos and even the most syrupy, candy-coated love song would become interesting. One day I heard this heavy guitar pour out the radio speaker and I took notice, it was Asia’s ‘Heat Of The Moment’. Then I started seeing the video almost every hour on MTV, the song was burned into my brain. I followed the band from ASIA (1982) to ALPHA (1983) but the Metal took over by the time ASTRA (1985) was released and both my interest, and the general public’s, in Asia disappeared. Twenty five years after the original lineup splintered, the original members of Asia Steve Howe, Carl Palmer, John Wetton, & Geoff Downes) have reunited to bring us PHOENIX.
Opening track ‘Never Again’ brings the early ’80s back with an uptempo song with beautiful interplay between Downes’ keys and Howe’s guitar. John Wetton sounds like he hasn’t aged at all in 25 years, his voice is melodic perfection despite years of substance abuse and health problems. ‘Never Again’ has that uplifting hook that the band is well-known for but it is a bit subdued when compared to big hits from the past ‘Heat Of The Moment’ & ‘Only Time Will Tell’. Keeping the melodic tradition alive is ‘Nothing’s Forever’, a mid-tempo song that is well done but is too Lite Rock for me. It has that mid-tempo balladry thing going with grand orchestrated keyboard textures and sedated background vocals but not a lot of guitar. It’s in there…..somewhere…..found around the solo break when Howe shows up with a neat and clean quick offering. ‘Heroine’ is PHOENIX’s first proper ballad and it sounds like it came straight from the early ’80s and the top of the charts. Very well done with a melodic beauty that Asia was known for back in their younger days.
The band starts to flex their Progressive muscles a little with the three part epic ‘Sleeping Giant/No Way Back/Reprise’. Part one is a keyboard rich instrumental that has a very big sound kind of like those opening keys to ‘Only Time Will Tell’ from back in the day. Part two is the song proper ‘No Way Back’ that sounds like typical Asia with bigger background vocals, again, just like the old days. What the song would benefit from is a harder guitar or at least a more prominent and ballsy guitar. So far on this record, that seems to be the problem for me, the guitar is too subdued and clean. Anyway, Part 3 (‘Reprise’) quickly extends the instrumental. Asia starts to show what made them an ’80s success with ‘Alibis’, an uptempo track that mirrors ‘Never Again’ in quality and pace. Definitely one of the best songs on the album chock full of great vocal melodies and big sounding harmonies and Mr. Howe shows up with a decent, albeit very clean sounding, solo. The second solo break has quick interplay between Downes’ keys and Howe’s guitar, something old Asia did well. Everything slows down at the end for an extended jam and it’s a little disappointing because it seems like the band found that old spark.
Proper ballad #2 floats in with ‘I Will Remember You’ and, even though it’s a very good Pop love song, it just seems like it’s too much already. ‘Heroine’ was just on two songs previous and this song is almost exact. I guess I’m just not digging the laid back approach that seems to permeate the entire record and a ballad just doesn’t satisfy. A fine vocal from Wetton again though. ‘Shadow Of A Doubt’ picks the pace up again but is too keyboard lite Pop. There is a really good melody line there but nothing really stands out and keeps my attention. Another triple threat epic from the band with ‘Parallel Worlds/Vortex/Deya’ and it really seems like more of the same. ‘Parallel Worlds’ is another Wetton ballad with a solid vocal, ‘Vortex’ is an instrumental with a beautiful acoustic guitar and some quick Palmer power on the kit, ‘Deya’ is just an extension of ‘Vortex’. I’ve listened to this record enough times to know when to hit the <skip> button because the instrumental passages are nice but are taking away from the actual proper song. Both epics are heavy on instrumentals but one has to ask why they are necessary especially when both three-parters are just over 8 minutes each!
‘Wish I’d Known All Along’ is more clean, subdued Pop…..’Orchard Of Mines’ is another safe pomp ballad that has some interesting keyboard orchestrations and a choir effect…..’Over And Over’ is another mid-tempo song bordering on a ballad that benefits from the piano more than the keyboard even though both are present. Palmer has a couple of flashes but remains subdued and Howe comes in with a couple of quick simple flashes. Honestly, you’ve already heard ‘Over And Over’, well, over and over on PHOENIX. The album mercifully ends with ‘An Extraordinary Life’, an autobiographical song by John Wetton that is basically a chronicle of his difficult journey over the last 25 years. After all the slow songs, the uptempo beat of this Wetton showcase is very welcome. I would put this in the same league with ‘Nothing’s Forever’ as far as tempo but this could easily be transported back to ’82 or ’83 with it’s big layered harmonies.
PHOENIX is an album that you would expect Asia to make: solid musicianship and songwriting alongside excellent production. Every song is full of melody, beautiful instrumentals, and superb lead vocals. What is missing is the big bombastic hooks that Asia made their name with in the early ’80s. There are flashes of that brilliance in each song but I found myself waiting for that defining moment each time and being disappointed except for a few songs. Maybe age and time has taken that drive away from these guys? First question is: where is Steve Howe? Second question is: where is Carl Palmer? I know that they play on the album, I can hear them, but their presence is so subdued and powerless that it makes you wonder if Wetton and Downes could have just put this out as their previous incarnations: Wetton/Downes or Icon. If you are looking for the big time sound of ‘Heat Of The Moment’, ‘Don’t Cry’, or ‘Only Time Will Tell’ then you are listening to the wrong album. If you want contemporary melodic pop rock with an ’80s AOR sensibility, then this is for you. For me, too “lite Rock” and not enough rockers. Best part of this album is John Wetton’s timeless vocals.
Songs I enjoyed: ‘Never Again’, ‘Nothing’s Forever’, ‘An Extraordinary Life’, ‘Alibis’