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Post-prog rock supergroups were an exception to the rule in the 80s – in fact, ASIA were something of rare curiosity that fans from former flagship groups (KING CRIMSON, YES, ELP, et al), just had to open up the band’s grandiose, Pandora’s box of delights. Arena-rock-centric and aimed at the American FM-radio market, rather than strictly 70s-styled prog, Messrs John Wetton (vocals/bass), Steve Howe (guitar), Geoff Downes (keyboards) and Carl Palmer (drums/percussion), were an arty, AOR marriage from heaven for some, a power-ballad hell for others.
Formed in London, early 1981, by the aforementioned veteran pomp-rockers (see discography for extra ex-group details), these supremo stadium fillers had no trouble finding a record contract at Geffen. On the strength of Top 5 Stateside smash, `Heat Of The Moment’, their eponymous ASIA (1982) {*7} debut, scaled the album charts, projecting them as top dogs, while achieving quadruple-platinum by the year end. ASIA’s smooth, FM-friendly appeal fared particularly well across the big pond; `Only Time Will Tell’ (another penned by Wetton and former BUGGLES-boy Downes), a solid Top 20 hit while only scraping into a minor placing in Old Blighty. The Mainstream Rock charts were duly inundated by ASIA cuts `Wildest Dreams’, `Sole Survivor’, `Here Comes The Feeling’ and `Time Again’, alienating the purist prog fan. But that mattered not to a box-office band willing to go corporate and consumerist.
Again produced by Mike Stone, and with the formulaic `Don’t Cry’ cracking the US Top 10, ASIA’s sophomore set, ALPHA (1983) {*5}, didn’t live up to the high expectations afforded it, although the record still reached the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. `The Smile Has Left Your Eyes’ (another big hitter), `Open Your Eyes’ and `My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want)’, had the “marmite effect”, while bolstering the credentials overseas was their “Asia In Asia” Tokyo concerts at Budokan, on December 6, an event that went live to over 20 million people in America via MTV; had anybody noticed that Greg Lake (another from ELP) was deputising for an absent Wetton?
A lengthy hiatus was down to two things: the return of Wetton (early ’84) and the tensions arising between the said singer and classical guitarist, Howe, who returned to his first true love, YES, and was superseded by Canadian-born rawk guitarist Mandy Meyer (from Swiss band, KROKUS). An altogether different reception was given third album, ASTRA (1985) {*4}, the disruption in the ranks clearly having a knock-on effect on album sales, resulting in the LP stiffing in the lower regions of the US and UK charts; symphonic-rock was hardly suitable for soft-rockers `Voice Of America’, solitary American Top 50 hit, `Go’, and the delicate and dramatic, `Too Late’.
With another experienced campaigner Pat Thrall (guitars) drafted in, but duly left out in the cold, Wetton, Downes and Palmer – plus session axemen, including Meyer – were behind the ill-advised and unnecessary, THEN & NOW (1990) {*3}, a set of best-of faves and a handful of fresh tracks; `Days Like These’, probably the highlight of a low-career move.
In 1992, with only Downes, Palmer and a briefly reunited Howe back on board and remaining from the original line-up (English-born vocalist/bassist John Payne and American guitarist Al Pitrelli were enlisted), ASIA released their “comeback” album, AQUA {*4}; the only thing remotely prog on this set was the use of Roger Dean’s glorious artwork (again!).
Mike Sturgis (from Phenomenon) was now duly filling the berth of ELP-bound Carl Palmer, while the ASIA team aboard ARIA (1994) {*4} was hardly one that could be called prog – only Downes had had a foot in the door through a turn-off/turn-of-the-80s YES. Alongside Payne, Sturgis, lead guitarists Elliott Randall and Aziz Ibrahim, Downes and his ASIA crew finally got around to a prog-styled set through ARENA (1996) {*5}. But for the 9-minute `The Day Before The War’, the set was akin to a sophisti-SANTANA-esque, slickness – or was that JOURNEY?
Downes and Payne ploughed on regardless for what was deemed by outsiders as an exploitation set, RARE (1999) {*4}, only loyal insiders knowing that it was a completely instrumental concept to augment David Attenborough’s nature documentary, “Salmon: Against The Tides”; note too, that it was the first “proper” ASIA set not to be graced with the letter “a” bookended to its title. Collating an army of musicians from recent/past times (including guitarists Guthrie Govan, Ian Crichton, Elliott Randall, Pat Thrall and Steve Howe, plus drummers/percussionists Sturgis, Chris Slade, Vinnie Colaiuta and Luis Jardim), Downes and Payne authored AURA (2000) {*4}, but once again the record was a hit or miss affair.
Four years in the making, and with Govan and Slade promoted to bona fide alumni, SILENT NATION (2004) {*5}, was something of a surprise to critics; Payne’s songwriting abilities becoming somewhat integral to the melodious symphonic-ers. As with every band under the sun, it was only a matter of time before the big guns of ASIA were reunited on concert-double, FANTASIA: LIVE IN TOKYO (2007) {*6}.
Mixing in a few of their ex-band prog tunes such as YES’s `Roundabout’, EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER’s `Fanfare For The Common Man’, KING CRIMSON’s `The Court Of The Crimson King’ (though Wetton wasn’t even a member in ’69!) and The BUGGLES’ `Video Killed The Radio Star’, and several ASIA treasures, the event spurred on a full studio reunion. As if rising from the ashes, PHOENIX (2008) {*6} guaranteed the original quartet a minor chart placing, while 2010’s OMEGA {*6}, satisfied long-time acolytes from across the globe – especially on the continent and in Japan, where it went Top 30; ditto XXX (2012) {*6}, another to delight the Planet Rock airwaves.
Pity then that Steve Howe had to back away from the renewed ASIA interest; his position now in the hands of youngster, Sam Coulson (well, he’s still 20-something!) for the projected GRAVITAS (2014) {*6}. At first toying with the title of `Valkyrie’ (in which they retained as the QUEEN-esque opening track), the group’s majesty was still intact, even if the symphonic, pomp/prog overtones were obvious and opaque on 3-parter, `Heaven Help Me Now’. Exhuming a near-lost 1986 demo from the vaults, the Downes-Wetton partnership might well’ve had a hit on their hands – but not in today’s fickle un-rock singles market. It’s easy to criticise ASIA for living in some 80s time-warp, but why bail out the water when the boat ain’t sinking… yet!
Although concert double-CDs + DVDs continued to outweigh ASIA’s studio catalogue, the post-Coulson-period SYMFONIA: LIVE IN BULGARIA 2013 (2017) {*6} – with the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra – was worth noting, though not the similarly-formatted and archival “Axis XXX Live In San Francisco MMXII” that highlighted Downes, Howe, Palmer & Wetton.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2014-Sep2017

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