Phoenix

Asia

The word is out — band reunions are big pay days. OK, so that isn't exactly groundbreaking news. But why do only a fraction of the reunited go on to record new albums? It can be argued the “new” album from a reunited band is a major step in authenticating the actual reunion. It shows that the reunion has legs; that the band is prepared to pick up from where they left off and possibly kick the dust up to a higher musical plateau. Going into the studio, however, intensifies the pressure cooker on members who not only have to relearn the repertoire for the big reunion tour, but are now saddled with the burden of creating new and wondrous music.

This is an especially novel challenge select former members barely cognizant enough to retread past glories frown upon with patented zeal. After all, playing the old hits is really all the fans want anyway, right? But there are a few brave honchos who press forth, working extra hard to revive that old spark, complete unfinished business, and issue new music. Such was the task before Asia when they decided after their mildly successful 25th Anniversary reunion tour featuring original members John Wetton, Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer and Steve Howe to make Phoenix.

The passing of time, new technologies, and the changing of the guard creates obstacles for most classic rock bands that aspire to release records filled with fresh music. Many go the independent route, but not Asia. For a group whose sales rose and fell as quickly as blue chip stocks, they have scored a major coup by signing with EMI America. Whether that translates into big numbers is anyone’s guess, but apparently the band’s progressive pedigree holds sway with a couple of badass brassheads.

Asia stands at a unique intersection in their storied span — at odds with what moves in today’s marketplace, coupled with whether or not wrapping the pompous posturings of Yes, ELP and King Crimson around sleeker, pop-oriented songs is entirely necessary. Unlike 1982, 10-minute epics are as acceptable as three-minute “hits” from seasoned classic rock bands. On Phoenix, there’s a mixture of great maturity swimming in a sea of discovery — retaining respect for the more recent past (as members of Asia) as well as the distant past (as members of Yes, ELP and King Crimson).

At its core is the songwriting nucleus of Wetton and Downes. They write the commercial tunes like the catchy opener “Never Again” and “Heroine,” a surgery sweet ballad that still gets the benefit of Wetton’s graceful, assured vocals and Howe’s short, but soothing guitar solo. Wetton and Downes also get credit for more complex material like the two mini suites, “Sleeping Giant/No Way Back/Reprise” and “Parallel Worlds/Vortex/Déyà.” The execution and instrumental brilliance of both, however, are clearly group efforts. Each player gets his chance to remind listeners age isn’t about to diminish the shine of the Asia legacy.

As the guy who never left and kept the Asia name an ongoing enterprise with other players, Downes is especially adept at adding just the right textures and sampling new sounds that echo with more drama and depth than the hollow synths of the 80s. Amazingly, Howe is balancing his Asia duties with an upcoming 40th Anniversary Yes tour. The economy of his playing is supplanted by his virtuosity as a master with few peers. When you hear the simple, searing leads weaving in and out of Downes’ artfully punctuated keyboard work on something like “Alibis,” it’s easy to understand that unique Howe stamp is what gave Asia its edge in the 80s.

Tactfully sharp, Carl Palmer monitors the pace rigidly, refraining from the prancing paradiddles except on the rare opening in the end zone. The most captivating performances on Phoenix belong to John Wetton. With recent health problems and a drug and alcohol addled past, Wetton has fought long and hard to redeem his credibility as a musician. Here, there is no doubt that the voice of Asia is as strong and vibrant as ever. For Wetton, it truly is “An Extraordinary Life.”

So the question invariably winds its way back to the arena of relevance and the need for a new album from Asia. Superior musicianship and great songs never go out of style, and while it’s illogical to think Phoenix could ascend to the heights of the group’s debut from 1982, the record succeeds by remaining true to its purpose. If this release is a set up for things to come, then we could be seeing some more new and wondrous music from Asia.

~ Shawn Perry

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