02. Asia

Asia (1982)

John Wetton – lead vocals, bass
Geoff Downes – keyboards, backing vocals
Steve Howe – guitar, backing vocals
Carl Palmer – drums, percussion

Man, this band is a mess.  They were originally conceived as a supergroup featuring members of four well known prog bands tasked with making music more radio friendly than the tunes heard in their alma maters.  The band had multiple lineup changes before their first recordings even happened.  Asia is still active, with keyboardist Geoff Downes as the only constant member.  The lineup has been in constant flux with several dozen people in this band over the years.  This is corporate rock at its most brazen: as long as there are hits with the Asia logo plastered on the sleeves, it doesn't matter who is playing on the record.  Asia is a brand as much as a band.  

I remember the two big hits from this record from when they were in constant rotation on MTV, starting in 1982.  Other than that, it's all new to me.  As always, when writing for this blog, I played the record and let my immediate impressions flow in real-time.  Below are my gut reactions.  The only editing to my comments was for spelling and clarity.

Side one.  Five songs, all under five minutes.  

"Heat of the Moment"
This is the first track on the record, and the first single.  From the get-go, I don't like the mix.  John Wetton's vocal is way out front and it sounds like band are far in the distance.  The mix is clean enough, but it sounds like some 1950s pop record - Julie London or something - where it's all about her voice, and the jazz trio backing her are rendered perfunctory.  Asia are mixed like Julie London.  There, I said it.  The people on this Asia record are all purported to be good players.  The musicianship here is fine, but they're not allowed to shine.  Tons of reverb too, but that's the 1980s for ya'.  This song is decent, it's competently crafted, but no one playing seems emotionally invested.

"Only Time Will Tell"
Second track on the record, second single.  This synth lick at the beginning is lifted straight from some then-current new wave.  Greg Hawkes (The Cars) would have played the same thing, no problem, but everything surrounding it would have been different [See the solo in "Victim of Love" from 1981, or for that matter the solo in "When I'm With You" by Sparks from 1980].  By 1982, new wave had infiltrated all areas of mainstream rock.  This tune's intro is solid evidence of that.  Compared to "Heat of the Moment", it has a little more punch to it.  The band are feeling it more.  The vocal is still too far out front, but it's not as egregious.  The quick bridge has some nice surprises.  The backing vocals seem lifted from The Cars too.  Woah, this fade!  Too abrupt.  I could have heard another 16 bars of this song without being bored.  Well, "Heat of the Moment" was their huge hit, but I like this one better.

"Sole Survivor"
Third track on the record, third single.  The hook on this one is lame.  The verses have some nice stuff.  Steve Howe's guitar is really buried though.  The mix engineer is really playing up to the mainstream fad for synthesizers that, in 1982, should have already peaked.  Even as a child of the new wave, I'm feeling like the synths are too present here, to the detriment of good balance between the guitar and synth.  Some of the best post-punk and new wave bands got that right because they were inventing it (Ultravox, Magazine, Cars).  These older mainstream rock bands seem too preoccupied with saying "look, we're cool, we have synthesizers like the kids!", and overemphasizing them.  It's about balance.  Yeah, I said this about Steve Miller too, but Geoff Downes should have known better.  The bridge in this one is the first almost-hint of this band's prog rock pedigree, and the first place the musicians stretch out, just a little.  It's a taste of what they can do, but they have been suppressing it so as not to scare way the prols in FM-land and MTV Island.

"One Step Closer"
Another new wave intro.  Same mix issues as all above.  Seems like this will be ongoing, so I won't mention it anymore.  This one sounds familiar to me.  Maybe someone played me this record when it was current?  This would have been the fourth single, but we're getting diminishing returns.  This one seems to have fewer ideas than the others.  My favorite bit is the end (no, seriously): some staccato scale runs and an ending leaving us hanging, unresolved.  It works in this case.  First song without a fade.

"Time Again"
OK, here we are firmly in more prog territory.  This sounds like what these people probably felt most comfortable with playing to begin with.  While the first four songs were bland but contemporary, this one seems a little out of date musically (for 1982), but it's a more exciting and spirited performance.  This is my favorite so far.  It seems the most genuine.  If these are older guys trying to stay relevant, I'd rather hear them being themselves than trying to sound like the younger generation.  Clearly Geffen Records wanted hits, and this band delivered.  Having done so, now it seems that by this point in the record Asia had the agency to stretch out and do what they want.  This tune was the last track on side one; I'll actually prefer it if side two is like this.  Tellingly, this is a co-write by the whole band; the rest were all written by Wetton with help from either Downes or Howe.  This song came from a full-band  jam, almost certainly.

Welcome to side two.  Four songs, all over five minutes.  

"Wildest Dreams"
This intro sounds like the opening music from a 1982 newscast.  "Today at five: Reagan decorates his generals...".  And then we get into a lyric about generals on tv and the horrors of war.  Hey, given the lyrical subject matter, maybe they wanted to intro to evoke a newscast musically too.  Kinda clever.  No, not really.  E.L.O. did this a year earlier on "Here is the News".  Good to open side two with the war protest song.  That message can't be overstated.  Some more good effort here, a guitar solo that fades seamlessly into a synth lick as though they're one instrument.  Palmer gets to freak out a bit.  Yes, this band are much more interesting when they're not making hits.  So it goes.  

"Without You"
The obligatory power ballad.  Oh Asia, you almost had me on board during the past two tunes, but this one is just trite.  Oh wait, the vibe changes two minutes in.  The contrast is good, it goes somewhere not entirely expected.  Ah, and then into a long proggy jam.  All right, they're trying here.  But then it goes back into a blend of the ballad and the middle bits.  No, this one doesn't quite pass.

"Cutting It Fine"
The vocal mix is better here.  Still drenched in 'verb, but he's with the band instead of on top of them.  I guess they weren't so concerned with mixing this one to be radio-friendly, and that works in the song's favor.  Nice guitar riffs.  See, at 1:36, this is what I'm talking about: we go into a guitar solo that's fighting with some synth effects that needed to be in the background, supporting the guitar, not competing with it.  This one could be a good guitar rocker.  It needs a remix.  Oh - a little vocoder, for like a second.  Blink and you'll miss it.  At 3:20 it seems like the song is over.  It ends nicely as a good quick rocker.  But then there's a solo piano coda, leading into some dated-sounding synth horns, like an orchestral thing.  This is into Moody Blues territory.  This would have sounded better with either real orchestral instruments (seems like this record's budget would have supported that) or just going full Moody and pulling out the ol' Mellotron.  This whole extended two-minute outro is worthless.  It isn't musically interesting, and it sounds cheesy.  The producer needed to have cut it.

"Here Comes The Feeling"
Filler.  This one seems like another stab at a hit that didn't quite make it.  Bury it at the end of side two when everyone is getting bored anyway.  Including the band.  And, definitely, me.

Further thoughts:
This band splintered almost immediately.  By their second album, the lineup had changed already.  In 2008, after 26 years apart, the original lineup (or at least the first one that recorded) did a reunion record called Phoenix.  My interest was minimal to zero, but they brought in Hugh McDowell from E.L.O. to play cello on two tracks, so I gave those two a spin.

"I Will Remember You"
This is a sappy ballad.  And the vocal mix issues... still here.  Hugh is scraping away but isn't given much to do.  As the only constant member of this band, Geoff Downes, has earned the right to keep his keys hot in the mix, even though that was no longer as fashionable by 2008 as it was in 1982.  But his cheesy orchestral effects sound just as bad here as they did in 1982.  If you're gonna hire a cellist, who not get a real flutist, etc. too?   And the drums, they're so buried.  Where's the bass?  This mix sucks, a lot (yes, I could do better, actually), and the song is completely forgettable.

"An Extraordinary Life"
More of the same.  Man, this crap is sentimental.  Mawkish.  Too much compression on the vocals and the drums.  Maybe the whole mix.  But of course; this was 2008.  The first Asia record sounds a little dated, and I had issues with the vocals being too loud and the keys not being balanced with the guitars.  But this one, the whole mix, it's just a mess.  The songs?  Forgettable.  Tired.  No individual person involved seems to have any ideas left.  This is 1980s pop made in the 2000s by 1970s players who ran out of ideas sometime in the 1990s (if not sooner).  McDowell is barely audible.  Maybe listening to some of the singles from this record would give me a different perspective.  But I don't care enough.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: 
"Only Time Will Tell", but respect goes out to "Time Again" and "Wildest Dreams".

Next: Pink Floyd (part one of three), coming May 15, 2021.

1 thought on “02. Asia

  1. I have only listened to this album once, when I bought it. The two single were played to death on MTV so they are stuck in my head minus the fine details of mix even 40 years later.

    I remember reading about this band in the late 70s as it took about a year or two to get off of the ground. Hell, in 1979 I might have had a little honest enthusiasm. Guys from bands I all had albums by via their earlier groups. Only one of them was from the New Wave zone – Geoff Downes from The Buggles. The rest were Prog guys.

    I knew that Wetton had been in King Crimson but had yet to hear any of that work in 1981. I only heard the first three albums and ’81’s incredible “Discipline” would follow this one in the market soon afterward int he fall of 1981. So I knew Wetton by reputation. By 1982, with a fervor lit by “Discipline” and the need to hear what came before in the band’s career, I had snagged a copy of the incredible “Starless + Bible Black,” and afterward, all of the Wetton/Bruford era KC. It’s golden material. Arguably the best work the band released in the 70s and not even slightly embarrassing.

    Steve Howe was Yes’ ex-guitarist. I lLiked some Yes, but not all of it. Basically ’71-’73 was great. Afterward, not good at all. Howe was an intermittently interesting Prog guitarist. Fussy, and lacking power. Not the worst, but no Robert Fripp. His last gig had been with Geoff Downes had replaced Rick Wakeman in Yes, on the “Drama” album, which I loved in 1980, and still love to this day! It’s the only Yes album on my racks, and I always have room for it. Prog that survived The Purge.

    I was less enthralled by Carl Palmer’s presence. In ’77-’78 I was in a brief ELP phase, and during those years they were actually my favorite band! My earlier favorite I loved keyboards and Keith Emerson was a monster there. Not necessarily a good monster, but I was young and learning. Taste would come later. By 1978 the combination of terrible contemporary ELP music [“Love Beach” was a legendary fiasco amongst Prog fans] and the emergence of New Wave with more interesting, pop oriented synths came along and I was on that bus in a hurry.

    Lee Abrams, the FM consultant who calcified FM Rock with his “Superstars” format of tightly controlled, repetitive playlists and lots of decade old music [heavy on the Led Zeppelin] had been involved with the creation of Asia, and that the band would ultimately exist was a fait accompli. “Asia” was created to fill a demographic need” and come hell or high water, they were going to have a damned Prog Supergroup®! When the Book on Asia was written in 2007, of course Abrams wrote the foreword!

    I recall the album coming out in the summer of 1981. Curious, I bought a copy before hearing anything. Bear in mind that I had stopped listening to FM Rock sometime in early 1980. After about two years of sucking down this very different brew to the Top 40 I’d listened to from ’70-’78. So I dropped the needle on this one and heard…damn…it sounded like freaking Journey! There was a big damned reason why this was the case. Beyond Prog dudes trying their best to cash in and consultants pulling the strings, the album was engineered and produced by Mike Stone; the guy behind the boards for what was then Journey’s imperial period. The Nerf Rock albums with Steve Perry that sold gangbusters in the ’79-’83 window. Disgusted, I gave the LP to a friend of a friend who was a big Rush fan, figuring he had less taste and might enjoy it. As this same person had gotten me Kraftwerk’s “Computerworld” as a high school graduation present earlier that year, I definitely got the better end of that deal!

    After that Asia came crashing back into my world a year later when MTV made it to my cable system. They were playing clips for “Heat of The Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell” like they were desperate for music videos by guys who were British and played real rock; not that weird synthpop crap that they had so many clips for! This was the “AOR for TV” that was designed for the breadbasket of America and the very concept of MTV [after they bought the idea for it from Mike Nesmith and ripped the comedy out of it].

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