As I have mentioned before in my previous review, the 1980’s was probably the worst decade for progressive rock. Of course, that was because most of the groups we came to know and love in the 1970’s ended up either going into the mainstream or falling apart due to a lack of interest in the genre by consumers, and subsequently record labels. I could lament for hours on why this happened, but I do not want to take away from the album review at hand.
Asia was a progressive rock super group, which means that it was a band composed of established talents in the genre. Forming in the infamous 1980’s, it was a conglomeration of various prog artists whose band was a casualty of the end of the golden age of progressive rock. John Wetton, best known as the lead vocalist and bassist of King Crimson from 1973-1974, and Geoffrey Downes, who was the keyboardist for Yes after Rick Wakeman left the symphonic prog titan for the second time in 1979, would team up with prog legends Steve Howe of Yes, and Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer as well as Atomic Rooster. Together, they formed Asia, which retained some elements of the progressive rock genre but was mostly focused on arena rock and new wave which was popular at the time. Chances are you have heard some songs by Asia on your local classic rock radio station, because the band was able to churn out some chart-breaking hits on their eponymous debut album released in 1982.
If you were to consult a devout progressive rock fan on the band Asia, you would be hard-pressed to hear anything positive. Truth is, most prog fans have great disdain for Asia for a few reasons. First of all, you would be lectured on how Asia is not “real prog”, and there is some truth behind this statement. Asia only chose to retain a few elements of prog in their music, namely the grandiose nature of their music, while the band was poppy in the same way the album 90125 from Yes and Abacab from Genesis was. There are no insane time signature changes, epic twenty-minute songs, or crazy fantasy-inspired themes on the album; if you are a fan of 80’s rock, you will enjoy it. If you like 70’s prog first and foremost, it’s better you stick to each of the band members’ pervious projects. Lets get started.
SONG #1 – “Heat of the Moment” Here’s the one you probably already know. The opening track of the album is also Asia’s most well-known hit, having been an immediate success upon the album’s release in 1982. In fact, it nearly topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts, peaking at #4. Upon listening it is obvious why this track was so successful; it is a poppy tune, with great use of vocal harmonies and optimistic fast-paced action which embodies the musical style of the early 1980’s. In my last review I touched upon the vocal style of John Wetton with King Crimson in 1973 – and I said that his voice was a bit “rough”. The Wetton we hear in Asia is much different than the one from a decade earlier – he becomes the quintessential symphonic power pop singer, with much more confidence and range than before. Although I may like his stuff from King Crimson more, there is no argument to the fact that he is a better singer in 1982 than he was in 1973.
SONG #2 – “Only Time Will Tell” The other major hit from the album, albeit not as successful as the opener. Nevertheless, it did well, cracking the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #17. Not much else to say, because it really is a less grandiose, more balladic carbon copy of “Heat of the Moment”. The truth is that this album is really formulaic in structure, completely uncharacteristic of progressive rock, and this is extremely evident when you listen to the album beyond the first two tracks.
SONG #3 – “Sole Survivor” The final single released from the album, and also the least successful. Here is where the listener really begins to realize that this album is one giant embrace of the 1980’s, and is pretty dated. Outside of the opening two tracks which continue to be staples of classic rock radio to this day, the rest of the album sounds dated. The synthesizer is heavy on this once, as well as a pretty simple lyrical structure and a rather unimpressive solo fusing Howe’s guitar with the keyboards of Downes. Worse yet, we still have six more disc tracks to go, as all of the well-known singles are behind us.
SONG #4 – “One Step Closer” Immediately this one just feels corny. The cheesy 80’s synthesizer looms large, and the duet vocals of Wetton and Howe are underwhelming. Really, it sounds like a perverted 80’s knockoff of classic Yes without Jon Anderson, or ingenuity really…. Forgettable and repetitive, and with a painfully short and simple solo, this is one you should just skip over.
SONG #5 – “Time Again” As we get deeper into this album, I am beginning to get extremely bored with the product being offered up by the band. Surely the first two-three songs were at least interesting and catchy, but by now we are scraping the bottom of the barrel, and we are not even to the other side of the LP yet! On this track we do hear a little bit of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer influence, but otherwise I am still not impressed.
SONG #6 – “Wildest Dreams” Opening up the second side is an anti-war song, still musically in the same vein as the rest of the album. Personally, I believe it is overwrought and a bit inferior to other bands like ELP and King Crimson which tackled the subject better both lyrically and musically. Still, the song is painfully average at best.
SONG #7 – “Without You” I am a bit sympathetic towards this one, the slower tempo and dramatic vocals complement the infectious catchy chorus pretty well. Unfortunately, my interest begins to wane as the track goes on and the band goes in a more symphonic direction in the middle section. The guitar solo here also deserves an honorable mention – for a filler track it is an okay tune.
SONG #8 – “Cutting it Fine” For a few seconds at the beginning I thought this was going to be a Steve Howe acoustic/80’s pop hybrid which might have been pretty intriguing, but once again we get another cookie-cutter pop tune that fails to deliver. There is a bit of an instrumental piano/synth part in the latter half which is uncharacteristic for a pop album like this but it really does not salvage much. By this point in the album, I can barely pay attention, because there is really nothing that is capturing my attention. Fortunately we only have one track to go, and I can move on to better things.
SONG #9 – “Here Comes the Feeling” I said earlier that the album was obviously formulaic. Well that statement stands true on the closing track, which sounds like it was produced exactly to be one, and while I do not have a gripe with the concept of a closing track – there are many great songs which do a fantastic job closing their respective albums, “Here Comes the Feeling” might as well be called “Here Comes the Ending” because it is really nothing more than a boring poppy closing tune with no real emotion. Even the band seems uninterested at this point.
This album is by no means great, but I do not think that such a negative outlook should be directly blamed on the music. At face value, the music on the album is okay, but the real issue that gets me and other prog fans is the members of the band. This is FREAKING Steve Howe, John Wetton, and Carl Palmer making cheesy 80’s pop music. Let me put it into perspective – just eight years earlier, Wetton was playing bass on King Crimson’s epic “Starless”, arguably the greatest song of all time. Howe a decade earlier was serenading hordes of fans playing epics like “Close to the Edge” and “Heart of the Sunrise” with Yes. Palmer five years earlier was mashing the drums on a frosty winter day in Montreal with Keith Emerson and Greg Lake inside Olympic Stadium playing “Fanfare for the Common Man”. Even Downes just five years earlier was topping the charts with the Buggles. The point is that a lineup like this could have done something amazing – something that would have cemented itself into the hearts of prog fans the world over like a railway spike being pummeled into the ground. However, they instead decided to sell out and go the mainstream route. The only songs of note on this album are the first two – the rest are uninspiring and forgettable. Asia’s debut is an average album at best, and unfortunately would be the best offering the supergroup would ever make. I would only recommend this album to a big fan of 80’s pop rock – if you liked Yes’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart” or anything from the early MTV era, you should like this one.
OVERALL: 72% – C-