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Asia - Arena CD (album) cover




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3.32 | 162 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
2 stars Review 43, Arena, Asia, 1996, PR (but with some progressive material)


After really enjoying the plain high-quality rock of Asia's debut and subsequently being extremely disappointed with the banal Alpha, I decided to take a look at some of their later and more progressive output. The material and sound has completely changed from the 80s supergroup, and only Geoff Downes remains from the original line-up. It is, however, still quite satisfying, especially on the longer songs, Day Before The War and U Bring Me Down. The playing is good throughout, even if John Payne's voice goes very weird during the harmonies, and occasionally the AOR block-choruses don't really work. Essentially, a good album, and worth getting for the high points. It's a bit of a shame that we have to put up with some of the dross among these.

Some wallowing drums from guest open Into The Arena, which is a soft instrumental with a rather Latin feel. Geoff Downes gives us some standard background keys while the two guitarists play around, one providing acoustic edges, the other electric soloing. After a few minutes, a percussion solo calmly leads us out.

The following Arena is a very good, in my opinion, rock song, with a combination of swelling organ (and occasional keys), a relaxed percussion-bass combination and tolerable vocals and lyrical material. Short twists on the guitar feature throughout. A fairly good piano near-solo from Geoff Downes features (separately we get an equally decent guitar solo), and the song ends on a subdued and distinctly good note. Good song.

Heaven is a more awkward song, with the AOR vocals in full position on the chorus. A fairly dancy combination of the guitars and keyboards open the piece. Payne's vocals sound entirely right for the verses, but the repeats of the chorus (complete with jumpy keys) at the end do make it a little less fun to digest. We get a tolerable, even if it's not Carl Palmer, drum part from Michael Sturgis, and also another good guitar solo. A rather weird glockenspiel-like use of the keys features throughout the song. Not especially good, but not terrible.

Two Sides Of The Moon is a progressive-leaning track, with the guitars especially seeming quite odd to me, occasionally appearing quite dissonantly. Geoff Downes again provides his pretty standard keyboards, and we get another tolerable drum part. The vocals aren't particularly strong, but they're fine for the song's purposes, as are the lyrics. A rather more grainy section (bass-driven) with a guitar solo and weird percussion choices, features around the three minute mark. After the vocals are finished, we get another bizarre section with more of the odd percussion and a weird guitar solo, as well as a sung 'Two sides of the moon'. A good song, and the first of the album's real art rock/crossover prog offerings.

Day Before The War (clocking in at around 9 minutes) begins with a tense combination of instruments, very atmospheric and quite cautious in its development. After a minute or so of this, the organ-guitar riff kicks in, along with a thunderous piece of double-bass drumming. In another minute, the battle is concluded, and a more relaxed piece of music appears, with acoustics and keys featuring most prominently. An appropriate vocal from John Payne continues for a couple of minutes, before another more rock-based instrumental section kicks off with a bass-throb behind it, good drumming. A more martial continuation of the song, following another couple of verses, is very well-handled, with another set of crashing drums and dissonant guitar-work. A good piece of art rock, I think.

Never is the first example of banally-bad material on this album, with a completely uninteresting upbeat feel, tapping, repeated drumming, boring jumpy keyboards, and only slightly redeeming guitar-work. The vocal is generally mediocre, and degenerates into a rather bored chorus with a generic guitar behind it. Terribly boring, and an abberation, given that we've so far had a set of good, or at least, not-bad songs.

Falling does again pick up the album a little, though it's not particularly impressive. A rather awkward performance on the vocals and a needlessly repeated keyboard part does limit the piece. There are a couple of better moments when the song is a bit quieter, and the guitar-work is given the opportunity to be heard, but I'm no particular fan of this song, either.

Words again features a needlessly optimistic and jumpy feel. Not particularly interesting, even if it opens and continues a lot better than the previous two. Repeated riffs and ideas simply don't do that much for me, and the AOR vocal-demon again features, which isn't too desirable.

U Bring Me Down (7 minutes or so in length) is a complete 100% overhaul of the banality of the previous three pieces, with a masterfully-developed opening, some 'Pakistani-influenced' parts from guitarist Aziz Ibrahim, and a superb keyboard-riff from Downes. The vocals are brilliantly handled, and the counter-rap (it's not as bad as it looks on paper, believe me) is very intelligently used. The lyrics are good, the music is superb, with great guitar-parts, especially, fairly interesting drumming and some keyboards which are slightly more eclectic and catchy than most Downes choices. Absolutely great art rock/crossover prog, and the album is worth getting for this reason alone.

Tell Me Why begins with a fairly random keyboard effect and continues as a weirder AOR piece, with a repeated guitar part and some keyboards which feel rather vestigial. The piece just feels rather unnecessary, with far too many annoying vocal repeats to be pleasant to listen to. Not as bad as, say, Never, but not particularly great, either.

Turn It Around is a slightly more sophisticated vocal-driven piece, with some good keyboards and a decent rhythm section. The guitar part is quite enjoyable, and it does provide a good, conclusive feel.

Bella Nova is an uplifting instrumental conclusion to the album, with an unfortunate amount of repetition of individual sounds, even if you do have some more added every now and then. I'm not really the best person to judge this sort of layering, but I don't think it really adds anything to the album.

That Season is a tolerable piece, with a fairly good guitar solo. It's nothing to shout about, but its inclusion doesn't really hurt the album as a whole. The acoustic version of Two Sides Of The Moon is a nice inclusion, though, with a decent feel and a twist on the album version.

So, all-in-all, there is some very good material on here, as well as a few pathetically bad songs. Not a bad album, and I think most progressively-minded people here will find something to like in the three or four more sophisticated pieces.

Rating: Three stars. Favourite Track: U Bring Me Down

Edit: Dropped to two stars, in retrospect. It's a difficult one to rate, as there's far too much dross, but equally some really stellar material. If you want some good progressive rock, there is some on here, and I'd recommend it to someone looking for a different kind of progression, using vocal arrangements and some world influences neatly.

TGM: Orb | 2/5 |


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