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Asia - Arena CD (album) cover




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3.32 | 162 ratings

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4 stars Originally a highly-successful supergroup consisting of Yes' Steve Howe, The Buggles' Geoffrey Downes, Carl Palmer of ELP and the redoubtable ex-King Crimson, Roxy Music and Family vocalist/bassist John Wetton, Asia initially enjoyed enormous success following the release of their 1982 self-titled debut, shifting in excess of ten million copies globally and selling out stadiums across North America, Europe and Japan during subsequent promotional tours. It was a golden start for the quartet, the stuff of dreams, yet it wouldn't last. Follow-up album 'Alpha' sold around a quarter of the debut albums total, a huge drop-off, and various tensions between the members quickly surfaced, so much so, that by the time they were ready to tour Japan in support of 'Alpha' circa 1983, Wetton had been hastily replaced by former King Crimson frontman Greg Lake, the first of many changes that would render Asia a very different beast by the end of decade. Asia's success, such as it was, was originally based on a canny mixture of star persona, FM-friendly AOR tunes and clever marketing, and while at first it worked wonderfully well, the formula was soon exposed for what is reallly was - a corporate promotion, the music industry equivalent of a multi-million dollar blockbuster with little actual artistic merit. Therefore, it is no surprise that the group's popularity nose-dived quite spectacularly from around 1984 onwards, and even many a change in personel failed to arrest the slide. By 1996 the only remaining original member was keyboardist Geoffrey Downes, and the group was now led by vocalist-and-bassist John Payne, who, legend has it, gave up a spot working with Jeff Lynne's ELO to take the job with Asia. As a result, the history of Asia can be split into two distinct sections: the early corporately-charged prog-lite supergroup, and, whisper it, the far superior John Payne-led version who, unlike their predecessors, actually produced progressive-style music, which brings us to the 1996 album 'Arena'. Arguably the finest Asia album yet, 'Arena' featured a line-up comprised of Payne, Downes, guitarists Aziz Ibrahim and Elliott Randall, and drummer Michael Sturgis, hardly an all-star line-up and, on paper at least, a far less exciting proposition that the original quartet. But looks can be deceiving. Whilst the early albums sold well, musically they were the wrong side of appalling. Most music ages, yet the early albums of Asia now sound positively awful, making the lesser albums of Journey, Boston and even Survivor look like polished gems. Of course, Asia was never meant to be another Yes or King Crimson, it was a much more commercial project, yet the waste of talent was truly epic. The real irony is that, almost sixteen years later, Asia, with an almost completely-different line-up, were now making much better, much more complex and interesting music, which far less people were taking notice of. From it's catchy, percussion-led title-track intro, 'Arena' bristles with technically prowess. This is how it should have been from the very beginning. Highlights include the chest-thumping 'Into The Arena', with its huge chorus, the carefully-constructed and musically- eclectic 'Two Sides of The Moon', and the nine-minute 'The Day Before The War', which takes Asia beyond their AOR- based soundscapes and into to full prog-rock mode. At the core of Asia's improvement? John Payne. If you buy just one Asia album, then make sure it is 'Arena'.

stefro | 4/5 |


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