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Asia - Asia CD (album) cover




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3.21 | 593 ratings

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4 stars What an oddity this was. Asia's debut album is called "Asia" but has nothing to do with that continent, and finds four prog guys showing a near-total disinterest in sounding like the prog of the 1970s, offering up instead a slick pop-rock album with just enough touches of art rock and progressive pop to feel prog-adjacent.

Let's do an audit of who's here: Carl Palmer's onboard, but this neither has the ferocity of his old stomping ground in Atomic Rooster or the classical complexity of his ELP heyday. Carl, in fact, is only credited as a co-writer on one song, Time Again, which is credited to all four members, and in general there's not much that's ELP-ish here in terms of actual compositional approach and style, though at some moments (like the outro to Cutting It Fine) the band do a fine job of attaining the same mood of gravitas that ELP were able to hit in their most serious moments even if the method by which they get there is a little different. (Fundamentally, Geoff Downes is not Keith Emerson and doesn't pretend to be.)

In general however, the only sustained ELP-ish note I detect here is John Wetton's singing, since his style has a similar sort of stentorian tone to the one Greg Lake would use in ELP's more serious moments. Indeed, when John left the band for the first time in 1983 - returning for the Astra album later on - Greg filled in for him on a few live dates, and though I haven't heard any recordings of him with Asia I imagine he'd have been a fairly natural fit.

Indeed, if Greg was the least engaged of the band when it came to the songwriting here, John Wetton was the most - he's got a writing credit on every single track - and whilst there isn't really anything all that King Crimson-ish about the material here, I think you can sort of see Asia as the logical conclusion of the musical trajectory that Wetton followed from the end of Red-era King Crimson via UK. One could imagine the Danger Money-era UK having a stab at Wildest Dreams or Cutting It Fine, for instance, because whilst that project's debut album was an unabashed prog-fusion workout, Danger Money was a bit more interested in throwing in a few pop hooks here and there. If you set the proggiest moments here next to the poppiest moments of UK, the distance isn't all that great.

Rounding out the quartet are two refugees from some Yes drama - Steve Howe and Geoff Downes, to be specific. Howe's co-writing credits tend to be associated with the less poppy numbers here, but the material isn't really that Yes-like - or, rather, it isn't like anything Yes had preivously produced. (Howe's former bandmates would enter the studio to make 90125 about 8 months after this was released, and the influence of this release on their change of direction is noticeable.)

No, of the two Yes men here it's Geoff Downes who seems to have the stronger influence - Geoff's got songwriting credits on about two thirds of the album, and nearly half the songs are Downes/Wetton collaborations. This includes the biggest hits - Heat of the Moment and Only Time Will Tell - which probably explains why all but one of the songs on Alpha are Wetton/Downes pieces (and the exception was written solo by Wetton - The Smile Has Left Your Eyes). Rather than making Asia "Drama 2.0", Downes instead uses the same knack for pop hooks he used to such good effect in the Buggles, with the result that Video Killed the Radio Star is closer to the material on here than, say, Machine Messiah.

The sequencing of the album makes no bones about using the hooky pop numbers to lure you in before treating you to some of the more progressive material. If you're a prog purist, you'll likely be turned off the album before you get to the meatier stuff - but if you enjoy smarter-than-average AOR, it's rather good, and if you want to argue that it's nothing but empty pop rock you clearly didn't pay attention to the whole thing: I defy anyone to listen to Cutting It Fine and say it isn't a damn fine pocket epic, cramming into just over 5 minutes more ideas than some prog outfits manage in 20. The production on this has admittedly dated somewhat - it would have sounded absolutely futuristic on its first release, but some of those 1980s production techniques haven't lasted the test of time as well as others - but otherwise I'd say it's a fine release and certainly no embarrassment to any of the participants. Is it as good as the best of ELP, Yes, the Buggles, King Crimson, or UK? No - but you can miss that target and still be damn good.

Warthur | 4/5 |


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