It proves that time is indeed the enemy when the "pop" band that sprang from the union of three progressive veterans and one upstart "Buggle" is now celebrating their 25th anniversary. In 1982, when Asia released their first album, Steve Howe, John Wetton and Carl Palmer were each already a decade and a half into the business of professional musicianship. The "young" guy, Geoff Downes, was fresh out of The Buggles and a stint with Yes.
How 25 years has passed in a blink. I remember wearing out the Asia LP in the Spring of '82, while a 10th grader trying desperately to pass Geometry! The tight, melody-laden and focused pop of Asia was sacrilege to some fans of Yes, ELP and King Crimson, the bands that reared the three vets, but to me, it was just great music, with sing-along choruses, stacked harmonies, wet, reverb-laden Big 80's production and great musicianship. Sales proved that my take was the popular one, and in time, even die hard fans of the old guard at least appreciated that these well-known pro's where enjoying a renaissance on FM radio and newly-launched MTV.
Unfortunately, where to go from nine weeks at number one and seven-million copies sold than down? And Asia, rushed into their decidedly inferior though successful 1983 follow-up album (Alpha) suffered the loss of their lead singer Wetton almost immediately. Howe was next and by 1985, following a brief return by Wetton for a third album without Howe (Astra), Asia silently broke up. After Downes, Wetton and Palmer reunited for a tour and several new songs in 1990, by the next studio album (Aqua, 1992), bassist/vocalist John Payne had filled the Wetton role, and Palmer and Howe were only guesting as studio musicians (though Howe joined the tour). Asia from 1994 – 2005 was basically Downes and Payne, with a revolving door of supporters. They recorded several studio albums and toured, but widespread success was evasive.
In 2006, the four original members reunited for an American tour. Fantasia, recorded in the Spring of 2007 in Tokyo, captures a group of musicians who have seemingly learned a lesson in letting a good thing slip away, and they appear to be on a mission to not let history repeat itself.
The band is very solid. Importantly, John Wetton retains most of his vocal timbre and range from decades prior to still be effective. While he grimaces on occasion, he's still smooth and silky in his delivery, and above all he IS the voice of Asia; this is important (think Greg Lake who replaced Wetton for 1983's mammoth worldwide MTV satellite broadcast, "Asia In Asia," when Wetton had abruptly quit. Lake almost pulled it off, but not quite. One could say the same for Payne). With singers, bar several remote exceptions, there's nothing like the original.
The celebrated Howe is as focused as he has ever been—even more so in this context. Because Asia's set is mostly the entire debut album, plus some extras, Howe's typical army of guitars is absent. Here, he uses the same Gibson ES Artist exclusively that he toured with on the original Asia road shows. Other than a PRS with MIDI acoustic pick-up and his classic Martin for his solo spot, he sticks to this and—shockingly—has dispensed with his analog amps and replaced them with processed Line 6 sounds. Hell if it doesn't work—and sound great—to boot. OK, so I'm sold, these modeled sounds have finally made the grade; if Howe is using them you can count on it.
The ultra-technical Palmer comes off a bit under par for him; while he's mostly steady and his laser fast handwork is always impressive, his fills, while technically brilliant, are simply rushed at times. The arrangements on the early Asia albums stressed colorful unison drum/guitar fills, and when one is rushed (especially alongside Howe's always tasteful, spot-on timing), it's very noticeable. Let's assume he had an off night.
Downes is the best keyboard player no one ever celebrates, and the star of Asia. Forget that he kept the Asia flame going for years on his own, allowing for this reunion to actually happen. The guy is a flat-out great musician. His array of sounds are always interesting and never stale. He's got pianos, harmonicas, synclavier, Fender Rhodes, Emerson moogs, organs, mellotrons, all expertly realized and executed. When Downes is the keyboardist, you tend to forget how technically brilliant he is, because he makes it sound so singable (but just try this at home!).
With the performance mostly solid and inspired, the songs are like old friends. No disappointments here. It's great to hear "Without You", "Cutting It Fine" and "One Step Closer" see the light of day alongside the hits. And the Yes/ELP/Crimson/Buggles selections are nicely done (though could anyone really replicate "Video Killed the Radio Star" without Trevor Horn?). The surprise is how Wetton handles "Roundabout"; Jon Anderson is no walk in the park!
For bonuses, there's a nice set of band interviews to go along with the show. Rumor is that the re-united Asia is recoding a new album in 2008. If Fantasia is any indication, these four talented mates have learned to hold on to a good thing, and only good things can come.
1) Time Again
2) Wildest Dreams
3) One Step Closer
5) Without You
6) Cutting It Fine
7) Steve Howe Guitar Solo
8) Fanfare For The Common Man
9) The Smile Has Left Your Eyes
10) Don't Cry
11) Court Of The Crimson King
12) Here Comes The Feeling
13) Video Killed The Radio Star
14) The Heat Goes On / Carl Palmer Drum Solo
15) Only Time Will Tell
16) Sole Survivor
17) Ride Easy
18) Heat Of The Moment