Asia: Asia (1982)
When I was young, my dad was so cool that he would actually sit and listen to me play selections from my latest album purchases. Looking back, I think he just wanted to spend time with me, not really caring much for the music – which, as I recall, was by the likes of Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Loverboy. It was the early-Eighties, after all. Among the last titles I remember us sharing together is Asia’s self-titled 1982 debut. That one, my dad seemed to like.
Much as childhood innocence eventually fades, so too do a child’s musical tastes. And while Asia’s epic synthesizers, grandiose orchestration and Roger Dean dragon cover art may seem hopelessly dated now, it remains a classic album that -- despite that dragon on the cover -- brought the pretentiousness of Seventies progressive rock to a mainstream audience with a combination of accessible melodies and straightforward lyrics. The album's success made Asia one of the first true supergroups of the decade. Listening to it with fresh ears after having been away from it for awhile, it’s easy to hear the individual influences of singer and bass player John Wetton (King Crimson), keyboardist Geoff Downes (The Buggles), guitarist Steve Howe (Yes) and drummer Carl Palmer (Emerson, Lake & Palmer). Intricate instrumentation woven into sweeping melodies with just the right dash of pop sensibility distinguish Asia's first album as the band’s overall best work.
Only the album’s lead-off single, “Heat of the Moment,” clocks in at less than four minutes, and every track on side two runs longer than five minutes – the commercial kiss of death back then. Yet the album stayed atop the U.S. charts for two solid months and eventually sold 10 million copies, as “Heat of the Moment,” with its thick and instantly recognizable guitar riff, peaked at Number 4. Follow-up single “Only Time Will Tell,” notable for its catchy synthesizers and milky chorus, lodged itself in the Top 20, while “Soul Survivor” introduced minor-key chord changes and odd time signatures to a whole generation of pre-pubescent rock-star wannabes. While those three monsters – all written by Wetton and Downes – define the album, lesser known tracks “One Step Closer,” “Without You” and “Here Comes the Feeling” demonstrate just how melodic and diverse Asia could be. Written by Wetton and Howe, that triumvirate of tunes sounds fresher today than the other trio of worn-out radio staples. Delicate piano lines, thunderous drums, arena-sized guitar solos and some of Wetton’s best vocal performances are wrapped within those songs.
Controversy and trouble plagued Asia – from inner turmoil about who would initially be in the band to the reaction of purists who debated (and probably still do) whether the songs on that first album are progressive enough. High expectations eventually forced Asia to disband in 1985, after sadly trying either too hard or not enough on their two subsequent albums – Alpha and Astra. Even the newer tracks on the lackluster 1990 compilation Then & Now didn’t (and still don’t) compare to the nine gems on the debut.
During the past decade, Asia experienced a resurrection of sorts. No fewer than 10 Asia albums have been issued by various labels, including four studio albums with guitarist, bassist and singer John Payne replacing Wetton, a series of ill-conceived and poorly recorded “Official Bootleg” titles and several compilations of both previously released and unreleased material. Only Downes and Payne, officially, are Asia these days. And while 2000's lush Aura – which features appearances by one-time Asia members Howe, Elliott Randall and Pat Thrall on guitars and Michael Sturgis on drums -- is arguably the best album of the Payne era, it doesn’t quite live up to the debut. Asia still may be the world’s largest continent, but for a few glorious months, Asia was also the world’s biggest band.