Saturday, 7 July 2012

Asia - XXX

Asia: the Prog super-group of the 1980s. Drawing their members from such luminaries of the Progressive rock scene as Yes, King Crimson and ELP (themselves possibly the first Prog super-group), Asia produced a brand of pop-prog that took the burgeoning MTV generation by storm. No rock radio show in the early 80s was complete without one of their tunes.

It's now 30 years since their eponymous debut album was released, and having returned in 2008 with their original line-up of Steve Howe, Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer & John Wetton to bring us 'Phoenix' and 2010's 'Omega', Asia have just released their latest collection, aptly called 'XXX'.

This is unmistakeably Asia: a collection of finely worked pop-rock tunes that rarely diverts from that recognised formula that brought them such success 30 years ago. The songs showcase the talents of all four of these consummate musicians, albeit in a restrained MOR, radio-friendly way. Wetton's voice is as strong as ever; Downes' keyboards have a tendency to dominate the mix at times; Howe, as always, shines in places and drives many of the songs with his strong guitar work, both acoustic and electric; and Palmer continues to be the powerhouse when needed, occasionally being allowed to produce some of the intricate work for which he is renowned. Sadly, though, for me, they always seem to leave me wanting a bit more from them: maybe the Asia formula leaves them all just throttling-back a little too much.

Their are glimpses throughout the album of what could be - something a little different from the standard 4-time rock songs that predominate. The opening bars of the opening song 'Tomorrow the World' - with Downes' keyboards creating an atmospheric mood, backed by muted strings, leading to some beautifully lyrical guitar from Howe - are quite stunning, but after 50 seconds we lose that for a standard rock beat which left me a little flat. Don't get me wrong: it's not a bad album, just a little same-y for me. The album closer, 'Ghost of a Chance' is one of those songs that you feel has been around for years: I was utterly convinced that I'd heard it before, yet can't find it anywhere. Indeed, the more I listen to the album, the more familiar it all sounds - these are all quite memorable tunes.

'Ghost of a Chance' is the album closer on the 'standard' edition of the album, but on the version I downloaded there are two 'bonus' tracks, and these for me are the stand-out tracks of this collection. 'Reno (Silver and Gold)' has a wonderful intro passage, and develops into a gentle song, with a repeat of the opening phrasing and a pleasant bit of acoustic work from Howe in the middle. 'I Know How You Feel' is one of the tracks on the main album, but it also receives an alternate mix - the 'Midnight' Mix - which in my opinion is the better version of the song. It has a much gentler keyboard arrangement than the original version, and hardly any drumming, which gives it an altogether more atmospheric feel.

This isn't a bad album, but it's not a great one either. What it is is four great, and still hard-working, musicians producing music that they love and which I'm sure many of those who have listened to them over the last 30 years will equally enjoy, as I have.