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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Asia

Arena

Review by Gary Hill

This is not your father’s Asia. In it’s beginnings Asia was a band that was arguably the first progressive rock supergroup -- well, OK, ELP probably has that title, but for various reasons, the crown was placed on Asia’s head at the beginning of their career. In any event, the Asia of old had an arena rock sort of sound that, while espousing prog elements and textures, was pretty much straight forward rock, at times a bit formulaic. As the band has continued on, with members coming and going, the tone of the group has changed. They seem to struggle a bit with direction, not going completely prog, but certainly not eschewing that direction altogether. One element that this disc shows that I see as an improvement over that old sound, though, is that the music has lost much of its slick and almost contrived texture. Sometimes the cuts here come off a bit like they have lost direction, but they really seem more real and less contrived that a lot of the classic Asia catalog.

All that said, the disc is very listenable and has some definite strong points that call to mind both that classic Asia era at times, and other groups including Rabin era Yes and Dream Theater. The lineup on this disc is John Payne, Geoff Downes, Elliott Randall, Aziz Ibraham and Michael Sturgis. Luis Jardim guests on one cut.

 

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2001 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Into the Arena
This cut is an instrumental piece with strong Latin guitar type themes. It also has a fusion oriented style, and kind of feels a bit like a cross between Al Dimeola and Carlos Santana.
Arena
Beginning with a more traditional prog approach, this cut builds somewhat on themes from the past cut, but with a more straight forward prog style. It sounds a bit Alan Parsonsish at times. This one gets very evocative and includes a quite intricate and powerful piano solo. It also features a great organ solo with a solid classic rock sound.
Heaven
With an intro that feels a bit like something off of Pink Floyd’s The Wall album, keyboards eventually come up to impart a new sound. It becomes a harder edged tune that calls to mind the older Asia sound while still having a newer twist to it. This one gets a little bit overblown, but still quite accessible.
Two Sides of the Moon
This one comes across as pretty straight forward rock with an ‘80’s sort of feel to it. It also has some very cool prog tendencies that are almost in an ‘80’s Rabin era sort of Yesish mode.
The Day Before The War
A rather neo-classically tinged keyboard intro starts this one. After the intro, the cut changes gear dramatically into a slow and fairly sedate, but very dramatic prog mode. After building on this style for quite some time, it jumps out in fury, hard edged and powerful with a considerable prog pattern. This cut actually a lot in common with ‘80’s Asia, but I would say even more in common with Dream Theater. This is a great track.
Never
This one has a good pop oriented mode with prog tendencies, a bit in the style of Toto. It jumps up into a more hard edged vein, more in the style of the classic ‘80’s era of this band. The cut drops back to a sedate keyboard interlude before jumping back up into a rather Deep Purple/Rainbowish guitar solo segment. As the song continues into the outro, the guitar gets a bit Howeish at times.
Falling
With a keyboard based intro that is quite sedate, the cut begins building up in a pop rock oriented style. In fact, the rhythmic/melody pattern to this one almost reminds me of an old Hall and Oates piece at times. The vocal line on this one is what really steals the show and elevates it above the basic pop mantle.
Words
Beginning with a very dramatic keyboard intro, the cut then drops to acoustic guitar to carry on. It begins building up from here in a beautiful prog ballad fashion. This one gets quite dramatic and powerful as it carries on.
U Bring Me Down
One of the strongest cuts on the CD, this one starts with dramatic keyboard tones. As other instruments enter, it is with a great Eastern sort of tone. As these elements release control of the piece, it begins to take on a Deep Purple sort of style. This coupled with a prog oriented pop rock style serves as the mode for the next segment of the cut. Add to that a dramatic balladic type sound, and you have a really good idea of most of the various sections of this piece. It does include a drop down to a very dramatic and powerful mellower segment that heralds the most potent section of the piece. As the cut comes out of this vocal section, an instrumental break ensues that covers a lot of territory and has some incredible prog textures.
Tell Me Why
Another dramatic balladic mode begins this cut, and it is carried off in a very powerful way as it builds on. The vocal performance on this one is especially powerful and the combination of the lyrics and performance imparts a world of emotion. This one doesn’t move to far from its original style, but it is a very powerful piece.
Turn It Around
This cut is a fairly straight forward pop rock number that is solid, but not exceptional. The lyrics, however, are rather potent, and the vocal performance adds to this power. “You don’t have to be strong for me, I won’t shoot your defenses down, Whatever happens, I want you to see, We can face it together, And turn it around.” It is fair to say that with a different vocalist this song would be much less intriguing, but Payne’s work really elevates the cut.
Bella Nova
Starting with an almost playful number, this is a very accessible keyboard solo.
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