July 6th, 2012 | Published in TCS Reviews
By Pete Roche
And now you find yourself in two-zero-one-two. The disco hotspots hold no charm for you.
The Eighties were a peculiar time for music. New Age artists and synth-pop poseurs rubbed shoulders with heavy metal mavens and bubblegum dance divas. The openness in the market was only exacerbated by MTV, whose relatively new visual aesthetic meant a performer could get airplay even if his music instincts couldn’t live up to his image. The passage of the decade into the more cynical, grunge-powered Nineties left a wake of one-hit wonders whose auteurs were left facing serious identity crises in a changing climate.
The four original members of Asia—the guys responsible for megahits “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell”—luckily had backup plans following their dissolution. Guitarist Steve Howe began cranking out solo albums in earnest, ultimately returning to Yes in 1996. Singer-bassist John Wetton (ex-King Crimson) worked on and off with U.K. Drummer extraordinaire Carl Palmer toured with his own jazz-rock trio. Keyboardist Geoff Downes kept the spirit of Asia alive by enlisting new talent (most notably vocalist John Payne) to sustain the group after his compatriots jumped ship.
But the quartet reconvened in 2006 to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a world tour. The gigs resulted in a modestly successful live DVD—Asia: Spirit of the Night—and were apparently so enjoyed by the musicians themselves that they elected to write their first new material together since Alpha.
Who could have foreseen that that Phoenix(2008) —the first release from the original lineup in a quarter century—would be met with such critical praise? Or that follow-up Omega (2010) would further eclipse Asia’s best material? Or that another masterpiece, XXX, would arrive to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the band’s debut?
Produced by Mike Paxmon (Uriah Heep, Status Quo), the dozen tracks on the new release from Frontiers Records parallel and expound upon the themes (regret, mortality, resurrection, redemption) introduced on Phoenix and Asia. Only now Wetton, Downes, Howe, and Palmer have established some serious creative momentum to back their prodigious chops.
Howe—now in his sixth decade playing guitar—remains a rhythmic force in Asia, layering tracks with crunchy power chords (“No Religion”) and peppering songs with cascading runs (“Tomorrow the World”) and tasteful, flute-like trills (“Faithful”). He plies his Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul to the creation of delicate, spellbinding leads and memorable fills, sometimes employing his trademark pedal steel when the mood calls for extra anguish or forlornness (“Faithful,” “Ghost of a Chance”). There’s even some pretty acoustic work here; that’s probably one of Howe’s many Martin steel strings coursing through postcard ballad “Reno(Silver and Gold).”
But the new material is prevailed upon not so much by Howe as by songwriters Wetton and Downes, whose dynamic aural partnership (witness their teamwork on the ICON trilogy) gives XXX an abundance of heart and soul.
Wetton pushes the limits of his vocal range throughout the disc, even engaging a bit of falsetto on “I Know How You Feel,” whereon the 63-year old stretches and sustains his verses like a cantor in his twenties.
“Sometimes we find ourselves where others will not dare to go,” he cooes.
The ex-King Crimson singer has a ridiculously rich, pleasant, familiar tenor—and one which makes even the silliest turns of phrases somehow sound right—if not perfect. On “Tomorrow the World”—a foot-stomper about making one’s own good fortune—Wetton’s narrator confidante insists the world will be more simpatico even if it hasn’t truly changed one iota. He anticipates a messianic dawn and daisy-chains life away during change-of-heart rocker “No Religion.” On eloquent “Bury Me in Willow,” the Bournemouth bard riskily rhymes joke with cloak and oak (and that’s just during the refrain).
Elsewhere, as on the bright, funky “Al Gatto Nero,” (that’s “Black Cat” for all you would-be Google search translators) Uncle John wails in his uppermost register while dabbling in Spanish—and the call-and-response chorus just sounds fun instead of funny. imagery If there’s a hidden message in Wetton’s word play, perhaps it’s simply that he’s finally “feelin’ good” after a decade of health scares.
“If I had money, I’d drop it all in the wishing well,” posits the seasoned Zon bass-boomer.
Downes (who moonlights with Howe in Yes) graces the album with inimitable piano and synthesizer prowess, bringing medieval brass tones to bear on “Tomorrow the World” and lush, cinematic orchestral strings to “Bury Me in Willow.” He prefaces lead-off single “Face on the Bridge” with gorgeous piano chords, embarks on a wild synth solo halfway through “No Religion,” and caps “Al Gatto Nero” with a mischievous Stevie Wonder keyboard flourish straight out of the “Sir Duke” playbook.
Downes could probably have gotten away with more flamboyance here, but restraint rules the day. Downes knows Asia is more pop than prog, and his keyboard contributions fittingly serve the songs rather than call attention to themselves. This virtuosic ego-checking by all parties keeps XXX from sinking beneath the weight of Asia’s progressive leanings. Despite their heritage in sometimes bombastic, arty-farty groups who occasionally indulged extended musical overplay and lyrical pretentiousness, the guys in Asia anchor their material and save the instrumental ornamentation for later. Downes, Howe, and Palmer how much is too much and thus avoid needless keyboard-tinkling, guitar shred overkill, and percussive bombast.
XXX probably won’t convert non-believers; the band is too far along in its career to worry about winning over newcomers. But like its two twenty-first century predecessors, the album is more rewarding with each listen. Fans who enjoyed those comeback offerings will delight in the melodious positivity and smart song craft of XXX. Even Roger Dean’s cover illustration echoes Asia’s debut thirty years ago, what with another dragon chasing an elusive pearl (note the album’s Roman numeral title embodied in the fish flopping at the waterfall).