Asia - Phoenix

Year of Release: 2008
Label: EMI
Catalog Number: 50999 212869 26
Format: CD
Total Time: 64:52:00

And so you find yourself in '82, as this Asia seems familiar to you. You can't concern yourself with other things, you catch a hook and ride the dragon's wings.

While that might seem to be an obvious opening sentence for a review of Asia's 2008 re-debut Phoenix (and roughly how I opened my review of Aura), it doesn't mean it isn't apt; at least to these ears. Yes, there is that much familiarity of Asia 2008 to Asia of days gone by. I mean, this is the original Asia, and this album makes no bones about that. Look at the album title, Phoenix.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-Asia or anything. I absolutely loved so many of those hits from the classic line up - "Heat Of The Moment," "Don't Cry," "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes," etc. But - and one hates to say "but...," but - you'd think that after nearly 20 years since their last half-new release (Then And Now [1990]), that there would be something new to the Asia sound, something that bespoke of Steve Howe's continued Yes involvement and his solo pursuits, John Wetton's solo pursuits, Carl Palmer's solo pursuits and Geoff Downes other pursuits...

However, let's flip that around. After 20-something years, this quartet haven't lost their stride. Sure, some segments never stopped being Asia, but the Asia of the late 90s was a slightly different ... continent. If you were expecting intelligent yet accessible progressive rock, and, may I say, music made for adults, then Asia don't disappoint. And there is more bite to this release, compared to what I thought of Aura. I realize that Asia did have another studio release in between, but therein lies the gap in what my ears have heard. Of course, as there are different players here, it's not entirely fair to compare this to Aura.

The very first track on this CD is a bold statement, "Never Again." The opening guitar phrase leaves no doubt that this is Asia, and from that point you're drawn in. This track is one part spiritual and one part cosmic, depending on how you take Wetton's metaphor. In either case, you can clearly hear the resolve in his performance. It's a showcase for Wetton's vocals, which sound great, and Howe's guitar which meaty and raw, starting things off with fire and sparks. The band don't really reach the same level of energy on the rest of the album, though that doesn't mean the rest of the album is without energy, just that this one charges out of the gate and doesn't look back (although musically it very much does look back). There is vitality to this release, however. A creative energy at work, evident in every crystalline note played by Howe, the rich mix of keys from Downes, the crisp percussion of Palmer and the warm vocals of Wetton. Those outside pursuits have kept this quartet sharp and in top form.

The songs on Phoenix tackle such themes as the impermanence of it all in the triumphant "Nothing's Forever" -- after an a cappella vocal, we get the trumpet of horns, leading into a mid-tempo rocker. There's the both the sad and uplifting in the ballad "Heroine" -- sad because it's not entirely a love song, and yet it is; rendered with lush keyboard washes accented by orchestration that includes the sound of plucked violins, all supporting Wetton's warm crooning. The rocker "No Way Back" is about pushing life to its limits (for good or ill), and in Asia fashion, they hold nothing back. I find especially... interesting the fat, squishy bass effect heard occasionally during the verses (a serious track, but this sound makes me think of frogs); during the choruses it is Howe's light and lacy guitar phrases and Downes keys that take the lead. It is part of a suite of pieces, sandwiched between two tracks, "Sleeping Giant" and "Reprise." Each/both of these would clearly classify as prog. It is in "Sleeping Giant" that Wetton as bassist first emerges with lovely dark tones in a piece with a gothic feel -- perhaps it is those deep harmonized/chorus-like vocals. This soon becomes much larger with parpy, exalted keys, glistening guitar phrases, throbbing bass, and shimmering percussion. "Reprise" is the "proggier" of the two - spacy in a um... Pink Floyd kind of way, honestly... though it lasts only a few moments. Of course, there are also tracks that are clearly matters of the heart - "Alibis" (an ending), the balladic "I Will Remember You" (love lost); "Shadow Of Doubt" (love perhaps slipping away) -- and some that seem more faith inspired, "Never Again," "Over And Over"...

So, rather than their intervening musical experiences influencing their music, it is their life experiences; and, I'd venture to say, mostly Wetton's (he wrote or co wrote most of the album's 12 tracks with Downes). If you followed the health news of Wetton, you can find some reflection of his mind set in 2007 - late July 2007 it was discovered that Wetton had a heart condition for which he had surgery in August of that year.

"Alibi" is a peppy foot tapper; reedy synths and bouncy bass lines only yield the floor to guitar during the brief solo spots for Howe, who makes his guitar sing for those few moments. It is a piece credited to all four, and given that each member does get fully into the mix, this becomes apparent, especially Palmer's taut drumming which is the warmest element of the track that otherwise feels a bit cold. Appropriate as the protagonist is turning a cold shoulder to his lyin' lover, but mainly it has to do with the synths.

"Parallel Worlds" sounds very retro, so very 80s balladic pop. I think it's mainly in the warm vocal harmonies, the guitar arpreggios.. It gives way to "Vortex," which, given some of Palmer's muted yet rapid fire percussion (which sounds more like electronic percussion at times), you do get the sense of being drawn into something. And definitely when Palmer lets loose - on "real" drums, thankfully. What's on the other side ("Deya") is moody acoustic guitar riding on a gentle bed of keyboard washes; later some twangy, melancholy electric guitar. Again we have some Floydy like atmospheres, only the use of acoustic textures take it somewhere else.

The Howe penned tune "Wish I'd Known All Along" becomes Latin-tinged, a tango that ... oddly enough reminds a bit of Madonna's "La Isla Bonita." Really. Musically, at least and in some of vocal cadences; note, however, that Wetton sounds like himself, as does Howe sound like himself on harmony vocals.

"Orchard Of Mines" is lush, the wash of keys and, I think, the shimmer of a gong gently struck by Palmer (or they're deeper toned cymbals gently brushed by Palmer). And the mid-tempo "Over And Over" has an old-world/country feel -- Italy in Texas? The strummed guitar brings the latter, a mandolin (though none is credited) brings the former.

There are no surprises, no moments where you think "this is Asia?" In many ways, they are playing it safe, secure in their knowledge that they can create wonderfully sounding music with lovely textures, not have it sound exactly like their "glory days" material and yet not stray far from the "brand." Perhaps we can view Phoenix as testing the waters; will this bird fly? And if so, maybe then with a second flight chances can be taken.

So, yeh, ok. Asia sound like the Asia of old. But you know, this time I have to say "so what." I found myself singing along, air guitaring along (and air drumming and keyboarding) with nearly every track. And I think the best track - and that's saying something because they all are of a high caliber - is the closing track "An Extraordinary Life." A slow swirl of guitar, bass and keys soon resolves itself into something at first liquid and languid, and grows organically into an uplifting piece. It is Wetton's statement piece - this piece he writes about in the booklet, it is Wetton embracing life having been on a track to losing his. How much is it a statement? The title of the song is the very last words, very last sounds heard on the CD. It just ends.

So, you see, the other phoenix that reemerges on this release is something within Wetton himself and certainly, perhaps in smaller, different ways, within each of the band's members. And we know that that's something they'll take with them to their other projects.

[Also released by Frontiers (FR CD 370L) for the European market]

A short anecdote: When I first heard "Heat Of The Moment," back in '82, of course, ... I thought it was Barry Manilow. Really. And to this day I still think there are times when Wetton still sounds like Manilow to me.
Never Again (4:55) / Nothing's Forever (5:46) / Heroine (4:53) / Sleeping Giant/No Way Back/Reprise (8:10) / Alibis (5:40) / I Will Remember You (5:11) / Shadow Of A Doubt (4:18) / Parallel WOrlds/Vortex/Deya (8:12) / Wish I'd Known All Along (4:07) / Orchard Of Mines (5:11) / Over And Over (3:33) / An Extraordinary Life (4:56)

Geoff Downes - keyboards
Steve Howe - electric, acoustic and steel guitars
Carl Palmer - drums and percussion
John Wetton - lead vocals, bass


Hugh McDowell - cello (6, 12)

Alpha (1983)
Astra (1985)
Then & Now (1990)
Live in Moscow (1991)
Aqua (1992)
Aria (1994)
Arena (1996)
Archiva I (1996)
Archiva II (1996)
Live In Nottingham (1997)
Live In Osaka (1997)
Live in Köln (1997)
Asia Live In Philadelphia (1997)
Live At The Town & Country Club (1999)
Live Acoustic (1999)
Rare (1999)
Anthology (1999)
Axioms (1999)
Archives - The Best Of Asia 1988-1997 (2000)
Heat Of The Moment: The Very Best Of Asia 1982-1990 (2000)
The Collection (2000)
Aura (2000/2001)
Enso Kai (Live In Tokyo 1983) (2001)
Alive In Hallowed Halls (2001)
America - Live In The USA (2002)
Anthologia: 20th Anniversary Geffen Years Collection 1982-1990 (2002)
Dragon Attack (2003)
Live In Buffalo (2003)
Live In Hyogo (2003)
Live In Massachusetts '83 (2004)
Silent Nation (2004)
Gold (2005)
Definitive Collection (2006)
Live In Nottingham (2007)
Fantasia - Live In Tokyo (2007)
Extended Versions (2007)
Phoenix (2008)
Omega (2010)
Live Around The World (2010)
Resonance (The Omega Tour 2010) (2012)
XXX (2012)

Asia In Asia (VHS) (1984)
Classic Rock Legends (DVD) (2001)
Live In Moscow 1990 (DVD) (2003)
America: Live In The USA (DVD) (2003)
Fantasia - Live In Tokyo (2007)
Spirit Of The Night - The Phoenix Tour - Live In Cambridge 2009 (DVD) (2009)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin UK

Added: July 6th 2009
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website:
Hits: 4513
Language: english


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