June 26, 2023

Leaping out of the traps as if the band are rushing from confinement with joyful abandon, Never Again combines energy, power and a memorable melody with sharp lyrical content in a way that could have Heat Of The Moment going through a mid-life crisis and questioning its life choices…

Asia are a band with whom I have not always had an easy history, I must confess. Like many others, I was somewhat underwhelmed by their debut album on its arrival some four decades ago, with the prior credentials of the four members (Howe, Palmer, Wetton and Downes) not preparing me for a result which was far more of a commercial, AOR-leaning effort than the mighty alliance of Yes, ELP and King Crimson that I had been hoping for as a green and callow youth! Now, with forty years under my ample belt, and being possessed of more experience as well as inches on said belt, that was always an unlikely and somewhat naive expectation in 1982, and even back then I enjoyed certain tracks from the band’s first few albums (the single Go from the Astra album was a personal favourite) as my hopes became tempered by reality. However, while I learnt to make my peace with the fact that Asia never intended to be the prog colossus which my 21-year-old ears wanted them to be, there was always something still preventing me from embracing that debut album which was held in such high esteem by many. And that was the demon plaguing so many releases from that time: the dreaded 1980s Production.

‘And now you find yourself in ’82’, sang Wetton on Heat Of The Moment – and didn’t we just know it, as that ubiquitous glossy sheen pins the recording to its time as accurately as if it had been carbon dated. As the 1980s progressed, and turned into the ’90s, this ghastly Def Leppard In A China Shop production became less and less prevalent, and with it came a marked inprovement in Asia’s overall sound, at least to these ears. However, the other side of that coin was the splintering of the original four-piece ‘supergroup’ line-up, as first Howe and then Palmer and Wetton departed. leaving Downes essentially to steer the ship. What I wished could have come from Asia was the sweet spot of those original four talents unhindered by a sound which conjures up horrible images of men on stage wearing suits with the sleeves rolled up and sporting nice sensible haircuts. The early 1980s, I still maintain, managed the trick of adding glittery brightness all over the music while simultaneously draining all of the colour and edginess from what had once been ‘rock and roll’. As the 1990s turned into the new millennium (‘and so we found ourselves in 2002’), it seemed that particular scenario had been lost to the ages. Until, that is, 2006 came into view, and with it an entirely unexpected reunion of those original four members.

The result of that regrouping was the album we now see reissued in a rather nice double vinyl format (with shorter sides for added fidelity), and while not a perfect album, it was and remains, for me, about the best that Asia had ever sounded. Gone was that dated production and, while the ethos of commercial easy-on-the-ears rock remained, gone too was the earnest desire present in ’82 to forge a new path and burn all bridges to that inconveniently flared and platform-booted past. You were still never going to see any topographic oceans, larks’ tongues or brain salad on the menu here, but there can be found within these grooves a sense of the four men playing more freely and unencumbered by their past, than they ever had 20-odd years earlier.

The opening track, Never Again, is as pure a distillation of everything Asia set out to be, and managed to be at their very best, as you could possibly get. Leaping out of the traps as if the band are rushing from confinement with joyful abandon, the track combines energy, power and a memorable melody with sharp lyrical content in a way that could have Heat Of The Moment going through a mid-life crisis and questioning its life choices. A perfect album opener, any doubts about whether the original four could sound vital and engaged 25 years on are swept away in a tsunami of masterful commercial rock – which surely, if released two decades earlier, would have been a sizeable hit. The remainder of what constitutes the first vinyl side here is all strong, with Nobody’s Perfect a nice slab of effortless AOR and Heroine a tremendous ballad. Steve Howe is already making his presence felt, but it is on the second side opener Sleeping Giant/No Way Back/Reprise that he first flexes his prog muscles just a little, with the Sleeping Giant portion of the eight-minute piece in particular a beautifully constructed section. The following Alibis is more concise and leaning toward pop-rock, but once again Howe elevates proceedings. He’s enjoying being back, and sounds as if he has a point to prove.

Another eight-minute piece on the third side, the three-part Parallel Worlds/Vortex/Deya, is a clear highlight and overall about as pure prog-rock as Asia ever got. The instrumental section following the opening vocal part is absolutely sublime, with Palmer and Downes joining Howe in the way they excel here. If Asia could always have sounded like this, I’d have signed on as a big fan 25 years earlier, and it’s so good to hear just how great such consummate songwriting can sound when enriched by top-shelf musicians such as this. The final side is perhaps the strongest of all when taken as a whole, with the opening Orchard Of Mines a magnificent composition which is again bolstered by the rejuvenated Howe. The closing An Extraordinary Life is a genuinely uplifting closer, but inbetween is the outstanding Over And Over, a grand, towering power-ballad which sees Wetton in tremendous voice (as he is throughout to be fair), and is probably my top pick along with Never Again and the Parallel Worlds suite. Lighter-wavingly good!

This double vinyl reissue is a very nice package as well, with beautiful Roger Dean paintings adorning both the front cover and the fold-out insert, with that insert also boasting some nice photographs along with interesting sleeve notes by Dave Gallant and also Carl Palmer. My only gripe would be that, with the release going all out for the double vinyl treatment, I would have liked to see it done as a gatefold, with the foldout insert instead being used as the inner gatefold spread and individual inner sleeves, but then again I have always been a sucker for a nice gatefold – blame Tales From Topographic Oceans for spoiling me as a 14 year old!

As stated earlier, the album isn’t perfect – there are a couple of tracks which do remain mired in a slightly over-syrupy and smooth AOR sound – but it’s certainly a fine effort overall, and better than anyone would have had a right to expect from a foursome who were expected at that time to be a thing of the past. If you liked the first couple of Asia albums, there is no way you won’t love this. If like me you were unconvinced, however, then do still investigate this as it might just change your mind. For me, this represents probably the best album that Asia ever put out, and this is a very nice way to add it to your collection. Risen from the ashes, indeed!