JAM Magazine Concert Reviews

November 19, 2012
Variety Playhouse
Atlanta, GA USA
Review by David DiPietro
Photos by Chris Eason

Asia

XXX

A rarity in the rock pantheon, Asia is one of the few bands whose individual parts greatly exceeded the sum of its whole when it was formed in 1981.

Guitarist Steve Howe (Tomorrow, Yes), vocalist, bass player John Wetton (Family, King Crimson, Roxy Music, U.K., Uriah Heep), drummer Carl Palmer (Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Atomic Rooster) and keyboardist Geoff Downes (the Buggles, Yes) are, simply put, nothing short of the cream of prog-rock royalty. Each of these musicians possessed a nearly unmatched virtuosity on their particular instruments, combined with a startling, stylistic originality in their musical delivery. With that said, it was baffling that Asia would dispense with the cosmic instrumentals, and pastoral interludes in its 1982 musical debut, given the progressive rock pedigrees the individual members of this burgeoning 'super group' had brought to the table.

Instead of giving its famished early 80's audiences Tarkus meets the Crimson King on the Magician's Birthday for Starless Music in a Doll's House, Asia made a career of playing down to their audiences. Instead, its members aimed for moribund Top 40 success by way of pure pop fare cooked up for the listener in what essence tasted to the musical ears like Abacab-light. And it worked. The band managed to immediately cash in with this simplistic formula, selling four million copies of their self-titled debut and a sold-out arena tour that followed. In the process, these four musicians remained a pristine example of '80s pop-marketing panache. By the end of the decade, however, band members within the group were changing as rapidly as the times, rendering Asia a mere shadow of what they once were.

Then in 2009, as suddenly as they had disappeared, the original line-up of Asia was back. The intent was clear. Reclaim the fan base that was once theirs for the asking.

This evening, the original incarnation of Asia intentionally aimed low and honed down the length of their songs. Though the complex chops and individual musicianship had been toned down by design, there were still moments this evening where individual brilliance was allowed to shine. As the Impressionist painter, Auguste Renoir once observed, "The beauty of, say, a weight lifter was at its greatest when he was lifting something light."

Touring behind XXX, only the third original release involving the infamous four, Asia performed music focused squarely on their first two 80's albums. There was only a minor reference to the newer material in the 90-minute show, and that was to balance out, as well as fill-in the gaps of the evening's set.

"Only Time Will Tell," opened the set in quasi-majestic fashion. The overflow crowd proceeded to scarf it down with a relish otherwise reserved for Thanksgiving stuffing. "Wildest Dreams," followed. These two gems would be two of the seven songs performed from the multi-platinum debut.

"The Face on the Bridge," a new tune, came next. This song down-shifted dynamics into a basic and repetitive 4/4 rock beat which would again veer uncomfortably close to the turgid sound of mid-80's Genesis. This stripped back, vocal dominated musical formula would unfortunately be repeated several times during the concert. Paralleling their recorded output, Asia would have their musical virtuosity on display as brightly as their shortcomings. "Time Again," also from the debut, showcased Howe's sprawling and vivid guitar textures against Downes' diverse synthesizer palate. "Ride Easy," a rare single B-side, was an early surprise in the set list.

Howe's acoustic guitar solo followed (a spotlight each member would share). The guitar maestro started out by reaching back to his 2008 solo album, Motiff, performing "The Golden Mean." What sounded initially like he was goofing off on a country tangent, became a Chet Atkins-inspired romp that flowed nicely into, "The Clap," his stately piece from The Yes Album.

"I Know How You Feel," was collaboration between Wetton and Downes. It felt a bit forced on the surface, though few in the audience probably noticed or even cared. This part of the show seemed like the two musicians were merely going through the motions and was a bit of a letdown. Howe and Palmer returned for "Don't Cry" the hit single off the second album, Alpha that Wetton jokingly told the audience broke up the original band. The first half of the show ended with "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes." These compositions featured mutual interplay between a heavenly choir of keyboards and voice. For the record, Wetton's vocal pipes remain un-weathered from over 40 years of recording and literally thousands of concert performances.

After about a 15-minute intermission, Asia returned with, "Cutting it Fine." This tune featured a Geoff Downes keyboard solo. While not in the same league as say, Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman, the ex-new waving Bugle definitely displayed a technique not normally associated with the likes of "Video Killed the Radio Star." This set the stage nicely for the evening's highlight.

As the band played "Holy War" from their 2010 record, Omega, Wetton, Downes and Howe left the stage as Carl Palmer performed a brief, though intoxicating, drum solo. Palmer is a rarity. He is one of a handful of rock drummers whose sheer power, precision and dynamics are anything less than captivating when the spotlight is on. Though his solo this evening would be less than ten minutes (as opposed to a 35-minute solo I saw him perform with ELP during their heyday in 1978), it was nonetheless breath taking.

Drum solos these days have devolved into anti-climactic, histrionics. Palmer, however, seems to reinvent the wheel every time he performs on his own. He is one of the few drummers in rock that uses the traditional grip technique with his sticks. The style is often criticized, but not when Palmer is behind the drum set.

"An Extraordinary Life," was the tune that followed, but it seemed particularly un-extraordinary coming on the heels of Palmer's percussion tour de force. This led directly into a predictable, if solid, "Here Comes the Feeling."

This evening's encore featured the band's two biggest hits, "Sole Survivor" and "Heat of the Moment", which just by coincidence also happen to be their biggest cliches. Indeed, if anyone wanted to compare and contrast the height of progressive rock with what this band regularly churned, one need only look at the titles and lyrics to many of Asia's songs, starting with these two.

"Sole Survivor" and "Heat of the Moment" actually sounded better tonight than it did on album. However, its brief instrumental interlude barely packed a wallop. This part of the show made me realize just how far a departure each member of the band had taken from its musical roots when they shed their progressive skins. Asia became a power pop band with tight hooks and catchy melodies that worked. I may have been disappointed when this music was initially released, but 30 years later, here I was relishing the past I was initially underwhelmed by.

Yes, this evening's show only managed to capture a few precious moments of the instrumental fireworks that made these musicians superstars. That said, it was still preferable all these many years later to hear the members of Asia play down to their audiences than for them to not be playing at all.