Fantasia - Live In Tokyo (DVD)


Eagle Vision, 2007

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Asia fans who’ve read my review of their eponymous first disc are doubtless unhappy to see my by-line on another review of the band, and it’s a reasonable response.  If I shuddered at Asia in 1982, how much more could I possibly like the same songs performed by the same lineup now that they’re twenty-five years older?

A bit, comes the occasionally surprising answer… a bit.

This DVD was filmed in Tokyo during the 25th anniversary reunion tour mounted last year by the original members of Asia – Geoff Downes, Steve Howe, Carl Palmer and John Wetton, progressive rock stalwarts all.  Said reunion tour was so successful that the band has continued playing together and there has even been talk of a new studio album.  Be that as it may, Fantasia: Live In Tokyo serves as a document of the group’s anniversary tour and a testament to its enduring appeal.

The strength and vulnerability of Asia have always been one and the same.  These four men are all superb musicians capable of making music of great complexity and depth.  The music they made as Asia, however, was essentially pop -- overblown, often pompous pop that wore the label of “arena rock” with more pride than it has ever deserved.

Both pro and con are evident from the start of this set.  “Time Again” is a solid opener, with a steady backbeat and room for some nice soloing from guitarist Howe.  Bassist-vocalist Wetton, whose career at the mike has had its ups and downs, is in fine voice this time out, as strong and on the mark as I’ve ever heard him.  If only a group this talented didn’t choose to wallow in cliché-ridden pap… as one is forcefully reminded when they segue straight into the cringe-worthy “Wildest Dreams.”

A word of explanation is clearly in order at this point.  The element that inspired my interest in sitting through this DVD -- aside from morbid curiosity and a slight masochistic streak -- is the set list.  For this tour, the group invited each member to select a song from his own past in other bands for Asia to play.  First on the dock was Steve Howe’s pick, which allows us to hear what the Yes standard “Roundabout” sounds like played by Asia.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

If only they hadn’t.  Howe is spot-on, of course -- he’s been playing the tune for more than 35 years now and knows just how to caress its every nuance.  But Wetton’s voice is too low for the song, drummer Palmer’s time-keeping is a Reader’s Digest version of the complex Bill Bruford original, and given the unenviable task of standing in for Rick Wakeman, keyboardist Downes only rewards the doubters. 

Ironically, after that experience, the next catalogue piece turns out to be one of the highlights of this show.  “Fanfare For The Common Man” is the cut Palmer selected to represent his “other” group Emerson Lake & Palmer, and it’s a fine choice, having been one of that group’s high-water marks.  In a new arrangement here -- no guitar in ELP, of course -- it’s nothing short of revelatory, with Palmer and Wetton holding down a tight, strong bottom end while Howe and Downes rip through a stupendous five-minute mid-song jam that brings the crowd to their feet.  Of course, most of them probably weren’t saying what I was saying to my TV at that point -- “Why?  Why, if you could make music like this, would you make Asia instead?”

The point is only reinforced minutes later when they tackle Wetton’s even gutsier catalogue number, and turn in a deeply satisfying rendition of “In The Court Of The Crimson King.”  Like the others, Palmer – once again standing in for that promiscuous progger Bill Bruford – brings his “A” game for this classic cut, which is carried off with panache and earns the group one of their loudest ovations of the night.

And then, we’re back.  “The Heat Goes On” tries to strut, something this quartet is constitutionally incapable of pulling off, and looks silly attempting.  It doesn’t get better when at mid-song, Palmer erupts into an extended drum solo that’s every bit as impressive -- and musically irrelevant -- as Bruford’s infamous Yessongs solo.

Irony of ironies, Palmer opens the next cut on cowbell, as the band plumbs the depths of pop pablum with “Only Time Will Tell.”  In the final sequence, Asia injects some genuine fire into their other two big hits “Sole Survivor” and “Heat Of The Moment,” elevating them from standard-issue arena rock to -- er -- unusually well- and energetically-played arena rock.  Yee-ha.

The DVD’s interviews are nice, stitching together the threads of four disparate pasts that came together to form what their marketing team promo’d as “the 80s’ first supergroup.”  In the process, Wetton is frank about the fact that they were very purposely going for a big, bombastic sound, and that they picked Mike Stone to produce Asia in substantial part because he had just produced successful arena rock albums for Journey and Queen.  Regardless of what you think of the end result, points for honesty there.

Fantasia is an interesting historical document of a band that achieved great commercial success in spite of the whining of pointy-headed critics like yours truly, and for that at least they deserve some measure of respect.  That, and the unique and powerful performances of “Crimson King” and “Fanfare” which can only be found on this DVD and its companion CD set.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2007 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Eagle Vision, and is used for informational purposes only.