EMI America, 2008

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


I wanted to like this disc.

No, really. It’s true that I thrashed Asia’s self-titled debut within an inch of its life -- and I stand by every word -- but I’m the forgiving type, and last year’s live DVD showcasing the band’s reunion tour was reasonably entertaining. Add that to the nostalgia brought on by the reunion of what is undeniably a supergoup -- Steve Howe (Yes) on guitar, John Wetton (King Crimson, U.K.) on bass and vocals, Geoff Downes (Yes, The Buggles) on keys and Carl (Emerson, Lake &) Palmer on drums -- and you want to hope for the best.

The first reminder / warning sign should have been the fact that my favorite songs on last year’s DVD were the non-Asia covers the band did of tunes from each member’s back catalogue. None of which, I should add, appear on Phoenix.

If the band’s goal with this new studio album was to pick right up where their self-titled debut left off in 1982, then mission accomplished. For while Phoenix does show a more thoughtful approach to lyrics, in just about every other respect it is equally as bland, pompous and predictable as its long-ago predecessor.

It seems, in fact, as if the group simply returned to the cookie-cutter template their first album appeared to follow. As before, there are a number of tracks that thump along self-importantly without ever going anywhere interesting -- “Never Again” being the obvious analogue to the likes of “Sole Survivor,” complete with bellowed choruses. Others examples of overblown arena rock wankage include “Nothing’s Forever” and “Alibis.” Each has brief moments when Howe or one of the others threatens to break out of the box and let fly with some genuine instrumental virtuosity, but it never happens. Between the faster numbers, sappy, over-synthesized ballads (“Heroine,” “I Will Remember You,” “Over And Over”) arrive with the regularity of flu epidemics. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The only real breaks from formula are a pair of longer cuts that feel like half-hearted attempts at crafting the sort of imaginative progressive rock that Howe and Palmer in particular are known for in their other musical lives. The problem is, they attempt to apply the extended structure without creating any flow or momentum. “Sleeping Giant / No Way Back / Reprise” starts out with some promise as Downes, Howe and Palmer play an atmospheric little synthesizer-guitar-percussion vignette, with Wetton contributing multi-tracked background vocals. They meander along pleasantly enough for three minutes, whereupon they abruptly bust into an all-too-typical Asia thud-fest, with Wetton braying the clichéd “no way back” chorus enough times to suggest an unattended car alarm. By the time “Sleeping Giant” returns for a reprise at the end, you’re left wondering why they ever thought these two pieces fit together.

“Parallel Worlds / Vortex / Deya” starts out differently, opening with a mid-tempo love ballad that at least features some typically nimble Howe soloing. When the instrumental “Vortex” comes in, with Palmer weaving an intricate rhythmic backdrop under more keening Howe solos, it’s the album’s musical highlight, marred only by the addition of annoying and unnecessary bells (don’t know whether to blame Downes or Palmer for that one). Final section “Deya” is another instrumental, a gentle, pretty acoustic piece again featuring Howe and Palmer. How these latter two supposedly relate to “Parallel Worlds,” I can’t explain.

A word about the lyrics. Prior to the recording of this album, the band’s plans for a fall 2007 tour were scrapped when Wetton had to undergo open heart surgery. His reflections on that experience form the backdrop for these songs, as he repeatedly sings of reconsidering his life (“Wish I’d Known All Long”), trying to be a better person (“Never Again”), seizing the moment (“Nothing’s Forever,” “An Extraordinary Life”) and the like. It’s a worthy effort and adds a depth and resonance to the lyrics here that raise them a cut above those on Asia.

Unfortunately, that resonance can’t rescue this disc from its basic flaccidity. The volume of bland, irony-free 80s arena-rock cheese laid on the table here could feed an army. If that’s your sort of thing, have at it. Me, I’m looking for something with a little more spice.

Rating: D+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2008 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 EMI America, and is used for informational purposes only.