(Click heading to visit official website of Asia Featuring John Payne)
Label: InsideOut Music
Home: California (disbanded)
Members: John Payne ~ vocals/bass
Guthrie Govan ~ guitar
Jay Schellen ~ keyboards
Ryo Okumoto ~ drums
There once was a supergroup formed by the world-weary lads of numerous 70's legendary prog bands that went under the unassuming name of Asia. After many line-up changes & brief spurts of touring & recording too numerous to matter they landed with the line-up of guitarist Guthrie Govan, drummer Jay Schellen & frontman bassist John Payne plus founding member Geoff Downes behind the keys. Writing was started on a new album to be named Architect Of Time when Downes decided to leave to join a reunion of the band's original line-up. Eventually, Payne was granted permission to continue as Asia Featuring John Payne, while the original line-up found a second life as Asia. But, before that step the abandoned trio decided to continue on their own under the new banner of GPS ... named after their initials not the mapping technology, though its ironic that they'd be at a figurative crossroads perhaps wondering what direction to go as a band, let alone personally. GPS, with addition of keyboardist Ryo Okumoto of Spock's Beard, released this one album & toured briefly. Further plans for the band were done under the Asia Featuring John Payne name with keyboardist Erik Norlander taking the reigns from Downes & Okumoto. Theoretically, this could be considered a Payne era Asia album. At least half the songs find their roots in the Architects sessions, though writing credit is given only to Payne, Govan, Schellen. GPS didn't necessarily try to radically change their sound or break from the past, but this feels quite different from Asia. The key factor is that Asia always relied on the keyboards & composing of Downes. Thus, without him this is a far more guitar album oriented album than ever before, with in your face hard rock solos galore that would sound out of place on a traditional Asia album. Downes also always kept a safe pop sensability in the music, cliched tenor chorus vocals included, that has now been done away with. Thus, GPS becomes nothing less than Payne's first steps on his own, finding his own sound but within the Asia format. Though, he's always been a prog rocker. Asia didn't make him one. The original line-up - Carl Palmer, Steve Howe, John Wetton, Geoff Downes - was essentially a commercial pop-rock band with a lot of focus on the who in the band & their respective playing much iconized styles, thankfully, often eclipsing the overly sapping material. Songs were primarily Wetton/Downes compositions & this was the beginning of Wetton's change as a songwriter to more personalized songs. Payne came in replacing Wetton as bassist-vocalist & songwriting partner. Not facing the same scrutiny, as he didn't have a large reputation looming over him as did the original Asia guys, he brought a more serious type of music, much more powerful along with socially oriented lyrics - witness here Payne's "New Jerusalem" or the earlier "Military Man" versus Wetton's "Don't Cry" or "Heat Of The Moment" - plus his deeper & rougher voice had a harder edge that matched the themes. Some critics call his lyrics a bit over the top, but if they're over the top its because they require listening that's more than casual ... Wetton/Downes songs only need a casual listen to be enjoyed. But, if he's a serious songwriter it reflects his focus. Most musicians probably would have given up on having anything to do with Asia & trying to keep the brand going seemingly well beyond its shelf live & certainly hit making potential, let alone decried by many day one fans. Payne has stuck with it & braved a territory that puts up a good fight against the reunited original line-up. Personally, I think a far more interesting & humble a fight. Whenever I listen to Asia, I'll confess, I always turn to the Payne output without a second thought. But, I really should mention here that I'm not biased. Quite the opposite. I once tried to get an interview with Payne for the biography I'm writing about his once bandmate Al Pitrelli that includes a couple chapters dedicated to the early days of the Payne era. Never before has his story of this time been put down as I envision, even in the official band biography. Yes, I feel like I'm doing him a favor writing about his band, but also I feel the book isn't complete with talking to him. His manager forget to schedule it a month earlier when he & I scheduled it. Not just did he forget to schedule it, but he forgot about it completely. I waited all day, winter jacket at hand, waiting for a call telling me Payne was at the club ready to talk. I had to get an e-mail fast to L.A. to find out why I was hearing nothing & the meeting time coming & going. I showed up at the club anyways. I remember folks at another table saying loudly afterwards why Payne didn't play any good songs ... that is "Don't Cry", "Heat Of The Moment" or anything that he didn't write from the original line-up. The fact that, even gritting in my teeth at the situation of the day, I preferred his work more only made me feel sad for him, plus, the club wasn't full. Afterwards, I politely turned down Payne's offer to talk to him at the bar as it was too rushed for what I wanted & not the way I would want to follow a gig if I was him, however nice the offer was. While repeated e-mails over the following two months got nowhere, even though he gave me his e-mail that weekend, except for a thanks from his manager for a review, no mention of even recognizing my name. An e-mail arrived from Payne nine months later, which I deleted without reading after keeping it in my inbox for weeks in distaste with both him & his manager. Who takes eight months to reply to an e-mail? Let alone I've only had less than a handful of bands ever complain about something on this blog and guess who one of them is? I feel completely at a loss. To say I had a poor opinion of Asia is an understatement, combined with some music business talk I've heard about him and more talk in fan circles ... sometimes it feels like the world is against Payne, but then I wonder if he hasn't put up a brickwall becoming too protective and his own enemy? I try to write a good review of an album, that according to some I'm being too generous reviewing, and I'm publicly twitterized by the Asia troupe. Not good. Yet, for some strange reason, I'm a fan & looking forward to his new Asia recordings & have favorably reviewed many of his albums & meant it, while declaring his keyboardist Erik Norlander one of my favorites. I guess, the music soothes the savage beast. So, now you know my bias, you can judge my opinion of his music. Speaking of guitarist Pitrelli, the Payne era Asia took on a more hard rock sound due to Pitrelli & the guitarists that followed him in a rotating door that continues to the present day. Yet, at the same time it also became more of the prog band that fans had originally expected but disappointingly not heard. Perhaps it was the shadow of replacing founding member Howe, but subsequent guitarists have not rested on their laurels, both adding their own personality but also trying to do honors to playing his licks. In comparison, Howe in turn sounds like his contributions are weak. But, essentially, Asia is & was a keyboard driven band, even with the masterful Howe. But, for the first time, the keyboardist wasn't involved in the writing sessions. There is really where this album changes course from Asia before & after - the keyboard is not a dominate instrument. If the songs were once written around Downes' riffs they no longer feel it. One can only wonder how these songs would have sounded if events had gone differently, as Downes' touch is far different than Okumoto's. On first listen I could feel the hard rock of the songs & felt Okumoto lacking, not up to the challenge, then I realized the above logic of the situation. He added to the songs, not creating them, he molds to them not them to him. Certainly, it can be said that the original Asia played it more safe than not. Without the MTV hits & major label backing pressuring him Payne has been allowed to go in whatever direction he wants. With GPS he takes it to the hilt, maybe even a bit to excess at times. Solos might go on a bit long, the album a bit long, a bit too serious, his vocals a bit forced. But, its no worse than anything put out by Howe & boys in their earlier groups in the 70's. How many Yes or King Crimson or ELP albums suffer from the same? Yet, somehow Payne gets criticized where he exceeds, while the faults of the past are forgotten. In hindsight it's good that he took his first independent steps out under a new name, thus allowing him to go back & regroup privately what it means to be Asia, or more properly Asia Featuring John Payne. If this was an Asia album it would have been judged far differently. Actually, it tends to get very good reviews, but comparing it to the Asia catalog ... well, really, its too big of a step away from the early days of Asia to be properly compared to the big picture & though it has some similarities to the previous Silent Nation the loss of Downes makes too big of an impact. It's like Genesis with Phil Collins versus Peter Gabriel or Ray Wilson. You really can't compare even if its the same band. They all have their ups & downs, their hits & misses. In 2012 a follow-up GPS was surprisingly finally released with Two Seasons/Live In Japan. A monsterous follow-up it includes two DVDs & two CD featuring two full concerts, one with the full band & an acoustic show with Payne & Govan, plus bonus interviews & promotional performances. A fitting tribute for this brief moment in the history of Asia that deserves to be given a listen. The fact that at one point I didn't like the guy on a personal level & still feel basically pity for him, the fact that I still enjoy his music says a lot about my recommendation to check out his music. As for my opinion of him, hopefully we'll have a second meeting & he can clear the air.