Welcome to the musical meandering insights of Aaron Joy. Here you'll find 600 reviews of CDs & DVDs of rock & metal in all its variations, mainstream & indie. What they all share is that the album or band is unique in some way & not every submission was reviewed. Please share these reviews or link to them if you like what you read. Reviews are no longer being posted here but feel free to e-mail Aaron & post comments. (Formerly the Roman Midnight Music Blog)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Asia ~ Aria

(Click on heading to visit official website of Asia Featuring John Payne.)
Style: pop rock, prog-rock
Label: Mayhem Recordings
Year: 1994
Home: England/America

Members: John Payne ~ vocals/guitar/bass
Geoff Downes ~ keyboards
Al Pitrelli ~ guitar
Michael Sturgis ~ drums


If you like any of the singles (i.e. "Anytime," "Feels Like Love," "Military Man" & "Desire") that you've heard from Aria you probably will like the whole album, as it doesn't meander too far from the ballady hard rock template these songs demonstrate. Though, really, one's opinion of Aria is essentially down to whether one prefers the early John Wetton led Asia or this the later John Payne led Asia. As bassists/singers & songwriters the two men are quite different in substance & style. It's like comparing Yngwie Malmsteen with Joe Satriani. Yeah, they both play fast with a classical tinge, but really they're very different six string beasts & to lump them too close does at least one of them an injustice. Which John is yours? It's a loaded question, as it might be the same name & for awhile include the same keyboardist in Geoff Downes, but they are really very different bands. While the current incarnations, including Asia Featuring John Payne & Asia the original line-up, have moved even further from their 80's roots, & even the sound of this 1994 Asia. While the previous release Aqua was the official beginning of the Payne era for Asia, its really here that things congeal musically for the rebooted band. Those who decried at the time, & there were plenty for either valid or questionable reasons, that this new Asia led by Payne & Downes - sadly with a rotation of guitarists & drummers, ironically including two guitarists from Billy Sheehan's Talas - was going in a hard rock direction were not far from the truth. Aqua hinted at the musical changeover from the band's pop roots, but here there is no doubt. Though, one might more accurately call this really an Asia for the 90’s, a time where the early pop of "Don't Cry" doesn't really work in the same way that it did a decade earlier. The lyrics take on a more serious feeling while Payne does his best operatic influenced singing. There was a deliberate choice to make the vocals a focus of this album, compared to Aqua, so Payne is front & center pouring his heart out, trying to not make the album more than just some throwaway screaming hard rock but actually a collection of passionately sung songs. On one hand, for those that enjoy his voice, its good, but on the other hand it also keeps the musical aspect of Asia in an odd transitional abyss. Asia was a supergroup of 70's prog luminaries that is often said to have turned into a pop band with those luminaries under-playing, or at least in comparison to their previous bands. The under-playing continues here. Gone are the weaving guitar lines of Yes's Steve Howe, to replaced by a more rock rhythm approach of power chords by future Savatage/Megadeth Al Pitrelli. Sadly, the songs are primarily driven melodically by the keyboards & thus Al is left as a big name under-utilized rhythm guitarist. Having little compositional input is a factor here in his contributions. There's a few solos thrown out, but they tend to be a bit uncanny sounding for him ... if they're even all him & not a bit of Payne. So, the result sounds like a Downes/Payne project with some guests, also including drummer Michael Sturgis formerly of A-Ha & a disbanded line-up of Asia. Ironically, this is what they were trying to get away from. Essentially, though, the problem is that this is the first album of material exclusively written for this line-up & Payne is still finding his footing & this Asia their sound. They're also trying to get new fans & keep the old, a hot debate that continues to the present. Ironically, when Downes left to join a reunion of the original line-up, Payne took the abandoned trio & reformed as GPS, which is a guitar heavy prog affair showing just how much influence Downes probably had in the composing & shaping the pop aspects of the sound. I hate to say Downes is not a good composer as that's not true. The songs move, groove & are great & incredibly rememorable & this is a highlight of his songwriter, but the album feels held back instrumentally at time. Though, maybe they're just looking to stay within the Asia mold of old while aiming for a commericial MTV single? I'd be willing to bet my money on this hypothesis, particularly when looking at Downes later work once the commercial influence faded. But, if anything, the restrained music means that at times it doesn't give the same power that Payne is giving the project vocally. He's over-singing & the boys are under-playing or something like that at some various moment. Really, it needs more guitar, it needs less pop & more raw rock & some prog energy ... though that would come later as the band would grow, its just too early here. Though, one needs to give Al some overdue credit. He might be under-utilized, but he has a tremendous amount of restraint in not flooding the music, which a lot of guitarists lack. The album may need more guitar, but in places where the keyboards dominate. But, when Al is strumming out a chorus he nails what the song needs to be driven forward but not cluttered. I've always had this idea of Asia, the early Asia, as sounding cluttered. Though, that just might be my memory of the recording quality. For a band that was replacing Howe it's almost better than they didn't go with another big flashy guitarist. Today, one hears Payne do "Military Man," lyrics penned by Downes for a change according to an interview with Payne, & its a suprise to find out Payne didn't write it. He's so come to wrap these early hits around him & his voice that they've now become his in a way he couldn't do fresh out the door. He's grown into the songs or maybe they've grown into him. Either way, they still hold up all these years later as some of the best by Asia & this album is a highlight of the Payne era. Two interesting albums to check out are Archiva 1 & 2 that feature tracks that never made the final cut for Aqua, Aria & Arena, plus some stuff from Payne's earlier bands ELO Part II & The Passion, & stuff Downes wrote for another potential singer. It's an alternative history of Aqua & it's almost a shame that these missing tracks weren't released, such as "Reality" & the rocker intended for Aqua "Heart Of Gold" that has Al ripping more than ever. Certainly, these lost tracks prove Downes & Payne were willing to experiment musicially & that they were probably looking for a cohesive blanket sound for the final product.


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