Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Asia - Alpha (1983)
It shouldn’t have come so soon. 1984 seems like an ideal time for Asia, the much ballyhooed supergroup, to return with a well considered and focused follow up to their smash self-titled debut. The band’s songwriting trust, bassist/vocalist John Wetton and keyboardist Geoff Downes, born the brunt of the band’s commercial fortunes on their collective backs while guitarist Steve Howe parried for whatever credits he could get. This situation only became more fraught after the Wetton/Downes songwriting team scored big with “Heat of the Moment” and numerous other singles off the first album. The resulting fallout from the first album’s staggering success saw the band bowing to record company pressure and re-entering the studio before they had time to artistically recuperate. The second album, Alpha, bears all the marks of its workmanlike labor, but there are moments pointing the way to what an organically developed sophomore effort might have sounded like
It begins with two enormous power ballads. “Don’t Cry”, the album’s first single, and “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” became instant mainstays in the band’s set thereafter and it’s easy to hear why. These are the quasi-orchestrated, cinematic pop songs tapped into the heart of Asia’s songwriting aesthetic. The Beach Boys’ influence on Wetton is often apparent throughout the band’s discography and few songs better illustrate their hold than the track “Never in a Million Years”. The expansive multi-tracked harmonies seamlessly threaded into the song highlights another superbly orchestrated arrangement, but the chorus shows cracks and doesn’t come off quite as rousing as it should.
There’s material on Alpha with potential not properly exploited. “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want)” contains some memorable Steve Howe guitar and his interplay with Carl Palmer is particularly strong, but the track lacks the urgency of its sentiments and comes off a little too limp. Another track from Alpha earning a longstanding place in the band’s live show is “The Heat Is On” and it’s easy to hear why. It’s the album’s best outright rocker and keeps things brisk and focused. Downes and Howe shine on their respective instruments, but the musical highlight comes with their organ/guitar exchange in the song’s second half.
The album’s second half opens with another uptempo number. Carl Palmer expertly handles “Eye to Eye” with a minimum of fuss and Downes’ keyboards have a rambunctious bite, but there’s no ultimate payoff for the track. “The Last To Know” has some virtues, but there isn’t enough to hang your attention on melodically and it ends up sounding more full of bluster than genuine dramatic value. “True Colors” has some laudable sentiments but, musically, lacks enough melody to make it top flight Asia material and the chorus sounds a bit bolted on. The band first premiered “Midnight Sun” during their initial tour, but those early performances far outstrip the comparatively leaden studio counterpart. Alpha concludes with “Open Your Eyes”, the lengthiest cut by far, and the album’s sole concession, but it’s overlong for its musical aims and plays like a very calculated, self-conscious closer.