Monday, February 27, 2017
Asia - Phoenix (2008)
No one expected this reunion. It appeared increasingly unlikely until the touring return of Asia’s original lineup in 2006 and a new studio album emerged two years later. The passage of time neutered two plus decades of acrimony and lineup changes like Geffen and the band briefly replacing bassist/vocalist John Wetton with Greg Lake, Wetton leveraging guitarist Steve Howe’s ouster from the band before the recording of Astra, his second break with the band, lawsuits, and sniping in the press. Phoenix, however, takes on none of that baggage. The songwriting on their studio reunion glows with the gratitude of survival, a bright-eyed embrace of life, and wears its enormous heart on its sleeve for all to hear.
“Never Again” is a fantastic opener with steady verses, glittering bridges, and a surging chorus that hits a memorably rousing note. The opening guitar lines are vaguely reminiscent of the iconic riffing beginning “Heat of the Moment” and Steve Howe drops some tasty fills into the arrangement at well-timed points. The band opted to handle the album’s production chores in house with Steve Rispin as co-producer and, based on this song alone, the decision is clearly astute. “Nothing’s Forever” opens with some of the band’s trademark double-tracked vocal harmonies before segueing into an understated keyboard and guitar fanfare. The proper beginning of the song comes with a muted, mid-tempo pace largely dominated by Wetton’s vocals, but the other band members provide precise and important flashes of color. Geoff Downes’ elegant piano playing on “Heroine” provides ideal accompaniment for Wetton’s equally elegant, yet impassioned, vocal. Asia remained masters of composing virtual mini-symphonies and “Heroine” is one of the best from the original lineup’s reunion.
“Sleeping Giant/No Way Back” finds Asia achieving a perfect balance between their progressive and AOR rock inclinations. The first half, an instrumental, has an unique texture thanks to the contrast between Downes’ practically staccato synth lines, Howe’s fiery lead guitar, and its vocal chorus. Howe varies his approach at scattered points with brief, exotic fills further filling the cut with vivid color. The second half of the track, “No Way Back”, is a striding nod to the band’s rockier side, mid tempo, and features a particularly passionate Wetton vocal. The two compositions share common ground while maintaining distinctly different characters. “Alibis” has a tidy, streamlined arrangement with the band’s signature vocal harmonies playing a pivotal role, but Downes and Howe certainly distinguish themselves instrumentally without ever threatening to dominate the performance. The song’s final section is quite excellent thanks to Downes utilizing different keyboard sounds and an intensely melodic solo from Howe.
“I Will Remember You” is a towering, deeply felt song. It begins life as a spartan duet between Wetton’s occasionally anguished vocal and Downes’ elegant touch on the piano. Downes revisits the piano on the album’s next song “Shadow of a Doubt”. The verses are tastefully handled before the inevitable pre-chorus build begins and it’s quite satisfying when it hits. Carl Palmer’s propulsive drumming helps give it an added urgent push and Geoff Downes’ brief synth runs sketch out small melodies and further layer the melody. The three part “Parallel Worlds/Vortex/ Déyà” is the album’s longest song, edging out the earlier “Sleeping Giant/No Way Back/Reprise” mini-suit by three seconds, but it shares none of the outright prog approach of the earlier track. Palmer’s influence on the performance, particularly the second part, has an enormously positive effect on the song. The ambition driving songwriting like this is impressive, but pulling it off with such style and substance impresses me much more. One of Steve Howe’s two songwriting credits on Phoenix, “Wish I’d Known All Along”, is rhythmically compelling and has a moodier vibe than many of Downes’ and Wetton’s contributions. Howe rips off some white hot guitar salvos, naturally, and the song’s evocative chorus is another high point.
The moodier atmosphere continues with “Orchard of Mines”, the album’s only track not written by any band members, and it’s another success. The cover’s composers, drummer Jeffrey Fayman and guitarist Dann Pursey, are members of the band Globus and their songwriting style is an ideal match for Asia. Wetton, in particular, gives the song’s lyrics a highly theatrical treatment without ever lapsing into self-indulgence. Phoenix’s penultimate song, “Over and Over”, is the album’s final Steve Howe composition. Howe utilizes his instrumental flair here with tremendous effect. His mandolin, pedal steel guitar, and regular six string overdubs are inventive and never overstated. The song has a surprisingly elegiac feel that’s perfect for its place on the album.
Phoenix has a perfect closing curtain as well. “An Extraordinary Life” embodies the gratitude and heart mentioned in this review’s introduction. The arrangement’s thoughtful construction means it never cheapens its positive outlook. Wetton’s lyric isn’t really about retaining optimism. It embodies the aforementioned characteristics, but also embodies two much wiser thoughts that the story of our lives isn’t exclusively tied to outcomes but, rather, our experiences instead. Good, bad, indifferent, everything informs and shapes who we are. The other side of that spirit in the song clearly sees we should remain forever grateful for our capacity to feel and continue getting a new chance every day to get things a little closer to right. I’m torn sometimes by the feeling the album runs a little long, but it doesn’t have a significant effect on its overall quality. It’s true no one expected this reunion, but there’s a greater truth. No one knew it would produce such outstanding results.