Friday, March 3, 2017
Asia - Astra (1985)
Call this a case of choosing the devil you know. The devil, in this case, is commercial success. Asia ditching guitarist Steve Howe at vocalist/bassist John Wetton’s request to make the band’s third album, Astra, possible still reeks of desperation. The shabby way the band and record company alike dealt with Wetton’s worsening substance abuse issues in 1983 undercuts much sympathy for the problems his drinking posed for the band’s future. Their willingness to oust one of the genre’s greatest guitarists and a talented songwriter in favor of an equally talented figure who scarcely held any real idea yet how to face his demons proves that the executives and remaining original band members, keyboardist Geoff Downes and drummer Carl Palmer, made a conscious decision to deal with Wetton and his accompanying baggage rather than risk losing their drawing power. Time moved much slower even in the early eighties than today; the salad days of the first album lingered only three years in the past when Astra emerged. It couldn’t work. John Wetton’s obvious desire to settle some scores upon his re-installment as the band’s front man surrounded the entire enterprise with a faintly mercenary cloud and the last of Asia’s bloom faded from the rose.
It begins with a bang. “Go” is instant classic Asia, an intelligent and hard-charging example of top shelf pop rock led by keyboards and guitar while airy vocal harmonies sweeten the mix. Mandy Meyer, Steve Howe’s replacement on guitar, leaves a mark on the performance, but the song primarily focuses his energies in a more orchestral direction. Wetton’s emphatic vocal makes the impassioned desperation of the song vividly rise to the surface. “Voice of America” has scattered bursts of guitar from Meyer, but the song’s enormous vocal harmonies are the real story here and they arguably never again show the same ambitious reach on Astra. Carl Palmer garners a relatively rare songwriting credit with the track “Hard on Me”, resulted from record company complaints about the album’s lack of any obvious single. It’s an innocuous romp, but sounds and plays like what it is – a rather premeditated attempt to satisfy the gatekeeper’s edict. Songs like “Wishing” show more potential for widespread appeal in its first sixty seconds than “Hard on Me” shows over the course of just over three and a half minutes. The methodical pop brilliance of this performance is further leavened by creatively arrangement backing vocals and sparkling production for its time period from Mike Stone and Geoff Downes.
There’s no question “Rock and Roll Dream” is autobiographical and Wetton’s caustic eyes look through a lens darkly. His opening verses for the song find him uncertain of his own survival and pained by his inability to connect with everyday life. They have a corresponding musical moodiness, but the Wetton/Downes songwriting team upsets that apple cart with a jaunty musical approach in the chorus. “Countdown to Zero” is Wetton’s dystopian nightmare in musical form and Mandy Meyer explodes from this song in a more definitive way than ever before. His vocal has a more in your face quality here, as well, while taking less advantage than usual of the band’s harmony talents. The voiceover additions in the song, courtesy of Wetton, are quite pointless. The clichés get a little deep on “Love Now till Eternity”, but you can’t ever say that even the band’s most middle of the road material isn’t expertly executed. Evocative multi-tracked harmonies open “Too Late” before Geoff Downes’ synth riffing and some precise Palmer drumming set an early musical tone and Wetton’s forceful, yet emotive, phrasing highlight themes running through all of Astra’s more overtly personal tracks.
“Suspicion” tackles the fear of infidelity with uncommon wisdom and insight. One of John Wetton’s most remarkable qualities, both as an artist and as a human being, lies in the fearlessness of his art. One can never underestimate the nerve required to lay oneself emotionally bare in front of, essentially, the entire world – not an insignificant audience, even in 1985 – despite a personal life plagued with unresolved issues and rot in the foundation. The grandly theatrical and hard-pounding finale on Astra, “After the War”, is best understood in the context of its time and gains new relevance in light of recent fears. 1985 is a year remembered for many times, but one of those things is the often belligerent verbal broadsides launched between the world’s two dominant nuclear superpowers, the United States and Soviet Union. This is a much more elegiac treatment, both musically and lyrically, of the earlier “Countdown to Zero” and shorn of the aforementioned song’s lyrical sensationalism. Astra is a mixed bag. There’s clear quality, a handful of near-misses, and outright clunkers. Signed contracts and marketplace demands won out however and, much like Alpha, we got an album capable of reflecting the band’s talent in some respects and undercutting it in others.