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Music Review: Asia ‘XXX’
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Asia XXXXXX
Asia
CD+DVD | CD | MP3
Frontiers Records
Release Date: June 29, 2012

XXX, the newest album by the progressive rock group Asia and it marks the third release since the original members reunited, and for fans of this group, who got their start 30 years ago, there will no disappointments whatsoever. Others, however, might see the musical circumstances rather differently.

Asia, which is a group made much in the mold of those other supergroups like Cream or Blind Faith, is comprised of John Wetton on bass and vocals, Geoff Downes on keyboards, Carl Palmer on drums, and the great Steve Howe on guitar. These men came from more adventurous prog rock groups such as Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. They shed their respective gymnastically sonically hyper-arranged skills that they ultilized during their tenures in these aforementioned bands and gave a more leaner, tighter, realized progressive pop sound in Asia, even spawning hits like “Heat of the Moment,” and “Don’t Cry,” which remain unabashed 80’s anthems. On this newest release, XXX, the band is firmly still mired in that sound, which is almost like a zeitgeist for the group, as all songs included on the album sounds like artifacts from that time, without missing a beat one iota.

Even the cover of the album, drawn by the legendary Roger Dean, responsible for many other Asia and Yes album covers, instantly has the surreal and highly colorful illustrative sense that is a part of the band’s style. A bunch of crossed fishes on the album slightly ambiguously create the word “XXX,” hence the title of the album of course. From the opening notes of the first track, “Tomorrow the World,” the signature sound of Asia, progressive rock lite with lean rock arrangements punctuated by a keyboard driven and crisp production style is firmly entrenched within. The band has their chops still in the highest order as they should, all four men are veterans of not only this sound, but are all coming up on their 5th decade of writing and performing music, and it shows aurally in the songs; the flipside is that the cool self-assuredness doesn’t leave much room for the spontaneity and loose abandon that musicians of this caliber are certainly capable of. Asia does strut to its own tightly wound musical clockwork for sure, but each song on the album seems as if it beats to a basic framework, and then gets layered from there.

That’s not to say that there aren’t fine moments here. There are. Fans who are clamoring for the 80s time capsule will feel right at home here, the production by Mike Paxman (who also produced their last effort Omega) keeps the well known Asia sound intact, but avoids bombast, keeping things lean and tight, air-tight almost, layering sound upon sound; Downes’ keyboards are at the forefront, Wetton’s vocals hit right through in the middle, but the rhythm section suffers a bit, as there are many moments where Carl Palmer, regarded by many as one of rock’s greatest all-time drummers when he was in ELP, is buried in the mix. Palmer also sometimes sounds downright pedestrian, a flash here and there of a creative approach on his instrument, but for the most part, he’s keeping the beat, laying the framework down for the rest of the band to do their thing. Again, it’s understandable that Asia doesn’t sport the kind of music and never have for that matter, where Palmer can do his hyper, muscular polyrhythms, but that still doesn’t excuse him for sometimes playing in a manner of a generic sense either.

Songs like “Tomorrow the World,” “Bury Me in Willow,” “Face on the Bridge” (which was the first single released off the album back in May), “Al Gatto Nero,” and “Judas” have that anthemic value to it, a staple of 1980s rock of all stripes, and it seems that above all, that’s what the band was going for when making the album. The keyboards accent most of the songs with that kind of attitude – there’s no denying what a great keyboardist Geoff Downes is for sure, but he also plays on most of the songs in a kind of pigeonholed manner, too. There’s a self-consciousness on XXX that seems to suggest that above all, the band painstakingly made sure to keep that classic Asia sound right on target, and of course for fans of the band, this is certainly not a bad thing for sure.

The bright spot above all here is the playing of Steve Howe. He manages to lift every song to a higher level when he undertakes his solos within, whether it’s single note sustain or out and out mid-tempo fretwork. In fact, one anticipates his solos during every track, and he doesn’t disappoint each and every time. There’s a reason why this man is still so revered today, why he’s still never fallen into the trap of becoming that ol’ rock dinosaur that is reserved for so many other musicians of his time and styles. On XXX, Howe continues to explore, continues to show his virtuosity and great chops, his knack for great riffs, all culminating on the knock out final track on the album, “Ghost of A Chance,” which is a tour de force for Howe. If there is a complaint about Howe on this record, it’s that you wish that there was even more of him on it.

XXX will please fans of Asia and there are still lots of them. A world tour is happening currently and there are going to be limited edition vinyl releases of the album which are sure to be snatched up by zealous fans of the group. Simply put, this album, like the band itself, will probably be received in two ways: acclaimed by the fans, dismissed by the non-fans. There’s no middle ground with Asia, never has been in a way, save for their 80’s hits that wind up on those “Best of 1980s” compilations. But ultimately, it seems that in the approach that Asia takes, they are just fine staying in and giving their fan base what they want, and you’ve got to give a band credit that is fully aware of its core audience and makes sure to give them exactly what they want, each and every time.

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