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Asia's 'Phoenix' is an odd bird



Asiagroupphoto Just a year after drummer Carl Palmer told the Stuck in the 80s podcast that "the world is not waiting for an Asia album," that's exactly what we have.

"Phoenix" hits store shelves today, but Asia fans might be surprised to hear that buying it isn't a no-brainer decision.

"Phoenix" is a prog-rock masterpiece in many respects, but in achieving that, it sets aside a lot of what made Asia such a guilty pleasure to some of their fans.

Don't look for many FM-friendly hits here. There are no worthy descendants to "Heat of the Moment" or "Don't Cry." Instead, you'll hear 12 tracks -- many slowly paced as ballads -- that are beautifully composed and performed by four artists who finally seem comfortable showing off their musical roots.

Hard-core music critics who appreciate each of the four members' long-steeped history in legendary prog-rock acts will absolutely treasure this disc. But some Asia fans are going to wonder where the fun, catchy melodies went. Here are some other thoughts:

CHEER UP, JOHN: Bassist and vocalist John Wetton often turns to sadder personal moments for inspiration ("The Smile Has Left Your Eyes," "Don't Cry"). The misery continues in "Heroine" and "Alibis."

A SEQUEL: Listen carefully to "Never Again" and it's like you're hearing "part 2" to the pessimistic  war-anthem "Wildest Dreams" from the band's debut album. "Never again will I bear arms against my brother ... Never again will I spill blood of any mother's son."

'YES' FANS WILL BE HAPPY: Guitarist Steve Howe's imprint is much bolder on "Phoenix" than any previous Asia album. His guitar work finally breaks free of the swirling keyboarding of Geoff Downes, and the pair of songs Howe writes -- "Wish I'd Known All Along" and "Over and Over" -- are two of the most memorable.

A TASTE OF ALPHA: Looking for a tune that reminds you of "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes?" Try out "I Will Remember You," a more mellow cousin of the tune that highlighted the band's last group effort. "Locked in my memory, your silhouette. The only face I see, I can't forget."

AN 'EXTRAORDINARY' FINALE: The disc's last song -- "An Extraordinary Life" -- was written by Wetton after his heart bypass surgery last year. Finally here (and in "Nothing's Forever") you get a taste that John -- and maybe the whole band -- is happy, healthier and having fun again. "So, seize the day. Wake up and say, this is an extraordinary life. Enjoy today, come what may."

If there's an echoing refrain and message from "Phoenix," surely this is a worthy one.

[Last modified: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 2:32pm]


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