At first glance, there are some noticeable parallels between the unlikely pairing of Asia and Crosby Stills & Nash (CSN). Both were formed by individual members of previously successful bands who were looking for something different, all were regarded as primary influencers in their previous bands, and both bands went on to release extraordinarily successful debut albums, shifting millions of units, (many millions in the case of Asia’s debut), both made their name through being in exactly the right place at the right time (CSN at Woodstock, Asia at the birth of MTV) .. and also both having fractious, internal relationships between band members, culminating in second albums (Déjà vu and Alpha respectively) which reflected the tensions in the band, meaning neither album capitalised on the impact of the debut and, in the case of Asia, dissension meant losing original member John Wetton soon after.
But there the similarity ends because, whilst CSN’s debut album was greeted rapturously as the creation of a new sound, paving the way for the Eagles and others, Asia’s debut was greeted with bewilderment by fans who were amazed these four guys who’d made their names in prog bands where the spirit of adventure and musical discovery was ingrained in the bands DNA (Yes, ELP, King Crimson ..) had released an album of MOR rock, leaving their prog roots well behind them, with a sound epitomising the more commercial FM rock sound of early 1980’s US radio. Not that this worried them too much as the album went multi-platinum, spent nine weeks at No:1 in the Billboard charts and they laughed all the way to the bank.
This is currently a good time to be an Asia fan. In 2022 they released the 5 CD set Asia Bootlegs, Vol 1, which was 5 concerts recorded between 1982 and 2010, plus the swanky deluxe Asia in Asia boxset, 2 LP’s and 2CD’s of their 1983 gig at the Budokan, with Greg Lake replacing John Wetton for this gig. And now comes Fantasia, eighteen tracks, spread across three albums, recorded in Tokyo in 2007 on their 25th-anniversary tour with the reformed original line-up of Downes, Howe, Palmer and Wetton. All eleven tracks from their massively successful debut album are included, though surprisingly only three from Alpha are being performed. If you know these two albums there’ll be little here to surprise you. Every song is played according to how they were recorded and they don’t stray too far from the beaten track. Only on ‘The Heat Goes On’, from Alpha, where Palmer plays a storming four-minute solo, and ‘Heat Of The Moment’, where Wetton engages in a ‘call and respond’ with the audience, does the script vary. No one doubts every member of the band can play, especially virtuosos like Howe and Palmer, so it’s a source of mild frustration the musicians don’t stretch themselves more, given where they all learned their craft.
On this release they also pay homage to their past by including several heritage tracks, with varying degrees of success and impact, with the awful ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ being a noticeable low spot. They perform a decent version of the Yes classic ‘Roundabout’, though Crimson’s ‘Court Of The Crimson King’ considerably lacks the power of the original. On both tracks, however, while the playing is good, Wetton’s vocals lack the depth and class of the original. But on ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ the band finally let rip, with all the musos having short instrumental passages, plus Steve Howe playing some quite gorgeous guitar runs. This demonstrates, when Asia really goes for it, there’s a damn good band waiting to rear its head. Howe also gives, for this reviewer, the highlight of the whole package, with a stunningly good acoustic version of Big Bill Bronzy’s ‘Intersection Blues’, where Howe demonstrates some exceptional acoustic playing and shows his mastery of the instrument.
This reviewer’s occasionally wondered, had Asia formed a decade earlier and had played to the maximum of their talents, instead of diluting it for MTV, what might they have achieved? As things stand, for the Asia fan, these three albums will reinforce the reasons why you like this band, but I’m not too sure it’ll resonate widely outside of their target range.