Asia – XXX (2012)

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The original superstar lineup of Asia continues a far more productive reunion era with its third album since 2006, one more than they achieved back in their hitmaking days.

Musically, XXX — due June 29, 2012 in Europe, and July 3 in North America from Frontiers Records — builds on the arena-pop successes of the platinum 1982 debut by bassist/vocalist John Wetton (King Crimson, UK, Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, Wishbone Ash), guitarist Steve Howe (Yes, GTR), keyboardist Geoff Downes (The Buggles, Yes) and drummer Carl Palmer (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Emerson Lake and Palmer) — even as they add a few new prog-rock flourishes.

“Tomorrow the World” — a thumping, heart-filling opener — finds Downes channeling the soaring 1970s-era synthesizer runs of Palmer’s old bandmate Keith Emerson, to thrilling effect. “Judas,” with its spidery guitar and skittering organ fills, echoes early Yes. That’s perhaps the closest Asia has gotten to a head-long dive into prog since 1996’s Arena. Of course, by then Downes was the only remaining founding member left in Asia, which had gone through a series of permutations — both in personnel and, to a degree, in sound — over the years. Try as they might, however, none could consistently match the initial hitmaking magic of the original quartet, featuring principal collaborations by Wetton and Downes with smart assists from Howe and Palmer.

They find that delicate magic again in standout XXX tracks like “I Know How You Feel,” as Downes crafts an echoing ruminative expanse for Wetton to explore one of his most emotive vocal performances, and “Face on the Bridge” — this set’s most complete song, and the perfect track to select as a lead-off single — where Downes adds a series of squiggly asides only to give way to a Howe solo that billows outward with a stunning, baroque arc. Together, they illustrate what this group can still do in its most creative moments.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: John Wetton examines three of his most important musical stops – Asia, King Crimson and UK – while frankly discussing how drinking nearly ruined all of it.]

At the same time, though, as “Face on the Bridge” unfolds, Wetton elevates into a full cry — and, in a twist, you realize he’s utterly, completely in love: “Thousands of faces, and there’s only one I can see.” Wait, Wetton? In love? The guy who once declared “the lie is over!” in a Top 10 song? The guy who so darkly ruminated on death in 2008’s Asia comeback recording Phoenix? That lyrical transformation — particularly on the lovely “Faithful,” which catches up with the guy who was so deeply pissed off on tracks like “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want)” as he finally opens his heart — is one of the album’s more remarkable achievements.

In fact, so complete is Wetton’s newfound contentment that a song like “Al Gatto Nero,” which follows the story of someone trying to walk away from a bad situation amidst a chorus of doubts, ends up ringing somewhat false. “Judas” gets closer to the old albums’ thrumming anger, but that’s because Wetton is railing against a friend who betrayed him, rather than a lost lover. More often, the lyrics betray a person who hasn’t just grown older, he’s grown happy.

That’s not a bad thing, of course, though ultimately it’s altered the band’s range of subject matter. (So has the end of the Cold War, a favorite early topic.) Free of a white-knuckle rage over some cuckold, XXX opens up into interesting amalgams like “Bury Me in the Willow,” where a undulating MTV-era pop hook (perhaps most reminiscent of Downes’ staccato work with the Buggles) is coupled with a brave lyric about accepting our life’s end with grace. “No Religion” explores a similarly challenging complexity, with a sawing riff from Howe and a tough-minded rumination on what it all means.

Vocally, Wetton has lost none of the gusto of his youth. He still sings as if he’s walking all the way out to the edge, and he seems emboldened all over again by the return-to-form sounds rising around him. That’s perhaps best heard on the thunderously successful “Ghost of a Chance,” which concludes XXX with a shattering vocal, a contemplative keyboard figure, and a searching guitar — opening up a broad vista of emotion, even as it reconnects with the symphonic sounds of 1985’s Astra.

XXX, after a pair of transitional reunion recordings, feels like the follow up that everyone was waiting for back then.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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