Omega is Greek for that which is last, and although it’s a thought I wouldn’t have considered five years ago, that might be the best fate for this recording and the original lineup of the band. Beloved by fans, the reality is that Asia truly is a two-hit wonder — those hits being “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell.” The band’s second album, Alpha, found them coming apart at the seams. By the third, Astra, Steve Howe was off to GTR and Yes Version 200.0. The fourth, a collection split down the middle between “new” tracks and a sort of greatest hits called Then and Now, featured songs written by former Sex Pistols and Partridge Family members (In fairness, David Cassidy’s contribution, “Prayin’ 4 a Miracle,” is a pretty decent tune). By then, the relationships had become so fractious that the only original member to survive in the band would be keyboardist Geoff Downes, occasionally spotted by drummer Carl Palmer. So began the John Payne years, what would ultimately become a second Asia band and a host of other issues.
Let’s stick with Asia One for the moment. A reunion tour went well and an album of new material, innocently titled Phoenix, arrived in 2008. While hardly earth-shattering, Phoenix was interesting and sporadically showed the spark of old. News that the band would hang together awhile seemed promising. Then we get Omega. Sounds anti-climactic, don’t it? From all the sturm und drang and downs and ups, the end result is an album that is so listless and dull that it pains me to even write this. Where is the energy, the musicianship, the arena-ready hooks?
Fault the post-Howe albums if you must, and I know many who look on Astra alongside all of the Payne stuff as being inferior and clunky, but there were some good, if misguided, tunes on almost every album. Maybe not great, maybe not collections for the ages, but there would be at least one or two tracks that weren’t bland. As a matter of fact, as an example of generalized AOR rocking, Astra comes off very well so long as you never look to the lyrics like they’re holding the mysteries of life. That was even true of the mega-selling debut – who took “When I ride the hounds of hell, I twist my foot, I nearly fell!” to be sacred text? Opening Omega is “Finger on the Trigger,” a song so riddled with rawkin’ cliches it could have passed as a parody. I could have overlooked John Wetton singing about how venomous fate has got him by the balls (like I said, cliche) if there was some life to the track. However, everything sounds phoned-in and half-hearted. Clicking down the album, it doesn’t really get any better.
I asked myself what was missing, what was the element that made those early albums so likable despite the inherent cheese quotient, and the answer was Mike Stone. Rather, producer Mike Stone seemed to understand that even if the songs are purportedly intimate and tender, Asia is a big continent, the band Asia is comprised of four prog-rock luminaries with continent-sized egos and, therefore, even those small tunes needed to sound huge and epic. Walls of reverb made Carl Palmer’s drums thunder, echo bounced Steve Howe’s guitar lines like audio ping pong balls from channel to channel, Geoff Downes’ keys were synthetic symphonies and John Wetton was a choir unto himself. It was big for big’s sake, but it was fun, and was more fun the louder you played it.
Mike Stone is no longer with us, but those touchstones of his sound hung in with the band for quite a long time. “I Will Be There for You” from 2004’s Payne-fronted Silent Nation sounds like an Asia song. None of these new tracks do; they sound puny and anemic production-wise, and that leads you straight to shortcomings that were always there but easily disregarded. Even the cover art, usually adorned with a lavish Roger Dean landscape or another artist’s approximation thereof, is grey, drab and looks like it was rendered with a Sharpie marker. All the monolithic qualities we’ve come to expect from an Asia release are stripped out, and if that was an intentional conceptual direction on the part of the band, it didn’t work.
On their first reunion tour, I was excited to see the band play together again. They were tight and they looked like they were having fun. After the show, Downes and Palmer autographed a t-shirt for me and both seemed enthusiastic and excited that so many still cared and loved the group. Omega offers little excitement or enthusiasm for the listener, and if that’s the way Asia One is going to play out, then the album’s title should be prophetic.
Omega is available from Amazon.Com.