Aria closes the chapter on the band you remember from their
George Dionne | Cape Cod, MA | 10/14/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"What's the 4-1-1?
After signing Asia earlier this year for the release of Silent Nation, Inside Out Music honors their past with special editions of Aria and Arena (they also covered Aqua). All three albums feature John Payne (who replaced John Wetton) on vocals & bonus material.
Arena rock / AOR / melodic / progressive / alt-rock
Aria: Originally released in 1994, this album saw Asia getting comfortable with their new line-up. Geoff Downes focused more on a writing partnership with new vocalist John Payne, following an album that was made up of leftovers from a previous line-up. "Anytime" is an inspirational power ballad full of emotional highs and lows. Downes' driving keyboards and Michael Sturgis' pounding drums set the pace for "Are You Big Enough". The entire group chimes in with some great vocal harmonies. Heartache and abandonment is the focal point of "Sad Situation". Payne's vocals are smooth and soulful, similar to Michael McDonald.
Keyboard and percussive effects add dimension to the ballad "Feels Like Love". The mood starts of somber, but builds to a powerful and over-the-top conclusion. "Military Man" sounds a bit similar to "Heat of the Moment" during its introduction, but switches to a drum/vocal heavy arrangement. Guitarist (at the time) Al Pitrelli lays down some great licks and solos here. As part of the special edition, you get the unreleased track "Reality", which I think could have had a shot at the time, an acoustic version of "Military Man", and the video for "Anytime".
Arena: Originally released 1996, this album had Asia switching from AOR/arena rockers to a more experimental progressive rock/adult contemporary band. This is evident from the Santana-esque opening instrumental "Into the Arena". "Arena" continues the same vibe of its predecessor, with some great drum beats and impressive vocal harmonizing. Cosmic keyboard tones and Payne's warm and passionate vocals take command of "Two Sides of the Moon". The lyrics are imbedded with simile and metaphor, but it's not hard to hear that this is a statement on the effects of war.
Musically, "Falling" solidifies the group's transition into the progressive genre. Lot's off effects and unique tones. Payne delivers some great falsetto from time to time. "Turn It Around" is more a guitar prominent songs, with plenty of vocal melody. As part of the special edition, you get a ballad entitled "That Season", plus and acoustic version of "Two Sides of the Moon".
The acoustic version of "Military Man" isn't really acoustic. The song "U Bring Me Down" from Arena has a rap section.
Aria and Arena are the proverbial yin & yang of Asia. Aria closes the chapter on the band you remember from their debut, while Arena gives you a glimpse of where the group was heading in the future. The extra material included on both is a nice touch for fans, but it's nothing super-special."
East meets Southwest
Prog Nerd | Southern California | 11/22/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"After the exit of guitarist Al Pitrelli halfway through the band's last tour, as well as disappointing sales and promotion problems, Asia regrouped and re-thought their entire process, from songwriting and production, up to band lineup and sounds. In many ways, Arena is a "clearing of the slate", and has a freshness and vitality that the band had only hinted at on previous releases. The production is a little more raw and live (certainly this is Asia's most "organic" album), but this only enhances the flavor of the music.
Joining Payne and longtime original keyboardist Geoff Downes were Michael Sturgis on drums (on and off as an Asia session man since the late 80's, but contributing significantly as part of the core lineup since Aqua), and two new guitar players: Elliot Randall (formerly of Steely Dan), and Aziz Ibrihim (ex-Simply Red.)
Both add a different dimension to Asia's sound; Randall bringing a smooth, classic rock/jazz element, and Ibrahim with a slightly metallic, Middle-Eastern vibe. Guest musicians included Hotei Tamayasu on guitar, and Luis Jardim (Mike + The Mechanics) on percussion.
Arena sounds extremely different from previous Asia albums; almost completely gone is their arena-rock AOR sound, replaced with prog-metal, Latin rhythms, reggae, and some slight jazz, soul and funk influences. According to the band, they spent a lot of time listening to 70's albums by Santana, Supertramp, Steely Dan and the Eagles, and the idea was: What if Asia had existed in 1976 instead of 1996? How would they sound?
Trust me, the end result is much better than you might think...
"Into The Arena" kicks things off with an exact Santana vibe, Latin fire in Hotei Tamayasu's guitar stylings as exotic percussion and shakers keep things spicy in the background. The title track comes next; a little more conservatively Asia, but still featuring some ethnic percussion and a Spanish motif from Geoff's piano.
"Two Sides of the Moon" is another Is that Asia? song, as the band explores more Latin rhythms and drums, and some wonderful trance-like keyboards over a mostly-acoustic groove. The band absolutely smokes during the instrumental bridge and jam, and then closes things off by slowing everything down for a reggae outro.
Two mini-epics in the 8-9 minute range are included on Arena. "The Day Before The War" (a nod to 1985's "After The War"?) sounds as dark and oppressive as the words suggest, which features dissonant chord changes, slow, deary sections, and occasionally speeds up into some fast and rhythmic Hammond organ and electric guitar duels. The song fades out uncertainly, as if not entirely resolved. The organ reminds me of ELP in this song, and the metallic guitar leads bring to mind Dream Theater.
"U Bring Me Down" (co-written with Aziz Ibrahim) sounds like Led Zeppelin done modern, as Middle-Eastern stringed instruments and an interesting, odd chorus come into play. The song builds and builds, and has an amazing end section, with various multi-layered vocals and instruments meld together as they all fade out...
All of the other songs are amazing too, but perhaps more stylistically fit together more evenly than the "experimental" pieces: "Heaven" has a dramatic delayed guitar intro (reminescent of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick In The Wall Part 1"), "Never" has some fiery guitar leads and great rhythms, "Falling" features some dreamy keyboards and smooth lead vocals (doesn't the intro sound just like Geoff's Yes song "Run Through The Light"?), "Words" contains more epic and fiery playing, and "Tell Me Why" is an angry, almost bitter song that just drips regret.
"Turn It Around" is amazingly uplifting and beautiful (listen to Geoff's gorgeous keys that precede each chorus), detailing someone's journey back to their devastated home town, reflecting on the fact that bridges can always be fixed, and new homes built on the ashes of old. The cycle of life is neverending, and continues forward into the beautiful, techno'ish Geoff Downes keyboard instrumental "Bella Nova (Out of the Arena)".
If you're a fan of Asia's more typical AOR sound (especially the early years with John Wetton), this may not be your cup of tea. But if you enjoy beautiful, soulful, groove-like classic rock, or other classic 70's prog-rock with lots of extended, shifting time signatures and multilayered Hammond keyboards (Yes and ELP fans, I'm looking at you), then this could be right up your alley.
I've also found that Arena is especially great for long road trips. I took it on one in 2005, and the southwest vibe of the music provided an amazing soundtrack for driving through the desert of New Mexico at sunset.
Although it was a little disappointing to not have Roger Dean do the artwork again after Aria, Rodney Matthews contributed a stunning and epic cover, which is easily one of Asia's best. Good and evil are shown as polar opposites across the gulf of a massive desert cavern; smoke, battlements, shapeshifting skulls and a viper are on one side; the other is represented with a regal and divine lion of truth, a crown of light around its head, and the Indo-Asian "eyes of awakening" adorn its wings as a flowing waterfall runs underneath.
John Payne really grew into an amazing Asia frontman. His singing here is smooth and soulful, and not at all grating or overdone as he was on the previous two albums. The lyrics are also among Asia's best, reflecting a darkness and inner battle that is palpable in every single word. Esoteric and Biblical references abound, but they're fit seamlessly into a slightly Eastern, universal spirituality that is incredibly positive and uplifting on every level.(This spirituality would carry into 2001's Aura with more amazing results.)
Arena is perhaps Asia's most underrated album. It recieved virtually no promotion upon its release, and no tour was ever performed. The band had a single acoustic show in 1997 (look for the CD Live Acoustic or the 3-disc set Different Worlds) which featured Ibrahim and Jardim as backup players. However, only one Arena tune was done live (the title track), as well as a song from the same sessions ("Different Worlds".) After '97, only a couple songs would occasionally get played on tour, until they dropped them entirely around '05.
This is easily in the running as one of Asia's best albums (right up there with the debut, and surpassing Alpha for sure), and joins Aria and Aura as a stunning trilogy of middle-period Asia albums with John Payne.
Note: Various editions and rereleases of Arena are out there, all of which feature one or more bonus tracks. "That Season" is on every one, and live and remix cuts are on others, in addition to liner notes. (If you're interested in further outtakes, about six more tracks are included in the two Archiva releases.)"