The last from Asia's first era, but by no means the least
Mike Webb | Oakland, CA USA | 07/13/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Astra has long been looked down upon as the weakest of the original three Asia releases. With Steve Howe officially out of the fold, the disintegration of the original Asia prog-rock-alumni-supergroup concept was well underway, and this would prove to be the last Wetton-era studio release (not counting 1990's largely compilatory and contractually obligated "Then & Now") for another 20 years.
So by all means, Astra "should" be relegated to the occasional-listen, obscure-80s-AOR pile. Yet it's actually one of my favorite CDs of all time.
Let me be clear: I'm not an Asia fan whose affinity for the group is limited to any one subset of their long and diverse history. I love music from both the Wetton and Payne eras, and I have just about all the releases. Maybe this frees me from harboring prejudice against anything with an Asia label that's not Downes/Howe/Palmer/Wetton. Maybe it's just personal preference. Either way, I think some of Asia's strongest material can be found on Astra.
Even without Steve Howe, Astra has an extremely distinct "early Asia flavor." That's because it burst forth primarily from the John Wetton/Geoff Downes songwriting nucleus which, it may be argued, was largely responsible for defining the group's epic-yet-pop-accessible sound in the first place. Howe's characteristic guitar style is noticeably absent, but for better or for worse, it would not have been emphasized enough in these compositions to matter. That said, Mandy Meyer does a perfectly good job of picking up the Asia guitar mantle for this release.
The version I'm reviewing is some kind of re-release, supposedly remastered. So far, I have not detected any discernible difference in sound quality from the original. But it was cheap, and I didn't mind picking up a second/newer copy anyway, since my old Astra CD is looking a bit worn. I can say that Astra always had very weak bass (typical 80s production style), and if anything, I'd like to see remastering fix that. Unfortunately, that does not appear to have been addressed with this re-release.
So how about the songs themselves? I normally wouldn't do a track-by-track review of an entire album, but it just so happens that I like every song on Astra, which is rare enough to justify the added thoroughness. (Note that the track order on this reissue is slightly different from that of the original release.)
The CD leads off with "Go" and "Voice Of America," probably the two best-known songs from this release, and apparent staples of Asia concerts in the years since. "Go" is an energetic anthem that lives up to its name, and "Voice Of America" showcases John Wetton on the layered-vocal-harmony sound for which he is perhaps best known.
"Hard On Me" is a fun song that, for whatever reason, doesn't get a lot of recognition. It's very typical Geoff-Downes-synth-driven rock, which isn't a bad thing at all.
"Wishing" is a powerful, moving, fast-ish-ballad-ish song with a timeless, bittersweet melody and lyrics, and I'm really surprised that it wasn't a big hit. It has everything you'd expect in a hit song: a catchy melody, touching romantic lyrics steeped in a feeling of loss and yearning, a nice arrangement and instrumentation, etc. I'm not sure whether it was even released as a single, so I can't say which factor(s) is/are to blame for this song not achieving greater popularity.
"Countdown To Zero" uses a very distinctly eighties-ish sound to discuss a very serious subject (World War III and nuclear holocaust), although lyrically (and perhaps instrumentally, depending on your tastes), it wear its cheese on its sleeve. Notice the insertion of "timely issue phrases" like the line about "stinging acid rain," which actually makes no sense at all in this context -- it was just an attempt at sounding current and hip with the big issues of the time. Well, call it a guilty pleasure, but I still like the song. The melodies and harmonies are solid, and the arrangement very effectively evokes the intended mood of impending doom. Plus I like the processing of Wetton's voice on the spoken part. He sounds very commanding and "god-like."
"Love Now Til Eternity" starts out sounding like, for lack of a better term, circus music; but it quickly turns into a melodically powerful romantic ballad. If you're looking for ultra-profound lyrics, you might not find those here, but the music does a beautiful job.
"Too Late" is a classic Asia-style rocker. Multiple layers of Wetton on top of organ introduce the chord progression, and then synth and guitars take over, with the help of some interesting Carl Palmer double-bass. On the chorus, this song reminds the listener that Wetton vocal harmonies and Downes keyboards combine to form a sheer wall of sound that few artists in the history of rock could rival.
"Suspicion" is one of my all-time favorite Asia songs. That's not because of the lyrics, which are fairly stock and even strange at times. It's because of the composition and instrumentation, especially from about the 2:25 mark through the end of the song, where (mainly) Downes does what he does best: an epic, bombastic, larger-than-life, synth-driven, more-than-a-minute-long outro (an approach also heard in "A Far Cry," "Enough's Enough," and "Free," among others). If I had to pick a favorite aspect of Asia's music, the "Big Geoff Downes Outro" would be it, and this song has it in a big way.
"Rock And Roll Dream" obviously has something to do with rock stardom, but it's not entirely clear what the lyrics are saying about the subject. The song has varying sections ranging in mood from ominous to epic and heroic. The ending is almost playful, featuring interplay between Wetton harmonies, guitar, and keyboards.
This brings us to the final track: "After The War." The lyrics seem to describe a post-apocalyptic fantasy world with some megalomaniacal madman to watch out for. Again, I'm not too concerned about the exact meaning of the words. They create a feeling that is well supported by the music. Carl Palmer gets to show off a bit on this track, and Wetton sounds as authoritative and commanding as ever. This song reminds me of part of why I like Asia: many of the songs are about more than the usual set of possibilities -- boy meets girl, boy gets dumped by girl, boy tries to lure girl back, etc. -- conjuring up interesting images and letting the listener wonder a little. In that sense, this song is an effective closing track.
After listening to Astra for many years, I feel that every song has something interesting to offer. I think it's unfortunate, in a way, that Asia saw such massive success with their first album (riding the wave of popularity generated by the song "Heat Of The Moment"), because it managed to overshadow just about everything that was to follow, especially as "creative differences" gradually split the band over the next few years. Astra was essentially the last musical gasp of that era of Asia, but by no means is it a collection of leftover scraps.
If I had to isolate a weakness in the album, it would be the lack of blatant instrumental virtuosity. Clearly, given their musical pedigree in acts such as Yes and ELP, these players (well, at least the original three -- no way to know about Meyer) are endowed with impressive technical skills. And sure, we all know Asia has always represented the "poppier" side of progressive rock, probably not qualifying as "prog" at all by some people's standards, but other Asia albums at least -- particularly the first one -- have exhibited slightly meatier chops and tighter playing. Yet given the typically "accessible" flavor of Downes/Wetton songwriting, the relative musical simplicity of Astra should come as no surprise, especially with Howe gone. I think it's an unfortunate omission, but it doesn't stop me from enjoying the music.
Solid composition and instrumentation, backed by Carl Palmer's distinct style on drums, Geoff Downes's epic synth ambience, and John Wetton's inimitable "wall of vocal harmony" -- with a more-than-competent guitar presence from Mandy Meyer -- make Astra a solid release deserving of as much recognition as any in Asia's catalog."
An '80s nugget
Billy O | Reno, Nevada | 07/02/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"What we have here is a much-maligned effort that does not deserve the bad rap inflicted by some on this Web site as well as reluctant buyers of this LP over the years.
Sure, the band's inaugural "Asia" smashed its way into the best-seller charts three years before with a heavy dependency on lead guitar from Steve Howe. By the time "Astra" came along, Howe was gone and the capable Mandy Meyer took his place.
I applaud the band here, especially singer/composer/bassist John Wetton, for stretching the bounds of creativity. It's a drive that's marked his career, as he was always one to exit the safe, four-lane highway from time to time to challenge the riskier, unknown paths to the sides.
In "Astra's" far-reaching melodies, Wetton and his lineup break out of the claustrophobic confines of simple guitar-bass-keyboard-drums and add a wider range of sounds yet still keep their trademark Asia harmonies.
From the echoes in "Go" to the ballad-like "Love Now Till Eternity" to the anxiety-filled "Suspicion" to the end-game "After the War," this LP offers a much broader smorgasbord of sound than Asia's previous two efforts.
"Astra" didn't take the first few times I listened. But then something clicked -- or, rather, it cracked the veneer of Asia's previous predictability, and it's been near the top of my CD heap ever since.
Enjoy it for what it is, a nugget of quality music in a decade when such work was, by the standards of the '60s and '70s, elusive.
Padraic | East Lansing, MI | 03/18/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This came out when I was in 9th grade and it didn't do well; I was derided for liking it by other kids because it wasn't Ratt, or Motley Crue, it wasn't a metal album (which I never claimed it was, I said it was hard rock) ... Anyway some kids always stupid, like to conform .. I listened to what I LIKED > The Astra record inspired me, with great songs like "Go", "Voice Of America" and "Wishing", and it's stayed with me ... It didn't do well, a lot because of the 12/1983 Japan 'Asia In Asia' concert debacle, in which Wetton was absent (the performance really confused the public), and because the record company didn't release "Voice Of America" as the 2nd single .. If they would have, the record could've been huge, and there would have been a tour ... The power-ballad thing was gaining popularity, at the time, and the song was recorded beautifully, with a great vocal from Wetton and a GREAT guitar solo by none other than Armand 'Mandy' Meyer. "Rock and Roll Dream" and "After the War" are awesome tracks and show the members' progressive roots. The reason why I can't quite give a 5 is the sound ... The production needed more bottom-end, in some tracks even on a decent sound system you couldn't even hear what the bass guitar is playing .. and I like to hear John Wetton's bass! Great songs on this record ("Hard On Me" also very catchy, co-written by Carl Palmer)"