CD Review of Fantasia: Live in Tokyo by Asia

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Fantasia: Live in Tokyo
starstarno starno starno star Label: Eagle
Released: 2007
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Even at the height of their success, it was never exactly cool to like Asia…but they sure sold a lot of albums anyway.

Rising from the ashes of several prog-rock pioneers (Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer are just a few highlights of the members’ collective resume), the band’s founding foursome – John Wetton, Steve Howe, Geoff Downes, and Carl Palmer – took all their best bombast, then made it as slick, catchy, and commercial as they possibly could; the end result was a self-titled debut album that spent nine weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, and although it sounds unquestionably of its time, it still holds up surprisingly well today -- as, for that matter, do the two albums that followed it.

Although the band’s lineup has changed dramatically over the years (not a single member has stayed with the band consistently from the very beginning; even Downes left for a while in the late ‘80s), Asia has never gone away. They’ve continued to record and release new albums straight on through the declining consumer interest in their wares, but the material has remained true to the prog-meets-pop/rock sound of that very first record. As such, fans who’d stuck with the group through thick and thin were of mixed minds when it was announced that the original four members had mended fences and were planning to go on tour for the first time in two decades; the reunion was wonderful, of course, but it necessitated kicking the band’s current lineup to the curb, not to mention basically pretending that the five albums Asia recorded between 1992 and 2004 with John Payne on vocals just, y’know, never happened. It sure seems like a rather harsh and unjust fate for the guys who kept the band going for all these years...but maybe that’s just me.

Oh, well. However it came about, Asia’s version of the Fab Four is indeed back, and as a result of their reunion, we’ve been presented with Fantasia: Live in Tokyo, an audio document of the band’s performance at Shinjuku Koseinenkin-Hall on March 8, 2007.

Theoretically, we should be excited to have the guys back together and performing again, and, yes, it is nice to find that the four members can still rock like they used to, more or less. (Wetton’s voice is definitely sounding its age, alas.) Looking at the song list for this two-disc set, however, it seems clear that, even after all these years, the members of Asia still remain a little uncomfortable with the idea of being members of Asia; instead of playing an entire set of their own material, we’re given versions of Yes’s “Roundabout,” Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King,” and The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” plus a Howe instrumental entitled “Intersection Blues,” which originally appeared on his 2001 solo album, Natural Timbre. It’s also disappointing to find the entire Asia album performed but have only two songs from the follow-up, Alpha, make the cut for the set list. (It’s less shocking, however, that album #3, Astra, is completely MIA, given that Howe had left the band by that point.) Ultimately, though, the reason Fantasia is so anticlimactic is that we’ve heard all this stuff before. The band put out a concert album in 1990 – Live in Moscow – that had 3/4 of the original line-up (Howe was MIA), and the later incarnation of the group probably has half a dozen live albums floating around out there; meanwhile, Wetton’s got at least as many concerts available on disc, and that’s not even counting the recently-released performance that he and Downes did in their new duo, Icon.

There’s no denying that the revised piano-and-mandolin arrangement of “Don’t Cry” is lovely, and the performance of the rarely-heard B-side “Ride Easy” is a definite highlight as well; meanwhile, on the other Asia tracks, the guys still manage to reproduce the original sounds of their hits but still play outside the lines enough that it doesn’t seem like they’re strictly playing it by the numbers. In the end, however, once you’ve set aside the reunion aspect of it all, Fantasia proves an inconsequential and inessential addition to the Asia catalog.

~Will Harris