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Reviewed by Will Harris
But what if it did?
It’s statistically unlikely, true, but given how many times they’ve referenced the fact in liner notes and press releases over the years, it’s clear that no one in Asia has forgotten that their self-titled debut was purchased by 10 million people in the early 1980s. While mainstream musical tastes are far too fickle for the band to ever capture lightning in a bottle again to the tune of those kinds of sales figures, if they could even recapture the interest of a tenth of those people, they’d have a platinum-selling record on their hands. Of course, to do that, Asia would basically have to pretend that the last 26 years never happened…and, by odd coincidence, that’s exactly the sensation one gets when spinning their new album, Phoenix.
It’s an apt title, to be sure. When “Never Again” bursts forth from your speakers, you will be incredulous that you’re listening to a new recording rather than an artifact from the ‘80s, so successfully have the band recaptured the sound of their debut. These guys have clearly been reinvigorated by playing together again: Palmer pounds, Howe shreds, Downes rocks the synth, and Wetton…well, actually, you can hear the passing years in his voice a bit, but when the layered harmonies of the chorus kick in, all is instantly forgiven.
Regrettably, however, the unqualified success of the lead track isn’t consistent throughout Phoenix. The musicianship remains top-notch, but the tempo of the other songs will leave you suspecting that the band blew all their energy on the opener; several other songs chug along quite nicely, such as “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Alibis,” but there’s nothing else that comes anywhere near the glory of “Never Again.” That’s not to say that Phoenix doesn’t hold its own, however; just because the guys have slowed down doesn’t mean they can’t still play and sing their collective arses off. Prog fans will be giddy to find a pair of three-chaptered songs on the record (“Sleeping Giant / No Way Back / Reprise” and “Parallel Worlds / Vortex / Daya”), each of which tops out at an eight-minutes-plus run time, and they’ll also dig the sweeping and dramatic “Orchard of Mines.” “An Extraordinary Life” is a bit of an overwrought finale, but, then, given the preceding material, it’s hard to really call the band out for that particular crime.
There’s no way Phoenix will ever find its way into a household that doesn’t already possess at least one of Asia’s earlier albums, but for those who once rocked their mullets to “Only Time Will Tell” and “Don’t Cry” (and particularly for those who still do), it’s an unexpected pleasure and a worthwhile purchase.