Pompous and pretentious Asia
ABOUT A dozen years ago, I asked Peter Gabriel why he’d left Genesis, the progressive rock band he’d cofounded in the late ’60s and helped bring to great heights during the mid-’70s. “‘Progressive’ used to mean people who were exploring music,” he said, simply. “It came to mean people using a lot of keyboards.”
Skip forward to 1993. Asia — a former quasi-supergroup from the UK, now reduced to ex-Yes guitarist Steve Howe plus four — is everything Gabriel rebelled against. These dinosaurs may have “progressive” credentials, but they’re mired in a corporate-rock tar pit. They’re pompous; they’re pretentious; they use a lot of keyboards (that’s old Yes/Buggles guy Geoff Downes’ department); and nothing they attempt has any emotional weight, any wisp of conviction. Their nearly two-hour set at the Paradise Thursday night was a towering pillar of… nothingness, with ‘Only Time Will Tell’ and ‘In the Heat of the Moment’ providing vague sparks near the end.
You may have done a doubletake at the phrase “at the Paradise.” Yes, folks, these arena-packers of a decade ago drew about 250 paying customers to the ‘dise, the local stop on their “comeback” tour, which supports their it-sank-like-a-lead-zeppelin album, Aqua. The paltry turnout lent unintended ironic humor to singer-bassist John Payne’s refrain in the clunky ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Dream’: “Rock ‘n’ roll dream/Not what it seems/Who is the dreamer now?” Uh, look in the mirror, long-in-the-tooth dudes.
A fair part of Thursday’s faithful, it must be assumed, were music school types who came to see moribund wax museum virtuoso Howe strut his stuff. And here’s the weird part: According to the band’s recent bio, Howe — the main link to the “glory days” — is a “guest artiste” and the band’s nucleus is Downes and Payne. Howe — who didn’t even join the group until they were 35 minutes into the set (“He’ll be out soon, I believe,” explained Payne, after ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Dream’) — did play an extended acoustic segment, drawing upon a series of Yes-era excursions. He explained away a Tales from the Topographic Oceans noodle with “Fans found it interesting. Critics said, ‘This is bizarre, this is over the top.'” To be fair, Howe’s intricate fretboard trek was a nice, nostalgic interlude of Art Rock Coffeehouse, a welcome break that divided Asia Bombast (Part 1) and Asia Bombast (Part 2).
The second half, like the first, came and went without making a mark. Much bluster, no claws. Just a series of C-level melodies, overwrought vocals and fat, major-chord keyboard/guitar layerings. End result: Asia minor.
In Asia’s favor: 1) They didn’t lug in their own overwhelming, sightblocking, ear-numbing speaker stack, as many faded supergroups do after being reduced to clubland, 2) Trevor Thornton did not perform a drum solo, 3) Most of the songs clocked in at under five minutes, 4) None of the melodic hooks were annoyingly persuasive enough to stick in your brain during the ride home, and 5) They gave Spinal Tap a run for the money.
Seriously, though, the maxim coined by the Village Voice‘s Robert Christgau still holds: Never trust a band named after a city, state, country or continent.
© Jim Sullivan, The Boston Globe, 27 February 1993