The ’80s prog rock super group Asia was the last stand of a genre that was well on its way to obscurity by the time its members came together in 1981. With the songwriting team of John Wetton (formally of King Crimson) and Geoff Downes (formally of Yes), the success of Asia’s self titled debut proved that there was still some life in the genre.
Asia was a perfect blend of ’80s styled arena rock glitz with the soaring conceptual themes the ’70s. Noted fantasy illustrator Rodger Dean’s cover art firmly placed the band on the leading edge of the neo progressive aesthetic with mystical sea dragons, and later space ships and mushrooms. Asia albums were worth the price just for Dean’s cover art. I don’t doubt that it was responsible for a whole new crop of Dungeons and Dragons fans and I imagined such art would be sold at Renaissance fairs..
Asia’s second Alpha album would be a softer more pop-rock approach to the original formula. By this point in the ’80s electronic pop music was in full swing. Mike Stone’s production recognized this with Asia’s slickest album to date. This time hard memorable anthems like “The Heat of the Moment” would be replaced by strong melodies and a softer touch.
The sheen of high (if not over) production can be heard clearly though the album. Plenty of over dubs of Wetton and Downs backing vocals gave many tracks an angelic quality. The most noticeable quality of Alpha were its remorseful sad songs. “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” and “Last To Know” were all tear jerkers of a sort. Attempts to capture the subdued angst of the first album were attempted with “The Heat Goes On” and “Eye to Eye”.
I remember writing about this album when new in my high school newspaper The Rampage. At that time my 16-year-old self thought Alpha was a wimpy attempt to “catch the dragon pull” of the debut. Time has mellowed my assessment as much of Alpha is actually beautifully arranged. This album actually holds up well over time because unlike its chart contemporaries it sticks pretty close to the classic drums, guitar and keyboard construct. Some tracks hold up better than others. That still never stop Asia from being the butt of jokes about the excesses of prog rock (see The 40 Year Old Virgin).
Despite any cynical backlash, Alpha has worn its prog roots well over time. Tracks like “Midnight Sun” have emerged as of my favorites mostly because it evokes a sense of grandeur that’s typical of this album. Interestingly, Asia fell off the map for me at about the same time college broadened my musical frontiers.
It was easy to see why. Each Asia album after Alpha seemed to chase the formula of the previous one but with less success. The Rodger Dean art persisted however and like some phoenix from one of its covers, Asia’s would make a proper sequel to its first two records with 2012’s XXX.