The last gasps of progressive rock occurred in the late 1980s. Young people were just turning on to rap, hip hop and grunge rock, which hit on themes they could associate with. The phenomenal rise of Pacific Coast bands Nirvana, and Soundgarden, along with the earthier messages of Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls among others was the harbinger of death for industrial rock giants.
One of the progressive rock giants slain by the double edged blades of rap and grunge was Asia. A mega-supergroup, Asia featured the members of a number of ‘70’s British bands that wore out their welcome including Yes guitarist Steve Howe, bassist and vocalist John Wetton (King Crimson, Uriah Heep, Roxy Music, Wishbone Ash), former Buggles keyboardist Geoff Downes, who also was a member of Yes in its final days, and drummer extraordinaire Carl Palmer, late of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The group managed to release eight albums based on the strength of two hit songs “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell”. The band has toured on and off since their debut in 1981 with a number of lineup changes and mixed success.
Their latest effort Fantasia: Live In Tokyo is a pleasant, but uncreative piece of retro chic. The album features the original lineup of Howe, Wetton, Downes, and Palmer all of whom have kept their chops up through the years. The music here is very clean, the recording extremely crisp. Musically, Fantasia: Live In Tokyo is an anti-progressive album- the band keeps it light, opting to play by the numbers instead of exploring new landscapes of sound. Considering the tremendous talents of Howe, Palmer and Wetton, listeners will expect more.
This is especially problematic on many of the experimental pieces Asia has chosen to play. The band pulls a number of songs from their own catalogue and cover the signature progressive rock songs which elevated their careers, including “In the Court of the Crimson King” by King Crimson, “Roundabout” from Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s and “Fanfare for the Common Man”, and the new wave “Video Killed the Radio Star”. The lack of spirit among the group members is apparent as they go through each song as if by rote. Adoring fans may not notice, but for others removed from the progressive rock era, this album signifies why the genre couldn’t transcend well into the nineties and the 21st Century. Attention spans once captivated by extraordinary solo musicianship were diminished by the immediacy of sampling.
Although Fantasia: Live In Tokyo isn’t the most adventurous album, it does provide an interesting journey into an age when young music fans sat still without the aid of Ritalin. The Japanese audience is abundant in its appreciation of the group, many of them singing in full voice with the band throughout. More than this, it’s a pleasure to hear old pro’s still at the top of their form, producing licks and solos that outdo almost any of the snotty youngsters in the music market today. That quality alone makes Fantasia: Live In Tokyo worth a listen or two.