Asia began with the apparent demise of Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer, the two flagship bands of British progressive rock. Under the auspices of David Geffen’s record empire, a supergroup would form from these ashes. After the break-up of King Crimson in 1974, various plans for a supergroup involving bassist John Wetton had been mooted, including the abortive British Bulldog project with Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman in 1976. In 1978, Bruford and Wetton were re-united in UK, which, after Bruford’s departure, developed a more mainstream sound, a precursor for Asia’s style. By 1980, after UK's demise, a new supergroup project was suggested involving Wetton, Wakeman, drummer Carl Palmer and (then little known) guitarist Trevor Rabin, but Wakeman walked out of the project shortly before they were due to sign to Geffen and before they had ever played together. A few years later, Wetton and guitarist Steve Howe started working together, Howe having come out of the break-up of Yes in early 1981.
Howe and Wetton were soon joined by Buggles/Yes keyboardist Geoff Downes. Carl Palmer joined the band later in the process. (Trevor Rabin was considered for the group and some demos were recorded with him, but he dropped out to accept an offer to join Chris Squire and Alan White in what became a new Yes and the other Asia members decided to stay as a quartet.)
The band’s early offerings were considered disappointing by music critics and fans of traditional progressive rock, who found the music closer to radio-friendly pop. However, Asia clicked with fans of such early-1980s arena acts as Journey, Boston, and Electric Light Orchestra. Rolling Stone gave Asia an indifferent review, while still acknowledging the band’s musicianship had been a cut above the usual expectations.
Asia's eponymous debut album enjoyed considerable commercial success, spending nine weeks at number one in the American album charts. The singles, “Only Time Will Tell” and “Heat of the Moment” became huge Top 40 hits, with the latter cracking the Top Ten, while remaining a stadium favorite at U.S. sporting events. Both songs featured Geoffrey Downes’ keyboard wizardry, with John Wetton’s throaty voice at the helm.
One criticism remains that Wetton and Downes’ songwriting relied too heavily on love balladry and keyboard hooks. But in comparison with their next two “classic” albums, Asia did tend toward progressive rock, with the anthem “Wildest Dreams”, showcasing Carl Palmer’s superlative drumming. “Soul Survivor” also remains a memorable track, reminiscent of Yes. The U.S. tour also did extremely well, while the MTV channel played their videos on heavy rotation.
However, neither the second album, Alpha, nor its singles repeated the chart success of the first. The power-ballad, “Don’t Cry”, barely entered the Top Ten in 1983, while “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes”, an affable John Wetton vocal performance, barely charted in the U.S. Rolling Stone rightfully panned Alpha as an over-produced commercial album, while others lamented that Howe and Palmer were effectively reduced to session musicians.
Unsurprisingly, John Wetton and Steve Howe quarreled over the direction of Asia. In 1984, Wetton left the group briefly, while Emerson, Lake and Palmer frontman Greg Lake replaced him for the highly publicized “Asia in Asia” tour in Japan. Thereafter, Asia reformed without Steve Howe, who also despaired that Yes had enjoyed a successful rebirth with Trevor Rabin as its new guitarist. However, Howe would enjoy a brief success with GTR, another super-group formed with Steve Hackett of Genesis, and produced by none other than Geoff Downes.
The third Asia album, Astra, was a commercial failure, largely because Geffen cancelled the tour due to lack of interest. Mandy Meyer of Krokus provided more of a hard-rock guitar approach, in keeping with the trend. Yet the band enjoyed a modest hit single, “Go”, with Meyer’s guitar heroics center-stage. In 1985, this Asia line-up died, although Wetton resurfaced with a 1987 solo album, Wetton-Manzanera, based on Asia material. Asia also made a contribution to the Sylvester Stallone film soundtrack to “Over the Top”.
Geoffrey Downes revived Asia in 1989, to a mediocre reception even from its former fans. They toured the former Soviet Union in 1990, while Then and Now featured their previous hits and new singles. “Days Like These” charted briefly in 1991, generating a small amount of MTV airplay. Pat Thrall joined Downes, Palmer, and Wetton, who performed classic material and even King Crimson songs. John Wetton left in 1992 to focus on writing new albums.
However, Downes found a new lease on life with Asia by teaming up with vocalist/bassist John Payne. Enlisting new musicians, he led Asia through the 1990s with a series of well-produced but unremarkable albums. The comeback album, Aqua (1992), featured sessions from Steve Howe and Carl Palmer. Downes' environmentalist single, “Who Will Stop the Rain?”, attracted some radio attention, but the “Aqua” club tour featuring Howe (whose presence was heavily promoted) was poorly received by some of the band’s supporters, with Howe only taking the stage halfway through the show. However, the tour was successful enough to warrant the band’s longevity.
Geoff Downes’ group would release Aria in 1994 and Arena in 1996. Aria featured former Danger Danger and then future Megadeth lead guitarist Al Pitrelli, who would leave Asia during the short Aria tour. This underscores the fact that the keyboard-driven band often faced trouble keeping a regular guitarist. Furthermore, Arena featured three different session guitarists, (including Ian Crichton of Saga). In the late 1990s, Downes and Payne opened the Asia vaults, releasing the double-disc Archiva, a collection of bootleg shows from both the Wetton and Payne eras.
The 2001 Aura album showed a return to progressive rock form, but without recapturing the commercial success of the first album. However, the group continued to tour small venues in America, riding on nostalgia alone. In one show at Detroit, Michigan, in October 2004, Payne and Downes confessed the failure of Aura to capture commercial success, and also joked that Asia would go to Hip Hop and R&B, even playing a R&B jingle with acoustic guitar and keyboards.
Silent Nation (2004, including some writing contributions from Billy Sherwood) picked up some unexpected exposure on the Internet. The band now had a more stable line-up of Geoff Downes, John Payne, drummer Chris Slade and guitarist Guthrie Govan. The album managed to chart better than 1992’s Aqua. The group began an acoustic tour featuring only Downes and Payne. In early 2005, the full band toured in Europe and the Americas, performing in settings ranging from small clubs to medium-sized arenas. In August 2005, Slade left the group to be replaced by Jay Schellen.
Meanwhile, Wetton and Downes reunited to record an album under the name Wetton/Downes. Icon was released in 2005.
Asia’s Phoenix (2008) is a solid album which sounds like it came out in the wrong decade but yet is more authentic than much of the music out today. The album offers enough fist pumping anthems to get any arena rock fan going, i.e. “Never Again” and “No Way Back”. The album also offers plenty of melodic power ballads that would be sure to prompt a Bic lighter fest, songs like “Heroine” and “Orchard of Mines” do the trick. Considering the original four members (Wetton, Howe, Palmer and Downes) haven’t released an album together since 1983’s Alpha, they deserve a lot of credit.
Omega, the 2010 album from the Progressive Rock supergroup Asia, features all four original members - John Wetton (King Crimson/UK), Steve Howe (Yes), Carl Palmer (ELP) and Geoffrey Downes (The Buggles). While the band was an enormous success when they debuted in 1982, the original quartet fractured and Howe left in 1984. It wasn’t until 2006 that the original foursome reconvened for a tour and then a new studio album in 2008. Two years on from that album, Omega finds all four members at a new creative peak.
Thirty years after their eponymous debut ascended to the top of the Billboard Top 100 chart (where it remained number one for nine consecutive weeks), the legendary British rock band returns with a brand new studio album aptly titled XXX (2012). The new album, which is being hailed as Asia’s best album since its classic early ‘80s releases, will be released as a CD and collector’s edition CD/DVD (featuring new music videos, including one for first single, “Face on The Bridge,” and behind the scenes footage).