From the signature guitar chords chiming out, you know you are listening to Asia right from the start. Steve Howe does not play this way in his “other” band. He reserves this comfortable style to share with his “A” list friends. Fellow cohorts Wetton, Palmer and Downes slip on these cozy old shoes like they just took them off last night, like they picked up their instruments and started playing after the second album. If you are a fan of those early Asia recordings, you will really enjoy Phoenix.
Vocalist John Wetton is in fine form, as he takes on both ballads and rockers. His performance on the already classic “An Extraordinary Life” is especially strong and his bass playing, of course, is always exemplary. To be honest, I did not truly appreciate Carl Palmer’s drum skills until I saw him live. An excellent drummer to be sure, I just don’t believe that Asia gives him the venue to truly display his drumming prowess. Keyboardist Geoff Downes turns in some good work throughout, especially on “Sleeping Giant” and the rolling flourishes on “Over and Over.”
There are also some avenues that these gentlemen have not explored together before. For instance, two extended epic pieces in “Sleeping Giant/No Way Back/Reprise” and “Parallel Worlds/Vortex/Deya” are quite nice. There is also a kind of calypso beat during “Wish I’d Known All Along” that actually works for these old proggers It felt like a real departure from their signature style. So I guess it’s not the “same old, same old” after all. Kudos to them.
There is one misstep here however, and I would be ignoring the big white elephant in the room if I didn’t mention that the song “Heroine” sounds like a love song to an illicit drug. “You are my heroin, do with me what you will. Heroin, my lover to the end...” A song about addiction or something else? Maybe they were just having a laugh? Not sure, but it sounds odd when you really listen to it.
Everyone here turns in great performances, but Howe really steals the show. Listen to the memorable hooks he plays for the solos on “Shadow of a Doubt” and the pop-drenched “Alibis.” His softer more lyrical side is displayed on tracks like “Sleeping Giant” and “Deya.” There is a guitar refrain seven minutes into “Parallel Worlds…” during the “Deya” part that is very moving. I wish that he was given more opportunity to “rock out” with the songwriting, he is clearly the featured performer on this recording.
Outside of a focus on more mid-tempo and ballads, I believe this is on par with any of Asia’s early albums. If you can forget (or like me, it doesn’t matter) that a whole generation has passed since the last time Asia sounded like this, you will really enjoy Phoenix.
Reviewed by Terry Jackson on November 3rd, 2008