Album review: ASIA – The Official Live Bootlegs (10 CD Boxset)

BMG UK [release date 26/11/21]

Asia : In 1997, Paul Stump wrote in “A History Of Progressive Rock” that the band’s “links with the genre were as tenuous as George Formby’s links with Mozart”. It is a memorable quote.

And it’s a criticism the band have lived with for 40 years. Along they way, they’ve sold in excess of thirty million albums to a worldwide fanbase. Lesson: There’s nothing like commercial success to help vindicate your decisions on musical direction.

Talking of which, this ambitious 10 CD boxset is a smartly assembled, wide ranging tour guide to the band’s rock’n'roll safaris though North and South America, and the Far East, before returning home to the UK. 1982-2010.

The ten CDs come in a Roger Dean designed box with his signature artwork on the cover. Inside there are 5 pairs of discs, each pair covering a specific gig. They jump from 1982 and the debut album tour through the USA, to the 2010 post reunion tour, culminating in their widely publicised live event at the HMV Forum in London.

Whichever way the popular music pendulum has swung over these last 40 years, Asia’s music has remained curiously timeless. In 1982, the band members’ illustrious, pre Asia past combined itself with the new team’s ability to write operatic pop hooks, then deliver them with punch and panache, and so made huge inroads into AOR territory. The debut rocketed to top position on the Billboard Top Forty and stayed there. It did the same thing in another 30 countries.

Live At Kleinhams Music Hall, Buffalo, NY. USA, May 1982
The debut is represented (on the first 2 CDs) by the band’s gig in Buffalo, NY in the year of release (1982).

These are uncommonly good quality bootlegs. Yes, there are a few bumps and bruises along the way, but that’s the joy of live music. The thrill of hearing the band performing live on stage is worth it. It eclipses any loyalty you feel to the shiny CD you’ve been listening to up until that moment.

The heightened emotions of ‘Sole Survivor’, ‘Cutting It Fine’ and ‘Heat Of The Moment’ work best in this environment, thematically cohesive songs, confidently walking the high wire between AOR and Prog. ***1/2

Live At Centrum, Worcester, MA, USA, August 1983
A year later, the Alpha album release capitalised on the band’s burgeoning popularity.
With two albums to play with, the band truly seem relaxed at this gig. The music’s textures and touches are perfectly tailored for Arena presentation, and yet here, live at the Famous Centrum Arena, they make a big deal out of Steve Howe’s carefully calibrated guitar work. Arguably the gig pivots on CD1′s mammoth, 15 minute, Howe solo medley of ‘Beginnings’, ‘Valley Of Rocks’ and ‘Clap’. It’s like they’re saying, we can do populism, yes, but we’re artists at heart. ****

Live In CC Hall, Sao Paolo, Brazil, March 2007.
The line up changes subsequent to the Alpha album are well documented.
24 years later the original members – Wetton, Palmer, Downes, Howe – reunited, and the following year, they embarked on a world tour … effectively a 25 Year Anniversary Tour.
And wisely, even after all this time, and the huge success they had enjoyed as Asia, they included artifacts from their previous lives. ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’ and ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ are respectful nods to former employment with King Crimson and ELP, if not to Aaron Copland himself. The Brazilian crowd go wild. They know their history. And a further 14 years later, the country is still a fast expanding source of Rock Musicians, gradually filtering into western band lineups and onto label rosters. ***1/2

Live At the International Forum, Tokyo, Japan, May 2008
Given that the tracklist a year on from Sao Paolo includes most of the usual suspects, the band still sound fresh and energised. The passage of time has done nothing to cloud the clarity of the musical vision that created the first two albums. This gig on its own is testament to the durability of the songs they wrote 25 years ago…’Only Time Will Tell’, ‘Wildest Dreams, The Smile Has Left Your Eyes’ and so on. Some songs are expanded with solos and occasional improvisation, but not so they lose identity.

Strangely, the mix is so much better than on the band’s Live In Tokyo release which came out a year or two later. Not bad for a bootleg.
This recording exudes warmth coupled with whiffs of nostalgia. In a country with no rock’n'roll past, tradition is vitally important. ***

Live At The HMV Forum, London, UK, 2010
Back in the UK now, the reformed band plays on. The truth is, no matter where Asia is playing, they’re on home ground, such is the worldwide geography of their fanbase.

Having wrung out every last drop of emotion and musicality from the stuff of their beginnings, on this home turf gig the band take us on a slick, tuned in travelogue through the their more recent Phoenix (2008) and Omega (2010) albums.

It’s clear, playing live, the band have freshened up their assault on the old fashioned, prog purity accusations. The cultivated, grown up AOR of ‘I Believe’, ‘Never Again’ and ‘Through My Veins’, spiked sparingly with Prog, brings with it the realisation that these musicians can shake off the dust and still surprise us. ****

There is also a digital release, coincident with The Boxset. It’s a cross section of the ten CDs. 24 tracks in all. A significant primer. Worth a thought.

Roll on Volume 2.

review by Brian McGowan

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