My Vinyl Solution #0003: Asia – Alpha
My Vinyl Solution is simple: I’m listening to my records. As my collection has grown, I’ve realized that I’ve been spending too much time amassing lps, to the point that I have no idea of what I even own. Hence, this column.
When we last left off, I was saying that the Asia album you want is the one with “Heat of the Moment” on it. Well, this is not that album. But from about the first 15 seconds of Alpha, I’m thinking this one might just be a keeper.
The opening track is a fast-tempo, synth-driven rocker, “Don’t Cry,” that sounds so familiar I must have heard it a million times on the radio when I was a kid. Or maybe it just sounds enough like REO Speedwagon that I think I’ve heard it. John Wetton could win a Kevin Cronin sound-alike contest in a heartbeat, I think. This is not a good song, really, but it hints at being something I might want to listen to again.
The next track, “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” opens with a synth piano riff that’s similarly cut from the Top 40-friendly, REO ballad playbook. This is not good music in any way, shape or form, and it’s so thin and weak sounding from a production standpoint that I wonder what the hell the guys recording this album were thinking. There’s just no depth to the sound and very little bass.
Thankfully, this album seems to move pretty quickly. Indeed, for a group of guys hailing from prog rock bands, it’s pretty amazing that six of the 10 cuts on this lp clock in under the magic four-minute mark. Clearly they were trying to make pop music here.
The third track on the “alpha” side of Alpha, “Never In A Million Years” at least has some nice guitar playing on it, and it’s this – Steve Howe’s contribution – that makes me like this record better than Astra.
The next track still hasn’t solved my problems with the production any, but “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want)” does have a nice chorus and for some reason, it’s getting me to thinking about the similarities between Asia and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Both were “supergroups” composed of guys who were really successful in other bands. Neither ever lived up to their promise. But the big difference between CSN and Asia is that by the time Asia showed up on the scene, the whole supergroup thing had already been played out. CSN had lost their way and other assemblages of star power had fizzled, like Blind Faith and Bad Company. I don’t know much about the history of Asia, nor do I really care, because it just seems like this was a bad idea from the start. I suppose as far as bad ideas of the early 1980’s go, there were far worse ones, like Reaganomics and the Cadillac Cimarron, but I digress.
“The Heat Goes On” is the rocking-est song on the first side of the album, and again, it’s Steve Howe who really shines amidst this lot of really mediocre songs. But I can’t really tell if it’s the songs or the recording, because I can’t really hear anything other than a blast of synthesized noise, even while I sit and intently listen. Picking out the instruments is damn near impossible, and there’s absolutely no sound stage to this record. I may as well be listening to it on a clock radio, rather than my stereo.
The “Beta” side opens with “Eye to Eye,” which is probably the best track on the album. It’s a legitimate hard rock song, and Wetton actually sounds kind of angry here. There’s a proggy sort of keyboard part with a change in tempo that’s backed up against a cheesy Beach Boys-style chorus, but it all kind of works. I really like this song, and it’s the first track that I’m really wishing was actually recorded well.
But that’s the thing, all of this album just sounds like crap. Checking out the liner notes while listening to the slow ballad, “The Last to Know,” I see that the album was recorded at Le Studio in Quebec, on two 24-track tape machines (Two? Really? Who in the hell needs 48 tracks?), and then mixed digitally. The result is like trying to stuff 10 pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. And a really bad bag, at that.
Digital gets a bad rap among audiophile types (yes, I’m sort of one), but the more I delve into this subject, I realize that it’s not digital itself that sucks but how digital recording and playback are poorly used and implemented that’s the problem. Clearly this is an example of an album that, because of being digitally mixed, sounds bad, even on an analog playback system. I’m not listening to a CD, which would probably just compound the problems with the compressed and brittle sound, but a good old-fashioned record. And it still sucks.
“The Last to Know,” turns out to be a great epic track, which grows into something that I wish I would have slow danced to in middle school. The next song, “True Colors,” however, just tries too hard and winds up sounding like a bad soundtrack cut from movie about an amateur sports team. “Midnight Sun” might as well be album filler, a slowish song about who the hell knows what, but at least Howe gets a solo on it.
I’m really tired of listening by the time the album closes with “Open Your Eyes,” the only truly long song on the album, at 6:26. But it’s not the big delicious prog rock mess it should be. It’s just a bad pop song with an electric piano and guitar “interlude” that doesn’t belong – but does waste a good minute of your life.
Runout Groove: There’s a pair of 24-track master tapes out there begging to be remixed in analog with more Steve Howe. I’ll keep this around for comparison, just in case that ever happens.