Frontiers 2008 / Asia Music 2016
Rising again: four horsemen of “A” reunite to resume their ascent and ascendance.
It took this quartet a quarter of a century to pick up where they left off on record, yet the ensemble needed that absence to let their uniqueness – prog protagonists playing pop – come to a philosophical fruition. Stricken with sense of mortality, epitomized in the “I thought I was invincible / Until the sky fell down on me” confession, it may seem strange that the group’s reunion album’s title doesn’t start with an “A” but since “Phoenix” implies “ashes” to be rising from, there’s logic to their hidden agenda.
What’s not on the surface here is multiple references – melodic and lyrical – to the band’s classic canon, most obvious in the record’s beginning and finale. “Never Again” and “An Extraordinary Life” – the latter adding a perspective of experience to “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” – exemplify the difference in European and American perception of ASIA, as this, special edition offers two mixes of the album, each highlighting various areas of the ensemble’s post-millennial sentiment. Where the U.S. sonic angle on the opener’s refrain favors sharp harmonic impact, the European version dresses voices and guitars in softer effects. None of it would matter, though, if the songs were less brilliant.
While the concept of time is prominent throughout, Steve’s Howe’s acoustic lace gives a balanced lull to the likes of “Nothing’s Forever” to contrast their orchestral grandiosity, but, ever growing in scope, the group’s art-rock DNA has manifested itself in a previously untested suite approach. Still, rather than become a ground for sophisticated interplay, mini-epics “Parallel Worlds / Vortex / Deya” and “Sleeping Giant / No Way Back / Reprise” bear all the band’s trademark elements to create a picturesque flow of ideas – instrumental, allowing Geoff Downes‘s keyboards to shimmer and shine, and vocal, for John Wetton to stack up a baroque chorale – with electric raga, sensual bolero and cosmic funk warping it all into an otherworldly excitement.
ELO’s Hugh McDowell weaving his cello into the fabric of “I Will Remember You” to direct sadness down memory lane – so vibrant in the piece’s unplugged variant, as well as in that of “An Extraordinary Life” – may go along usual lines of this ensemble, which can’t be said of “Wish I’d Known All Along” that sautés the band’s lively bounce in elegant bossa nova. Even more surprising would be the first cover in their history, albeit the quartet’s take on GLOBUS’ “Orchard Of Mines,” Carl Palmer’s drums counting out precious seconds, is a perfect fit for the record’s context. As a result, “Phoenix” appeared to be what fans had been hoping for – and even more – well worth to continue the legacy.