When Asia forged a new pop-meets-prog-rock format in 1982 with their self-titled debut, detractors had plenty to complain about. How could a supergroup with the pedigrees the likes of Steve Howe, Carl Palmer, John Wetton, and Geoff Downes reduce themselves to such simple music? The record-buying public, however, lapped it up, making it Billboard magazine’s album of the year.
After a top-ten platinum follow-up, Asia quickly fell off the radar. By 1985’s Astra, guitarist Steve Howe had left the band. Wetton would leave soon after the album’s release. Nothing much was heard of the band for another five years, when a tour (with Pat Thrall replacing Howe) and a greatest-hits package would garner the band a bit of attention, enough attention, in fact, to warrant the band’s return to the studio for a full-fledged release.
Well, not exactly the same band. 1992’s “Aqua found the band infused with new energy, represented by a younger generation of arena rockers in bassist/ vocalist John Payne and guitarist Al Pitrelli” (Connolly), “who had recently worked with Alice Cooper” (Connolly). “Although Payne doesn’t invite comparison to John Wetton or Greg Lake (his voice tends to get rougher as it gets louder), he gets the job done and turns out to be a pretty good songwriter” (Connolly).
As for guitar, Steve Howe guests on the album, but most of the guitar work fell to Pitrelli. He “knows his rock guitar; he’s no replacement for Steve Howe, but he doesn’t have to be” (Connolly).
“Geoff Downes (who continues to write much of the material) keeps the music punchy and professional; gone are the dated synthesizers of the ‘80s, replaced by cutting-edge keyboards and savvy production. The opening and closing instrumentals, Aqua I and Aqua II, show just how far Downes had come since Astra” (Connolly).
“The rest of the songs are pretty much of a piece; written with outside collaborators in many cases, they tend to be either moody ballads or hard-driving numbers about love and war (some things never change). Who Will Stop the Rain? was chosen as the single; it didn’t chart…but it’s as good a track as you’ll find here” (Connolly). That song and the equally punchy Lay Down Your Arms should have found homes at album-oriented rock stations.
Heaven on Earth “apparently tested as the second single, is another standout track, shifting from a ballad to an all-out rocker that sounds like Yes’ music from the ‘90s. Someday and The Voice of Reason are other tracks that represent the album well” (Connolly).
Still, there is some difference of opinion about how well the album should be regarded. According to critics ratings gathered by the DMDB, this is the most critically panned album of Asia’s career; note the 2 ½ star rating. On the flip side, All Music Guide’s Dave Connolly sees says the album “avoids sounding sappy or self-pitying, two adjectives that would describe Alpha or Astra” (Connolly). He goes so far as to say that “Asia finally produced a suitable follow-up to their first album” (Connolly). The DMDB respectfully disagrees. After jettisoning John Wetton, pulling only guest appearances from Steve Howe, and relegating drummer Carl Palmer to pretty much the role of session musician, you can’t possibly have an album the compares to its three predecessors.
Regardless of critical acclaim or lack thereof, “after ten years and two label changes…few fans remained in the seats to hear” (Connolly) Aqua. The irony is that the “amalgam of arena rock and hair metal” (Connolly) might have found more of an audience if marketed as a new band instead of the has-been Asia.