Asia – Arena (1996)

Asia_Arena4 out of 5 Stars!

Since its debut release, Asia has been a band bordering on the edge of both Pomp Rock and AOR as well as the Progressive Rock genre, and on no other album within the band’s catalogue is this merging of genres more evident than on Arena, the group’s sixth studio collection (and the third with vocalist/bassist John Payne).

Including memorable tracks such as “Two Sides of the Moon,” “U Bring Me Down,” “Never,” “Arena,” “Words,” and the exceptional nine-minute “The Day Before the War,” the longest song Asia ever recorded, Arena is probably the most adventurous album in the band’s overall catalogue. When it comes to song arrangements and instrumentation, and with the inclusion of various percussion instruments (provided by guest Luis Jardim) that lend extra zing to several tracks, this is also the Asia album that contains the strongest Progressive-Rock influences, a development I eagerly welcomed with open arms. The Pomp-Rock keyboards of Geoff Downes are generally outstanding, while guitarists Aziz Ibrahim and Elliott Randall, along with drummer Mike Sturgis, display mastery of their own instruments.

Moreover, this is also the collection where I truly came to fully appreciate John Payne’s identifiable vocals, finally recognizing the fact that his contributions to Asia’s overall sound were not only the most enjoyable to me, but generally left me yearning to hear more. Once savoring this album, I no longer viewed Payne as just the “new kid on the block” or “Wetton’s replacement,” but as an extremely powerful and expressive vocalist in his own right, and a highly influential, full-fledged member of the group.

Therefore, due to the band’s more Progressive leanings on this collection of tracks, along with the strong performances by all the musicians involved, Arena became the Asia album I found myself playing most often through the years, followed closely by 2004’s Silent Nation.

Oh yeah, and the Rodney Matthews’s cover art (also featuring the Roger Dean-designed band logo) is pretty darned cool as well.

Get The Album Now!

Stingray – Stingray (1979)

Stingray_14 out of 5 Stars!

From South Africa, Stingray released only two albums before disappearing into the pages of musical history books, which always seemed a shame. This, the band’s debut album, brings to mind other talented yet relatively obscure AOR/Hard Rock groups from the same era, such as Ambrosia, Trillion, Preview, 707, American Tears, Touch, Franke & The Knockouts, Roadmaster, and Sheriff, all groups that might have easily made a bigger splash in the music industry had they been given the proper promotional push and financial backing from their respective record companies.

In the case of Stingray, tracks such as “Love Saver,” “The Man in My Shoes,” “Hard-Headed Loner,” “Breakdown,” and the excellent single “Better the Devil You Know” shine with endless melodies and memorable riffs that ring through your head long after the final tune fades away. Indeed, I wouldn’t consider any of the songs on this album as a “filler,” and with ten tracks in total, that’s saying a lot. Although I must admit, hearing this album nowadays, some of the pompish keyboard/synth tones sound more than a tad dated in places (alas, a lasting curse when it comes to those early synthesizers appearing on albums from this particular era). Yet the highly catchy material, the overall commendable musicianship, and especially the powerful lead vocals and layered harmonies make up for that one small fault, and this platter is still quite enjoyable all these many years later.

Therefore, fans of AOR/Hard Rock groups such as Styx, Journey, Survivor, Foreigner, and Toto who crave something similar yet more obscure from this period in history might want to seek out this album and relish the sing-along power of the music.

Get The Album Now!