4 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.