Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Dukes of the Orient's 'Dukes of the Orient' - Album Review

In the context of 'albums that have been in development for a long time', the debut album from 'new' melodic rock duo Dukes of the Orient certainly ranks quite highly. In 2006 the original line-up of British progressive rock supergroup Asia reunited, which saw longtime frontman and bassist John Payne sidelined in favour of the returning, and now sadly departed, John Wetton. Payne, who had been a part of Asia since 1991, managed to retain a portion of the rights to the 'Asia' name due to his long-standing membership of the group and has been touring under the 'Asia featuring John Payne' moniker ever since. Despite mostly playing old Asia songs on tour, there had been talk from Payne about the group recording a new album. A single, Seasons Will Change, was released in 2012 but no more new material ever saw the light of day. Progressive rock journeyman session keyboardist Erik Norlander, who had been Payne's main collaborator when it came to putting the new material together, left the group in 2014 and it seemed that any hope of the famed album ever seeing the light of day was gone. This however all changed last year, when Italian melodic rock record label Frontiers Records put out a press release that a new project, called Dukes of the Orient, featuring songs written and performed by Payne and Norlander would release their debut album the following year. Fast forward to February of 2018 and that, self-titled, debut album was released to strong reviews. This is, essentially, the Asia featuring John Payne album that never happened. Payne explained that the change in name was out of respect to Wetton's recent passing, but I think that giving this album it's own identity was a good idea anyway. Soundwise however, this album is very similar to Asia - and Payne's era with the band in particular. The dense, melodic songwriting style that characterised his fifteen year stint with the band is present throughout this album's eight songs, which includes Seasons Will Change, and fans of Asia albums such as 1992's Aqua and 2001's Aura will certainly find a lot to enjoy here. While it is Payne's husky, emotive voice and Norlander's walls of retro keyboards that define Duke of the Orient's sound, the pair have enlisted the help of drummer Jay Schellen (Hurricane; Unruly Child; World Trade; GPS), who also played with Asia featuring John Payne, as well as a handful of guitarists who have been a part of Payne's past. Former Asia member and progressive rock shredded Guthrie Govan (The Aristocrats; Steven Wilson) contributes his skills to one of the songs, while other notable players such as Bruce Bouillet (Racer X; The Scream) and Jeff Kollman (Mogg/Way; Glenn Hughes) add their talents elsewhere. Payne, of course, contributes the bass guitars throughout as well as some additional guitar work.

The album opens with the slow-burning Brother in Arms, which sounds like a lost Asia classic. Schellen's drums form the basis of the song's intro as he crashes around the kit as a contrast to the atmospheric keyboard backing, which acts as a great backing for Payne's vocals. His deep delivery sounds as good here as he ever has, and he manages to inject a huge amount of weight into the song from the outset. Bouillet's guitars are very subtle, adding colourful leads here and there for some variation, because it is the drums and Norlander's keyboards that form the basis of the song. Despite this, a slow guitar solo dominates the song's mid-section, with Bouillet's notes oozing perfectly from the speakers atop a slightly funky bass riff. This leads into a final reprise of the simple chorus, which really allows Payne to demonstrate his vocal talents. Lead single Strange Days, which features a keyboard motif very reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's Seven Wonders, sees the musicians flexing their muscles a little more, with a stronger hard rock feel throughout. The song is initially very sparse, with keyboards and a pulsing bassline providing the meat of the music, but the chorus sees everyone turn it up a notch with a wall of distorted and a driving drum beat to raise the energy levels. Govan makes his mark on the album with a typically technical guitar solo, which adds some 'prog' to the melodic rock, but not before a gloriously retro-sounding keyboard solo from Norlander which is packed full of synthy goodness. Amor Vincit Omnia (Latin for 'love conquers all') is a bit of a power ballad, with a strong piano-based opening and some excellent emotionally-charged vocals throughout. All of the guitars here are played by Payne, but it is Norlander that shines here with a masterfully varied keyboard display. The piano from the song's intro section never really leaves, but some more pomp-inspired sounds are added throughout (especially during the chorus) to add to the overall drama. All good power ballads should have a sense of drama, and this song certainly has plenty of that - mostly caused by Payne's fantastic vocal display. The song closes on a lengthy piano piece, which leads nicely into Time Waits for No One which, although much more upbeat in tone throughout, also opens with some piano. This is the most driving rock piece on the album up to this point however, with Schellen's energetic drumming providing the song's pulse throughout. The vocals throughout the song are have a slightly haunting quality, with some well-placed effects on Payne's voice causing this, which helps it stand out from the three preceding songs. The higher tempo of this song also helps it to stand out, as what has come before has mostly been fairly relaxed, with only the chorus of Strange Days really having any grit. The smooth sound suits Payne and Norlander's writing style, but higher tempo tracks like this helps to stop the album from becoming repetitive, and it is a welcome change of pace.

A Sorrow's Crown maintains the slightly higher pace, despite opening with some doomy church organ, and sees Payne laying down some crunchy power chord riffs on the guitar while Norlander adds some jaunty 1980s neo-progressive style keyboard leads into the mix. The song is not a 'fast' one throughout however, as the pace is mixed up throughout to keep things interesting. A keyboard solo part way through sees the pace slowing to give the mournful melodies greater effect, but things usually steam along somewhat more urgently while Payne is singing. While not quite as effective as Time Waits for No One for providing some real rock to the proceedings, this is a strong, memorable song. Fourth of July is one of the album's stand out tracks for me, and really brings back memories of Asia's Aqua album, particularly the catchy single Who Will Stop the Rain?. A big keyboard riff dominates the song, and provides the main hook throughout, and Payne's vocal melodies are really well crafted to ensure maximum memorability. If it was not for the song's eight-plus minute length, this would have been a perfect single. The keyboard hook is so strong it lodges in your brain instantly. While the song could have definitely been trimmed down somewhat, as I feel the length of the song is somewhat unnecessary, it is still one of the best songs here. The melodies are pure classic Asia, both from Payne's era and the more classic Wetton-era, and anyone who has ever enjoyed some of Asia's best-known work should enjoy this. Seasons Will Change, the song that effectively launched this album back in 2012, slows things down slightly to more of a deliberate mid-pace, but Kellman and long-time Asia featuring John Payne guitarist Moni Scaria help to toughen it up with some a tight guitar performance throughout. I am not sure if this song has been re-recorded for this album, or whether this version is the original that was first heard six years ago. Either way, this is still another highlight of the album. The strong mid-pace helps the song to really grab the listener, and a commanding vocal display from Payne showcases why he is probably one of the most underrated British singers of all time. It also stands out due to the lengthy, and excellent, guitar solo that is found within. It is not clear whether it is Kellman, Scaria, or a mixture of the two, who contribute this, but it is an excellent technical workout that is still packed full of a lot of melody. The album's closing number, the ten minute-plus Give Another Reason, is truly excellent and rounds the album out in style. It opens with a lengthy acoustic guitar passage, which is soon added too with an emotional guitar solo, but the keyboards soon kick in in a big way to turn the piece into a dense, progressive rock piece that is still packed with melody. The haunting vocals from Time Waits for No One return here, which add an extra dimension throughout, but overall this feels like a song that takes the best of everything else found on this album to create a special finish. Norlander's keyboards in particular are excellent throughout, which lots of great synth textures and sounds which old-school prog fans will really enjoy. Overall, Dukes of the Orient is an excellent display of melodic songwriting from Payne and Norlander, and is a collection of songs that was long overdue. Those missing Asia in any guise should give this a go, but also anyone who likes the melodic progressive rock bands of the 1980s.

The album was released on 23rd February 2018 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Strange Days.

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