If you don’t know about the band Dukes of the Orient you might know of the super band Asia that featured John Wetton, Steve Howe, Carl Palmer and Geoff Downs. They released three albums in the first part of the eighties. When the classic lineup fell apart Geoff Downs formed a new version of the band with singer and bass player John Payne taking on Wetton’s old role, and a bunch of other players coming and going through the five albums the released between 1992 and 2004. Payne had invested both time and money in the brand and wasn’t willing to just give it up when the original lineup reformed in 2006. An agreement was reached were Paine could call his version, Asia Featuring John Payne. Before that, the last line up, minus Downs being replaced by Ryo Okumoto, released a great album under the name GPS.
Asia Featuring John Payne only released one studio album, a cover album from 2014 called “Recollections: A Tribute to British Prog” that featured Erik Norlander on keyboards.
By this time Payne and Norlander was the driving force of the band who now had started to record their first studio album of original material. By 2017, when John Wetton of the original Asia tragically passed, it was decided that it was time to retire the name “Asia Featuring John Payne” and “Dukes of the Orient” was born. Their excellent self-titled debut was released in 2018, an album that followed the style of the Payne led Asia but with a bit more prog influences and superior keyboards from Norlander.
“Freakshow” is the bands sophomore album and apart from Payne and Norlander it features the new members Frank Klepacki on drums, Alex Garcia on guitars and the surprise addition of a sax player, Eric Tewalt.
The first taste from the album came in June with the release of “The Monitors”, a great song in the style of the debut album. The albums opening track “The Dukes Return” was released a month later and this time it was quite a departure from what they had released before. This song sounded more like Genesis from their “Duke” album, at least in the verses, than the previous Dukes of the Orient album. I was not impressed. One of the reasons that I loved the debut album was Norlanders use of vintage keyboards from the seventies. On this particular track the style and sound were more eighties and it took me many listening’s to be friends with the song and I still think it’s one of the weaker tracks of the album, and the saxophone didn’t help.
I was never a big fan of Saxophone in rock music, more often than not I think it ruins the songs. However, there is one exception and that is John Helliwell from Supertramp. I really like his style and thankfully, as there is a lot of sax on this record, Eric Tewalt’s playing seams to by influenced by him.
Speaking of Supertramp, the second song “The Ice Is Thin” sounds very much like them, apart from the vocals that is. It even has a short solo that reminds me of Steely Dan. This is another song that took me quite a while to appreciate.
Next up is the title track and this must be the least good song of the album. I don’t particularly like the keyboard riff or it’s sound. No, this is a boring song.
Thankfully the rest of the album is of a much higher quality and it’s a relief when it’s finally time for “The Monitors”, the albums fourth track.
“Man Of Machine” is also heavily influenced by Supertramp, at least the electric piano and the saxophone. The vocal melodies are very strong and the solo duel between the sax and the guitar is excellent. Easily the best song so far.
The first half of “The Last Time Traveler” is maybe a bit theatrical for my taste but when you get used to it it’s still pretty good. The second half is very progressive and suggestive with excellent solos by the sax, keys and guitar, before the theatrical part returns. All in all, also a very good song.
“A Quest For Knowledge” starts with a weird keyboard riff. Otherwise the song is in parts like a mix of the original Asia with a hint of UK and something else that I can’t put my finger on. The instrumental parts with the solos are an excellent departure from the rest of the song. A varied and great track.
“The Great Brass Steam Engine” is a fantastic showcase of what Norlander can do with all his keyboards. An instrumental track with a perfect mix of prog and a bit of pop. Love it.
“When Ravens Cry” is a song bordering to prog with very strong vocal melodies that sometimes reminds me of John Wetton. It’s kind of hard to describe with words but I like it very much.
The final track “Until Then“ is also a grower. First it seemed a bit lame, but it didn’t take me many listening’s to realize how good it is. It reminds me of something, but I don’t know what, and the last two minutes are majestic.
When you get over the shock of the total departure from the first album with sax and all you will probably realize, like me, that this is a great album that makes you long for more. You probably need to listen a few times before you can fully appreciate this album, at least I did.
I actually think that Dukes of the Orient is a superior band compared to the Payne led Asia, and that is mostly because of Erik Norlander.
John Payne – Vocals, Bass, Guitars
Erik Norlander – Keyboards
Frank Klepacki – Drums
Alex Garcia – Guitars
Eric Tewalt – Saxophone
Band: Dukes of the Orient
Label: Frontiers Music
Date of release: August 7, 2020
Stand out tracks: “Man Of Machine” “The Last Time Traveller” “A Quest For Knowledge”
“The Great Brass Steam Engine” and “When Ravens Cry”