Prog-rock supergroup Asia cut a pair of highly successful studio albums in the early eighties, notching hits with “Heat of the Moment,” “Don’t Cry,” and “Wildest Dreams” before coming apart at the seams. Guitarist Steve Howe absconded during sessions for 1985’s Astra in favor of a short-lived collaboration with former Genesis axe-man Steve Hackett (GTR), leaving singer / bassist John Wetton (King Crimson, UK), drummer Carl Palmer (ELP), and keyboardist Geoff Downes (Buggles, Yes) to sally forth with replacement Mandy Moore.
Wetton left soon after—followed by Palmer—but the band continued into the ‘90s with Downes as its anchor, mutating into an offshoot group built around surrogate singer John Payne.
But Asia’s original lineup regrouped for a 25th anniversary tour in 2007, and stayed together long enough to record not one but three impressive new studio albums in the old vein. Between 2008-2012 Wetton and co. issued Phoenix, Omega, and XXX on the Italian niche label Frontiers, demonstrating that a sizable market still exists for superbly-crafted pop rock with mildly self-indulgent tendencies. Whether or not modern radio would embrace any of it a la “Heat of the Moment” is another story. Still, three albums in four years is downright prolific by today’s industry standards, especially considering Wetton and Palmer also issued solo material during that time, and Howe and Downes were moonlighting in Yes.
Alas, now, with Gravitas, history repeats itself: Howe—who remains one of the greatest living guitarists on Earth—has jumped ship in deference to Chris Squire, Alan White, and his Yes mates, leaving Wetton to scour the planet for worthy substitute.
Enter English shredder Sam Coulson, who at 27 wasn’t even born until after Asia’s first fracture, and now joins a group of veterans more than twice his age. Coulson isn’t given a lot of space to fill on Gravitas—one guesses he came aboard halfway into the writing (or even recording process)—but the legato-savvy lad certainly makes good use of his time, decorating the tracks with quick licks and searing solos. It’s unfair to compare Coulson with Howe or say his style and tone lack as much personality; Howe is a virtuoso’s virtuoso, and with fifty years of playing under his belt has developed a “voice” on the instrument that is now as recognizable as it is celebrated.
That said, the major flaws in Gravitas have little to do with the shake-up in the guitar department. Fact is, Asia’s latest disc is quite good—but not nearly as good as the last three “reunion” efforts. There’s some solid stuff here, and the boys are on a good clip: Palmer’s still killing it behind the kit, and Wetton’s warm, rich voice is as powerful as it was in ’82. But none of the nine tunes on offer are quite as immediate, propulsive, or edgy as “Never Again,” “Extraordinary Life,” (Phoenix) “Finger on the Trigger,” (Omega) or “Face on the Bridge” (XXX).
Wetton and Downes (who occasionally team up as Icon) submit a few clever arrangements and lyrical ideas, and Wetton somehow manages to convert tongue-twisting, polysyllabic titles and non-musical phrases like “Nyctophobia” and “Valkyrie” into surprisingly sing-able hooks. Drawing from a prodigious bank of synths, Downes (the man responsible for “Video Killed the Radio Star”) dials up lush, cinematic sounds, and paints Asia’s latest canvas with sweeping strings, bold brass, and graceful glissando as Palmer conjures his percussive thunder (sharp snare, booming bass, rolling toms) and lightning (sibilant cymbals and hardware).
Watch the official video for “Valkyrie:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=CIpmYEYC2rU
Originally earmarked as the title track, “Valkyrie” is a cello-charged battle ballad en homage to the winged goddess of myth who ushered fallen soldiers into Elysium. The mournful strings (provided by Katinka Steijns of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) groan over Wetton’s haunting, multi-tracked refrain while Downes’ keyboard chords and piano parts go bounding over Palmer’s muscular meters, leading to a standout debut guitar solo by young Coulson. A muffled, indecipherable (but strangely comforting) female voice anoints the fade-out, beckoning metaphorical “travelers” like an airport staffer’s final boarding call.
A synth adagio prefaces “Gravitas,” the piece building gradually (courtesy Wetton’s thumping Zon bass and Downes’ billowy organ); the song proper doesn’t truly commence until the three minute mark. Wetton s verses examine a rocky relationship (divorce?) wherein one of the lovers repeatedly refuses his / her partner’s ultimatum to get serious (hence the title),and he delivers them with the right mix of angst, anger, and regret. Where his maligned narrator once enjoyed a romance where “nothing could go wrong,” he now surveys “a grand illusion” in which his love is no longer reciprocated. Downes underscores the heartbreak with a recitation of the leitmotif at six minutes, then defers to Coulson’s snarling guitar outro.
Sad, subdued “The Closer I Get” furthers the theme of alienation, with Wetton’s analog remarking how he and his mate have become unmoored, “cut adrift from the people we are.” It’s another belabored build-up that hurtles the seven minute mark—but it pays off with a blustery, drum-laden coda with pizzicato keys and atmospheric guitar. Reworked from a Wetton / Downes demo, “I Would Die For You” is the disc’s requisite power ballad, a shamelessly bright, brief (3:13), and hopeful ode to first lust that revels in ‘80s optimism and hair-band musical roots. Lord knows we’ve heard enough “Die For You” tunes over the years, but Wetton helps Asia thwart cliché here by spacing out the chorus, strategically measuring his words and holding the “I” until his lungs run out of breath. “Russian Dolls” finds Wetton likening lovers to Matryoshka figurines that nestle inside one another, and who maintain emotional proximity even when separated (“Moscow to St. Petersburg”) by time—and train. Palmer adds military snare to the elegiac cold war requiem, and Wetton waxes regally on a rare Asia bass solo.
The guys get silly on fear-of-the-dark ditty “Nyctophobia,” with Wetton—referred to in the song as “Jack” by his shrink—begging for the lights to be left on at bedtime, his voice deliberately, amusingly cracking in a falsetto hiccup at verse’s end. In another odd but effective move, Wetton underpins the call-and-response chorus with soaring Beach Boys-like “whoos,” pressing on with the Freud / Poe-steeped therapy until Coulson steps in to ward of the bogeyman with wicked-fast licks.
A cynical bachelor loosens up and learns to share his life instead of trudging on joylessly in “Joe Dimaggio’s Glove.” Celtic-tinged Gravitas finale “Till We Meet Again” is no “I Believe” but wraps things up well enough: “Take care going, don’t be a stranger,” bids Uncle John. “Take my one spare key.”
Gravitas won’t win over the naysayer critics who've always derided the band’s adventurous prog-pop, but principal writers Wetton and Downes aren’t out to please the power-brokers. They knows their audience and cater to it, and even an average Asia trumps the “product” promulgated by the majority of the bands being drooled over on airwaves (and internets) these days. Here’s hoping they have a couple more discs left in them.
The album sleeve is once again adorned with a fantastical alien landscape—and obligatory Asia dragon—painted by renowned artist Roger Dean (Yes, Uriah Heep). Deluxe (and Japanese) editions of Gravitas tack on acoustic versions of “The Closer I Get,” “Dimaggio’s Glove,” and “Russian Dolls.”