CD Review: Asia – Gravitas

CD Review: Asia – Gravitas
Frontiers Records
All Access Rating: B+

Asia - Gravitas 2014
As reflective and almost solemn an album as Asia has ever produced, Gravitas is perhaps the perfect word to describe a recording that examines matters of the heart with such overarching drama and lovelorn longing.

Still technically a super group, although guitarist Steve Howe has seemingly departed for good to concentrate on his work with progressive-rock icons Yes, Asia welcomes a newcomer into the fold in Sam Coulson, joining lead vocalist/bassist John Wetton (King Crimson, UK), drummer Carl Palmer (ELP) and keyboardist Geoff Downes (The Buggles). 

It was Mr. Big's Paul Gilbert who recommended Coulson, and the match is a good one. Coulson's melodic leads and fluid playing fit like a glove, although at times it seems he's straining at the leash to really let loose here and shred like there's no tomorrow. Or maybe he's simply trying to force Asia out its comfort zone, maybe inject some fresh blood into a body that's been in need of a transfusion, even if nobody realized it until his arrival. And the band does seem rejuvenated, making big sweeping epic compositions that have all the hallmarks of past Asia outings.

Immediately apparent is the attention to detail Asia gives to crafting lush arrangements and exquisite, windswept vocal harmonies on the airbrushed Gravitas, such as those that usher in the soaring first single "Valkyrie." Suffused with light and full of amiable hooks, "Nyctophobia," "Heaven Help Me" and the dazzling flood of synthesizers, rich piano, pulsating bass and serrated guitar that make up the bombastic title track are bright, intoxicating aural paintings, all of them written with tighter structures than Asia's prog-rock brethren would ever dare to attempt. If only their tempos weren't so damn sleepy.

Lyrically, Gravitas, out now on Frontiers Records, is extraordinarily introspective, addressing subjects like regret and loss with candor, emotional vulnerability and a graceful ennui that comes with maturity, although it's rather clinical sonically and not at all warm. A particularly harsh self-excoriation, the soul-baring, golden slumber of "Joe DiMaggio's Glove" becomes a metaphor for a soft heart, while the spindly acoustic guitar and Old World imagery of "Russian Dolls," with its trains and vauxhalls, lends an air of mystery, intrigue and forlorn hopelessness to an album that, at times, has a heavy heart. The aching piano ballad "The Closer I Get," so reflective and tender, seems especially sad. 

Some will always dismiss Asia's overblown romanticism, their earnest sentimentality and their lightweight pop inclinations, which always belied their instrumental complexity. Gravitas has all of that. And the scornful might scoff at the fantastical cover art of Gravitas, as Asia has always gone for that Roger Dean look but with a slightly less sci-fi influence and more mythical serpents and dragons, although this one appears to have come straight out of "Avatar." Still, there was a time in 1982 when they were as big as anybody in music, their debut album surprisingly becoming Billboard's No. 1 album of the year. The people have spoken when it comes to Asia, who sound more and more like the Moody Blues every year. And there's something about them people seem to like.
– Peter Lindblad

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