Review by Martin Leach
1982 was a good time for music. The NWOBHM was in full swing. Spinal tap were poised to unleash Stonehenge to an unsuspecting public. Frankie were about to say Relax and Journey had just released Don’t Stop Believin’. For the first time. It was a Rock Of Ages era with hair bands ruling the airwaves across America. A certain British band was also riding high on the billboard 200 charts and on the phenomenon that was MTV.
Asia struck a power chord in the states with their blend of progressive AOR, and their anti war sentiments in a time of political upheaval. Their eponymous debut album won them the prestigious Grammy award for best new band of ’82 with bona fide rock classics such as “Heat Of The Moment”, “Sole Survivor” and “Only Time Will Tell”. But the original line up of John Wetton on vocals and bass, Steve Howe on guitars, Carl Palmer on the drums and Geoff Downes from Stockport on keyboards would only survive for the first two albums. In the years that followed, the band’s penchant for palindromes persisted with works such as Astra, Aqua, Aria, Arena etc. Bit players to the story walked in and out; guest appearances, cameos and session musicians meant a lack of continuity and the band struggled to replicate the commercial success of the first two albums.Then in 2006, the band reunited with the original line up from ’82 with a world tour and a new album, “Phoenix”. The album was well received and was the most successful one since the early days. The happy line up would only go on to produce two more records before Steve Howe retired from the band, mainly to concentrate on YES. Which finally brings us round to “Gravitas”.
The first thing that strikes you is how much it sounds like an Asia album. That’s as much of a compliment as a critique! The opening track, “Valkyrie”, joins a long list of songs with a Norse legend at it’s core. And female goddesses who take fallen soldiers to Valhalla, is ideal for an Asia song. The band were never one to rock your socks off….more one to darn them for you….and at times the music on offer borders on easy listening. John Wetton’s style hasn’t altered from day one, and neither should it. His delivery is clear and fresh, comforting and soothing, with great power in backup that’s rarely used to its full potential. The title track “Gravitas”, is very much along the same lines, musically. Sweeping strings and flutes meander along before Downes’ piano and organ lead us into the song and a seldom heard riff from Sam Coulson, Steve Howe’s replacement brings up the tempo. Asia fans of old will undoubtedly lap up the trancelike beat that gets right under your skin but when the chorus is so repetitive, it’s easy to become blasé about the tunes. Chanting the song title in the same key, over and over doesn’t exactly hold the listener’s attention ! We need some variation here ! Maybe Sam Coulson’s input could’ve provided that but it almost feels like he’s not quite a fully fledged band member. Coming into them frame via a strange route of YouTube, Paul Gilbert and Walter Trout, the Englishman joined the band by word of mouth. The move prompted hopes he could provide the band with a harder edge, similar to when Mandy Meyer ( who would go on to join Gotthard ) was in the band. Unfortunately this isn’t quite the case and Coulson’s influence hasn’t translated well to the overall Asia sound. With a musician this talented on board, you have to wonder how much say he had in the cut of the album. His solos, which mostly occupy the middle eight slot are well executed. But they don’t quite seem to fit when the overwhelming majority of the rest of the songs are vocals and keyboard heavy. This imbalance needs addressing or history may repeat itself with another name added to the list of part time band members.
“The Closer I Get To You”, and “Nyctophobia” are great songs though for differing reasons. The former one harks back to the early days with great imagery and atmosphere. It’s a slow burner that sends you away into “ASIA” world, willingly and happily. A great Coulson solo leads us out, but it’s over too soon. Closely following is “Nyctophobia” which means a fear of the dark. There’s some lovely tongue in cheek lyrics and for the first time it feels like the band are having fun, rather than sticking to the Asia blueprint.“Russian Dolls” is another song that breaks from the norm. There’s a wonderful feel to the melodic tune, not least because of its low end guitar break reminiscent of the music of Twin Peaks. But too early the chorus takes over in an all too similar fashion.
It’s safe to say that Asia are more loved across the pond than on these shores, and I suppose it’s also right that the band plays on this. So next we find ourselves, obscurely, at prom night. On the baseball pitch, Joe Dimaggio is batting. John Travolta and Olivia Newton John are fighting again. “Joe DiMaggio’s Glove” has a feel of Supertramp’s “Take The Long Way Home”. There’s a huge slice of nostalgia behind the song which us Brits may not fully comprehend……you either accept it or reject it. It’s basically a love song with the hook line of “How did my heart become so soft……like Joe DiMaggio’s glove” relating to the glove that he used in his record breaking hit streak in major league baseball in the 1940’s. Unashamedly, I love it.
This is an Asia album for Asia fans. I must confess that I include myself in that elite group. But maybe it’s more of an album for the band itself, producing the type of music they obviously love. It’s amazing to think that for a band whose career spans some thirty plus years, we’re still talking in terms of how much it sounds like their earliest compositions. “Gravitas” ends with “Till We Meet Again”. When that time comes, Asia need to have moved on and embraced new themes and ideas. To look more into the future than living in the past. And that’s coming from me…a veritable rock’n’roll dinosaur !
“Gravitas” is available now on Frontiers