Sunday, 6 April 2014

Asia's 'Gravitas' - Album Review

Since the band's original line-up reconvened in 2006, Asia have released three solid studio albums that built upon the fomula created on their 1982 self-titled debut album and 1983's Alpha. Musically, they sit somewhere between AOR and progressive rock; focussing on melody but always making them more subtle and intricate than say Journey or Foreigner. Last year however, founding guitarist Steve Howe decided to leave the band to pursue other musical endeavours leaving the core duo of vocalist and bassist John Wetton and keyboardist Geoff Downes to find a new guitarist. They chose the relative unknown Sam Coulson to fill the void and the three, along with legendary drummer Carl Palmer, began to work on what would become Asia's fourteenth studio album (even if the band seem to like to pretend that the long John Payne era never existed). Originally titled Valkyrie, the band finally settled on the title Gravitas. Stylistically, Gravitas is very similar to their previous three studio albums, showing that they have not really lost anything through Howe's departure. The reformed Asia has always been the project of Wetton and Downes anyway, but Howe always contributed a couple of excellent tracks per album even if his jazz-influenced playing was always a little at odds with the quasi-stadium rock that Wetton and Downes produce. Thankfully, Coulson does well even if he never really gets a chance to properly shine. Downes' keyboards dominate the mix and we never really get to hear Coulson cut loose and show us his skills apart from in a few tasteful solos. Possibly when he is more established in the band he will get the odd bone thrown his way, but at the moment he seems to be playing it safe. In fact, Gravitas generally has an air of 'playing it safe' about it. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, as Asia doing what they do best is always going to be enjoyable, I do feel that Wetton and Downes could have maybe branched out a little to utilise the talents of Coulson better - after all he has worked with Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big; Racer X) and Walter Trout before! A little shake up in sound and formula would have been nice, but in reality Wetton and Downes are always going to stick to what they know best. The result is Gravitas which is another enjoyable album in their long and sucessful discography.

The album opens with the dense, yet melodic Valkyrie that is built around trademark Wetton vocal performance with plenty of spacey keyboards from Downes. It is a mid-paced song that is held together by some delicate, chugging guitar from Coulson - which is probably different to something Howe would have done - and a simple beat from Palmer. The huge harmonies in the chorus are typical Asia fare and sound as lush as always. Asia albums always sound beautiful and the production and mix here is no different. Towards the end of the song, we do get to see a little of what Coulson is made of with a tasteful guitar solo. It is simple, but the phrasing and bending of the notes is pitch perfect and when it links back up with the chorus the song really sounds fantastic. The sprawling title track is up next and this harks back to the more progressive moments of their 2008 reunion album Phoenix which also had a couple of songs written as mini-suites. Opening with an almost orchestral vibe, the song then drops out to some dramatic piano from Downes. The strings carry on in the background and give the whole thing an epic feel. It is a shame then that the main 'meat' of the song does not really live up to the grand beginning. We get a nice riff from Coulson before it becomes another mid-paced chugging song that feels very similar to Valkyrie. The song itself is enjoyable, with plenty of retro keyboard sounds and a solid vocal from Wetton, but after the huge introduction I expected something a little more. The ending of the song is better though. Coulson again gets to solo while Downes' huge organ gives him an appropriate backing. The next highlight is Nyctophobia, which starts out sounding a little like Supertramp's Dreamer before becoming a traditional Asia rocker that sticks in your head and refuses to be moved. Asia always have written the odd quirky number and this is Gravitas' one. The Supertramp-esque keyboards continue throughout the whole song and Wetton follows their pattern with his vocals. Coulson shines on this song. His groove-influenced riffing backs up the entire song before a speedy solo quickly sets him apart from Steve Howe. We know he can shred, and it is nice to see him get a little more freedom in this song.

Russian Dolls is a really nice ballad that has a really 1980s vibe to it, with some twinkly keyboards that mix well with some arpeggiated acoustic guitars. The chorus is pure Asia. Wetton's bassline really helps to emphasise the melodies and rhythm and some excellent rock organ gives it a certain droning quality that works well. There is even what sounds like a short bass solo after the second chorus that shows that Wetton is a great musician as well as a good singer. Heaven Help Me Now is another traditional Asia song, although the symphonic work at the beginning is a nice change of pace. Again though, like with Gravitas, the introduction does not really seem to fit the rest of the song. I would have liked the dramatic nature of the intro to continue into main melodies, but instead we are treated to another mid-paced rocker. That said though, the song's chorus is very good. The epicness of the intro does return here somewhat with some some big pulsing keyboards and plenty of vocal harmonies for Wetton to compete with. It is just a shame that two excellent orchestral introductions are effectively wasted on this album. They are not musically similar to the songs they go with, and it just seems like an opporunity that was not full taken advantage of. Joe DiMaggio's Glove is the album's next highlight. It is an excellent slow number that is full of excellent melodies. I particularly like Coulson's guitar work towards the end of the song. He has a subtle effect on his guitar that almost gives him a tone similar to something Slash might use. The chorus is of course a real killer and probably the best one on the album overall. This is a great song that ranks up there with the best that Wetton and Downes have ever written. The album comes to an end with the acoustic-driven anthem Till We Meet Again. It might be a little cliché, but it is certain to go down a storm live. It sounds quite different to the rest of the songs on the album, but it is a fitting closing number. Coulson brings the album to a close with a nice, short guitar solo over Palmer's marching drums and the chorus vocal harmonies. Overall, Gravitas is another solid album from Asia that continues with the successful formula that they have built up over time. It is missing a really killer track, like An Extraordinary Life from Phoenix, and there is some wasted opportunities with some of the track introductions, but on the whole this is a very enjoyable album.

The album was released on 24th March 2014 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Valkyrie

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