Tuesday, March 25, 2014

SPAZ reviews the new ASIA album Gravitas!



Available NOW!

While my musical tastes have always leaned towards Power Pop, New Wave, Synthpop and all other forms of '80s music-making (with a healthy dose of '50s, '60s and '70s Rock and Pop filling in the gaps), I was ambivalent to the whole Prog Rock movement.  It seemed a little too pompous and pretentious for my tastes. So, when I heard John Wetton (King Crimson/UK), Steve Howe (Yes), Geoffrey Downes (Buggles/Yes) and Carl Palmer (ELP) had formed a new band called Asia, I wasn't impressed and went along my merry way.  But then I heard "Heat Of The Moment", the first single from this supergroup's debut album and I was floored.  It came out in my senior year in high school (1982) and it made total sense to me... from the lyrics to the melody to the musicianship.  I was a fan for life. I loved their self-titled debut as well as their sophomore album, Alpha (1983).

When they split up after 1985's Astra, I was disappointed.  They may not have sold as many copies of their 2nd and 3rd albums, but they were still a musically vibrant band.  Even though Howe had left after second album, Wetton and Downes were still writing great tunes, which is what attracted me to the band in the first place.  When Downes took the Asia name and brought in John Payne on vocals and bass (along with a revolving cast of players), I still followed Asia through it all. I do love those 'Downes/Payne as Asia' albums but it just wasn't the Asia of old.

When Wetton and Downes reactivated their songwriting partnership in the new millennium, it felt like things were opening up for a full-scale reunion of the four original members... which happened in 2006.  The quartet's first studio album since reuniting, Phoenix, was released in 2008, followed by Omega (2010) and XXX (2012). All three albums were excellent slices of the older and wiser Asia.  While Alpha and Astra were great albums, this new trio of releases surpassed those.  Asia was on a roll...

Then last year, Howe retired from Asia and made way for new guitarist Sam Coulson. And now Asia has released their first album with him - Gravitas.  Though this young six-stringer makes a good impression on Gravitas, the focus of the music has shifted slightly and the album is awash with Downes' always impressive keyboard work as well as enchanting vocal arrangements courtesy of Wetton.  And those vocal arrangements are HUGE.  Gravitas is the first Asia album since their debut to have such an impressive wall of backing vocals that literally lift the songs up and allow them to take flight. Though Coulson is a completely different kind of guitar player than Howe, his heavier sound doesn't distract from the lush sounds of this album.  In fact, he adds flavor to the songs, which more often than not, are epic on an emotional level.

Gravitas seldom 'rocks' like Asia albums of old.  Instead, they are more atmospheric and they take their time worming their way into your brain.  Melodically, the album is prime Asia.  Wetton's voice is still one of the best in Rock and Downes proves that he can create audio soundscapes like no other keyboardist on the Rock and Prog scenes. The album is dramatic and has many stunning moments, yet it manages to avoid all the pretentious pratfalls that many of their contemporaries were and are capable of.  "The Closer I Get" is quite amazing and powerful. "Joe DiMaggio's Glove" is simply lovely. "Heaven Help Me", "Gravitas", "Nyctophobia" and "I Would Die For You" recall the more upbeat tracks on their last few albums, yet they fit together so perfectly with the more emotional tracks here that its hard to imagine them to reside anywhere else but on Gravitas.

Is Gravitas the best album the band has released since their debut (as some have claimed)?  In my opinion, they are two completely different animals so it'd be hard to compare.  It is most certainly one of the best albums in their catalog... and that is high praise indeed!

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