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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Asia

Gravitas

Review by Jason Hillenburg

One cannot rage against the dying of the light indefinitely. I thought about that while listening to Asia's fourteenth studio album, Gravitas. What do you do, as a listener and fan, when older artists trade in the fire and brimstone of their youth in favor of studied restraint? One can thank Providence and good luck alike without reservation that John Wetton survived his demons. It is easy to feel gratitude that a reunion and string of strong studio efforts have fulfilled the initial promise of Asia, seemingly sabotaged forever in the mid 1980s. However, it isn't easy to be thankful hearing one time firebrands like Wetton, keyboardist Geoff Downes, and drummer Carl Palmer churning out imminently respectable, utterly safe pop rock excursions. So what do you do? This is a middle of the road Asia album. You accept it and move on.


This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2014  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Valkyrie
The first listen to the opener did not bode well. While it is easy to admire the immediacy of its opening harmonies, they can produce an initial reaction of horror. Wetton's multi-tracked vocal is obnoxiously loud, a clear result of modern production. It is fortunate that the wrecking ball effect of this opening has no detrimental impact on the remainder of the song. The piece settles into a strong, relaxed groove after beginning in earnest and Wetton delivers a well-written paean to a female Muse figure. The multi-tracked harmonies return in the chorus to stirring, rousing effect. 
Gravitas
The song is broken into two distinct movements that share common motifs, but another quasi-shuffle, like that heard in the opener, fails to leave any lasting impression. Wetton's vocal is outstanding, but the lyrics are a lackluster attempt to embody the song's concept of grace under pressure. Instead, it feels like an assortment of boilerplate phrases organized well but lacking real inspiration. The chorus is equally problematic. An organ line percolating its way through the verses flares to life during the chorus, but the vocal melody is diffuse and the song bogs down at this crucial point.
The Closer I Get to You
Asia puts their well-honed mastery of dynamics to use on one of the album's finest songs. Wetton's exceptional lyric unites common love song tropes with a unique turn of phrase and poetic flourishes. Beyond the pleasing neo-classical keyboard work from Downes, the ever-steady Carl Palmer, and bursts of flash from new guitarist Sam Coulson, the component that draws me into this song is John Wetton's miraculous voice. In the studio or onstage, it remains a remarkably unvarnished and unscathed instrument, able to elevate plainspoken sentiment to sheer lyricism with deceptively little effort.
Nyctophobia
This cut is one of the album's indisputable peaks with an inventive vocal melody and a simple, artful chorus. Wetton's voice bubbles over with confidence and pleasure and the gusto behind his voice contrasts wonderfully with the lyric's depiction of pathological anxiety. The “falling effect” employed for the vocals in the chorus is another nice touch. Everything comes together here – the instrumental mix is perfect and the approach utilizes classic Asia strengths while looking towards the future.
Russian Dolls
The band explores themes of loneliness on this track with sure-handed finesse. The verses are the composition's strength, but the chorus harmonies are likewise appealing. A number of other reviewers have singled out this track as one of the album's strongest and they are right to do so. The song straddles a line between textured, accessible pop and confessional songwriting with entertaining results.
Heaven Help Me Now
There are a couple of ways to hear a track like this. On my initial listens, it seemed to hold back too much, simmering for much of its duration, and only achieving any sort of satisfying release with Coulson's brief and blazing guitar solo in the song's second half. Subsequent listens suggest that this structure might be intended. The extended simmer embodies the desperate attitude found in the lyrics and Coulson's climatic guitar solo seems smartly placed. Palmer's drumming provides a strong foundation.
I Would Die For You
This is an older song resurrected for this project dating back to an abandoned 1987 demo. It's a stab at constructing a memorable rocker in the same vein as “Heat of the Moment” or “Cutting It Fine,” but tempo and cliché alike hold it back. The central riff carrying the piece doesn't have the same compelling snap that fills Asia's better efforts in this vein.
Joe DiMaggio's Glove
This rates as the best song on the entire album for me because it shows the band's songwriting retains imagination and bravery. It is a misconception that the band has long since been imprisoned by its past and can only offer listeners the same melodic and keyboard approach that laid the group's foundation. This number proves this with its unique suggestion of the confessional, the tactile imagery anchoring the lyrics, and considerable musicality.
Till We Meet Again
This is a pleasant surprise; a relatively unadorned gem receives a straightforward arrangement free of the band's excesses. Three factors make the track work for me – the unmitigated sincerity of the lyric that transcends the subject's standard tropes, the folky acoustic guitar, and the thick multi-part harmonies. Wetton sings with a total lack of self-consciousness and communicates a smiling, relaxed confidence on every line. This charming, charismatic delivery mitigates the familiar – it becomes reassuring rather than tiresome. The guitar helps anchor the song and, simultaneously, gives it a delightfully informal air.
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