ASIA: GRAVITAS (2014)
1) Valkyrie; 2) Gravitas; 3) The Closer I Get To You; 4) Nyctophobia; 5) Russian Dolls; 6) Heaven Help Me Now; 7) I Would Die For You; 8) Joe DiMaggio's Glove; 9) Till We Meet Again.
And this thing just flat out refuses to die. Even with Steve Howe out of the band again, the new old lineup of Asia carries on well beyond its 30th birthdate, replacing the founding father with Sam Coulton, whose age — 27 years — means that the band is well on its way to go on living forever, gradually replacing its grandfathers with their grandkids, as long as they honor and cherish the big, brawny spirit of Asia. Like Sam Coulton does.
Is this a good album? Not really. Is this an Asia album? Very much so, and not in name only. One thing has gone again: the attempt to connect with the old «progressive» spirit, launched with Phoenix and pretty much dissipated already by the time of XXX. Gravitas consists of (superficially) catchy, chorus-driven pop rockers and sentimental pop ballads, almost every one of which could be a commercial hit single (except that Asia hasn't had a commercial hit single for over 20 years now, and the public is not likely to make that change). Sam Coulton is a competent player, and his fluent, melodic style of playing meets the requirements of Asia, but he is not willing to lead the band in any daring experiments (and, given the context, would probably be simply happy to apply his talents to whatever the «veterans» tell him to).
We do know, though, that Asia at their best can excel in the «arena-pop» sphere as well; unfortunately, the songs that Downes and Wetton wrote for this record are anything but excellent. Safe, predictable, and totally respectful of the «Asia formula», they are not even all that catchy, when you get down to it — numbers like ʽValkyrieʼ and ʽNyctophobiaʼ really only seem catchy because their hooks just consist of chanting the title over and over again for about five million times ("Val-kee-REEEEE! Val-kee-REEEEE!", like a drunk Wagnerian, or "NYC-TO-PHO-BEE-A! NYC-TO-PHO-BEE-A!" like a teacher at the local spelling bee). The only guitar riff worth of any note is on ʽI Would Die For Youʼ, and sources indicate that it was actually reworked from an old 1987 demo — and, frankly speaking, I think I understand why it was shelved, because the riff is so straightforward and simple that it should have been rather used as a flashy coda for some other song than as a backbone for an entire composition. But it is still better than the title track, which uses up two and a half minutes of «atmospheric» keyboards for the introduction and then becomes a sentimental bore, hopping along to the rhythm track of Judas Priest's ʽYou Got Another Thing Comingʼ.
The ballads, meanwhile, show a new low in the lyrics department: "How did my heart become so soft / Like Joe DiMaggio's glove?" is quite an excruciatingly extorted metaphor to use as the song's primary hook, I'd say, but it is nothing compared to the crude romance interspersed with memories of a night trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg on a track perversely called ʽRussian Dollsʼ (which really means Matryoshkas, but could just as well be taken to refer to certain ladies of the night that the band members might have picked up at the station — well, I'm sure they're all well-behaved gentlemen, but the lyrics are ambiguous). And these attempts to add an aura of depth and mystery to mundane experiences... well, it just doesn't work when all these tired old scales and production tricks have already been used a million times for that.
So what do we rate a record where the biggest surprise is a simple riff from 1987, and the biggest disappointment is a total lack of surprises? A thumbs down assessment seems like the obvious choice, yet, for some reason, I hesitate to think of Gravitas as a definitively «bad» record. Maybe as these guys get older, their pompous arrogance starts being perceived as some sort of melancholic nostalgia, one with which you could empathize easier than with youthful cockiness-à-la-synth. However cheesy and generic the arrangement for ʽValkyrieʼ may be, there is no doubt in my mind that Wetton takes his vocal part seriously and sincerely — "Peace at last, fade to grey / My war is over now / This is the price I gladly pay / Surrender to her light" is not the best verse ever written, but this is his clumsy attempt to convey some genuine feelings on aging and death (and, for that matter, it is quite easy to forget that the man is pushing 65, just because his singing voice does not seem to have aged one day since King Crimson's Lark's Tongues In Aspic), and as far as my senses tell me, they are conveyed.
In other words, while formally Gravitas is more «simple» and «pop-oriented» than the band's «Howe-adorned Renaissance period» albums, it is a simplicity that logically follows the departure of their most creative member, not a simplicity born out of an intentionally realised desire to be simple. There may have been slightly more sophisticated Asia albums in the past that I actually hated for their arena-oriented pretentious brutal dumbness — Gravitas, on the other hand, somehow justifies its title, being a little more «earthy», and also a little darker and bleeker-feeling, than before, and, at the very least, I am sure that old-time fans, who have aged together with the band, will find it easy to align with the band's feelings.
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