[7 April 2014]
Breathy harmonies suggest a pretty Bad Religion intro, but then the vocals begin with “Like a mist through the trees / across the battlefield / She is born upon the breeze”, and we know we’re in a different land entirely. Add some “big” drums,a couple palmed & pleasantly distorted guitars, lotsa drippy keyboards, and that familiar, gently aggressive baritone, and there’s no disguising it: it’s a new Asia song.
That’s right, it’s 1982 again. I’m A-OK with that, you don’t reunite refugees from the Buggles, King Crimson, and ELP to back Beyonce. This ain’t quite the original Asia as Guitar God Steve Howe is gone, and new guitarist Sam Coulson was apparently a YouTube sensation before he joined the band (I guess it’s not entirely 1982). But original members John Wetton (vocals, bass), Geoff Downes (keyboards, lots of keyboards), and Carl Palmer (drums) are still here, and it’s nice to hear them again, just as it’s nice to see William Atherton show up in a movie. But despite some occasionally heavy-lifting, the quartet fails to produce anything that might inspire you to fire up the DeLorean and head for the past.
“Valkerie” is the opener I just mentioned, and it’s pretty much what you imagine. There’s a minor-key chorus, an occasional solo cello, and compression galore. This should be a glorious battle-cry, an triumphant re-entry into the world of computer-built pop and whatever it is Taylor Swift does.
But it’s all so… safe. And you remember that even though Asia was a desperately commercial project for a buncha aging progheads, they used to have a little more drive. Think about that one Asia song you know, the one your dad thinks “still kicks ass”. There are some biting lyrics in “Heat of the Moment”, lines that might be decried as sexist today but still have punch (“And when your looks are gone and you’re alone / How many nights you sit beside the phone”), and it’s that cynicism that balances the processed guitar and white-boy beat and makes the whole thing actually rock (yep, Dad’s right). Even the little synth ‘n’ bass breakdown works, adding tension to the whole enterprise. Asia may have been slammed or ignored by critics, but a great song is a great song, and there’s a reason you remember “Heat of the Moment” and not, say, “When the Heart Rules the Mind”.
But that edge just ain’t here. They try, but Asia cannot create the drama that used to chug their tunes along. Even that cello just ends up adding more texture, and “Valkerie” just sort of drips away. The melody is solid, of course—these guys couldn’t write dissonance if they tried—but while you might nod along approvingly, you can’t deny the sinking feeling that this one’s gonna gather dust.
“Gravitas” is the second track, and if you’re excited to learn it’s eight minutes long, I’ve got sour news: the dreary synth intro is less prog and more the silty stuff the Moody Blues were churning out in the ‘80s to pay for their dental bills. Once the lyrics kick in at the three-minute mark, they’re of the “please come back to me” school, and if the chorus is puzzling (Wetton sings “Just give me dignity” while a layered choir of overdubs croons the title), it’s refreshing to hear a male singer conveying some good old-fashioned lovesick angst. But once you realize the song itself is so wispy, the overblown production—including the “epic” guitar solo that finally kicks in around Minute Seven—seems oddly out-of-step.
“The Closer I Get to You”, a piano-heavy ballad, continues the theme of “desperately missing you”, and by now, it’s no longer refreshing. Think about that other Asia song you know, the one with the gymnast in the video (don’t act like you don’t remember). That one’s also a breakup song, but the coldness of “Only Time Will Tell” provides the hook and makes it interesting. When Wetton wears his heart on his sleeve, it’s less interesting, and even less convincing. “Closer I Get” aims for “big,” but the vocal overdubs are too polite. Here’s a chorus crying for the blaring triads Styx used to pepper their ballads with, and when you find yourself yearning for “The Best of Times”, you realize nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. (Tommy, James, Dennis, find a way to make it work, okay? Y’all need each other and you know it.)
And so it goes with Gravitas, an album crying out for… well, more gravitas. I like the paranoid humor in the verses of “Nyctophobia” (another nice throwback—aren’t you sick of how confident every pop singer sounds these days?), but I can’t help thinking of the folks who coulda done it better—Meatloaf, Prince, Golden Earring. Rockwell, even. “Russian Dolls” has a promising start, with its mysterious opening verse, cold war echoes, and (again) minor-key progression, and Wetton finally gives us a little emotion, but there’s no payoff as it’s yet another yearning-romance song. Fuzzy synths drone on, and while the melody does develop, the whole enterprise feels more inspired by the musical Chess than anything rock ‘n’ roll. And that’s just a little more nostalgia than I can handle.
But just as you’re about to give up on the lads, they seem to find their footing, kinda. You may not be encouraged by the “Wings of angels / Wings of emotion / Bring her home to me” lyric that begins “Heaven Help Me Now”, especially since they’re backed by another minor-key progression and synth wash. But here the boys finally aim for something a little progressive, albeit in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra vein. Sure, when the tempo finally kicks in, Asia offers the same bland “drama” they’ve already proven they can’t reach. But this one at least reaches a little higher. With its faux-strings-meets-guitar onslaught vibe, it’s the most Asia-ey cut this set offers. And it’s nice to hear the boys striving for something a little more complex, even if it’s ultimately too watered-down to really connect.
“I Would Die for You” is the “hit single”, a pleasant, cliché-ridden mid-tempo “rocker” with an old-fashioned hook that might have been a roller-rink staple 35-odd years ago (it mercifully fades out at the three-minute mark, before they can screw it up). “Joe DiMaggio’s Glove” recalls an earlier decade; it coulda been a lost Greg Lake ballad from the Brain Salad Surgery sessions, and if you can grit your teeth through the strained simile of the title, you might catch yourself looking for a Maxell XLII-90 so you can add it to your mixtape (late on Side One, between Chicago and Billy Squier). Unfortunately, the “acoustic” version of the song, also included in Gravitas, simply removes the drums and bass, keeping the intrusive, overdriven organ and some decidedly un-acoustic synths.
The closer “Till We Meet Again” chugs along with a dropped-D string bluesy groove, and while it’s crying for more stomp, the boys sound like they’re having fun. If only all of Gravitas had this level of spirit. Asia gamefully maintains the same formula that served them so well way back when, but time has sanded away all the edges. If you’re a fan, you could do worse, but I cannot imagine anyone getting excited over Gravitas. Sure, a couple of tunes recall the glory days, but most of them will ultimately serve as concert place-holders for the audience who really wants to hear that song about finding yourself in ‘82.