Asia watchers can be forgiven for approaching Gravitas with caution. The band return after the disintegration of a reunion of their original line-up, and introduces Sam Coulson, a largely unknown Englishman, in the place of Steve Howe. The 27 year-old Midlander might have played with Paul Gilbert, Tony MacAlpine and Guthrie Govan (the John Payne-era Asia/now Steven Wilson Band incumbent), but can he mix it with a unit of world-class musicians? And how will his apparent proclivity towards hard rock and metal affect this group’s notoriously delicate internal chemistry?
Even without Steve Howe, they remain a serious proposition.
Asia’s post-reunion music grew incrementally in terms of both confidence and stature, from their 2008 comeback Phoenix – the first to reconvene the dream team of bassist/vocalist John Wetton, Howe, drummer Carl Palmer and keyboard wizard Geoffrey Downes – and up to 2012’s sorely under-rated 30th anniversary set XXX, which offered one of their most exquisite compositions in Face On The Bridge.
Gravitas was produced by Wetton and Downes and mixed by their former Wetton-Downes bandmate John Mitchell (who away from his work with It Bites, Arena and Frost* is carving a growing reputation as a sculptor of sound across various genres). The album steps back from the flamboyance of the Howe era to present a more stripped-down sound. However, Asia 2014 have sacrificed none of their Downes- fuelled symphonic extravagance, nor the immediacy of those melodies concocted by the reliable ol’ parpmeister in cahoots with the golden-voiced Wetton.
Once intended as the album’s title cut, the fragrant Valkyrie allows Coulson to introduce himself with a measured and unflashy solo to suit the dignified mood. The title track is a deliciously commercial hard rock tune that provides a better showcase for the newcomer’s skills, with The Closer I Get an eloquent, slower paced tune with some absorbing lyrics. The sumptuous Nyctophobia (fear of the dark) is an ambitious piece with Wetton repeating the song’s title over and over again, backed by Asia in their full-on pomp-rock splendour.
Russian Dolls delays too long in revealing its hand perhaps, though once past its own over-long intro Heaven Help Me avoids emerges as an uplifting highlight. Elsewhere, I Would Die For You is perhaps a little too weightless, but the band rediscover their A-game with Joe DiMaggio’s Glove before signing off with the tepid Till We Meet Again.
It’s far from perfect and detractors will rightly mourn Howe’s more flowery approach, but Gravitas could well mark a fascinating new start for Asia.