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32 years after their wildly popular self-titled debut album's release, the legendary British rock band, ASIA returns with a brand new studio album entitled Gravitas. This album Introduces new guitarist Sam Coulson who was recommended to the band by none other than Paul Gilbert of Mr. Big. The new album is being hailed as their best album since its classic early '80s releases. This collector's edition CD/DVD features two bonus tracks and a DVD with a videoclip for first single Valkyrie, behind the scenes footage and three Asia classics recorded live with a full symphonic orchestra in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
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Coulson's integration into the band gives Gravitas a sound unlike that of the original lineup; it actually does sound like "Astra" in places, but frankly Coulson is a more proficient and melodic guitarist than Mandy Meyer was, and while Gravitas is certainly harder-edged musically than the other reunion albums, the introspective, spiritual and thoughtful tone that Asia has developed continues to unwind itself into their music. The result is a unique album and - this fan hopes - indications that there is more to come.
As with all of my other reviews, here is each song on the Special Edition CD, rated 1-5. (I have left the DVD off here.)
VALKYRIE - 5.0. One of the five best songs this band has recorded. It's almost too simple, but man does it work. Maturity suits Asia very well. Sam Coulson's first chance to showcase his abilities is extremely well executed and Carl Palmer's drums are at their very best.
GRAVITAS - 4.1. An angry anthem at the end of an unfortunate relationship. The intro runs about two minutes in length - almost too long - but the anger, bitterness and resignation are palpable in the lyrics.
THE CLOSER I GET TO YOU - 4.2. This song was almost too slow for me; it needed to grow on me before I could give it an accurate reading. I'm still not sure I have it right, however. As with the previous song, the speaker is looking down the barrel at the end of a love affair, but in this case, the ending is not entirely what he wants. There is a sense of paralysis to this song that rings more true to life - inertia is more stable than the frame of mind described in the title track, and fits more with the life of quiet desperation that so many people really lead.
NYCTOPHOBIA - 4.7. Time for some fun. This is a clever, almost amusing take on one man's fear of the dark and how it affects his life. The music is the closest thing Asia's ever done to a Halloween song. Easy song to like.
RUSSIAN DOLLS - 4.7. A song about a soldier in the old Soviet Union, cold-war era, who is stationed far from his home and the love of his life, returning after a long time away. The train whistle, the lightness of the keyboard riffs simulating snowfall, and Palmer's drumming emphasize the railway station setting and paint a very specific place and time for this piece. I really, really like this one.
HEAVEN HELP ME NOW - 3.4. I have the same problem with this song that I had with "Judas" on XXX, compounded with the same problem I had with "The Prophet" from Alternate-Timeline Asia's Silent Nation. It's not a bad song. It just blends in so much with the rest of the album that I don't really notice it, and when I do, it just doesn't come across as being particularly memorable. The intro, "Wings of Angels," is to me the best part of the song.
I WOULD DIE FOR YOU - 2.9. It's appropriate that a song from the "Astra" era would make its way on here. It's not terrible, and it is certainly good enough to have displaced some of the actual songs on that album. Still, it never turned up on Then and Now, and wasn't on the first Icon record, so I have to wonder about this one. I just don't think it fits here very well, though - its presence and lyrics sort of make the band's growth all the more apparent.
JOE DIMAGGIO'S GLOVE - 4.4. A song about the transformative power of romantic love, even late in life. The speaker in this song is definitely a tough old codger, someone who has little and needs less, trying to come to grips with the realization of being in love. When I saw the title of this song, I thought it was a reach, and I still do, but it's much less of one than I at first believed. Very thoughtful, soulful and well-delivered. Wetton's vocal performance is his best on the album, except perhaps for the opener.
TILL WE MEET AGAIN - 4.5. Asia may finally have a new show-closer. This song is their take on an Irish farewell, and it sounds GREAT. Lyrically, it's a little contrived and a little short of what it could have been; a couple of weeks' work on the lyrical side to deepen it out could have made this a 5.
The two bonus tracks are remixes of "The Closer I Get To You" and "Joe DiMaggio's Glove." They're actually very similar to the final mixes; there's much less of a sharp difference than we saw with "I Know How You Feel" from XXX. I don't think they really add a lot to the album, but there wasn't much addition needed. I would have preferred an all-acoustic "Till We Meet Again," myself.
Overall, Gravitas is a solid album, better than Astra, about equal in my mind to the debut and Phoenix, with some clearly superior work. The best thing about this album, though, is the direction the band chose to take - after what happened with Astra commercially, it would have been easy for Wetton, Downes and Palmer to avoid going in a similar direction this time - yet they did. Sam Coulson is better for Asia's sound than Meyer was, not to hate on Meyer. I look forward to their next album: we will finally know what the follow-up to Astra was supposed to sound like. Assuming that the guys stay together this time, I guarantee you it won't be as hideous as Aqua was.
Remember, folks: you can't spell "Gravitas" without "Astra."
If you are a Asia fan, or a fan of great rock songs, this would be a great addition to your album. If you like songs that are digitally enhanced, with digital drums, etc. this is not for you. For me it is great to hear songs that are at times upbeat, and at other times remind one of loves lost and of love found. Perhaps I suffer a bit from nostalgia, but then that is part of who I am.