There is this strange expectation that music critics have a long checklist stored in a notebook, or on a hard drive. It lists anywhere from a dozen to a hundred perceived flaws to look out for in any recording, and when one of those flaws gets flagged for questioning, the whole endeavor is dismissed. It’s not true. In fact, most critics have one thing, just one thing, on their list: give me a reason to come back to you. A mood, a vibe, just one song that asks me to come back and listen again. Sure, it might be bait. Most fishermen swear by it.
And what the most recent efforts from Asia lacked was that bait. The albums rolled past, some pleasantly, some annoyingly, and when they finished the listener moved on to something else. The headline for Asia’s newest, Gravitas, is that you have a good number of tracks that do call you back to listen to the record again.
I may be in the minority in stating that I thought the band’s third album, Astra, was a good and honest effort and the group was recharged with the inclusion of guitarist Mandy Meyer. The same can be said for Gravitas which features Sam Coulson taking the guitarist’s chair and, thus, nullifying the marketing still touting this as “Original Asia.” Coulson, like Meyer, takes a heavier, more distorted approach to the guitar than Steve Howe did, giving the overall effort a much more ‘hard rock’ feel. That’s not a bad thing.
Another plus is that the band has enlisted production and engineering services that get the Asia sound, and that is the big wall of sound that once came from producer Mike Stone. That is evident in the chunk of vocal harmonies that opens the disc with “Valkyrie.” That aspect was a key part of the group’s earliest popularity. The songs had mass and were powerful, even when at times elements were weak. Some of those weaknesses remain, like some lyrical clunkers and the “hasn’t this been banned by now” coupling of “fire” with “desire.” The tempo of the full effort is firmly fixed in the slow to mid-tempo field, so don’t expect speedy chuggers that you can dance to because they aren’t here.
But what are here are some sturdy tunes that stay with the listener after the first listen and actually invite you back. The best case for this is the power ballad “The Closer I Get To You.” It’s nearest descendant may be “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” in that is starts off plaintively and builds to an enormous chorus, and closes with an even bigger version of that chorus. It may be a trick, and may be manipulative as all get-out, but it works and it sounds like the Asia of old. Another track that gets a hook into the listener is “Nyctophobia (Fear Of The Dark)” which is not above having a little fun with the trope of exploiting a psychological term for fears.
As it has always been with Album Oriented Rock, the emphasis is on how it sounds and not particularly what’s being said, because the subgenre is notorious for being as shallow as a half-filled Dixie Cup. To their credit, Asia’s Gravitas sounds like a big ol’ rock album that is more in keeping with the way the band used to make big ol’ rock albums. And the presence of songs you actively choose to revisit is a big deal. If you like the band and have been appreciating their recent efforts, you’ll like Gravitas. If you are a longtime fan who hasn’t been moved by recent work, you probably will like it as well.