It brings a smile to my face every time a veteran band puts a new album out, and is genuinely excited to do so. Far too often, the old guard is happy to churn out the hits on an endless loop, putting out albums only when it's required as proof of life, and never with the kind of gusto and energy they showed at the beginning of their career. It's an easy trap to fall into, one that holds a lot of appeal when the later albums you make will have no influence on either your legacy or wallet. There's something charming about musicians who continue to make music because they love to, even when there's no need, and that's what makes ASIA's new album so refreshing.
ASIA, by all rights, could have called it quits long ago. They had made their mark, and never needed to write another song. But there was a desire among the members to keep going, to keep being creative, and even the absence of Steve Howe wasn't going to slow them down. So with a new guitarist in tow, ASIA is back once again, in a time that is quite hospitable to reunions and nostalgia.
“Valkyrie” opens the album with all the wistful nostalgia you could ask for, with layered choirs, a prominent cello line, and a slow groove that is befitting a band of their era. The sounds are are fine mesh of progressive excess and rock power, but there isn't enough of a song behind them to make the opening statement as strong as it should be. There is little in the way of a riff, and the chorus' repetition of the title does not a hook make. It's a rather limp opening.
“Gravitas” doesn't change the formula, with its lush strings and organs underpinning the song, spending half of its eight minute running time before getting to the chorus, at which point is underwhelming. That much build-up needed a larger payoff, which the song isn't able to deliver. “The Closer I Get” does a far better job of showing what this kind of songwriting should be accomplishing. The main piano and vocal lines are simple yet endearing, while the chorus elevates the song, and the sweet harmonies are a throwback to the 80s. It's the first great moment on the album, and a reminder of why bands like ASIA were as big as they were back in the day.
What I find myself thinking throughout the album is that there's something missing to the proceedings. The band is in fine form, John Wetton sounds fantastic for a man of his age, and the arrangements are lush and littered with interesting motifs. There is a lot to like about “Gravitas”, but I find myself wishing for more meat on the bone. These songs just don't have enough substance behind the gloss, the hooks are never sharp enough, the guitars are never given the chance to show ASIA as a real rock band. The entire album feels like it's spinning in the wrong gear, waiting for the transmission to realize its mistake. It's no coincidence that the few songs where the guitars are allowed to drive the songs, like “Nyctophobia” and “Heaven Help Me” are among the most effective.
While it's nice to have ASIA back, and “Gravitas” is an enjoyable listen, it's not the kind of album that is going to make much of an impression. It's a restrained affair, which is fine, but the songs are mostly stretched beyond where the music should be taken. Trimmed a bit, “Gravitas” could be a pretty good late-career album. As it sits, and as I see it, the album is a nice reminder that ASIA is still out there, even if it's not essential listening.