Something Else! sneak peek: Asia – Gravitas (2014)

Given an expectation that the young Sam Coulson, who’s taken over for long-time guitarist Steve Howe, was going to provide a bit more of a metallic crunch to the proceedings, Asia’s opening statement on the forthcoming Gravitas couldn’t be more surprising.

The retooled Asia begins by offering a mid-tempo tale of redemption with “Valkyrie,” before settling into a lengthy synthesizer and keyboard discourse to launch the title track. Gravitas, due March 25, 2014 via Frontiers Records, appears to be headed in precisely the opposite direction — toward a kind of ornate pop, full of stoic emotion, but lacking a certain fire. Then Coulson plugs in, at about the 2:30 mark, sending “Gravitas” — and the album for which it’s named — into another place entirely. Carl Palmer’s cadence comes alive, Geoff Downes switches to a propulsive organ, and Wetton finds the top of his ever-more-complex vocal range, even as Coulson keeps a fast grip on things, hitting a crisp little riff over and over.

Sure, they’re moving ever farther away from the neo-classicism that surrounded Howe’s playing — but that always seemed like a secondary ingredient to the Asia recipe, anyway. The nexus of their success was (and remains) the songwriting tandem of Downes and Wetton, who together serve as stalwart purveyors not of topographic oceanic-style prog narratives but of endlessly listenable melodic rock. As such, Coulson’s arena-filling forays — as heard on “Nycotophonia,” named after an irrational fear of the dark; the bluntly confessional “Heaven Help Me” and their towering closer “Till We Meet Again” — seem like a perfect fit, maybe an even more perfect fit than Howe, actually.

Grativas still leans more toward quiet balladry (“The Closer I Get,” “Russian Dolls,” the aforementioned “Valkyrie“) than I’d expected. But Coulson ends up making his mark. And, with “I Would Die For You” Asia not only recaptures the punchy relationship rock of “Heat of the Moment,” they neatly turn that breakout 1982 hit’s tale of snippy comeuppance on its ear — giving Wetton a chance to bear his heart in the rawest, most visceral of ways.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.