"Window To the Soul" is the debut album from GPS - but the band members names may be familiar to many, as the band was born out of the ashes of the latter-day incarnation of AOR supergroup ASIA.
In late 2006 Asia were in the studio working on what was to be their next album, "Architect of Time", when founding member Geoff Downes suddenly abandoned the newer crew to join a reunion tour of the original line-up. But John Payne (lead vocals, bass), Guthrie Govan (guitar) and Jay Schellen (drums) made a pact to continue to work together. Keyboard player Ryo Okumoto (of Spock's Beard fame) was brought in to complete the line-up and recording soon began on a new album, made up of some brand new music , as well as a few tracks that were originally intended for "Architect of Time".
While Asia obviously had their most commercially successful day in the sun with their debut album and original line-up, I'm of the passionate minority who prefer the music of the Payne-era Asia. While I enjoyed the original band in their heyday, to me, Asia's most creative, stylistically varied and, yes, 'progressive' music came under the leadership of John Payne on albums such as "Arena" (1996), "Aura" (2001), and "Silent Nation" (2004).
So, how does the new band, GPS, stack up against the best work of their former group? Incredibly well, I'm happy to report. But GPS is a band that, thankfully, does more than simply rehash past glories. While several of the recognizable hallmarks of Payne-era Asia are evident throughout the album, there are also some new elements to the sound that help to give GPS their own identity as a band. For one, many of the the song structures are far more progressive & dynamic - with several pieces clocking in the 8 to 10 minute range. The instrumental breaks are, likewise, more nuanced and complex. There is also a heavier, more aggressive side to some of the music, but the heavy bits are infused with enough melody and song-craft that they never devolve into the typical metal shreading that, for me, weighs down the work of some of of the other bands on the InsideOut label.
As for the individual performances - John Payne's distinctive voice is, as usual, very engaging to listen to, and his performances here are full of passion, humanity, and, at time, a whole lot more aggressive grit than he displayed with Asia. Payne's bass work also seems much more prominent in this new band and I really like the way his playing has evolved. Drummer Jay Schellen (also known for his work with Circa, World Trade and the Chris Squire/Billy Sherwood project Conspiracy) turns in some of his most impressive work to date, and helps add a lot of dynamic thunder to the arrangements. Guthrie Govan gets much more room to stretch out as a soloist than he did on the "Silent Nation" or "America" CDs, and his dexterous (but melodic) fret-work adds flavor to every track. I also must say that "newbie" Ryo Okumoto does an excellent job on keyboards and gets some impressive solo spots throughout the CD. He does not try to mimic Geoff Downes sounds or style at all, but brings a slightly more modern, experimental edge to the band - just one more thing that helps to give GPS a distinct identity apart from Asia.
Lyrically, this album continues Payne's exploration of spiritual and moral themes (see "New Jerusalem", "Written On the Wind", and the title track), as well as continuing the tradition of anti-war songs that have been a running-thread through nearly every Asia album to date. Here, "The Objector" tells the story of a young conscientious objector who is forced onto the battlefield against his will and is tragically killed. There are also a few standard rock & roll 'relationship' lyrics ("Since You've Been Gone", "Gold"), but Payne is such an good writer that I quiet like even his lighter lyrics.
As for picking favorite songs; this is a bit difficult as I quite honestly love every track on the album. But if I was hard-pressed, I would say that "New Jerusalem", "Heaven Can Wait" and "Taken Dreams" are three tracks that nicely sum up everything that is great about this band.
While the sudden disbanding of Payne-era Asia was unfortunate for those of us who loved their albums and live shows, I'm very glad to see that Payne, Govan, and Schellen continued on together to create some of the most creative, challenging music of their careers with GPS. All in all, "Window To the Soul" is a must have for fans of John Payne's era of Asia, and should also hold plenty of appeal for Progressive, hard rock and AOR fans who have no knowledge of the musicians' previous works. This is an album that stands on it's own merits. And, thankfully, their a plans for a second GPS studio album as well as a possible live recoding from the vaults - so the journey of GPS isn't over yet.
Reviewed by Jeff Matheus on May 11th, 2011