Review by Andy Hawes for MPM
A new Journey album is always an exciting event in Melodic Rock/AOR circles and it’s been quite a while since we last had one – 11 years to be precise, 2011’s Eclipse.
There has been some quite significant change within the Journey camp since then, with drummer Deen Castronovo leaving the band to be replaced by Narada Michael Walden (although he has returned for the recent and current tour schedule) and bass player Ross Valory being replaced by Randy Jackson, who last played with the band on their 1986 classic Raised on Radio.
In addition, the band have brought in an extra keyboard player/vocalist Jason Derlatka, who provides keyboard and vocal support in the live shows. However, the core of guitarist Neal Schon, Keyboard player and rhythm guitarist Jonathan Cain and vocalist Arnel Pineda remains from the past and the songwriting team of Schon and Cain have clearly worked overtime (supported by Walden) to ensure that this new album, Freedom, continues Journey’s mighty fine legacy after over 40 years of making high quality music.
There has for some time been a little bit of tension in the Journey albums between the highly melodic and some might say overly ‘corporate’ AOR sound of their biggest hits and guitarist Neal Schon’s desire to just rock out.
When Journey get this right (as witness anything on classic albums Escape and Frontiers from 1981 and 1983 respectively) it’s absolutely phenomenal, but when it doesn’t quite gel as well, as on some tracks from 2011’s Eclipse in particular, things aren’t always quite as rosy. So, given this and given Schon’s seemingly heightened role in leading the band forward, what does Freedom actually sound like? Well, let’s do a track-by-track analysis:
Opening with ‘Together We Run’, the band pull out a delicious piece of keyboard and orchestration-led AOR. Lead vocalist Arnel Pineda still has the Steve Perry-isms down to a tee, yet remains more than simply a faceless clone. This track has a slight Raised On Radio/Revelation feel, being very melodic and led by the keyboards. The production (courtesy of Narada Michael Walden, who also co-wrote many of the tracks) is fully packed without a lot of breathing room, but it does give the track a quite lovely intensity and the mix is pretty clear. It’s a very strong opener and it’s clear that Journey still have it!
Second track and single ‘Don’t Give Up On Us’ kinda rips off the intro to the 1983 Frontiers classic ‘Separate Ways’ but it’s quite acceptable for the band to do this as it gives the track a delightful familiarity before bursting into a wonderful piece of AOR with a truly mighty chorus. The combination of guitars and keyboards on this track is pretty much perfect and really is, in this reviewer’s opinion, what Journey do best. Neal Schon does his trademark thing here, with a solo that starts off by dripping melody before the shredding runs roar in.
The mid-song breakdown also smells strongly of ‘Separate Ways’ yet somehow this doesn’t matter as the band hit the final choruses. Truly majestic AOR that leaves most of the competition weeping helplessly in its wake.
‘Still Believe In Love’ drops the tempo with a highly atmospheric intro not dissimilar to the sort of thing you might hear on guitarist Neal Schon’s solo work. From here, the track morphs into a delightful Journey ballad. Pineda carries this rather beautifully, with a choir of backing vocals adding weight to the chorus hook.
The way that the guitars float in and out of the layered orchestrated keys on this track is really quite beautiful too and is further testament to why Journey should have the gold medal when it comes to the monstrous AOR power ballad. When Schon’s solo kicks in, it really is with aching melody and awe-inspiringly wonderful feel. Absolutely stunning stuff!
‘You Got The best Of Me’ has some gorgeous 1980s analogue style keyboard sounds in the intro before a chugging riff kicks in. Melodically, the verse is perhaps a little ordinary, but then the pre-chorus lifts it a hundred notches and the chorus itself explodes in a swirl of harmonies and hooklines and yes, they’ve done it again! A very dense and full production and mix once again provides an intense listening experience, but works very well.
Neal Schon shines again with a screamer of a solo. He really still is one of the very best in the world, especially when it comes to weaving melodies around the chord changes and transitioning seamlessly from melody to shred. Four out of four so far!
‘Live To Love Again’ has a classic Journey ballad piano intro and leads into exactly what you’d expect – a classic style Journey ballad. Pineda sings in a lower register on this one and sounds rather wonderful doing so. It’s a little unexpected and all the better for that.
Once again, Journey have opened up their ‘book of enormous chorus hooks’ for the chorus which is quite delightful. Yes, it’s very wimpy, pink and fluffy, but it’s wonderful. And when the inevitable guitar solo kicks in, you know just what to expect and of course Schon delivers. Yet again. The way the production builds the song to its climax is also worthy of mention as it really does pull out all of the stops.
Track number 6, ‘The Way We Used To Be’ is a mid-paced rocker that once again skilfully combines the guitar and keyboards and gets the best out of both instruments.
A little different from what has gone before on the album, the song provides us with a break from the very obvious ‘Journey-isms’ we’ve been treated to thus far, giving us something more akin to the deeper cuts on previous albums. It’s probably the perfect position in the running order for it too.
‘Come Away With Me’ is a much heavier track, with a huge guitar riff base to the song. Pineda’s voice sounds rather odd here, being drenched in an odd kind of reverb. It doesn’t do him any favours at all and the track lacks in the hook department.
This often happens when Journey go for a heavier feel. Sounding not unlike a mix of Bad English’s and Hardline’s heavier moments (though not as good as either) and not far removed from some of the tracks on Journey’s Eclipse album, it’s actually not a bad track, but coming after all the highly melodic tracks earlier in the album, it feels a little out of place and forced.
‘After Glow’ brings us back to the AOR and it’s a welcome return. This one is sung by returning drummer Deen Castronovo and his voice sits delicately within soft, fluffy clouds of keyboards through the first verses. This track probably has the most space in the production, especially early in the song.
The hooks are a little less obvious in this song, but repeated listens reward the listener with a beautifully warm mid-paced ballad-styled track that grows and grows. Castronovo stretches his voice a little in this and the Perry-isms are mightily evident. Superb drumming (from the immensely talented Narada Michael Walden) as the song builds to the climax is yet another feature of the track. A very good song indeed!
With ‘Let It Rain’, Neal Schon once again cranks up the guitar power with a mid-paced, bluesy riff punctuated by stabbing keyboards. However, once again, with the added guitar power comes a reduction in the melodic quality. Also, it does sound a little as though Pineda is fighting for space amongst the layers of ripping guitar.
The strength of the track lies in the fact that it is different and brings us another facet of Journey’s sound, but the very busy (almost too busy) production and guitar-heavy mix makes it a much more challenging listen than what has gone before.
‘Holdin’ On’ is another guitar heavy rocker with a stabbing, stop-start riff not a million miles away from the heavier moments on Frontiers. Pineda’s voice has an odd tone on this one and it doesn’t sit particularly well within the mix. To my ears, it sounds as though it would have made a good track on an instrumental album as the vocal almost detracts from the riffing and drumming. Like the track that precedes it, it’s a more challenging listen than the more AOR side of the band, but it will have its fans I’m sure.
‘All Day And All Night’ is another quite powerful song on the guitar front, but a more ‘open’ production and a more vocal friendly-mix plus more attention to melody in the vocal lines makes this perhaps the best or at any rate, the most accessible of the more guitar-oriented tracks thus far. A delightfully funky bassline from Randy Jackson propels the track along nicely too.
‘Don’t Go’ returns us to the hyper-melodic uptempo AOR and the band pull no punches by kicking off with the chorus in classic ‘Any Way You Want It’ style.
After the heavier, less melodic sound and style of the preceding tracks, this roars in like a breath of fresh cool air in a heatwave. Multiple layers of guitar and keyboards provide the perfect bedrock for the layered vocals in a fabulous AOR rocker, proof positive that one can rock a little harder without sacrificing melodic intent.
‘United We Stand’ continues this theme with another piece of well-constructed guitar and keyboard-led AOR and Arnel Pineda treats us to more delightful Perry-isms throughout. This track would have been at home on Revelation or Trial By Fire and is in exactly the right place in the running order here. It contains pretty much everything you’d want or expect from Journey and the guitar/vocal playout is really rather wonderful.
‘Life Rolls On’ opens with more of those saccharine-sweet keyboards and lower-register vocals before the guitar scythes in with a colossal wash of power chords and the vocals kick up a notch. However, once again, the band wisely don’t sacrifice melody when the power ramps up and this gives us another classy latter-day Journey melodic rocker.
The album closes with ‘Beautiful As You Are’ which sees the acoustic guitar appear in what you think is going to be a tender ballad. Pineda’s voice drips like warm honey against the gentle guitar and keyboards and you just drift away. Until, that is, the whole thing changes and the band kick in with another wonderful piece of AOR. It’s a clever way to end the album and it ends it on a high.
Overall, this is a very high quality album from a band who don’t really know how to record a bad album! There’s a reason why they are still here after all these years! To my ears, the album is perhaps two or three tracks too long – they could easily have lost those heavier and less melodically obvious tracks and then we’d have a full-blown bona-fide mega classic AOR album on our hands.
As it is, those tracks do just tip the scale down a tiny bit for me, (although they’ll have their fans out there without a doubt) but fear not, it’s still an extremely good album and, to my ears, way more enjoyable than their previous album, Eclipse. A real return to form! There is something for fans of all eras of Journey’s illustrious history here and that’s no mean feat given how long the band have been around!
It’s so good to see the ‘old guard’ continuing to produce music of such high quality so if you’re a fan of the band, this will be a no-brainer. Similarly, if you love melodic Classic Rock of any kind, this should be an album that you should check out right away.
Freedom track listing
Together We Run
Don’t Give Up On Us
Still Believe In Love
You Got The Best Of Me
Live To Love Again
The Way We Used To Be
Come Away With Me
Let It Rain
All Day And All Night
United We Stand
Life Rolls On
Beautiful As You Are
Freedom’ OUT NOW: https://journeymusic.lnk.to/Freedom