Friday 26 August 2022

Journey - Freedom (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Jul 2022
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Latest in the growing department of "let's release a new studio album after... holy crap, how long has it been", this is the fifteenth by American melodic/hard rock legends Journey—if we're strict—or the sixteenth, if we count their underrated Dream, After Dream soundtrack from 1980. Either way, it's their first new album in eleven years and it's a generous one, running almost an hour and a quarter, without ever seeming too long. That surprised me, though it should be pointed out that anyone who only listens to them on classic rock stations is going to get three serious shocks here.

The first is that, while Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain are still in the band and in strong form after decades of service—Schon was a founder member way back in 1973—that's not Steve Perry on lead vocals, because he left in 1998. The second is that the current singer is Arnel Pineda, who's Filipino and discovered by the band singing cover songs by Journey and others on YouTube in a band called the Zoo. So far, shocking but maybe not too shocking.

The third is that, given that Pineda joined in 2007 and has been with them consistently for the past fifteen years, performing on their previous two studio albums and a live one, he actually has more years with the band than Perry did. Sure, Perry had a twenty-one year stretch, but they were split up for almost a decade of that, which ought to count. Oh, and fourth just to throw in a bonus, you are not going to care. Pineda sings just like Perry did and he sounds fantastic.

That's evident on the strong opener, Together We Run, which sounds just like Journey should. The band's sound is pretty intact here for much of the running time, whether it's that obvious starter, a grower like Don't Give Up on Us or a ballad like Still Believe in Love. Journey have always done a good job with ballads, though they've never been my favourite songs by them. This one is soft but it's meant to be. I still liked it more than Live to Love Again, which feels like something taken from a musical. At least Don't Give Up on Us has a searing guitar solo from Neal Schon, however soft it gets.

There's a lot of music here, across fifteen substantial tracks, and I'm not going to run through that list one by one. Let's just say that nothing is bad, little is just OK and the highlights for me are You Got the Best of Me and The Way We Used to Be, with All Day and All Night following in their wake.

You Got the Best of Me is a clear standout. It's a relatively subdued rocker but its hooks got stuck in my brain quickly and effectively and the band milk those hooks well enough that it's the longest song here except for the epic closer, Beautiful as You Are. Now, that's only five and a half minutes, just to be clear; the closer is the only long song on offer at a breath over seven. I liked this one on a first listen but it kept standing out more on every repeat, until I was plucking it out for separate plays.

The Way We Used to Be is an odd song because it feels like it ought to slip into the background as a filler track, but it just refuses to stay there. I think it succeeds not because it's inherently great as a song but because it utterly nails its groove. It feels absolutely right. I prefer You Got the Best of Me as a song but this one just gets into my bones and I can't not move to it. All Day and All Night is another groove-oriented song. It feels loose, a lot looser than it really is, because there's no way this wasn't constructed very carefully. Again, it just feels right and that's enough for me.

What I ought to wrap up with is that the line-up isn't quite what it ought to be. Behind Schon, Cain and Pineda, there's Randy Jackson on bass and Narada Michael Walden on drums. Of course, both of them also provide backing vocals, because every member of Journey does that, including Jason Derlatka, who doesn't play an instrument otherwise, even though he's a keyboardist in the usual line-up. Jackson was the bassist at the time the album was released but left before its release, so anyone going to see them on tour will see Todd Jensen on bass. Stranger still, the band's drummer is Deen Castronovo, who's only here to sing lead on After Glow, because Narada Michael Walden is the drummer on everything here and he's particularly emphatic at the end of Beautiful as You Are.

And I'll add a further surprise. Given that almost every quality melodic rock album nowadays is on the Frontiers indie label from Italy, it's an eye opener to see this one come out on a major label, a suggestion that maybe BMG are realising how vibrant the genre is right now. After all, their prior album, Eclipse, in 2011, was a Frontiers release, at least in Europe. Whatever the reason, Journey are back and on top of their game. This is probably longer than it needs to be, but then it's been a long eleven years. I'm not going to complain about how much music there is here, even if it affects the overall rating.

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