Despite all the line-up changes, internal struggles and the fact that the previous album, the fairly solid and pleasing “Eclipse”, dates back to 2011, our American AOR friends have always continued to tour almost non-stop. They are still at the same high level in terms of popularity. At least in America. Quite special for a band that thrives on the hits of yesteryear. It may indicate how good the band is still live, especially with the latest vocal addition, the Filipino Arnel Pineda, who has also been with them for 15 years. The hassle with fired former members bassist Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith (because of an attempt to take over the name ‘Journey’, well) has solved the band by having the album played fully by Randy Jackson (bass) and drummer Narada Michael Walden. Which were subsequently replaced by resp. Todd Jensen and former member Deen Castronovo. Are you still following? Never mind, there’s a new Journey album out and what a one! No less than fifteen gems were pinned together in Corona time. We can tick all the familiar boxes again: wall-to-wall ‘feel good’ choruses? – check, furious solos? – check, slippery join ballads? – check, beautiful melodic piano playing? – check. But there are also some surprises to note.
To start with that last category. The first surprise is the somewhat lesser production, unfortunately. It may be the stream of Frontiers, but the whole album sounds a bit duller and less slick than we are used to from the gentlemen. Not a deal-breaker, but it does take some getting used to. Hopefully, the CD sound of “Freedom” will be not too bad.
Furthermore, the midtempo blues in the first single “The Way We Used to Be” is hardly recognizable as Journey, but it is one hell of a song. Addictingly beautiful even; Also includes a nice animation clip. The following “Come Away With Me” also has a different sound with its solid guitar work and rough vocals. In the again quite heavy “Let it Rain” the spirit of Jimi Hendriks flows through and Schon is allowed to go wild. We have also rarely heard the hack-on-the-branch rhythm in the equally hard “Holdin’ On” on a Journey album. Just like the once again rather heavy “All Day All Night”. The last two are not the strongest tracks, but they are refreshing and good for a change.
But the majority consists of sing-along, easy-to-hear songs with a poppy slant. For example, the opener “Together We Run” is beautifully constructed through beautiful piano playing and the clear voice of Pineda, before Neal Schon joins in and the catchy chorus takes you along. The intro of “Don’t Give Up On Us” is stolen from their own “Seperate Ways”, although the song continues to develop in a different direction. The recent single “You Got The Best Of Me” is an uptempo and uplifting sing-along of stature. The same actually applies to “Don’t Go”, although this one is less impressive. The album ends with the epic seven-minute-long “Beautiful As You Are”. That’s best because the song that starts as a fragile ballad turns out to be a hit. As soon as Cain’s keys kick in, the tempo picks up and the song develops into a bombastic rocker of stature with a once again outstanding Neal Schon in a long solo.
And then we come to the swoon category. After all, Journey has grown up with beautiful ballads such as “Faithfully” and “Open Arms”. Surprisingly enough, there are only three real ballads between the fifteen songs. The first, “Still Believe In Love” is a very subdued, slightly too smooth boy for me, which reminds me of the many too-sweet songs on the last album with Steve Perry (“Trial By Fire” from 1996). Although Schon saves the honour with a flaming solo, as so often. No, then the long “Live To Love Again” is a lot more impressive, although very recognizable. It has a nice build-up, exuberant lighters-in-the-air chorus and wonderful guitar work. Finally, the song by Castronovo is somewhat restrained. “After Glow”, which is a little less impressive, because again just on the soft side.
But in conclusion, you can say that Journey has made a fine and actually varied album. The AOR has largely been displaced by melodic rock, which we are not raw about. Probably the singles at most will make it onto the stage, as is the case with a greatest hits band, but at home, you can enjoy this ambitious 73-minute “Freedom” for the foreseeable future. (9/10) (Frontiers Music)