Initial signs are not good. Journey’s comeback album – their first for 11 years, since 2011’s Eclipse – comprises 15 tracks with a collective running time of more than an hour; that’s enough to test the patience of even the most browbeaten melodic-rock miserablist.
One’s initial reaction is that some judicious trimming should surely have been done. On the opening few tracks the band appear to be weighed down by their heritage, content to plough an uninspiring, not-quite-as-good-as-Don’t-Stop-Believin’, balladic furrow.
But then things change – unequivocally for the better. Neal Schon has long raged against Journey’s perceived wimpiness, and when his steely six-string finally cuts loose on You Got The Best Of Me – a kinda punky version of Any Way You Want It (from 1980’s Departure) – there’s no holding him, the band or the album back.
Journey have never rocked harder than on the raucous Come Away With Me (although Life Rolls On comes mighty close); the giant-sounding Let It Rain channels both ZZ Top and UFO; towards the end of Holdin’ On, keyboard player Jonathan Cain goes stir crazy. Then there’s the spine-chilling United We Stand, with its prime-time, tear-muddied couplet: ‘Love conquers all, even when darkness comes to call.’ Don’t it just. Because let us not forget: the hardest part of the night is the night.
So, yeah, forget about Freedom’s stumblesome beginning, and bid welcome to the stuff of legend: a succession of songs as peerless as the House Of Lords at chucking-out time. Props are due to singer Arnel Pineda, who has long banished the ghost of Steve Perry, together with returning bassist Randy Jackson and drummer Narada Michael ‘I Shoulda Loved Ya’ Walden. The rhythmists get to strut their funky stuff one time only, on the Hall & Oates-esque Still Believe In Love, otherwise it’s bish-bash business as usual.
Elsewhere, former (and now back in the line-up) Journey drummer Deen Castronovo crops up on vocals on the album’s most anomalous track, After Glow: sparse, ethereal, almost Enya-like. We conclude with seven-minute epic Beautiful As You Are, which begins in twee, tremulous fashion and then unexpectedly detonates, like a rogue UXB (the description ‘Journey play The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again’ comes remarkably close).
Ultimately, Freedom passes the Classic Rock AOR test with flying colours. Does it fly like an eagle, or does it pootle like a penguin? Emphatically the former. Rumours of Journey’s demise have been exaggerated. Don’t start bereavin’.