Journey has never challenged listeners with their music. When the singer from their most popular era left the band in the mid-’90s, the band simply replaced him with a sound-alike. Even when they graduated from a fusion-inclined Santana offshoot to reliable arena rockers, the change wasn’t as jarring as it could have been: Six-minute instrumentals almost effortlessly evolved into radio-friendly pop songs with just a handful of tweaks.
So, on Freedom, their first album in 11 years, Journey sounds pretty much like you expect them to: tuneful, familiar and safe. The album isn’t nearly as appealing as their career highlight Escape, but any attempt to assimilate or rewrite their past is bound to lose some luster over time. In an age when legacy artists either move on completely (Robert Plant, few others) or spin in place (Deep Purple, many others), Journey chooses to stick to what they know.
Four members return from 2011’s Eclipse, with co-founding bassist Ross Valory replaced by session player Randy Jackson, who appeared on two Journey albums in the ’80s. A couple of other session players fill in the gaps, giving the overlong Freedom an occasional stitched-together sound that’s polished but also sterile at times. In a way, it fits the generic tone and titles of the songs: “Still Believe in Love,” “Holdin On,” “Don’t Go,” “United We Stand.” A more discerning producer than band members Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain, with help from Narada Michael Walden, would have been useful.
Singer Arnel Pineda, with the band since 2007, is the vessel for Schon and Cain’s songs, which often recall classic-era Journey – sometimes a little too closely. (See: “Don’t Give Up on Us” and its similarity to 1983’s “Separate Ways [Worlds Apart].”) And the reliance on ballads offers only more opportunities to dive into a well-treaded musical and lyrical territory. “I’ll be your cover, keep you safe from harm / You’ll be my harbor from the storm,” Pineda sings in one of the album’s hardest songs, “You Got the Best of Me,” over squealing guitar and rolling drums.
Too often tracks run on for too long. Even Freedom‘s best songs – the opening “Together We Run,” “Don’t Give Up on Us,” ’80s throwback “The Way We Used to Be” – could be trimmed by minutes. The closing “Beautiful as You Are” clocks in at more than seven minutes, perhaps a nod to Journey’s formative years. Or maybe it’s just more evidence they could use an outside producer to rein in their occasional excesses.
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It’s all the more surprising when you consider the success so many of them had by any other measure.
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