Saturday, May 14, 2011

Journey - Trial By Fire (1996)

There are many chances for fans of the band Journey to ask "what if?" They had three albums before Steve Perry came along, trying out lead singer Robert Fleischman before making the choice that made them legendary. What if Steve Perry chose to stay home instead? When Gregg Rolie left the band following their double live album Captured, Jonathan Cain replaced him, co-writing a number of the band's greatest hits, including "Don't Stop Believin." What if he wasn't the guy? Two of the band's concert favorites, one a top 10 single, were lopped off the Frontiers album before it went to print. What if...

You get the idea. A major point of debate and divide among fans is Steve Perry's reported slowing down of Journey in the mid-80s. Describing himself as "toast," Steve Perry bowed out in 1987, and wouldn't sing with the band again for nearly ten years. In 1996, fans were too busy salivating over their return to ask what if. Years later, the album and resultant (final) departure of Steve Perry would raise a lifetime worth of new questions and possible scenarios.

It's no secret that Steve Perry's voice was changing. Just two years after Escape went to number one on the Billboard 200 album chart, the familiar hits were sounding different in concert. When Perry toured the Journey catalog with a solo album in 1994, he actually tuned down a key, something as-to-then unheard of with these songs. Aside from that, the band went in a different, softer direction on their last album, Raised on Radio, which saw the dismissal of longtime drummer Steve Smith and founding bass player Ross Valory. The motivation for those changes is up for debate on the fan boards. Given ALL that, with the hitmaking Escape lineup reformed, and time passed, what sort of album would they deliver?

Track listing:
1 - Message of Love (5:34)
2 - One More (5:28)
3 - When You Love a Woman (4:07)
4 - If He Should Break Your Heart (4:23)
5 - Forever In Blue (3:35)
6 - Castles Burning (6:00)
7 - Don't Be Down on Me Baby (4:01)
8 - Still She Cries (5:04)
9 - Colors of the Spirit (5:41)
10 - When I Think Of You (4:21)
11 - Easy to Fall (5:15)
12 - Can't Tame the Lion (4:32)
13 - It's Just the Rain (5:19)
14 - Trial By Fire (4:41)
15 - Baby I'm Leaving You (2:49) (hidden track)

Something different than anything before it with Steve Perry. You can tell that right away with the lead-off track, "Message of Love." For better or worse, "Message" sets the mood. This song I liked. To give you perspective, I slowly got into Journey through the sheer power of their hits, and I got to love many songs beyond that over the years. This review is my first real crack at Trial By Fire, outside of a few tracks.

"One More" begs the question: since when does Journey use the words "wicked prophets" in their lyrics? Unfortunately, this song helps you notice Steve Perry's vocal ceiling that developed in the off time.

"When You Love a Woman" was the big single, nominated for a Grammy. It's more grandiose than 99% of the stuff from their heyday, but whatever. It's a pleasing song with a more classic sound. It's followed by "If He Should Break Your Heart," a very worthy song that shockingly hasn't been heard in concert yet. It deserved more attention in the long run, and fights doggedly with others for my favorite song on the album. Bears noting that nothing out-and-out rocks so far.

The intro of "Forever in Blue" sounds like part of Van Halen's playbook. The tone of this record being so low-key hurts an otherwise solid thumbs up. "Castles Burning" continues a positive streak, and brings more energy to the proceedings. Once the demonic voiceovers begin, we're clearly not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The song goes on a couple minutes more than it should.

In "Don't Be Down on Me Baby," Steve Perry holds notes to the point of parody. I wanted the song to go somewhere, or be over. It did one of those things. "Still She Cries" and "Colors of the Spirit" are somewhat enjoyable, but could have been pared down a bit in length. Being on an album with such even energy didn't help, either.

"When I Think of You" feels like a classic Journey track - perhaps moreso than anything on the album. "Easy to Fall" makes it two thumbs up in a row, and ends with another good solo by Neal Schon. However, we're still way out of balance in tone here.

"Can't Tame the Lion" has good lyrical hooks and brings a welcome tempo change. "It's Just the Rain" is capable, segueing to the rather dull title track, which I would enjoy as an instrumental to read or relax to. After the album proper, we get a bit of Journey reggae in "Baby I'm Leaving You." Definitely strange, but it didn't offend me like it seemed to offend other fans.

What does it all add up to? An album with good music that's hard to like. Hard to like because of the band's pedigree. I guess, in a parallel to their musical "maturity" here, I've grown to appreciate songs that aren't a textbook 3-minutes-and-fun. I had something of an expectation given
Steve Perry's vocal evolution, and fans' use of the word "dark" in describing the album's direction.

But somewhere, deep down, especially given the returning lineup, I expected something more radio friendly. Is that unfair? Perhaps. But after giving some songs a second and third pass, they really grew on me.


It's the slow burn of Journey albums. It requires some savoring and second looks. If you're in a mood where dialing back from the energy and smiles of earlier Journey work sounds good, then Trial by Fire won't disappoint. In my review of their 2008 album Revelation, I talked about the long runtimes and repetitive subject matter making it a chore to go through as a whole. I find that album a bit easier to pick-up-and-play than this one, albeit "safer." Even though it may not get as many spins, I respect Trial By Fire more for having better music.

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