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JOURNEY – Freedom (Album Review, 2022)

Don't Give Up On Us
I expect opinions to be very varied…but those that get it will have a lot to enjoy.
92/100

Let’s go straight to the bottom line – I’m loving this record and I’m sure many others are going to feel the same. Its brash, diverse and challenging. But it’s not without flaws and the main one is the production (or mix) quality. It is an issue. For the most part I’ve adapted my ears to the choices the band has made here and for that reason I can enjoy the performances and the songs for what they are. Some however, may not be able to get around it, or over it or past it, and listening enjoyment may be impacted.

But the performances are blindingly good and the songs are quite superb.

For the record, the album was recorded remotely – with Arnel in the Philippines, Neal and Narada Michael Walden in San Francisco, Randy Jackson in Los Angeles and Jonathan Cain at home in his own studio. That kind of separation can impact the end result of an album, and it puts premium importance on the mixer. In this case the job was given to Bob Clearmountain – one of the very best mix engineers in the business. He has done an amazing job at piecing the album together. A lot of the sound of a record comes down to how it was recorded in the first place, and how the band want the record to sound.

The album has a raw sound, a somewhat muddy mix in places and some unusual vocal effects when it comes to Arnel’s leads. But you must accept everything for what it is and how it sounds. This is what the band want you to hear.

The album has been with me for a couple of months now and I know it inside and out. Its become one of my most played records of 2022, which has to mean something. I keep wanting to go back to it. And I’ve played it on several different mediums. It actually sounds best in my car. Generally speaking, records shouldn’t sound much different depending on how it is being listened to, but that’s another curiosity of ‘Freedom’ – the new first new Journey album in 11 years, adopting the moniker originally designated for the ‘Raised On Radio’ album, back when Herbie Herbert was in control.

Narada Michael Walden is insane on the drums. He is all over this record. Jonathan Cain delivers a lot of different keyboard and piano textures throughout and Arnel Pineda proves he is again the man – not only for the dead on Steve Perry-isms in certain songs, but also for sounding uniquely himself in other places. Randy Jackson’s bass parts all make their mark – this album has a serious groove to it. And what can be said about Neal Schon? I think he is again the star of the show here.

In fact, listening back to this album over the time I have had it, its like tuning into Neal Schon’s Greatest Hits – there’s parts of Journey, Bad English, Hardline and his solo work all throughout this album.

Journey’s history is well documented, so no there’s reason for any history lesson here. To briefly recap their time with vocalist Arnel Pineda, you have the very successful and commercial ‘Revelation’ record in 2008, followed by the decisively less commercial guitar driven ‘Eclipse’ in 2011, which some dismiss (at their own peril), for being too direct, or less focussed on melodies. I couldn’t disagree more. But now some 11 years on, its time again for AORs most loved band to give something new for fans to complain about, or at least debate endlessly for the next 11 years.

After being criticised (wrongly in my opinion) for being too focussed on guitar on the last album, Journey return with an album largely focussed…yes, on guitars. On several songs, the band, or Neal Schon at least, takes guitar dominance even further than on ‘Eclipse’, delivering some of the heaviest and grooviest Journey songs on record. On the surface that might seem like an odd decision, but those tracks are balanced out by some very traditional Journey style AOR melodies and a few outstanding ballads.

There are really strong comparisons to ‘Trial By Fire’ to be drawn here – the style and feel of the album matches their 1996 comeback album, while other parts touch on ‘Escape’, ‘Frontiers’, ‘Raised On Radio’ and even the early days of the band.

‘Freedom’ is one of the band’s most rhythmically complex record, with layers upon layers of drums, percussion and well, everything – I just wish it could all be heard clearly.

And for those that have been living off samples for the last month or so….don’t judge the record on those – I’ve listened to them to hear what parts of the songs they highlight and they are indeed not telling the full picture or the complexity of this record means the samples are doing just that – ‘sampling’ what’s on offer, but not painting the full picture by any means.

Track by Track:

Together We Run is one of my favourite Journey album opening tracks, just because it’s a little different. Opening with just a piano and vocal, it’s a baladesque intro, but you know its going to go somewhere. When the impact comes it drives the song into the first chorus and from there the song picks up pace. I love the vocal melody through the verse and the chorus is memorable, not only for the hook, but for the guitar and drum rhythms driving the song. There are some keyboard parts in there too, but they are buried in the mix for the most part.

I love the immediate appearance of the soulful harmony vocals, which is a real touch of ‘Raised On Radio’ and ‘Trial By Fire’. The whole album utilises these harmony vocals and is every bit better for it. They really add to the mood and ambience.

A different mix would have really given this song maximum impact, especially in the opening sequence when guitar and then drums first impact. As is the case with the whole album, the songs are fantastic, but the sonic impact could be greater.

Don’t Give Up On Us takes the Separate Ways keyboard and guitar intro parts to get it started before morphing into a free flowing, anthemic commercial rocker, mirroring the vibe of Trial By Fire’s Message Of Love. The second part of the song is a rapid-fire guitar solo and some intense drumming from the unheralded star of this album – Narada Michael Walden. The drum fills and associated percussion parts are mind blowing. Not for the first time on this album am I reminded of the Trial By Fire rocker One More. In traditional Journey style, Neal’s soloing is all over the latter parts of the song.

Still Believe In Love takes a rapid pace de-escalation in the same way ‘Trial By Fire’ did at track 3, delivering the first haunting ballad of the album. More a moody and soulful slow paced intimate musical piece than a traditional ballad, this is a beautiful vocal from Arnel alongside lush harmonies and some brilliant slow guitar work from Neal that reminds me of his ‘Late Nite’ solo album.

You Got The Best Of Me is a big sounding, fast moving Journey rock anthem, with a solid beat and a chunky riff. Keyboards line the track and funnel it towards a big chorus. The verse’s vocal melody is as effective as anything the chorus delivers, as the chorus itself almost sits on top of the track, losing potential impact with an irregular mix that just doesn’t match the rest of the song. To be frank, it is probably just the fact the chorus is so busy, so layered with instruments and vocals that it just doesn’t have room to breathe. The first time I heard it, my ears were immediately challenged. The vocals are lost and the drums sound hollow. But still, I love the track.

Live To Love Again is the big ballad of the album. The big heartfelt, lighters in the air (or cell-phones these days) moment. The tender ballad is something truly special. Keyboards and piano feature prominently, with an orchestral arrangement driving the song, with Arnel blowing the roof off with a soaring vocal, the chorus totally delivering on the sentimentality of the song. One of my favourite Arnel ballads from his time with the band, which gets bigger and bigger as it goes on.

The Way We Used To Be is a song we all know. The groovy mid-tempo rocker has a unique feel and a balanced injection of both guitar and keyboard. The song received mix reviews when it was released as a single early on, but it fits the scope of this album very well and in this almost mid-album position is a good transition song from the ballad before it, to the hard rocker that follows it.

Come Away With Me is an oddity. Played on its own it doesn’t strike me as a natural Journey song. It’s more comparable to the debut Hardline album. Guitar wise, Neal is just all over this song, as is the rhythm section of Randy Jackson and Walden. Heavy, groovy and to offer an alternative view, I could imagine this as a killer 2 minute mid-album mid-instrumental, as it’s the guitar groove that makes the song what it is – not the vocal or chorus as might normally be the case.

The album production decisions are again exposed by this track. Arnel’s vocal is really quite different than anything he’s offered previously. The vocal effects used make it sound as if the vocal was recorded using a loudspeaker in a baseball stadium. But seeing as his voice sounds great elsewhere within the album, one must deduct that the effects used on this vocal were an intended aspect of the song. It’s the guitars that rule this tune.

After Glow is another song that I instantly adored, with Deen Castronovo making his mark on this album with a lone lead vocal. He came back into the fold late and recorded this at the very end of the sessions for the album. This moody ballad reminds me of the If He Should Break Your Heart/Still She Cries combo from ‘Trial By Fire’. As the song builds it goes from a sultry ballad a rhythm and soul driven masterpiece. Walden’s drum parts are just exquisite, even if the mix does burry them somewhat. Neal’s ever increasingly urgent soloing is the stuff of legends. The soulful harmonies are icing on the cake and Walden continues to go to town in the background. The last 40 seconds are absolute melodic perfection.

I have to say that I’m having a love/hate relationship with Let It Rain. A very odd choice as a single to promote the album, it once again features Arnel’s vocals coming direct from under the grandstand speaker. The song itself is a slow, dark, heavy groover – the type of track your average Journey fan might feel is closer to the devil than the heavenly substance to which it refers. Precisely the last track that should have been considered as a masthead to promote the album, but again, Neal looks to mix things up. Listened to in the sequence of the album start to finish, it just works, mainly due to the resounding thump the song has. And it leads perfectly into the snappy rock n rhythm of the faster moving Holdin On.

Holdin On features some snappy drum work again and a big fat bass line, not to mention more magic from the groovemeister Neal Schon. Shredding over the top of a thick riff, this is 100% Neal’s song. Its also another piece of music I could envision as an instrumental. Arnel’s vocals are like nothing I’ve heard him sing and the effects used on them will again cause some fans to suffer strokes, or at least make them reach for the skip button. But I like it.

All Day And All Night is the end chapter in a trilogy of groove-laden hard rockers that sound more like Hardline or Neal’s ‘Piranha Blues’ than Journey. The swagger of this track has its own unique charm and Arnel again sings outside his usual stylistic restraint, with a better sound quality than the two previous tracks, making it my pick of the three.

At this point, the album desperately needs a big commercial rocker and Don’t Go delivers just that. Instantly catchy from the opening seconds through to the closing flurry of notes, this is classic Arnel fronted Journey and will appeal to fans of the commercial side of the band. A big chorus with swirling keyboards and harmony vocals is diametrically opposite to the trio of songs preceding it.

Needing to keep the commercial, more traditional Journey sound coming to counter-balance the darker groove-rockers, the album now delivers United We Stand, which moves the pace and style back closer to the opening number and gives a further taste of ‘Trial By Fire’ in the mood. I love Arnel’s vocal here and the bridge is pure AOR brilliance. The chorus is moody and layered with those soulful harmonies again – I can’t get enough of those. Keyboards hint back to a Separate Ways style. A big drum flurry over Neal’s wailing guitar closes out the track.

Life Rolls On starts softly, building through the keyboard/vocal intro, with some cool percussion in play. Cathedral like keyboards carry the song through the verse into a big guitar rip that turns the song on its head. Classic Schon here as the pace picks up through to conclusion.

It’s been a very unconventional, surprising album so far and to finish things off comes Beautiful As You Are, perhaps the most astounding track of the album. Just a raw, beautiful vocal from Arnel, accompanied by acoustic guitar and an orchestral fill to start things off, with Arnel really reaching those high notes before Neal rips into things with a big riff and Walden bursts to life with a busy-as-ever drum performance. The songs continues to build with those soul-harmonies delivering the bridge and chorus. Through the course of the song’s 7-minute run, things get crazy to the point that the last 90 seconds can only be described as completely bonkers. Love it!

Another great Journey record. A traditional Journey album? Perhaps not, but then what exactly is Journey’s “traditional” sound. The guys have delivered some truly diverse music over the years from album number one, to this, their fifteenth. You can’t pigeon hole this band from just two of those albums, as loved as they are. Journey are much more than ‘Escape’ and ‘Frontiers’ and this record proves it yet again.