Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Journey and Steve Perry Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Journey (1975, Columbia)

C  

More casual fans of Journey may not even realize that Steve Perry wasn’t the original lead singer of Journey – ex-Santana keyboardist Gregg Rolie had initially filled that role and not merely for their first album, but their first three, in fact! [It was a more logical move than it sounds, though: the band was still years away from meeting Perry, and Journey was technically a Santana splinter band: Rolie had been the primary vocalist in Santana during his tenure with that band, his voice gracing such hit singles as “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways,” and “No One to Depend On,” and Neal Schon had been that band’s rhythm guitarist in the early ‘70s. Bassist Ross Valory had previously played with another equally beloved San Francisco-based group, The Steve Miller Band.] But it’s not just Perry’s absence that makes this disc – produced, oddly enough, by Roy Halee, best known for his work with Simon & Garfunkel – such a strange and fascinating listen for people only acquainted with Journey through their ‘80s hits: the band’s not only yet to discover their niche as an arena-rock band, but their sound here is closer to prog-rock or jazz fusion. There are just seven cuts here, two of which (the heavy jazz-fusion sounds of “Topaz” and the more heavily rock-oriented “Kohoutek”) are instrumentals that surpass the six-minute mark. Their brand of prog never gets quite as complicated or as deliberately weird as, say, King Crimson, but there are certainly cuts here – particularly “Kohoutek” and “Mystery Mountain” that are vaguely reminiscent of mid-‘70s-era Rush or Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Judged as a prog-rock album, it’s actually not bad – not great, but not bad  – but it also doesn’t sound anything even remotely like the Journey that the world later fell in love with, the band members clearly much more focused at this point on showing off their instrumental chops than crafting anything remotely resembling a single. Even one of the album’s few pop-tinged moments, the vaguely-Procol-Harum like ballad “In the Morning Day” comes to a dead halt less than two minutes into the cut before the band inexplicably breaks out into a frenzied up-tempo instrumental jam that takes up the remainder of the track. “To Play Some Music” is easily the most pop-radio-friendly thing here and could definitely pass for a Kansas single, but beyond that one song, this disc, decent and intriguing though it is, is more likely to appeal to prog-rock and jazz-fusion buffs than Journey fans.

Look into the Future (1976, Columbia)

B –

Original rhythm guitarist George Tickner has left the band, and the group opts to momentarily carry on here as a quartet of Rolie, Schon, Valory, and drummer Aynsley Dunbar. (Technically, Dunbar is the band’s second drummer; the band’s original drummer, Prairie Prince, quit before the recording of Journey’s first album in order to join The Tubes.) The band has also made a point of significantly dialing down the heavy prog-rock tones of the debut – there are no instrumental songs here, for starters – and the opening cut here, the piano-driven rock of “On a Saturday Nite,” is considerably more radio-friendly than anything from the previous album. The band even covers the Beatles’ “It’s All Too Much” here and distinctly echoes the Fab Four’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” on the alternately jazzy and raucous rocker “You’re on Your Own.” “Anyway” similarly shifts between mellow, electric-piano-driven verses and gritty choruses to successful results, while “Midnight Dreamer” recalls the frantic up-tempo, cowbell-laden blues-rock of Procol Harum’s “Whiskey Train.” The band still indulges itself in some extended instrumental jamming on the eight-minute title cut, but this is mostly otherwise a much more concise and pop-tinged disc than the debut. It’s still a far cry from the band’s Steve Perry-era music, but you needn’t be a prog-rock fan to enjoy this one, either, and the band is improving considerably in the songwriting department, so this disc serves as a fairly good halfway point between the band’s original sound and the one that would rocket them to stardom.

Next (1977, Columbia)

C

For the most part, the band’s third album is in the same vein as the hard-rock sound of Look Into the Future and largely eschews the heavily-prog-rock-and-fusion sounds of their debut. Still, the band can’t quite shake its tendency to value showing off their chops as players more highly than they do coming up with concise, solid songs – one of the eight cuts here, “Nickel and Dime,” is entirely instrumental, in fact – and they noticeably retreat to some degree from the more pop-friendly sounds of this album’s immediate predecessor. Simply, there just aren’t nearly as many memorable melodies this time around, although the opening cut, “Spaceman,” might be their best song to date and goes a very long way towards compensating for the filler here. Nothing else here is nearly as good, unfortunately, which is a shame: had the early version of the band been both less schizophrenic and less self-indulgent and had more of a will to play more songs like “Spaceman” or the previous disc’s “On a Saturday Nite” and craft a whole disc of songs in that vein, it’s likely the band would have taken off more quickly than they ultimately did. [You can actually compile a surprisingly great album from this version of this band by taking the most radio-friendly moments from the first three albums and compiling them on a single mix CD.] Even the still-intact prog-rock elite, i.e. Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer, were very much in a downward spiral commercially at this point, and those prog-rock acts that did weather the storm (i.e. Styx, Supertramp, Kansas, Rush) or come back in a major way were those who added a heavy dose of pop to their sound over the course of their existence, and it had to be clear to the members of Journey and their handlers that they wouldn’t survive much longer peddling this kind of music.

Infinity (1978, Columbia)

B +

This is where the Journey that everyone knows first truly took root. Seeking to shake things up, the band makes two crucial moves here. First, the band drafted Roy Thomas Baker (best known for his work with Queen and The Cars) to produce them, which resulted in some major sonic changes (not in the least the addition of multi-layered harmonies to the band’s vocal sound). Secondly, and more importantly, Rolie has stepped down as the primary lead singer – though he remains in the group as keyboardist and a second vocalist – and cedes the microphone to newcomer Steve Perry, whose pop sensibilities and, more importantly, distinctive voice (which is comparable at times to a raspier version of Sam Cooke) would help to finally give the band the truly unique sound they’d long been chasing after. They no longer sound like the Kansas clone they often seemed to be on their debut album – their music now sounds more akin to a grittier version of the more straightforward hard-rock peddled by Boston coupled with the stacked-harmony sound of Queen. Technically, there are no Top 40 hits here, but two songs here would eventually become classic-rock-radio staples with time, anyway: the slightly-prog-tinged “Wheel in the Sky” (okay, so maybe the band didn’t completely stop sounding like Kansas right away) and, even better, the San-Francisco-love-letter balladry of “Lights” (“When the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on the bay …”.) The harmony-vocal showcase “Anytime” isn’t nearly as well-known but is just as impressive, while even album cuts like “Somethin’ to Hide” (one of the band’s most criminally underrated ballads and one that really could have been an A-side in its own right), the groovy rocker “Can Do,” “Feelin’ That Way,” and “Patiently” leave a mark as well and stand head and shoulders above most of the non-singles from the band’s first three albums. 

Evolution (1979, Columbia)

A

Even better than Infinity, the band’s second album with Perry finds Roy Thomas Baker returning as producer, but Dunbar has been booted from the band (not that he’d be out of work for long – he’d immediately be snatched up by Jefferson Starship and serve as their drummer from 1979’s Freedom at Point Zero through 1982’s Winds of Change and would later be tapped as the drummer for Whitesnake on that band’s self-titled 1987 American breakthrough) and replaced with Steve Smith. The band’s new lineup is its best yet (technically, Dunbar may actually be the more gifted of the two drummers, but Smith fits in much better into Journey’s new pop direction than Dunbar had, and Dunbar, in turn, injected some serious muscle into Jefferson Starship’s new, more hard-rock-leaning sound) and the band is playing with greater confidence and sense of identity than ever before. The disc gave the band its first-ever Top 40 hit in the Top Twenty smash “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” which sounds unshakably like the kind of tune you could imagine Sam Cooke recording at this point if he had still been alive, but Journey infuses it with just enough of a rock-and-roll sensibility to keep it from venturing too deeply into soul territory and potentially alienating their older, more hard-rock-minded fans. Nothing else here was nearly as big a hit, but the album holds together better from start to finish than Infinity, and cuts like “Just the Same Way,” “Too Late,” “Do You Recall,” and the muscular rocker “Lady Luck” are solid songs in their own right. 

Departure (1980, Columbia)

A –  

Superior to Infinity and only slightly inferior to Evolution, Departure is negatively affected by its second side, which boasts just a little too much in the way of filler like “Homemade Love” and underdeveloped songs like “Good Morning Girl” (a promising tune that unfortunately clocks in at well under two minutes) and isn’t nearly as solid as the first side (whereas many of Evolution’s best tunes arrived in its back half), but it’s still the band’s third consecutive solid album and it also has the added intrigue of having largely been recorded live in the studio. Roy Thomas Baker is sadly no longer producing the band, but Kevin Elson and Geoff Workman come surprisingly close to recapturing the same studio magic that Baker was able to get on tape during the years he spent overseeing the band. Departure also has the added bonus of containing the most explosive opening cut to be found on any Journey album to date, the punchy, arena-sized rock of “Any Way You Want It,” still a surefire bet all these years later to get any party going. (No deejay should be without a copy of the song.) The R&B-shuffle stylings of “Walks Like a Lady” (once again showcasing Steve Perry in full-on Sam Cooke mode) are a huge departure for the band – it’s the closest the band has ever ventured into pure jazz territory – but surprisingly turns out to be one of the album’s highlights and followed “Any Way You Want It” into the Top 40. “Someday Soon,” “Precious Time,” the driving “Where Were You,” and “Stay Awhile” are also standouts.

Dream, After Dream (1980, Columbia)

B

An extremely obscure (it didn't even so much as chart) and often-forgotten album in the band’s catalog, this lushly-orchestrated disc is the band’s soundtrack to the equally obscure Japanese film Yume, Yume No Ato. The album is something of a throwback to the band’s prog-rock roots – not in the least since most of the nine tracks are instrumental and the opening cut, “Destiny,” clocks in at just under nine minutes – but it’s also not nearly as likely to alienate fans of the band’s radio hits as their self-titled debut album is: for one thing, unlike the band’s first three albums, this disc has Steve Perry, and for another, it never sounds quite as self-indulgent, and though there are long instrumental passages here, those moments are genuine pieces of film score music that are designed more to create a certain atmosphere or leave an emotional impact than to give the band members an excuse to just show off, and nearly every note here seems carefully thought out. It’s neither a pure pop album nor a pure prog album and, as such, it’s a great insight into what the earliest version of Journey might have sounded like if Steve Perry had come along earlier. The epic “Destiny” in particular is the perfect cross between Journey’s earliest years and the Journey of the early ’80s and is an absolute must-hear for hardcore fans of the band. It’s unlikely anything here could have conceivably been a hit (with the possible exception of the power ballad “Little Girl,” which would later be re-purposed as the B-side to “Open Arms”), but it’s also a stunningly pretty album (try not to get chills from the mellow yet haunting, electric-piano-and-saxophone-dominated ballad “Sand Castles”) and one of the band’s most wildly fascinating projects. Just so long as you don’t go into this disc expecting a pop album akin to Evolution or Escape, you should be fairly entertained and intrigued by this disc; just how likely you are to come back to the album on a regular basis will depend on your level of interest in prog-rock or instrumental music, but it’s a fine piece of craft all the same and it’s at least as well-done as the band’s best early-era album (Look Into the Future), if not better.

Escape (1981, Columbia)

A +

Its film-score work for Dream, After Dream having been completed, Journey returns to more traditional pop territory on this, their first proper studio album since Departure. Kevin Elson returns as co-producer, and the band also brings in former Queen engineer Mike Stone to co-produce as well. But the more significant change since the last disc is that founding member Gregg Rolie has left the band and has been replaced with Jonathan Cain, former keyboardist for power-pop band The Babys. The lineup change results in a noticeable shift towards more adult-contemporary-friendly territory, so if you’re someone who judges the merits of a band primarily on how loud or edgy they are, you’re likely to be of the opinion that this album is where Journey truly started to go downhill, but if, like me, your assessment of a band ultimately comes down first and foremost to the songwriting, this is arguably the band’s finest hour yet. There are three bona-fide immortal radio classics here: the haunting, atmospheric piano-driven pop of “Who’s Crying Now; the unbridled passion of album-closer “Open Arms,” which you could make a convincing case for being the greatest power ballad ever written; and, best of all, the now-iconic rock anthem (and favorite of sports arenas, pep rallies, and Karaoke bars everywhere), “Don’t Stop Believin,” which boasts not just one of the greatest (certainly one of the most recognizable) piano intros in all of pop music and one of the most deeply dramatic uses of a cymbal crash to kick off the drum part of a rock song but the most iconic guitar solo that Neal Schon has ever played as well – and all before the first chorus even kicks in! But it’s not just the three Top Ten hits here that make this album so good, and it’s the quality of lesser hits like the ballad “Still They Ride” and non-singles like the title cut, “Stone in Love” and the chilling “Mother, Father” that make this album so delightful from start to finish. No Journey fan should be without a copy of this album.