Review Summary: A comeback album that came, and just went.
The power ballad. We all know what it is. First forged in the early 70’s by groups who, for the most part had credibility, the power ballad went through a lolly pop ridden period during the 80’s and early 90’s, most notably by a group of American bands such as Air Supply
, REO Speedwagon
and alike, (remember Mr. Big
’s “To be with You?”
). Love them or sometimes hate them, nowadays such exertions only seem to take up late night infomercials, but in 1996, Journey, one of those 80’s power ballad specialists brought back the idea. Why does Trial by Fire have significance? Well, it witnessed the return of the band, and all of its original members, from Steve Perry’s
emotional falsetto vocals, to Steve Smith’s
When fans first heard of the news, understandably the effect was sheer enthrallment. Unfortunately, Trial by Fire is a miss, and miss affair (no hits here), that departs from you with a mouth full of both sour cheese, and disappointment. There is no new material, but that isn’t the bad part. It’s honestly the loss of love lyrics, and soppy ballads that are really recycled from original sources – something they mastered in the past, but seem to gnaw on like vultures in this venture. What shines on the album are the performances, which are pretty top notch, and very well recorded. Part of this can undoubtedly be attributed to producer Kevin “the Caveman” Shirley
, most notably recognised for his raw, crisp and well defined drum and guitar combinations and consistent artist relations. One must wonder that if they hadn’t had his expertise, were they to be predestined.
While Shirley’s labours are clearly discernable, the musicians, especially that of guitarists Neal Schon
and Jonathan Cain
, make the album listenable and at times pleasing. Their efforts are best represented through the stylised album opener “Message of Love,”
which is almost unbearably cliché, but instrumentally well performed, as well as the pretty well constructed, yet sometimes uninteresting “Castles Burning”
with some immaculate guitar work. Smith and his rhythm partner Ross Valory
on the other hand never seem to get a rough break, except in the unflattering reggae influenced track “Baby I’m a Leavin’ You”
at number 15. Mostly they’re both hidden in the mix, and compositionally just supply a residual current of basic rhythm structures. For a couple who really are underrated amongst the world of musicians, its disappointing to see them reduced to a tiny seed, that will only sprout in a live performance solo, and/or instructional DVD, if they ever get a chance for that.
By the time your even into the first six tracks, you start to wonder where this recording is going – unquestionably no where, but as luck would have it, that doesn’t throw you off, not yet anyway. Certainly for a well hardened fan, this release will yield some mighty-fine potential for a band who’s still making records, minus the key players Smith and Perry. Such a release must have been hard for the group to settle on firmly due to personal difficulties and distant feuds surfacing amongst the stardom. The result is songs that fall into a cauldron of introspective piano intros, emotive verse-chorus cycles, a guitar solo and then completing fade out. The equation is used so much, one song simply buds off the other in a circular dance of the band’s members clearly desiring to have their own moments heard, but failing to mesh together the important ideas and throw away the unnecessary ones. Sure the performances are pretty tight and amazingly recorded, but nothing short of amazing, and additionally Perry’s lyricism has clearly ran out of steam.
You’ve made it the seventy minute point (yes it’s that long), you’re probably feeling the effects of that cheese mentioned earlier. Despite the album was commercially successful (#3 on the sales charts), it very nearly put a nail in the coffin of Journey, who later had to re-hire different personnel to keep on fighting. For them, they never seem to stop “belivin',"
but their music, at least on this release seemed to be in the effect of the contrary. For the fan, it will be a pretty good, but nothing like the good old sounds, and for the first time listener it wont inspire, only, probably gain another Journey avoider. It’s an album that desperately attempts to keep the 80’s on fire, with big drums, rock piano and vocal reverb to form a collection of love blanketed power ballads. But it falls short at keeping with the times for a band that needed to progress on something as important as a comeback special album.
If Journey had released this as their debut it would have been fantastic. A little long and cyclic, but still pretty fantastic all the same. This in effect, is what haunts the album mostly; it’s a “we’re still around, don’t forget about us” album that disregards the importance of emotional, musical and personal development to be heard in the musical recording. It’s not that the performances are bad, but more that they simply don’t add any dynamic quality towards either the fan’s calibre, or the would-be considerer. One thing is for certain, the album was a trial, but without a doubt overlooked the significance of some needed kerosene to flare things up a little.