In many ways, the initial cuts on Journey’s Eclipse recall the wide-open heavy fusion of the the band’s original Gregg Rolie-era records, a period when guitarist Neal Schon pulled and stretched his muse. At the same time, singer Arnel Pineda possesses a second-act Steve Perry-sounding penchant for soaring expectancy.
For age-old fans, that often makes Eclipse (issued this week by Frontiers Records) the best of both worlds, a musically dense recording in the style of the band’s underrated 1977’s Next, and a loud one, but at the same time one that doesn’t completely abandon the visceral mainstream pop sensibilities that defined the band’s subsequent hitmaking period in the 1980s.
It’s strongest as it gets going, beginning with the opening track “City of Hope,” a stirring call for optimism which eventually deconstructs into a towering wall of Schon. Already, there is a sense of furious abandon, some serious don’t give a shit. Better still is the edgy and ambitious “Edge of the Moment,” with its wave after crashing wave of guitars, and a foundation-rattling rhythm from drummer Deen Castronovo and bassist Ross Valory. Schon is by turns scorching, melodic, spacy, gurgling, nasty. And nothing like we’ve heard from him since the days of the spaceman fro.
“This is Journey,” keyboardist Jonathan Cain has said in published reports, “with big combat boots on — and a helmet and a rifle.”
Eclipse, as it plays out, can’t sustain that initial level of broiling inventiveness. But, truth be told, who figured Journey would even aspire to such things again? In particular, in the wake of what appeared to be a creatively bankrupt period that saw them re-recording the Perry hits with its then-newly installed Filipino lead singer. Here, Pineda finally finds his own voice. His maturation, as much as Schon’s brilliantly retro free-wheeling attitude, moves Journey, finally, past those earlier imitative missteps.
The album’s broader theme, first enunciated in “City of Hope,” of peace seeking in a fast-moving, violent world returns — notably on “To Whom It May Concern.” But Journey eventually begins to settle into more familiar environs, begins to play more to expectations. So, yeah, there’s the counted-on balladry of “Tantra,” though updated with a series of new-age aphorisms; and the hooky “Anything Is Possible” and “Ritual” — both tracks that could easily have found a home on Journey’s Raised on Radio or Bad English’s self-titled 1989 debut, which featured Cain, Schon and Castronovo.
There are other times when Eclipse doesn’t shake things up enough. “She’s A Mystery” simply mimics one of the 1970s’ Rolie-Schon era’s music-making tics, as the song suddenly transforms — dude, just like they used to! — from a shuffling acoustic rumination into a squalling melty mess of riffs. “Someone” finds Journey adhering too closely to a lighter, Escape-esque groove — seeming to cop to the post-Perry conundrum along the way: “You can’t go back to where you’ve been,” Pineda sings; “are you ready to try again?”
In its best moments, Eclipse is actually not a complete return to either form, but rather something in between. And, even when it doesn’t succeed, nothing like the photocopying they’d once reduced themselves to. That makes it as intriguing as anything Journey has done in a very long time.