Departure offers ample proof that the Seventies hard-rock genre so many people have been trying to bury for the last few years just doesn’t want to die. Journey may well be the best American band in this idiom, which is ironic, because, stylistically, they’ve always seemed to struggle with it, as if hard rock were a new shirt they had trouble fitting into. For an Aerosmith or a Ted Nugent, no such difficulties existed — hard rock was their only option. But Journey could have gone in any number of musical directions. Founding members Gregg Rolie (keyboards) and Neal Schon (guitar) came from Santana, Aynsley Dunbar from his own groups and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, and Ross Valory from the Steve Miller Band.
For years, Journey appeared torn by conflicting interests that were only temporarily pacified by the hard-rock compromise. The addition of megalomaniac producer Roy Thomas Baker and lead vocalist Steve Perry further confused the issue. Nevertheless, the group slowly managed to improve, making albums that were extremely commercial. Journey reached their recording peak in 1978 with Infinity and then proceeded to burst apart at the seams. Dunbar left, disgusted by the lack of a clear-cut musical direction, while Baker was told in no uncertain terms that his time was coming to an end. The band had never liked his production, and the last LP they did together, 1979’s Evolution, showed it. Evolution also suffered from the growing pains of adding drummer Steve Smith to the lineup.
All of these problems have been resolved on Departure. The most conspicuous absence is that of Roy Thomas Baker, whose meddling isn’t missed. Engineer Geoff Workman has been promoted to producer, which places the group’s musical direction in its own hands. Not surprisingly, a real leader has emerged for the first time in Journey’s history: Steve Perry, a fine singer with a penchant for snappy melodic hooks, is currently calling the shots, writing or cowriting all but one of the songs and keying the sound around his vocal arrangements. “Any Way You Want It,” “Where Were You,” “I’m Cryin’ ” and “People and Places” demonstrate the band’s new approach. Steve Smith’s steady, unspectacular drumming has proved to be an addition by subtraction: goodbye to Aynsley Dunbar’s virtuoso technique. In the past, the group’s good moments came when Neal Schon and Dunbar took off on extended jams, but now Journey works best as a band. And they’ve never rocked harder.