Top critical review
One person found this helpful
Poor Sequencing and too many ballads ruins record's pacing. A review sixteen years in the making!
on 18 December 2012
Strange how things you mean to do sometimes just never get [down] done, or written out for others to know. Like "Super Mario 64" (also from 1996), I have it difficult to believe that I have not yet written a review for "Trial By Fire" by Journey so many years after its initial release, given my rather tempetous and long standing relationship with the record.
History: I bought the record in 1996 upon release for one of my best friends who was graduating in 1997 from High School. This was the same friend who introduced me to the three pivotal bands (for my own listening history) whose heyday occurred in the 1980s: Van Halen, Def Leppard, and Journey. In the 1990s, Van Halen was the only one of these three bands that I purchased every record they made and listened to them extensively; my exposure to Def Leppard was limited to the "Vault" Greatest Hits compliation and random tracks I heard on the radio.
With Journey, besides the 1988 "Greatest Hits" CD where I first really started listening to Journey, I also picked up "Escape", this album, and a cassette of "Look Into the Future" from a pawn shop. I also seriously considered buying "Time 3" on several different occasions but the funds were never there . . . and then here came Napster. I LOVED "Escape" but didn't think much of "Look Into the Future" due to the abscene of Steve Perry, and really the tape didn't get much air time in my stereo.
No so with "Trial By Fire". 1996 was a fortunate time to really discover Journey for a new listener - not only did they have an already large pre-existing back catalogue (which for financial reasons I never tapped into as much as I wanted back then), but also Perry and the boys REGROUPDED AND RECORDED A BRAND NEW ALBUM! "Trial by Fire" was the first to feature the classic lineup since the 1986 "Raised on the Radio". Also, "Trial By Fire" is the only studio album that the band did not tour behind from the 1980s and 1990s, due to a back to Steve Perry's back requring surgery. Ultimatley, by 1998 the time to tour behind the album had passed, and the band and Perry parted ways. The next piece of new music was "Remember" from the Armageddon soundtrack.
As previously mentioned, I initially bought this album as a graduation gift for the very person who first exposed me to Journey and get me into their music in the first place. I bought the album shortly after release (October 1996), and as high school graduation was several months away, I took the responsibility of listening quite extensively to this album in those intervening months. Ultimately, my friend did the album when he graduated but somehow the album did end up in my possession even after graduation.
I formed my (quite strong) opinion of the album during those months. I started writing Amazon reviews back in the late 1990s and it's rather strange to me I never wrote the review of this one, as it had been gestating in my head for so long. So what is the opinion?
THIS IS AN ALBUM THAT NEEDS JUDICIOUS AMOUNTS OF EDITING. Not only that, several of the tracks should have been left on the cutting room floor or released as B-Sides. Also, not including "I Can See It In Your Eyes" is a rather damning inditement to whoever decided upon the final running order. Coming from me, who has always preferred long albums and wanted the most music possible on any one release, this opinion means quite the reversal from my normal attitudes. There are not many albums that I actually want less music from an artist, but "Trial By Fire" is [an] one of the exceeding rare exceptions.
Allmusic's review of Michael Jackson's "Bad" complains of a perceived "a near fatal dead spot", constituting songs three through six ("Liberian Girl", "Just Good Friends", and "Another Part of Me"). They then describe [this sequence] these three tracks as "a sequence that's utterly faceless, lacking memorable hooks and melodies." Given that "Thriller" didn't have any real album tracks (they were pretty much all hit singles), this was quite unusual for a Jackson album.
So how does this "near fatal dead spot" relate too "Trial By Fire". Well, Allmusic's description of those three songs from "Bad" pretty much quite accurately sum up the last half of [the album] "Trial by Fire". Whenever I listened to "Trial by Fire", I always felt the first six songs were great. "Message of Love" and "One More" are both hard hitting numbers, and even "One More" gets vaguely Biblical. "When You Love a Woman", the only signficiant radio hit from this project, is an excellent ballad, quite firmly in the style of "Open Arms" and Journey's other classic ballads.
"If He Should Break Your Heart" is another fun number, lyrically akin to the heart-thumping "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)", though not musically. With "If He Should Break Your Heart", Perry and company manage to merge their sensibilities for ballads and hard rock into a seamless fusion of melodic excellent. Likewise, "Forever in Blue" is another up tempo-track, if a little bit slight. Although not a bad song persay, "Forever in Blue" is not nearly as substantial as some of the more weighty material that preceeds it.
We then get to "Castles Burning", a song that has haunted my conscious for years. "Castles Burning" details a celeberity marriage ending in chaos and literal fire. The marriage is marked with physical abuse. In our media-driven, fame obsessed culture, "Castles Burning" has only become more and more relevant to our cultural experience since its first release in 1996. The song also sounds like an update to The Eagles' "Life in the Fast Lane", and is a logical conclusion to the lives that the characters from "Life in the Fast Lane" would lead.
This spot, "Castles Burning", is the part where in 1996 I would start skipping tracks or just get bored. I have always felt the first six songs are a very strong start, and even if "Forever In Blue" is a little slight (but still fun) and "When You Love a Woman" is a ballad, overall the album's first half holds together quite well. I just remember thinking wanting to resquence the album after "Castles Burning" ended. With these first six songs, we have the start of another classic album on par with their 1980s efforts.
But we're not finished. Not by a long shot. There are fourteen tracks total (with a bonus track and an exclusive Japanese track). The last half of the album is where it falls apart due to poor sequencing and overreliance on ballads. Now, there's nothing particularly wrong with the performances or the material. It's just almost all of them are ballads, and coming one after another the last half is just a slog to get through. These tracks [are the following sequence] comprise the last half of the album: "Don't Be Down on Me Baby", "Still She Cries", "Colors of the Spirit", "When I think of You", "Easy to Fall", "Can't Tame the Lion", "It's Just the Rain" "Trial by Fire", and "Baby I'm A Leavin' You"
Now, "Don't Be Down On Me Baby" is quite a bluesly number and is the first full-on schmaltz moment on the album. "Still She Cries" could quite comfortably work as one of the slower moments on "Escape" or "Infinity". "Colours of the Spirit" is one of the highlights with a vaguely new age, Enigma feel and with some great flute work. However, the sequencing of being covered by so many other ballads simply dulls the impact that this otherwise remarkable song would have on an average listener.
"When I Think of You" is another ballad with some great piano work. Typical Journey ballad that again would work quite well on one of their 1980s LPs, just like "Easy to Fall". "Can't Tame The Lion" is one of the only real up-tempo tracks found in the concluding sections of "Trial By Fire". "Can't Tame the Lion" is slight like "Forever in Blue", but likewise quite fun. "It's Just the Rain" is a redundant ballad with rain effects, especially in light of the far superior title cut, a moving, majestic slow torch song which also co-ops the rain audio for far better effect. However, by the time you get to "Trial By Fire" you simply aren't in the mood to hear ANOTHER SLOW SONG. The last half just feels like an exercise in tedium.
We then get to the weird, reggae secret track "Baby I'm A Leavin' You". The reggae is entirely out of touch with both Journey's style and the remaining material on the album; however, I don't really fault the band for this song. After all, the song introduces some much needed levity on the otherwise ballad top heavy record. Also, as a rule secret tracks are moments for the band to goof off. Look at the Johnny Matthis style "12 Gracious Melodies" off the otherwise grunge/alternative "Purple" (1993) by Stone Temple Pilots. That is a perfect example of the fun and levity a band can have with bonus or hidden, secret tracks.
So, for all that text, what's the bottom line? This: the album is top heavy on ballads, to the point where it's a chore to get through and makes for rather tedious listening. Fortunately, "When You Love a Woman", one of the better ballads, occurs early on and doesn't feel nearly as tedious as it would had the song occured in the last half of the album. On top of that, poor sequencing and over reliance on ballads drastically dulls the impact on otherwise truly surperb ballads (the otherworldly "Colors of the Spirt" and the stunning "Trial by Fire").
What I thought in 1996 and still think all these years later is songs need to be eliminated for the sake of the album, although like Brian Wilson with "SmiLE", I never actually determined that track listing, even back in 1996 and 1997. So, for the first time in sixteen years I am going to lay out a truncated track list that would not only greatly strengthened the album but make "Trial By Fire", an overlong album, be on par with their early 1980s classics.
1. "Message of Love"
2. "One More"
3. "When You Love a Woman"
4. "If He Should Break Your Heart"
5. "Forever in Blue"
6. "Castles Burning"
7. "I Can See It In Your Eyes"
8. "Easy to Fall"
9. "When I Fall"
10. "Can't Tame the Lion"
11. "Colors of the Spirit"
12. "Trial by Fire"
I eliminated three songs. "Don't Be Down on Me", "Still She Cries", and "When I Think of You". The album flows much better and makes for a much more interesting listening experience with these songs removed. If you are a fan of these tracks, then you can remove other tracks. Also if you want to put on "Baby I'm A Leavin' You" that's fine. I have only heard the Japanese bonus track "I Can See It In Your Eyes" via Youtube. Given how many ballads did make "Trial By Fire", it is an absolute mystery to me why "I Can See It In Your Eyes" was not included on the original release - it's a fantastic song.
Bottom line though is there are just so many ballads it drowns the record, turning Journey from a 1980s melodic rock icon with both excellent hard rock and [stunning] fantastic ballads to a dull adult contemporary band for removed from their true talents.