CD Reviews

Survivor - 'Vital Signs' Hot

Added by Central Electronic Brain     March 12, 2011    
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'Vital Signs' is seen as Survivor's best and most enduring album.

(This review also covers 'Survivor - Caught In The Game')

Due to the original record label choosing not to let go of their biggest selling album 'Eye Of The Tiger', the next two Survivor releases to get the Rock Candy remaster treatment represent the end of one era and the beginning of another. The classic US bands fourth album, 'Caught In The Game', would end up being their final offering with original singer Dave Bickler, and even though he would eventually return to live work with guitarist Frankie Sullivan's version of the band, as far as the record buying public were concerned this strong collection of tunes would be his swansong.

Despite Bickler having the first of what would become a series of problems with his voice, their 1983 opus is still one of the strongest, if lesser known gems in the Survivor catalogue. It was also the last album produced by Sullivan with a big budget, and his lack of Ron Nevison-style radio magic was more than made up for by the gritty guitars and thumping bottom end of drummer Marc Droubay and bassist Stephan Ellis. The album may have lacked the big hit singles of the records either side of it but it was a varied album of many moods and styles that was completely devoid of filler.

Survivor were at their best on the mid-paced swaggering rock tracks like the riffy title track, the catchy 'Jackie Don't Go', the highly melodic 'Half-Life' and the Rocky-like punch of 'Ready For The Real Thing'. They injected a little more pace into 'What Do You Really Think?' and 'It Doesn't Have To Be This Way' without scrimping on the melody, and 'I Never Stopped Loving You' is the typical Peterik ballad. For my money the closing two tracks are both very special, the thumping 'Slander' is unexpectedly punctuated by an interlude of Styx-like pomp in the middle, whilst 'Santa Ana Winds' is the kind of lengthy brooding power ballad that this band ended most of their albums with.

It's true that if you listen really hard you might be able to pick up the fact that Dave Bickler's voice occasionally lacks some of its usual rich timbre and there aren't really many high parts in the songs, but Peterik and Sullivan had put together a strong set of songs to create what is possibly Survivor's most underrated record. Like the previously remastered 'Premonition' on the same label, Jon Astley has done an amazing job of breathing even more life into what was already a lively release, the sleeve notes, coutesy of Jon Hotten, explaining how this version of the band arrived at the crisis point where something had to give.

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As the story is taken up by Dave Ling in the essay accompanying their 1984 release 'Vital Signs', the band and their record label had a rethink after the lack of hits on 'Caught In The Game'. The result was the replacing of vocalist Dave Bickler with ex-Target and Cobra singer Jimi Jamison, with Frankie Sullivan vacating the producers chair in favour of the legendary Ron Nevison. Of course it helped that the Sullivan/Peterik axis came up with some killer songs for Jamison to wrap his considerable vocal cords around, with Nevison giving a glossy radio-friendly sheen to classic AOR tracks like 'I Can't Hold Back', 'High On You' and the ballad 'The Search Is Over', which soon saw the singles and album flying high in the US charts. Elsewhere the slower stomp of 'Broken Promises' and 'Popular Girl' were strong album tracks and the upbeat 'First Night' and classic 'It's The Singer Not The Song' raised the energy levels even higher. Personally the ballad 'Everlasting' is one of my least favourite Survivor songs, whilst the moody 'I See You In Everyone' is another great album closer. This version adds the non-LP hit single 'The Moment Of Truth' from 'The Karate Kid' soundtrack.

It's probably true that 'Vital Signs' is seen as Survivor's best and most enduring album, and song-wise and singles-wise that's probably true. However, (get those guns ready now!) in my opinion that success was at a high cost. Ron Nevison over-produced all the rock and roll heart out of the band, and whilst sonically the vocals, keys, acoustics and some of the electric guitars jump out at you – especially from the radio as was probably the intention – but like other Nevison creations like the self-titled Heart album and his work with Jefferson Starship, the album completely lacks any bottom end, which when you've got a Bonham-eque drummer like Marc Droubay and a rumbling bassist like Stephan Ellis, is like hiring Michel Roux to make you a pot noodle. To be fair much of this problem is alleviated by the remastering of Jon Astley, and through decent speakers and headphones 'Vital Signs' sounds like a completely different album. In terms of songs and performance this CD just can't be faulted.

Phil Ashcroft

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