BY JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
SURVIVOR – VITAL SIGNS (1984)
I was scrolling through a Facebook music group that I’m part of last week when I came across a post marking the 40th anniversary of the Survivor album Eye Of The Tiger. Knowing that the rest of the material on that album is just as good as the monstrously successful “Eye Of The Tiger” song and that it had been almost exactly five years since I last wrote about Survivor in The Cassette Chronicles, I made plans to write about that album for this week’s article.
But the best laid plans went for naught when I remembered that my cassette copy of the album doesn’t work anymore. I have the remastered CD edition of the release but since this series is all about cassettes, I don’t listen to other formats when doing these articles.
So instead, I’m going to be writing about the Vital Signs album. The funny thing for me is that while I am a huge fan of Survivor, it wasn’t until I bought this album on cassette that I owned any of the band’s albums. I loved “Eye Of The Tiger” when I first heard it but the only version I owned was the Rocky III soundtrack on vinyl. So Vital Signs was the first Survivor album I ever owned. (Yes, I own all the albums now!)
Vital Signs is the fifth album from Survivor, but it was the first one to feature ex-Cobra / ex-Target singer Jimi Jamison on vocals. I can’t remember where I read it so I can’t be 100% certain, but I think the reason Jamison had no writing credits on the album is because he was brought in very late in the writing/recording sessions. So all the songs were written by guitarist Frankie Sullivan and keyboardist Jim Peterik.
The album had four singles released from it and helpfully enough, those tracks are the first four songs on Side One of Vital Signs. The album opens with two straight up rocking numbers in “I Can’t Hold Back” and “High On You”. The latter song was a Top 10 hit for the band (the song peaked at #8). Both songs are still quite memorable and enjoyable all these years later and I think they stand out as “definitive” Survivor tracks alongside “Eye Of The Tiger”
As for the other two singles, the song “First Night” didn’t crack the Top 40 but I actually really like the song. It starts off like it is going to be a ballad, but after the song’s first verse of lyrics, the band bursts into a full-on kicking rocker. The guitar sound in the song is particularly good as well.
And with this album coming out in the 1980’s, you know that Survivor had a ballad on Vital Signs. However, instead of being my usual snarky self about the quality of said type of song, I have to say “The Search Is Over” is not only a fantastic ballad, but it still rings true to this day. I hear it every so often on the radio station I have to listen to at my job and I always get the warm fuzzies when it comes on. The music draws you in without being cloying and the lyrics are directly sentimental without becoming sugary dreck. Plus Jimi Jamison’s vocal performance is simply marvelous.
So that takes care of the songs that were released as singles. But Vital Signs has five “album” tracks on it and the first is the Side One closer “Broken Promises”. The mid-to-uptempo track showcases the deeper side of Survivor’s sound and lyric writing. While they are always going to be known for their big pop hits, when the band takes their music in a more dramatic direction, they always seem to deliver the goods perfectly. Such is the case with “Broken Promises”. The song’s main lyrical verses are slightly slower in tempo but when Survivor hits the chorus break, you get that big bold gang vocal sound that helps elevate the song along with the increase in the delivery pacing of the music. There is a “huskier” feel to the music and as you listen to the lyrics, I’m always reminded of how they can have a subtly deeper feel and/or meaning to them.
When you flip the cassette over to Side Two, you get one of my favorite tracks from the band in “Popular Girl”. I’ve always loved this song from the first time I heard it and think it is one of Survivor’s more underrated tracks. Making the song even more appealing to me is the fact you can listen to the vocals and interpret the lyrics in a couple of different ways. That might give you pause but surprisingly enough, whichever way you end up taking them, each version works.
The song “Everlasting” is another ballad, but unlike “The Search Is Over” which plays it mostly straight up in terms of how the song is performed, this track is purely a POWER ballad. There’s no mistaking the intent of the lyrics of course, but Survivor surrounds Jamison’s vocals with a huge musical soundtrack that quickly annihilates any doubts that a second ballad would prove inferior and serve more as an annoyance. It is just a damn good song!
The copy of the Vital Signs album I listened to in order to write this article is the one I bought nearly 38 years ago. And though the liner notes clearly state that Frankie Sullivan and Jim Peterik wrote all the songs on the album, when I first heard the song “It’s The Singer Not The Song”, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that it seemed a pretty ballsy statement for Jimi Jamison to “make” after just joining the band. Of course, he didn’t craft the lyrics so he didn’t actually make the statement but that’s just how my mind was working when I was 13 years old I guess. That said, I absolutely love this song! It’s a high energy rocker and Jamison does a great job selling the lyrics.
The Vital Signs album closes out with “I See You In Everyone”. The song title may suggest another ballad to you, I know. However, while the lyrics do fall in that general direction, this song is actually quite dramatically intense and rocking. It ends things on a huge high note and is just yet another song that showcases just how fantastic this album was at the time of its release. I don’t think I’m overselling things when I say that Survivor’s Vital Signs is one of the all-time benchmark albums of the melodic rock genre, period!
NOTES OF INTEREST: How much do I love the album? Well, I own it on vinyl, the cassette I used to write this article, the original CD release and the Rock Candy Records CD reissue as well. That Rock Candy reissue includes the song “The Moment Of Truth” as a bonus track. It was originally released on the Karate Kid movie soundtrack. The song plays over that film’s end credits.
Vital Signs is Survivor’s second biggest album. It peaked at #16 on the album chart and was certified platinum.