Survivor is one of the archetypal AOR bands. The proof lies in the music, which is built on fine-tuned songwriting with big choruses, emotive vocals and lot of keyboards. That said, they aren’t power ballad softies all the time: despite a wealth of synth-layered hits like “I Can’t Hold Back” and “The Search Is Over,” they’re probably best known for their hard-rocking theme song for Rocky III, “Eye Of The Tiger.” Like their ballads, it’s got plenty of hooks and a soaring chorus – but it’s also got a driving, stadium-rock arrangement that sidelines the synths in favor of chugging-and-stabbing electric guitars.
It’s also worth noting that “Eye Of The Tiger” is not a fluke for Survivor: instead, it’s the logical result of an approach that began a few albums earlier on their debut, Survivor. A spin of this album might be shocking to listeners who think of Survivor as a keyboard-driven outfit: everything on this platter is guitar-driven, an approach that is accentuated by Ron Nevison’s tough production style. The initial version of Survivor leads with their six-string riffs and – surprise, surprise – they do a pretty convincing job.
However, one shouldn’t listen to Survivor expecting fire-breathing fare on a Judas Priest/Iron Maiden level. Instead, main songwriters Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan apply pop-songwriting smarts to a hard rock sound, with a touch of pomp-rock in the arranging to keep the sound interesting. The record starts strong with “Somewhere In America,” the band’s first single and a song that sets the basic template for what will follow on the album: a strong guitar riff drives the song and the overall sound fits in the pocket of late 1970’s rock but the sing-along chorus and the use of thick vocal harmonies to sweeten said chorus reveal the act’s AOR potential.
The remainder of the album treads a similar path. Sometimes light synth embellishments are added (as in “Can’t Getcha Offa My Mind”) but the main focus is riffage and lots of it. The hard-rock highlights here include “As Soon As Love Finds Me,” which offsets its chugging verses with tricky dynamics at chorus time and surprise pomp-piano bridge, and “20-20,” a good-timey stomper with a Southern-rock edge to it that sounds like something .38 Special could have recorded (side-note: Peterik actually wrote one of .38 Special’s early hits, “Rockin’ Into The Night.”). “Youngblood” is another highlight, a rocker that distinguishes itself with a complex, almost proggy arrangement.
The group isn’t quite slick enough yet to disguise its occasional borrowings – the swinging groove “Let It Be Now” sounds rather close to Toto’s “Hold The Line” while “Love Has Got Me” has strong echoes of Foreigner’s “Feels Like The First Time.” The latter element is no coincidence, as Peterik has admitted Foreigner was one of the models he used when putting together Survivor. That said, the precision of the arrangements and performances make the borrowings forgivable. Vocalist Dave Bickler also deserves praise for his consistently strong vocals, which cover everything from hard-rock belting to a more gentle balladic croon to fit the demands of each song.
One other song deserves special notice – the penultimate track, “Nothing Can Shake Me (From Your Love).” This power ballad prototype is steeped in melodrama, with the lyrics pushing their lost-love scenario to metaphysical extremes while the all-stops-out arrangement steadily builds from acoustic simplicity to a powerhouse blend of surging guitars, pounding drums and atmospheric layers of keyboards. Bickler’s rock-operatic lead vocal is the cherry atop this tower of AOR power. It sets a standard that their future power ballads would follow but also has an unexpectedly raw component of hard rock in there that gives it an added charge. It’s the best cut on the album and a real showcase for what Peterik, Sullivan and Bickler were capable of.
In short, Survivor is a strong debut that hints at what was to come: they were still working out their mode of attack but their focus on craft pulls them through. Better yet, it contains enough heartland-rock components to appeal to those who are normally interested in AOR sounds (along with follow-up album Premonition, this is one of those AOR Albums That Hard-Rockers Are Allowed To Like).
(CD Notes: this album has just received a lovely reissue from Rock Candy Records: the punchy remastering shows off Nevison’s production to nice effect and Peterik is extensively interviewed in the liner notes, which do a great job of laying out the first chapter of the band’s story. It also includes “Rebel Girl,” a non-album single recorded shortly after the album that effectively complements Survivor‘s rough-hewn AOR sound.)