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.)