In a banner year of rock reunions that revived Kiss, the Sex Pistols and the Monkees, one comeback almost went unnoticed. Until now.

Journey, the San Francisco rock band that hijacked radio in the '80s, is once again saturating the airwaves with songs. Its first album of new material in 10 years, Trial by Fire, entered Billboard's album chart at No. 3 last week.

Critics, long disdainful of the band's polished rock, continue to sneer, though the nastiest digs seem to accuse Journey of sounding like - surprise - Journey. That's music to singer Steve Perry's ears.

"What else are we going to do except be ourselves?" the singer asks. "We never chased after the flavor of the month. We stayed true to our musical identity. Now wouldn't be the time to change that."

Especially considering Journey's enduring appeal: 1988's Greatest Hits still sells 500,000 copies a year. Pumping up the Journey formula with grunge or hip-hop would have been a fatal mistake, commercially and artistically, Perry says.

"It takes courage to stay true to yourself," he says, "especially in an industry where fear jumps up and tells you, 'If you do such-and-such, it will maximize your chances.' You have to fight that voice because it will ruin you. If you re-create yourself and nobody likes it, you lose twice. Even if the public likes it, you lose because you faded on yourself."

Journey, formed in 1973, had several personnel changes while making eight platinum albums and 17 top 40 hits, including Open Arms, Lights and Don't Stop Believin'.

Perry came aboard for 1978's Infinity, the band's fourth album and first million-seller. This year's reassembled model boasts the lineup behind Journey's most successful albums, 1981's Escape and 1983's Frontiers. Fame couldn't appease the growing acrimony.

"My last show was Feb. 1, 1987, in Anchorage," says Perry, 47. "I said never again, never. I had burned out. I couldn't sing or listen to music for a year. I was oblivious.

"The constant touring had made me crazy. The road is an addiction, and the audience is the ultimate narcotic. We had been together 10 years, and it was difficult to leave. But I wanted to jump off the merry-go-round before the band drove itself into the ground."

While touring to promote his 1994 solo album, For the Love of Strange Medicine, Perry found himself reminiscing about Journey's heyday. "I couldn't shake the feeling."

He called keyboardist Jonathan Cain, and the two met for coffee. Guitarist Neal Schon joined discussions the next day, and the three began writing tunes a year ago.

"We figured that if the songs came together and were as honest as the early ones, then we'd have a reason to make an album," Perry says. "We didn't want to resurrect a dream just to put it on life support."

After bassist Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith returned, Journey enlisted producer Kevin Shirley (Silverchair), who helped the band focus on team work and "not drift into our own sources of inspiration," Perry says.

Recorded in Marin County, Calif., the 15 new songs on Trial by Fire coalesced between spells of harmony and friction.

"We didn't know if we'd get in the studio and chew each other's faces off or be grateful to be back together," Perry says. "There were some clashes. Democracy is a nice concept, but it doesn't work easily in rock bands.

"It's amazing how many changes happen in the process toward the final CD. It makes the journey worthwhile."

Pun intended.

"A Fruitful Journey Resumes"

Trial By Fire Reunion Story

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