JEFFERSON STARSHIP -- Freedom at Point Zero (Grunt-RCA BZL1-3452).

The band that started out in 1965 as an Airplane and evolved into a Starship in 1974 has lately been behaving like an ill-fated Skylab.

Seasoned veterans of the Airplane era have been sloughing off like spent airlock shrouds and, in the wake of the 1978 riot in West Germany that left the Starship short $1 million in equipment and their female lead singer, the group's orbit seemed in an advanced state of decay.

Have no fear, stargazers. The Jefferson Starship is back, newly outfitted and provisioned and doing rather well in its umpteenth incarnation since Paul Kantner assembled the band to play on his 1970 scifi epic, "Blows Against the Empire."

(Incidentally, if you've had trouble keeping track of the band all these years, you haven't been alone. The checkered history of the group that started out playing the Matrix Club in San Francisco has gotten so confusing, what with all the defections, repatriations and simmering artistic feuds, that RCA Records has had to compile a "Flight Log.")

The roster for "Freedom at Point Zero," the fifth Starship album, include four veterans and two notable newcomers. In addition to the original crew of Craig Chaquico, David Freiberg, Paul Kantner and Pete Sears, the band has added drummer Aynsley Dunbar, most recently of Journey, and vocalist Mickey Thomas, author of Elvin Bishop's hit "Fooled Around and Fell in Love." Both joined the band after the abortive concert in June 1978.

Dunbar replaces Johnny Barbata, who was critically injured in an auto accident. Thomas has effectively stepped in for Marty Balin, who left to pursue a solo career, and Grace Slick, whose feud with Kantner and the rest of the band came to a head after the fiasco in Germany. (Balin and Barbata will be more sorely missed than Slick, whose voice and writing are losing the edge they once had.)

This isn't to imply there's been a break with the artistic past. Much of "Freedom" bears the spacey signature of "Blows Against the Empire," which was the first recording ever nominated for science fiction's Hugo Award.

Gone, however, is the singing and song-writing talent of Marty Balin, who was responsible for the phenomenal success of "Miracles" and the "Red Octopus" album. Kantner has attempted to step into Balin's visionary role, but instead of achieving his artistic intensity, Kantner seems content to wallow in mysticism. Orientalia and campy Buck-Rogers-like flights-of-fancy.

Mickey Thomas is the real star now. Thomas, Freiberg and Kantner form a vocal triumvirate that at times rivals the best of Balin, Slick and Kantner. Alone, Thomas has a curious English hard edge to his voice, which meshes well with guitarist Chaquico's newest inclination in that direction.

Musically, the Starship is as far from the Airplane as they have ever been. The fuzz, feedback and distortion of the late Airplane and early Starship have given way to a sound that more closely resembles Bad Company at its best and Kiss at its worst.

"Jane," the current single, displays these changes in their best light: crisp guitar driving bass line, insistent beat. Conversely, "Rock Music" shows these tendencies at the worst: raucous guitar, uneven writing, vacuous lyrics.The rest of the album lies somewhere in between.

Kantner is responsible for some of "Freedom's" finest moments. "Lightning Rose (Carary the Fire)" is a smoothly crafted romantic vision, not unlike "Caroline," which represented the best of Kantner and Balin together.

The harmonies are sweet and controlled, with a modulation that seemed to escape Slick toward the end, and the bright acoustic sparkle of the introduction segues seductively into a delirious, swept-away rhythm, supported by a moaning saxophone and spurred on by sustained background harmonies. This approximates the subtle cadence of courtship and consummation which made "Miracles" an accomplishment.

Also well-represented are bassist Pete Sears and his wife Jeannette, who bring a cryptic, reflective quality with "Awakening" and "Fading Lady Light," their two contributions.

"Awakening" unfolds with a twisting, dirgelike chord progression, reminiscent of Lynyrd Skynyrd's opus "Free Bird," then moves into a more bluesy interlude before closing with a ringing guitar fadeout.

The worst of Kantner's influence is evident in such hokey, mystic visionary lyrics as "Now the light shining through from within/We'll find our way back to the stars once again."

Lyrical shortcomings notwithstanding, when the Starship has all the elements under control, as on "Lightning Rose," they make for an unmistakable evocation of such gems as "Caroline," "Ride the Tiger," "Miracles" and "Tumbling."

They will never be able to duplicate the uncanny, almost magical rapport that Balin, Kantner and Slick once had, but they appear to have a strong new lease on life which holds the promise of better things to come. Better, that is, if they can just keep under control the kind of unruly egos that splintered the Jefferson Airplane at the height of its creative powers.