THE ALBUM -- Journey, Escape," Columbia TC 37408.; THE SHOW -- Friday at 7:30 at Merriweather Post.

It may be nigh impossible to separate one hook-toting American light-metal band from another, but one thing gives Journey an overriding distinction: When Steve Perry opens his mouth to sing, ice floes melt in the Arctic, orchids blossom on the Gobi sands, young girls heave quivering sighs and there is peace on earth.

The guy simply has one of the best-controlled, most confident voices in rock. That he chooses to transport it via his nose (and quel schnoz!) only enhances the appeal. "Escape," Journey's most recent album, is less a showcase for this phenomenon than were "Evolution" and "Infinity," but it certainly has its moments.

As it turns out, downplaying Perry is what keeps "Escape" safe from the cloying excesses of "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'," and of "Lights," the rock song that ate San Francisco. Here, Perry savors every cliche, he caresses each note with his fabulous septum, but he is restrained from reveling in the sound of his own voice to such lengths that world vinyl stockpiles are threatened.

"Don't Stop Believin'," for instance, has a chorus/book that could go on forever, but guitarist Neal Schon has the good sense to take over the mix with a feathery guitar fade. Again he saves us from good-thing overdose on "Who's Crying Now," this time with an admirably perfected Steely Dan imitation, circa "Royal Scam" ("Don't Take Me Alive," to be precise).

A veteran of Santana who had a brief separation from Journey in the late '70s, Schon has returned to the fold with renewed vigor and a self-cofidence of his own. He seems to have accepted the idea that if you can't be unique or original, you can certainly be a competent reflection of whatever is, and the passages borrowed from Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and Santana are thoughtful, well-rounded indications of his discriminating tastes.

There is also new blood in the band, in the person of keyboardist Jonathan Cain, who replaces founding member Gregg Rolie. Nothing on "Escape" reveals his technique as particularly formidable, but the fact that he co-wrote two of the album's best cuts, "Who's Crying Now" and "Open Arms," shows how snugly Cain fits within the group's formula.

And this is definitely formula stuff. Every song has some near-wonderful hook that won't be denied. "Stone in Love" out-REOs REO Speedwagon for sheer luminosity and ebullience, and never mind if it's crammed to the I-beams with rock cliches. One simply cannot listen to this five-chord fluff without getting caught up in the silly optimism projected by these candy-cane harmonies.

Journey has its downside, too, skimming lightly over such dark subjects as death ("Dead or Alive") and the decline of fami9ly relationships ("Mother, Father"). But even these brief forays into adult trauma carry the band's trademark innocence.

Lyrically, "Escape" is a black hole, an implosion of unoriginality rendered cheerfully cosmic by the intensity of the singing. "This town's got no pity," claims "Keep On Runnin'," while "Who's Crying" blithely features a romantic duo "born to run."

But who cares? You want lyrics, take it to Squeeze. Perry has already amply demonstrated, especially on "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'," that all he needs to sing his guts out is a couple of nonsense syllables, anyway. Better he should have some words, however dippy, lest he be tempted to haul out his tireless "na na's."

The final proof of how much fun these boys are having is in their live performances, which are infinitely better than those of their legions of colleagues. Kevin Elson, who produced "Captured," the preceding, double-live album, as well as "Escape," also acts as sound engineer for the band's endless round of arenas, and he does a fine job of preserving on vinyl the infectious mindlessness of the concerts.

Just how infectious is Journey? A recent random survey of sneering adults revealed that those who claimed to have no knowledge of the group whatsoever were nevertheless able to sing as many as three lines from the choruses of "Just the Same Way," "Wheel in the Sky" and "Any Way You Want It," not to mention "Lights" in its godawful entirety. An unofficial conclusion is that it's neither lyrics nor music that insinuates itself into our memory cells, but the gotta-sing intensity of Steve Perry. Thank heavens he doesn't feel a similar urge to dance: We'd all be in danger of senselessly shuffle-stepping ourselves to death.