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Main Category: Arena Rock
Also applicable: Prog Rock, Art Rock, Lush Pop
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties



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Year Of Release: 1972

First of all, let me apologize that I have only heard this album in a very crappy version - for some reason, my MP3 version of it sucks like nothing else. The final track has been cut out totally (so it might be an awesome musical masterpiece that will raise my rating up two stars! Nah, jes' kiddin...), and the rest are sometimes marred by outside noises - for instance, the second half of 'Best Thing' is plagued by stupid "clucking" noises as if the CD from which it was copied kept on choking on dirty spots. That said, it does add a little to the experience - doesn't 'Best Thing' sound so much more exciting with stupid clucking noises all over the place?

Anyway, this is Styx's debut album, released in the sweet innocent year of 1972, and the uniform reaction of critics, fans, and all kinds of outside personae is, well, uniform: IT SUCKS. Now does it? Well, not entirely, but sure, considering that 1972 was such a great year for progressive rock, it is pretty lame. All the problems of "second generation progressive" are already in place: sheer derivative feel, clumsy artificial pomp, pretentions for the sake of pretentiousness, etc. Add to this a lack of instrumental virtuosity, please: the lead guitar player is not totally incompetent, but it seems that his knowledge of his instrument never goes far beyond a primitive brand of riffage and inserting exactly the same pattern of Berry-esque licks into every composition. Another problem is that James Young takes lead vocals on at least half of the tracks, and that sure ain't no big merit: he sounds like an extremely tripped out, aging Stevie Winwood with a safety pin in his nose. Or like a drunk Bob Dylan trying to imitate Greg Lake, whichever you prefer. In any case, this certainly is not the way progressive rock should be sung.

And the songs themselves? Well, at least there is only one lengthy marathon on the album, which is kinda surprising for such a young, ambitious prog band whose debut came out in the same year with Close To The Edge and Thick As A Brick. It's also the one that sucks the most. 'Movement For The Common Man', which is supposedly based on Copeland's 'Fanfare For The Common Man' but only includes a couple brief snippets of that tune, is the usual multi-part deal, with sections that rock, sections that don't, and sections that don't do anything - I'm referring particularly to the chaotic section in the middle with brief Zappaesque snippets of dialog and suchlike. Special gimmicks include more Berryesque solos, more wheezy James Young vocals, and a short electronic drum solo that shows these guys had also been listening to the avantgarde side of Pink Floyd a bit too much.

However, the other four songs (plus the fifth one I ain't never heard) don't turn out to be that offensive. Sure, 'Right Away' is pretty much forgettable, and 'Quick Is The Beat Of My Heart' sounds way too pompous, but they are short, compact and don't totally lack vocal or instrumental melody. But the best stuff can be found right in the middle of the album - two songs that gotta rank with the best stuff this band ever did later (and there wasn't that much of it). Not coincidentally, they also feature Dennis DeYoung on vocals! 'What Has Come Between Us' is an interesting attempt at a folkish ballad with operatic flourishes and Uriah Heep overtones (the "good" Uriah Heep overtones); in the hands of an astute band like Queen, it could have easily been a classic. And 'Best Thing' is the most attractive piece on the album, with a curious acoustic/electric/organ interplay that actually makes the song rock out - a bit. It's even catchy, for Chrissake.

Which actually means - these guys weren't hopeless from the very start, as some sneering antifans think. While they might have indeed been the American version of Uriah Heep, they were taking care so as not seem all that banal, and they had also certainly studied their "progressive homework" far more intensely than Heep ever would. Still, apart from 'Best Thing', there ain't really no need for anybody to engage in this album (or the following twelve, for that matter!) unless you just gotta have every prog and pseudo-prog album ever released in your collection.


STYX II ***1/2

Year Of Release: 1973

Gee, am I embarrassed? These guys got somewhat better for their second album, no kidding. They still often sound like the US equivalent of Uriah Heep (hence all the endless Spinal Tap comparisons), but they still sound like they're miles ahead of the lameass Brits - a case not too frequent among "prog-rockers", let's admit that.

The big problem is that virtually nothing on here is memorable - no solid riffs, no hooks as usual, and nothing truly original or innovative. But the big advantage is that Styx II is among this band's least pretentious pieces of music - and mind you, I'm speaking of a band that runs a no-concurrents race for the title of "America's Most Bloated Rock Outfit". That would be later, though. For now, the band mostly sticks to their inoffensive and somewhat entertaining brand of "hard art", occasionally alternating it with a couple lengthy progressive marathons that sound wonderfully humble and 'lowly' when compared to the later 'universalist' anthems. And that pleases me, goddammit.

In between Styx and Styx II, the band had obviously been busy studying the 'prog basics' - and it's no wonder that quite a few tracks also sound almost exactly like Yes; 'You Need Love', the upbeat rocker that opens the album, can almost be regarded as Styx's answer to 'I've Seen All Good People', with Yes-ish vocal harmonies and Steve Howe-style guitar solos. On the other hand, 'You Better Ask' is more Lynyrd Skynyrd than Yes - a generic barroom rocker! The funny thing is, both of them are only slightly dumb: I don't have anything in particular against the instrumentation or the rudimentary melodies. 'Earl Of Roseland' reverts us to Spinal Tap/Uriah Heep territory, of course; but 'I'm Gonna Make You Feel It' sounds like a metallized version of some hippy-dippy CSN anthem. So, while it goes without saying that everything on here is mighty derivative, it's also evident that Styx try to push their stylistics in a lot of different directions at once. There is a certain similarity in style between all the rockers on here, of course - loud, aggressive, braggard, using exactly the same guitar tone (which, by the way, betrays the band's American status: it's the typical guitar tone of any generic Southern rock band). But at least the songs don't seem clones of each other.

The only short ballad in among all the rockin' stuff is 'Lady' (the best known song off the album). It is quite pleasant as well, merging together folk and... and bolero, I guess. It also effectuates a smooth transition into 'A Day' - the album's boldest prog cut, which was, by the way, written and performed by John Curulewski, who turns out to have a very pretty, melancholic voice that sure beats out Dennis DeYoung any time of day. A moody, gently shuffling ballad with atmospheric piano and acoustic guitar, and a mighty catchy and even somewhat moving vocal melody. What I don't feel was necessary was extending it to an eight minute length with stupid solos - after all, we all know that Styx are only so-so soloists. But I guess they had to put on a couple overlong numbers so as not to lose their progressive audience, like this one and DeYoung's stupid 'Father O.S.A.', which is way too close to 'Lady' in style to be enjoyed on its own. The fact that it's preceded by a short version of Bach's 'Little Fugue In G' just goes to show that "no, no, we are influenced by classical music, whatever".

Nevertheless, despite all odds and despite the poor reputation of Styx's early period (which Styx have a serious hand in themselves, pretty much disavowing everything written before 1974), Styx II still remains a pinnacle of sorts for the band and an interesting document of progressive rock's transmutations in the States. I mean, I have often heard pop rock and heavy metal disguised as progressive rock; I have even heard disco and New Wave disguised as progressive rock; but this is the first time I hear a typical Southern rock barroom band pretending to play progressive! And since I have nothing against Southern rock in general, and nothing against Styx II in particular - hell, it doesn't even feature any obvious overblown dreck like 'Quick Is The Beat Of My Heart' - I eagerly give it three and a half stars. Cheer up, Styx. Oh, and did I mention James Young's singing has taken a turn for the better?



Year Of Release: 1973

STYX SUCKS! Er... sorry, wrong story. But surely many a classic rock fan would just have to yell that ultra-popular slogan while listening to a good half of the tunes off this album. As for me, I'm kinda torn. On one hand, in general the album doesn't give the impression of cheese factory at work. It's one of the heaviest records the band ever recorded; it presents us with a few decent melodies; it shows that the band had a sense of humour, as well as some deeply hidden sexual complexes (oh well, at least they don't go around waving their imaginary dick in the air, like some cock rock bands of that period would do). On the other hand, Serpent is the first album that takes itself way too deadly serious. Whether they're discussing anti-war problems, giving a course of primal sexual therapy or just indulging in petty mysticism, they never forget to put on an atmosphere that models them as some kind of archangel band recently descended onto this sinful planet through the direct command of the Almighty.

It's all the more hilarious, then, that in the middle of the obligatory melancholic Curulewski solo spot, aptly titled 'As Bad As This' (well, it's really not that bad, but it sounds vastly inferior to the similar, but more melodic 'A Day' on the previous record), John inserts a hilarious, but somewhat gross ditty called 'Plexiglas Toilet'. Imagine putting on a Styx - Styx! - record and finding lyrics like "Don't sit on the Plexiglas toilet/Said the momma to her son/Wipe the butt clean with the paper/ Make it nice for everyone", moreover, delivered with an exaggerated theatrical pronunciation. Or how's that: 'A boy of 5 stands close to the toilet/Holds the lid up with one hand/Won't let go the lid for fear that/On his banana it will land'. What an actual and hard-hitting topic!

On the other hand, isn't it the same John Curulewski that's responsible for the abysmal 'Krakatoa' - the band's take on 'Horse Latitudes', a puffed-up poetry declamation devoted to a volcano? Or the same John Curulewski that's also responsible for the completely pedestrian rocker '22 Years'? Yeah, we all know that Styx can boogie to a certain degree, but who needs such a straightforward boogie tune from Styx? So you see, this stupid "self-deflatory opus" was just an exception that still sticks out like a sore thumb on this album.

For the most part, though, Serpent consists of the same "hard-art" numbers that dominated Styx II: 'Witch Wolf', 'Young Man', 'The Grove Of Eglantine', the title track and 'Jonas Psalter' are all loud, powerful, and not tremendously exciting rockers that are all essentially a mix of good and bad elements. Notably, I don't have anything against the melodies, which are okay, and I don't have anything against the arrangements, which are rather creative. But I can't stand the atmosphere around these songs, and in this I probably just repeat the complaints of any average Styx hater. 'Witch Wolf' is a stupid werewolf anthem; 'Eglantine' features a concealed vagina analogy, which is utterly dumb once seen through; 'Young Man' is way too preachy and straightforward - hell, they sing about drafting as if they're actually gonna put an end to that problem; the title track is a prime Uriah Heep stylization again - even if the band later admitted that the song is actually about, er, a penis; and 'Jonas Psalter' is by-the-book rock'n'roll with nothing to distinguish it.

Have I bashed everything? I guess so; and yet, none of these songs are unlistenable. Maybe I've been listening to a bit too much Uriah Heep, a band that's so similar to this period in Styx's career but far less interesting from the musical point of view; so I'm ready to forgive poor Styx a lot more than I should. But in any case, Serpent never really transgresses the border of "awful taste" - it features far less lyrical cliches than the entire Heep catalog, it has some interesting musical ideas and... and... ah, whatever. Why am I crucifying myself here? Go buy it, if you're interested in early Styx at all!



Year Of Release: 1974

Don't judge a record by its cover. Don't judge this record by its cover, particularly - you couldn't be more wrong. Yes, the cover does show an old dude with a long beard and a long hat juggling something that looks like a cross between a tear gas grenade and a grapefruit (and in case you haven't gotten the point of it, the title of the record is written right above his head), but in reality, this is one of the least pretentious Styx records ever produced. Apart from the title track that closes the album, it is all straightforward, unambitious guitar/piano rockers and moody romantic ballads. It is also all kinda boring and pointless, and there's not any more innovation or artistic value in these songs than in whatever Phil Collins is writing these days. But at least, unlike Phil Collins, these guys actually turn out some real music - it's like, they actually play these guitars and keyboards, dude. They also know how to rock out, although I'd bet my life many people wish they wouldn't. Know how to rock out, that is.

The main trouble for me on here is that John Curulewski gets almost out of the picture. Totally. Which is a shame, because I kinda liked the songs he sang on the previous records. Sob. Sniff. (A change of handkerchief). So the record is all dominated by Young and DeYoung, and there are no stupid fun novelty numbers like that epic about the Plexiglas toilet. Well, anyway, with all these simplistic rockers, I guess I don't mind it that much - Man Of Miracles still manages to be a rather well-balanced record.

Geez, I've written ten lines of text without actually discussing any of the songs. It is good, because I really don't know what to say this time. The rockers are very much Chuck Berry with a touch of Stax-Volt. Perhaps they were trying to go for a tense glam-rock sound on here, but the guitars are never heavy enough to achieve the necessary 'massiveness' of glam, though at times they come close. Again, though, in a couple of placxes it almost seems to me as if they were running a race with Uriah Heep - 'Southern Woman', with its fast monotonous punch, falsetto backing vocals and overdriven lead vocal from Mr Young, sounds like it could have easily fit on some tripe like Demons & Wizards. Well, okay, I never really hated that style - actually, I always thought that Uriah Heep were at their best when doing fast rockers. It's nothing to award a Nobel prize for, though, even if Nobel prizes were awarded for music achievements.

They do go a bit overboard with the pomp on the ballads, though. Almost as if they thought: 'Well, we wrote all those rockers and they're all so ballsy and cocky and so down to earth, now we should reward ourselves with something spacey!' 'A Song For Suzanne', for instance: if you look at the lyrics sheet, it gives the impression of some French-stylized romantic ballad, soft, silky and not too exciting, like most French-stylized romantic ballads are (unless they're sung by Bryan Ferry, of course). But when the song is on, it's completely different - portent synthesizer landscapes, filled with bubbling astral noises and special effects, as if the 'Suzanne' in question is an Eastern priestess rather than a Parisian hooker. Oops, sorry, got it wrong here - apparently, Suzanne is Dennis' own wife. Just couldn't help inserting a little dim-witted unbearably cheap humor here. But the funniest thing is that apparently James Young' wife was also named Suzie, and she's the 'sweet little Suzie' that the lyrics in 'A Man Like Me' refer to! Figures.

Anyway, the rockers are cheap but tolerable, the ballads are devoid of interesting melodies but bearable, that 'Christopher Mr Christopher' dittie near the end is hokey, but weird, and only the title track is Styx at their sleaziest and most irritating. If anything, this record has to be heard just so you could convince yourself that Styx never took themselves that seriously in the early Seventies, while Curulewski was still in the band. Not for any other particular reason, though.


EQUINOX ***1/2

Year Of Release: 1975

This one's really interesting - in a curious sorta way. Perhaps the band members had temporarily run out of any kind of ideas, because Equinox is that one Styx album where they really draw upon their betters in a thoroughly unabashed and unashamed manner. On the other hand, as long as you're able to forgive the recycled riffs, imitated styles and stolen vocal harmonies, Equinox might strike you as a very professional, slick and well-balanced recording that gotta be ranked among the few reasons for Styx's very existence. Plus, it was really cute for me to play the silly game of 'Now what does that remind me of?'. This is also the last album for John Curulewski (he only gets one of his compositions on here); nobody lamented his departure, but me, I'll miss the guy. Nobody could beat him at dirty jokes like 'Plexiglas Toilet', for one thing. Nah, just kiddin' ya. Styx were dirty jokers by definition.

Anyway, we're off to a fine start - 'Light Up' rips off Yes in all its entirety, except that at certain moments the guitars sound more like Trevor Rabin than Steve Howe (sic!). But the keyboards are Wakemanish, and Dennis DeYoung arranges some goofy falsetto harmonies a la Jon Anderson. That said, the main melody is far more accessible than your usual Yes composition - heck, this is American pop-prog, after all. Da name o' da band is STYX, too. Good song. Nice song. Nice keyboard sound. 'Lorelei' is typical Styx, though; nobody could have thought of something that corny. THIS is typical Styx: ambitious, pseudo-complex, pseudo mystical, and at the same time typically crowd-pleasing. Blah. Hate that kinda crap, even if I can't sometimes resist the song's pull at the pleasure centers located somewhere below the ankles. Do you have a problem with that? Not me.

Curulewski's contribution is 'Mother Dear' - this one was the hardest to guess, but after a few hours of brain-breaking I finally got it. That vocal melody is painfully reminiscent of the Who's 'Glow Girl', just released a year earlier on Odds And Sods. Change a few chords, guys, but don't dare change the arrangement - it's the same high-pitched echoey intonations set to an ethereal keyboard/bass arrangement. Again, though, can't deny the song's catchiness: there's absolutely nothing nasty about it, and the chorus (again, a typical Styx chorus) is relatively infectious. 'Lonely Child' is 'Lorelei Vol. 2', though. Have I yet mentioned that an absolute majority of the vocals here are done by Dennis? He's kinda pushing everybody out of the picture. Maybe this is why Equinox is often considered by Styx fans as the first Styx album worth listening to. Dammit.

James only takes lead on his solo contribution to the album - 'Midnight Ride'. Now if this number is a rocker, it's obvious that the guys won't be ripping off Genesis. Instead, they borrow the trick elaborated by Aerosmith in that same year: crash into the song with no introduction at all, employing the same kind of wall-breaking, unhindered, rough guitar riffage pattern that Aerosmith patented on 'Toys In The Attic'. Result? If you're in for a good rocker, stick to Aerosmith (even better, don't stick to Aerosmith), but essentially, there's no problem with 'Midnight Ride' apart from the goofy high screaming in the background. But then again, this is Styx. A Styx without the goofy high screaming is like a sewer system with no faeces in it: produces a better effect on your senses, but it just ain't the real thing, if you know what I mean. Still, probably the best song on here is Dennis' 'Born For Adventure'; disregarding the pretention and the fact that it's by Styx, I was surprised to find a really interesting guitar riff and a few curious and exciting ideas along the way. That section near the end where the song hangs on by its bassline and the harmonies go 'whoah-whoah-whoah-whoah-whoah' with all kinds of echoey effects around them is so unbelievably corny it nears genius. You know how it goes.

Don't care too much for the 'epic' number of the record - 'Suite Madame Blue', an obligatory 'America-criticizing number'. Lyrically, it's probably supposed to be Styx's equivalent of 'Dancing With The Moonlit Knight' (a condemnation of the degenerated modern society), but musically it starts out as a rip-off of 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You' and ends as a slightly moderated take on Sabbath's 'Sweet Leaf'. Eh. Too much bathos and too few originality to make the song adequate, although I give - Styx have far worse offenders in their catalog. But in any case, Equinox is generally very inoffensive, and it has enough insignificant, but existent original ideas and twists to procure some respect from me. Perhaps - perhaps - if you're only gonna buy one Styx album, this should be it. Perhaps. I'm not sure. How can I be sure? This is Styx! They're soooo controversial!



Year Of Release: 1976

Big changes here. Mr Plexiglas Toilet is finally out, Mr Tommy Shaw is finally in, and with this radical lineup change, Styx more or less transforms into what current audiences know them for. Well, that's not to say that there is some kind of huge gap between the Curulewski lineup and the Shaw lineup; the basic style is still the same - disguise more or less simple and straightforward pop songs as prog 'epics' by adding puffed-up lyrics and pompous synthesizer arrangements and push them to the unsuspecting American public as the real stuff. However, Crystal Ball marks a transition to an openly populist style: where there were really some attempts at complexity and originality in the past, there are none here. None at all. Tommy Shaw's songs have nothing to do with 'progressive', and most of them are almost gruesomely inadequate, structured and arranged as 'hymns' when, in fact, they are not any more twisted than your typical nursery rhyme. More or less the same goes for the founding fathers' compositions.

All of this makes Crystal Ball an easily accessible album - and an easily forgettable one, too. It doesn't help that the band is as vitalized and energetic as ever, and manages to really rock out in the best of hard rock traditions on a couple of tracks (and yes, I'm positively sure that Styx could really rock out when they were, ahem, inspired: take a listen to 'Midnight Ride' if you can't believe my oral arguments). Still, no amount of energy can save the poorly written compositions, and the band eventually realised it themselves, as none of the songs bar the title track got preserved in the band's regular stage set. And hey, even the title track isn't that hot. Hey, it's actually quite cold! Hey, it's FREEZING! Hey, it's a goddamn goshdarn POWER BALLAD! And a bad one at that, completely generic and melodyless. With a completely generic 'ecstatic' guitar solo to it. Where are the hooks? Where's the emotional power? Okay, if it's the first power ballad in your life, you might disagree with me on that one. But I've heard hundreds of power ballads, and I don't see why this one should be considered special. There goes the problem of originality, see? It's easier to neglect that criterion when you ain't heard much than when you did hear a lot. And I did hear a lot, even if there's still more to be heard. That's the way my life goes. It sucks in all directions.

Oh, I'm actually ashamed to say that I like one song on the album. It's 'Jennifer'. That's why I'm ashamed - it's so corny I could cry. But dammit, it's the most adequate and the most musically interesting piece on here. And catchy. Good 'da da da' melody in the chorus. Good vocals courtesy of Dennis DeYoung. No, of course the song will never make it into my Top 10 Styx songs (actually, I suppose I'd have to limit that to Top 2 or Top 3 anyway). But it just goes to show the weakness of the album - if a song like 'Jennifer' turns out to be a highlight, what can be said about the others?

Tommy Shaw is responsible for the generic blues rocker 'Shooz' and the generic pop rocker 'Mademoiselle'. Dennis is responsible for the generic medieval ballad 'This Old Man' and the generic prog anthem 'Clair De Lune Ballerina'. The big question is: if they're all responsible, WHY DON'T THEY COMPENSATE ME ALL THE MORAL DAMAGE FOR TAKING IN THIS PILE OF GENERIC CRAP? For all I know, I could be groovin' along to the sounds o' dem merry Mamas & Papas now! Or throw on some acid Grateful Dead jams at the least. Anything but this so-called 'rock music' that's hardly any better than recycled chewing gum. And apart from 'Jennifer', only the group composition 'Put Me On' (lyrics written from the point of view of a music record!) is of any interest, as it incorporates several sections, including a wild rockin' one and a gentle soothin' one.

Basically, Crystal Ball just marks the 'point of no return'. If there ever was any hope about Styx really starting to care about qualified songwriting in the past, it's all gone on here - all style and form, no substance. Kinda like Queen (art-rock distilled and diluted for general consumption and easy listening), except that Queen at least bothered to find interesting melodies and always tried to keep away from sounding routine and generic. These guys just didn't give a damn at this point, as long as they could find some audience. Aw to hell with 'em.



Year Of Release: 1977

The centerpiece of the Styx legend, but whaddaya know? It's not any less crappy than its predecessor. Frankly, I'm even amazed as to why this particular record made the grade and none of its six predecessors did, because there ain't a single thing about this ultimately formulaic piece of product that I haven't encountered before on any given Styx album.

I guess the overall quality of the piece is somewhat overshadowed by the grandiose success of the two singles - 'Miss America' and particularly 'Come Sail Away', which perfectly illustrate respectively the 'harder' and 'softer' sides of Styx. Ironically, they may illustrate it for all they want, but they're hardly within my Top 5 'hard' and 'soft' Styx songs (and yeah, believe me, with a little effort you could make yourself a top 10 for Styx. But don't waste your time anyway). 'Miss America' does rock a bit with a nice guitar solo and all, and I actually sympathize towards the romantic synth solo in the intro, but the main melody of the song relies upon a hardly memorable riff and irritatingly cheeky 'parody' vocals from James Young. I'd take 'Midnight Ride' over his idiotic screams on this track any time of day. As for 'Come Sail Away'... well, all I can say is that the song certainly irritates me less than Kansas' 'Dust In The Wind'. It has better lyrics and at least it has a rollickin' piano melody as opposed to the primitive acoustic guitar strumming of Kansas. But that's about it, I think. The vocal melody is so primitive and so drastically overblown at the same time that my personal thermometer of adequacy has mercury spilling all over the floor. How sarcastic that both of these radio scourges (the Styx and the Kansas one, that is) had to come out in the exact same year... and that exact same year was 1977, the Punk Revolution year. Hah hah.

It's not that the rest of the album is far better - actually, for all I know, 'Miss America' is still the best number on here. It's a concept album, by the way (how did you guess that so quickly?), all seemingly dedicated to a very noble theme, which is to show the vanity and 'illusion' of rich and famous life of a star and extol the 'simpler virtues' of life. And, true enough, the album really holds up as a concept one - most of the tracks pursue that topic, apart from 'The Castle Walls', whose lyrics I can't really get into because they deal with Tiresias. You know you're in trouble when Peter Gabriel writes songs about Tiresias; you know you're in far worse trouble when Dennis DeYoung writes songs about Tiresias. Ah well, never mind.

The music? Same old bollocks from the boys, pompous overblown grotesque synthesizer landscapes clogged with pompous overblown grotesque vocalization from most of the group members. The songs are all deadly serious and solemn; as if this wasn't enough, the album ends with 'Grand Finale' which reprises a couple of themes that weren't that hot to begin with. It's a pity Mr Young didn't participate more in the songwriting - 'Miss America' is, indeed, the only more or less rocking piece on the album. I also have a half of a soft spot for the title track, because it contains a couple guitar solos that manage to sound truly emotional (by accident, I am sure, but let us respect accidents. If there were no accidents, we wouldn't have a fine song by Elvis Costello). Otherwise, it's just depressingly bland melodies that are in no way compatible with all the vocal and lyrical effort put into them.

Of course, it is obvious that Styx were going after a very commercial sound on here. Perhaps some of their past creations could be placed in the 'progressive rock' category, but this album is pure - and very banal - pop carefully disguised as Music For The Thinking Man. Which is why so many people who thought they were 'thinking men' but weren't smart enough to invest in Yes or Procol Harum instead went out and bought this record. In reality, it's just dinky and shallow. I don't barf at the lyrics (which aren't great but at least usually manage to steer away from absolute triteness), and I'm actually not offended at their vocals per se, but seeing as I was hoping to get a few memorable melodies and all I got was 'Miss America' and it wasn't enough, I have no choice but to degrade the album. Sorry for all you Styx fans out there. Oh, and as far as the concept goes, I can actually recommend the Kinks' Everybody's In Show-Biz instead. It ain't Mr Ray Davies' stellar hour, for sure, but it beats the stuffing out of anything Styx ever recorded anyway.



Year Of Release: 1978

Aw, shucks... essentially, this album is just a carbon copy of Grand Illusion, with not a single improvement as far as style, direction, or musical philosophy go. But I actually find the songs on here more tolerable and at times, even enjoyable, than on its big fat predecessor.

If you're not with me on this one, fine by you - I'm not offended. It would be a true lion's job to try and objectively define the differences of all of the Styx albums during this period. Or any other one, for that matter. The guy who reviewed Styx on the Prindle page said that all of their early albums sucked and all of the albums from the mid-Seventies period are great. Wow, he's a well-understanding kind of guy. Not me. Him. I, for one, don't see what makes Pieces Of Eight any more "great" than, say, Styx II. Disregard all these here stars, please - I gave out three stars intuitively, because I'm in a particularly good mood today and Al Green told me to love my neighbour (well, he didn't, but I thought it would be nice on my part to say he did). In a normal state of mind, this would probably be two and a half at max. Then again, who knows?

In any case, all of these ramblings simply disguise the fact that I don't have that much to say about this album. It doesn't have anything like 'Come Sail Away' on it, and for me, that's good news. But it does have the usual dichotomy - it's either a generic "hard rocking" number concentrated on social critique, or the usual synth dominated "progressive" number with joyful schoolboy group harmonies, or both types condensed into one. The hooks, as usual, have all deserted to fall into the hands of better bands, but a few fat lazy ugly ones still remain and can actually be kicked awake on the third or fourth listen or so. Perversely (and I do mean that - it's to my absolute horror and shame that I confess that), the most memorable moment on the album turns out to be a song entitled 'Lords Of The Ring', and I ain't joking. The lyrics are something I have to scratch my head about - it's obvious that the title refers to Tolkien, but why do they present the power of the ring as something good? Did Dennis actually read through or over the pages, if he chose to make the Ring a symbol of hope and high aspirations? Or was that an intentional move to stir up some controversy? Don't answer that, I don't even wanna know. It has a catchy, if stupid, chorus, and I have to acknowledge that. I will even acknowledge that it's a perfect introduction to become acquainted with the trademark Styx sound, as it has everything - wheezy banal synth landscapes, gruff, half-good, half-bad guitar riffs, and harmonies that people could kill for (as in, "I'd rip their throats if only to stop that whining!"). Good song.

Elsewhere, James Young writes 'Great White Hope', another one in his endless series of overdriven rockers, not a particularly bad one, either, although I can't stand Mr Young squealing 'look at me-e-e-e-e-e' in the chorus - sounds like something out of a poorly overdubbed Japanese sci-fi cartoon. Tommy Shaw is da man, here, though, da main man, I mean, contributing most of the 'classics', including 'Blue Collar Man' and 'Renegade'. My favourite song of his on the album, though, is easily 'Sing For The Day', that great anthem of hope and optimism that's twice as tasteful as 'Come Sail Away' and certainly far more intricate in the pure melodic sense. Great shuffling rhythms, nice accompanying flute - is this an attempt to imitate Jethro Tull? No, it's not a true classic, but seeing as "Styx" and "true classics" are about as compatible as a deodorant and a lighter (that is, only once in a lifetime), it's a pretty good tune for such a band.

As for the other two Shawstoppers, 'Blue Collar Man' should certainly appeal to those who are in the unemployment line, but musically, it's just a poorly-written rocker with horrible, overwrought singing and another "catchy" chorus, which stands too close to generic disco for me to praise it. Still, it's not their worst song, either. 'Renegade' continues to demonstrate Mr Shaw's appreciation for the poor and the oppressed, with an amicable accappella section and.. and... and it's a funky number, by Jesus. Can't you hear some 'Trampled Underfoot' influences here? I sure can. So-so number.

Enough. Enough. A couple more songs on here, pretty decent, I suppose, but whatever. I like these guys, mind you. The title track is all about fame getting to a performer's head and how we shouldn't sacrifice our artistic integrity for the chains of commercialism. They're so nice. They care about the aborigenes ('Aku-Aku'), they don't want money, they feel sorry for the unemployed and they respect their fans. So why the heck can't they write a decent album? Maybe they should have started doing some serious drugs at some point... or at least have their family lives blasted all to hell. Stability and political correctness, unfortunately, are rarely connectible with great music. Where's the talent, goddammit? This is a decent album, anyway, so don't flame me, or I'll water you!



Year Of Release: 1979

Ooh, 'First Time' is an awesome song! Beautiful, tear-jerking vocals from Dennis, with a bit of sweet falsetto here and there, gorgeous crescendos and oh baby, THE synthesizer backing! The wonders of hi-tech! Breathtaking repetitive string imitations! And these backing harmonies? 'Don't be afraid of love... don't be afraid of love...'. Really now, who'd want to be afraid of love after hearing them? And the guitar solo? Pure bliss! Ecstatic, bleeding guitar tone, Eric Clapton-worthy licks! Go Tommy go! Show 'em a thing or two! How come the song isn't revered as the most effective, uplifting song about love ever recorded?

Why, because it's a stinkin' piece of hyaena shit, of course (as is the rest of this album, but we'll get back to it in a minute). And you had any doubts about that? It's dedicated "To Paul" of all people, and the Paul, as results from straightforward Dennis interviews, is Paul McCartney in question, which makes lyrics like 'as I reach out and touch your face, the moon lights up our first embrace' somewhat ambiguous to say the least. I always had my doubts about Dennis, to tell you the truth, but this here song turned the doubt into a certainty. The only thing is, when it comes to choosing between Dennis DeYoung and Linda McCartney, even I would have probably chosen the latter.

The album sets a personal record for Styx - there's but one song on the entire album I feel could have been reworked into something vaguely more entertaining and less bland than it is, and it's the one of only two true 'rockers' on the record, 'Eddie', another one of those social-oriented James Young rave-ups like 'Miss America' and stuff. Throw out the annoying synths, add a bit of rawness to the guitar, replace most of the lyrics with la-las, and who knows... you might just have something there. Then again, you might not. Unfortunately, the record's other rocker, 'Borrowed Time', while it actually has sharper guitar lines than 'Eddie', is even less memorable and even more corny. It really gets to me about how these guys find the gall to sing about the basic problems and complexes of their generation, all the while positioning themselves as 'spokesmen', when they don't even wave a little finger to break out of the stale commercial formula they seem to revel in. Yeah, the big bucks are coming in, and as long as they do, we'll sing about the cruelty of the Great Society no prob.

Or else we'll just do more of those saccharine sweety-dippy ballads like 'Babe', worthy of Smokie or Barry Manilow or whoever. Written for his wife, it wasn't intended to be a Styx song originally (good thing - as a one-deal present to your consort, the song might actually work!), but eventually became - oh horror - Styx's first #1 single. Yeah, the good old public really knows how to appreciate a good song. Taken together with 'First Time', it marks the dippiest peak on any album I've ever reviewed since at last those early Eighties Rod Stewart records.

The rest is just your basic average soft-rock, occasionally offensive, occasionally not without isolated musical ideas that, again, could have worked better in better arrangements, but mostly equally dull and generic throughout. The guitars are reduced to an absolute minimum, too - if even the 'harder' rockers rely on synths to such an extent, what can be said about the 'softer' ones? It's just the same generic poisonous tones, which sometimes makes me wonder... synthesizer techniques were SO seriously elaborated by the late Seventies by all kinds of people, from the German wizards to Eno and Bowie, and yet bands like Styx and Kansas were still relying on the patented 'Banksynth' tones (see the Genesis reviews for further reference). Ugh.

I'll say this to justify the extra half-star: some twists of the vocal melody in 'Why Me' are really Beach Boy-esque in nature (for some reason, the song reminds me of a very inferior rewrite of 'Darling'! Can you believe that?), and the chorus to 'Love In The Midnight' is catchy. But I will never ever ever listen to these songs again anyway, at least not until some astute and skilled popmeister extracts these healthy hooks and transplants them into an equally healthy environment. Geez, what a dirty shitty album. The nadir of Seventies' soft-rock cheese, if you axe me. No wonder Paul McCartney released his most heavy-rockin' album that year; he prob'ly wanted to distance himself as far away from that style as possible, what with all this dangerous 'To Paul' stuff and all. Heh.


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