[One of the most polarizing features of jefitoblog, I think, is my tendency to give more-or-less equal time to music I hate. Lotsa music blogs are proselytizers for certain artists, or genres, or what have you; though I do my own fair amount of “you gotta buy this” reviews, I’m equally fascinated by music that I (and others) don’t like. Some people appreciate this feature of the blog. Others are confused or, quite often, angered by it.

To that end, here’s this week’s Idiot’s Guide, which was thoughtfully guest-blogged by reader David Eastman. I wish I could point you to a blog where you could read more of his wit and wisdom, but alas, there ain’t one. Perhaps this bit of modest public exposure will provide him with the motivation — he gives good Guide, and I’m saying that as an ardent Styx non-admirer. Enjoy! –j]

Any honest appraisal of Styx must begin with the following truth: Once upon a time, these guys were huge. Wildly huge. Mammothly huge. Styx were the Bon Jovi of their heyday; or, if you prefer, the Matchbox 20.

I realize I’m digging myself a hole.

Of course, I’m also selling Styx short. After all, this was the first band to notch up four consecutive triple-platinum albums. And this in the days before MTV and rigid radio playlists made that kind of success, while hardly inevitable, a bit more accessible. The mega-sales also came as arena rock was under siege by disco, punk and every critic this side of the Fertile Crescent.

The point being that, in the face of all this, critically reviled Styx must have done something right, or else they never would have gotten so terribly…huge. More people loved them than hated them, and while that’s hardly the bar most fans or reviewers set for success, it never seems to bother us when applied to the Stones or Beatles. With that in mind, let’s start by saying that, at the very least, Styx deserves a little respect. If nothing else, they deserve an Idiot’s Guide.

Granted, it doesn’t start pretty:

Styx (1972)

Styx II (1973)

The Serpent is Rising (1974)

Man of Miracles (1974)
While latter-day Styx would be flagellated for cranking out by-the-numbers corporate rock, the same could not be said for early Styx. No, this band was too busy cranking out by-the-numbers progressive rock. Thirteen-minute song cycles, covers of Copland and Bach, album art featuring wizards and lyrical odes to witch wolves…it all seems rather inevitable, and sometimes maddeningly forced. Pop tunes like “You Need Love” (download), CSNY blues like “Best Thing” (download) and dirty boogie like “Southern Woman” (download) — all were essentially dressed up in proggy Brit trappings and made to cohere, a trick that might have earned them attention and fans but not radio play. “Lady,” the sole exception, didn’t hit big until two years after its release — and by then the band was already shifting from artsy pretension to mainstream ambition. The success of “Lady,” a half-ballad, half-march played with what passed for restraint in Styx, only affirmed the band’s change in direction.

If early Styx could claim any sound as their own, it would have to be the grandiose harmonies of Dennis DeYoung [keyboards/vocals], James “JY” Young [guitars/vocals] and John Curlewski [guitars/vocals], paired with the first two singers’ just-as-overdramatic lead vocals. Because of this bombast — and DeYoung’s busy playing — the band often sounded like early Queen covering ELP. Or, just as frequently, the collision of Head East and Yes.

What? Progressive southern classical blues-rock? Sounds like bad stew — or a recipe for change.

[Editor’s Note: The above albums seem to be mostly either out of print or intermittently reissued via budget twofers and the like…my limited research indicates you’d be best off purchasing The Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings (or downloading it here) — j]

Equinox (1975)
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Earlier hints of the band’s mainstream promise edged to the fore on Equinox, as Styx began to leaven their sound with simpler structures and studio polish. As a result, a handful of tighter songs were allowed to stay that way, and while the band didn’t completely abandon overwrought musical excess, it did begin to give more pause to the thought of commercial success. “Lorelei” (download) was the almost-hit, “Suite Madame Blue” (download) the anthem, and Curlewski the requisite martyr — unhappy with the band’s direction, he quit before the tour, paving the way for newcomer Tommy Shaw. Big things were to follow. Huge things.

Crystal Ball (1976)
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Crystal Ball

Styx had two criteria for Curlewski’s tour replacement: A) Must Play Guitar and B) Must Sing High Parts. Tommy Shaw delivered on both and then some: He not only filled Curlewski’s shoes, he helped complete the band’s evolving sound — arguably, by pulling it back down to earth. The title track (download) to Styx’s sixth release was a Shaw composition from years prior; a simple acoustic number with spine enough not to collapse under DeYoung’s Wagnerian harmonies and showy keyboards. This marriage of styles proved the final step in Styx’s quest for success — a simpler, more straightforward core to temper artistic flamboyance. For a while, everyone was happy. JY got to rock, DeYoung got to art-rock (”Ballerina”) (download), and Shaw landed smack in the middle of a band with growing buzz — just not so much that they’d close the door to his obvious contributions.

The Grand Illusion (1977)
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The Grand Illusion

If Crystal Ball was a marriage of styles, this album was the honeymoon. DeYoung and Shaw had quickly learned how best to play off each other, and here each wisely made room for his partner’s songs and voice. “Fooling Yourself,” Shaw’s big hit, was another solo-acoustic-meets-urgent-vocals number, given the requisite bombast with DeYoung’s strident organs and thick harmonies. “Come Sail Away,” a sing-along favorite about angels and aliens, was a “Lady”-like ballad from DeYoung with a hooky Shaw-penned chorus, a huge anthemic finale and synthesizers spacey enough to make Carl Sagan weep.

Middle-era Styx had perfected its sound — organ doubles the rhythm guitar, everyone sings the chorus, busy keyboards fill in any holes the guitarists don’t. Other tracks didn’t veer from this formula: “Man in the Wilderness” (download) was a darker “Crystal Ball” retread, while the title track (download) still stands today as DeYoung at his creative peak. Militant opening, vocal flair, Broadway tune verses and a harmonized chorus…it’s a snapshot of the album as a whole, an album everyone that year was buying.

(Everyone but the critics, that is. And I can’t say I blame them. Critics like fresh things, new things. And wedged between a Kansas song and a Foreigner song, a Styx song could sound uncomfortably like the second of three long verses).

Pieces of Eight (1978)
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Pieces of Eight

If there was ever any tension between DeYoung and Shaw — and by now, even my mother knows there was — this collection probably kicked it off. While every bit as mildly progressive around the edges (”Lords of the Ring”) (download) as the last two LPs, there’s no denying that Pieces of Eight rocks harder and far more straightforward. And more than any album prior or since, it belongs to Shaw. “Renegade” and “Blue Collar Man” were back-to-back AOR hits, the kind of guitar rock that drives teen boys to arenas in fist-pumping hordes. The Stygian formula hadn’t evolved, but it did grow muscles and chest hair. DeYoung gamely played along — he’d tread this ground before in early Styx, with more notes and less distortion — but one wonders if he’d lost a vote or missed a meeting somewhere. There was something a little too “same” about his songs on this go-round, and they suffered by comparison. Did fans really yearn for another brooding semi-ballad like the title track? (download) Did Dennis suddenly feel pushed aside in the band he’d led? Do you think he’d answer the Call To Rock, or hunker down and write the ultimate ballad?

Cornerstone (1979)
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DeYoung responded to Pieces of Eight with a monster — a pretty, lone-electric-piano, ode-to-my-lovely-wife monster, the likes of which brought Tommy and JY’s rock juggernaut to a standstill. “Babe” may have been the logical end to a path started down with “Lady,” but nobody — not the band, not the fans — saw this syrup coming. Dennis shucked the anthemic ending, the multiple keyboards and fantasy lyrics, and simply let this ballad be just that. Did it ever work. “Babe” hit #1 and rightly eclipsed the rest of the album, doubling the band’s fan base by adding a group known as “teenage girls.”

Elsewhere, “Boat on the River” (download) saw Tommy doing what Tommy did best, and the bouncy “Lights” (download) stuck to the tried & true Stygian formula ‘though softened and slicked up per current production trends), but nobody much seemed to care. Dennis had reestablished himself as alpha wolf.

Granted, the others did most of the howling.

Paradise Theater (1981)
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Can a well-loved band survive with two strong leaders of opposite vision? The answer, of course, is “yes” — up to a point. That point will hereafter be known to all as “Babe.”

For all the grief fans of early Styx gave Shaw for mainstreaming things, it was the success of DeYoung’s big ballad that hammered that coffin shut. Dennis now had license — rightly earned — to try things his way. You couldn’t argue with the results: “The Best of Times” was another massive hit, smacked right down the middle of the FM ballad fairway. By now the only remnants of Styx’s sound, beyond the vocalists, were men’s choir choruses and let’s-all-march drumming. Still want your art fix? Look to the lyrics — Dennis had dropped progressive arrangements in favor of Album Concepts (see “A.D. 1928″) (download).

Surprisingly, this didn’t sound a death knell. Paradise Theater was Styx’s biggest seller, and now it was Shaw’s turn to bite his lip and play. The guitarist turned in just two songs for this effort, though to his credit one of them — the disco-informed “Too Much Time On My Hands” — did become the album’s second hit. Overall, Paradise Theater did rock more than Cornerstone, though that’s as much to JY’s credit as anyone’s. “Snowblind” (download) was his finest contribution to the Styx canon yet…not that it mattered much. Styx had become DeYoung vs. Shaw, an arrangement that just couldn’t last — and didn’t. Somewhere in all this, DeYoung really did lose a vote and was kicked from the group. It only lasted a week or so, but the writing was on the wall.

In graffiti.

It read “Kilroy Was Here.”

Kilroy Was Here (1983)
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Kilroy Was Here

Caught In The Act (1984)
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Caught in the Act

So, see, it’s the future, and rock & roll is officially Under Siege (from concept albums, no doubt), and Japanese robots do menial labor, and Dennis DeYoung is in prison for singing, and Tommy Shaw likes bandanas, and somebody bought a vocoder, and…well, I could go on, but why bother? Even Styx didn’t. You’ve heard the hits, you’ve been Behind The Music, you know the story: goofy concept, on-stage dialogue, cheesy synths and split fan base. Big sales, too — “Mr. Roboto” and “Don’t Let It End” both cracked the top ten and earned massive airplay, the latter another pleasant ballad along the lines of “Babe.” But the guys with guitars just wanted to rock, which is hard to do when you’re getting booed offstage. So after the tour the band “went on hiatus.” In much the same way Skylab “went on hiatus.”

Last gasps worth hearing: Shaw’s Asian-influenced “Just Get Through This Night” (download), plus “Music Time” (download) from the live set Caught in the Act. The latter because, if you listen closely, you can hear a million rock fans’ teeth gnashing.

Edge of the Century (1990)
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What ho, a new Styx album? But how could this be? Didn’t the bandleaders hate each other? Why, yes, yes they did! So instead of reforming, they brought in a ringer, forgoing Shaw for guitarist Glen Burtnik. Who donated songs from his back catalog ‘”Love Is The Ritual”) (download) to complete the band’s transformation into Journey. Or, if you like, Winger.

Granted, Shaw wasn’t faring much better. After several solo releases where he battled his own pop demons (”Girls With Guns,” anyone?), he founded Damn Yankees with Jack Blades of Night Ranger to become…Night Ranger-er. JY, meanwhile, had paired with Jan Hammer — he of Miami Vice fame — for a solo disc of his own. No, you’ve never heard it. No, you never will.

All in all, this release in forgettable. The band had long ago earned fans and contempt for being “corporate,” critical shorthand for finding a popular blueprint and selling it hard (think McDonald’s). But at least, back in the day, Styx helped invent arena rock. On Edge of the Century, the band sounded like they were playing some serious catch-up.

Note: This album did contain DeYoung’s last big hit, “Show Me The Way.” Maybe you remember it from the Gulf War I soundtrack.

Return To Paradise (1997)
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Return to Paradise

In 1995-96, A&M released two new greatest hits packages. Wooden Nickel refused to release the master to Styx II’s “Lady,” so the band regrouped to re-record and recoup that potential profit. The magic was there — and the solo gigs weren’t — so they all agreed to hit the road in support of the two new discs. This set chronicles that tour, and features new drummer Todd Sucherman. It’s pretty good, as live albums go. It does boast a handful of new songs, to add to another handful that debuted on Greatest Hits II. None will likely find their way to Greatest Hits III.

Brave New World (1999)
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Brave New World

In the face of massive tour success, the band reached one conclusion: Sweet madame blue, America wants more Styx! And so the guys delivered the goods. Literally. Much of this hodge-podge was assembled in separate studios, with UPS currying tapes back and forth between DeYoung and the others. The distance between camps is literal, metaphorical, and painfully obvious. Young and Shaw rock, DeYoung balladeers, and nothing much here sounds like Styx — except for the bridge at the 2:20 mark of “Everything Is Cool” (download), which almost recaptures the heyday of ‘77.

Otherwise, mixed bag. The slinky “I Will Be Your Witness” (download) is a decent Shaw/Blades leftover, but Dennis’ “High Crimes & Misdemeanors (Hip Hop-cracy)” is just plain awful.

Cyclorama (2003)
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Another year, another break-up, and yet another album. Frankly, I’m tired, and this write-up is running long. Still, I’ll hang in long enough to praise this surprising release.

Styx, by now, is not what Styx once was. DeYoung refused to tour after Brave New World, the band refused to wait, suits were filed, doors were shown, and finally life went on. Shaw now shares the helm with Young, Lawrence Gowan has replaced DeYoung, Sucherman still sits behind the drums and Glen Burtnik is back (on bass, this time replacing Chuck Panozzo). Oddly enough some elements of prog are back as well, albeit in a much more contemporary form. The band sounds fuller and far more cohesive than it did on Brave New World, and even throws a few new punches with surprising success — check out “Killing the Thing You Love” (download). Gowan proves an able (or hated, depending on who you ask) replacement, and Sucherman’s drumming alone is worth the investment.

The band will never be huge again, but there is enough left here to love: Close your eyes and “More Love for the Money” (download) could pass for classic Styx, as could “Waiting for Our Time” (download). That is, unless you demand DeYoung, in which case you get…Les Mis. In any case, “new” Styx remains active, touring nonstop and churning out live (Arch Allies), compilation (Rockers) and cover (Big Bang Theory) CDs like they were paid to do so.

Though one gets the greater impression it’s because they’re again having fun.

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About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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