The Grand Illusion
Pieces Of Eight
Paradise Theater
Classics, Volume 15

The Grand Illusion (A&M ’77) Rating: A-
In a bygone era when (vinyl) albums were generally in the 35-45 minute range, Styx were among the kings of arena rock. This is the album on which they entered their late ‘70s prime, both commercially and artistically, and though they’ve often been ridiculed by critics for their optimistic nature and cheery (ok, let's face it, cheesy) harmonies, in my mind these guys were a really good good-time band. Though they’re sometimes undercut by annoying vocals, as on the James Young sung “Miss America” (still very enjoyable and quite hard rocking overall), several of these songs are ‘70s classics, such as Dennis DeYoung's pompous but stirring title track, Tommy Shaw's upbeat anthem of self-empowerment “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” (ironically enough musically dominated by DeYoung's synthesizers), and of course DeYoung's “Come Sail Away,” the definitive Styx song. Bombastic to a fault, corny as hell but curiously uplifting, you’re either on board or you’re not, as Styx are a decidedly love ‘em or hate ‘em proposition. Though the singles here are the highlights, as per usual, the album tracks aren't bad at all, including “Superstars” (credited to Young, DeYoung, Shaw), whose sing along vocals evoke a slightly more rocking ABBA (to me it does, anyway), DeYoung's “Castle Walls,” a dramatic art rock number that works quite well as it rises to a dramatic swell, and Shaw's "Man In the Wilderness," an atmospheric, emotional power ballad (the other song, "The Grand Finale," is something of a short reprise of "The Grand Illusion"). DeYoung's bright, hooky, and admittedly dated sounding synths work with Shaw and Young's melodic guitars on these cuts, while the harmony singing is annoying but in a fun kind of way (it just is, dammit!). Styx will probably never get the respect they deserve ("guilty pleasure" is about as far as most are willing to go), but at their best the band simply makes me feel good, and this is strong a filler-free release.

Pieces Of Eight (A&M ’78) Rating: A-
Though to many Styx sound impossibly dated and unbearably corny (sample lyrics from the too cheesy even for me "I'm OK": “I finally found the person I’ve been searching for, I’m alright, I'm feeling good about myself and that’s for sure”), I still find much to like about this band, "guilty pleasure" or not. Though it's a bit less consistent than the prior album, what with the annoying aforementioned song and a pair of unnecessary (but harmlessly short) instrumentals, this is probably my favorite Styx album, though side two oddly enough is much stronger than side one (usually it's the other way around). The album begins with James Young's "Great White Hope," which has predictably dated synths and Young's annoying vocals going against it but which has a good overall energy and is agreeably hard rocking, ultimately making it an enjoyable opening salvo (p.s. John Panozzo's drums really power this song along). Elsewhere, colorful synths and the band's joyous harmonies dominate Shaw's cheery/cheesy "Sing For The Day," which I enjoy but which certainly isn't for the cynically inclined (who are likely to hate it!), and DeYoung's "Lords of the Ring" is Tolkien inspired lyrically (thereby decreasing their hip factor even further if that's possible!) but which is all about its big epic chorus. Again Panozzo's powerful drums are the driving force, but the band breaks out some big riffs too, making the song enjoyable for me even though it's a bit (ok, a lot!) overblown. Still, side one just the warmup for the four terrific songs that are strewn together on side two. Tommy Shaw's “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” an energetic and inventive rocker with a memorable distorted keyboard riff and motivating working class lyrics, actually became a minor hit, while the Young/DeYoung co-write (sung excellently by DeYoung) “Queen Of Spades” is a theatrical bit of art rock pomposity that’s extremely enjoyable (and which oddly enough recalls the band Queen). The album's best known song, “Renegade,” also written and sung by Shaw, then provides a hard rocking story-song about someone facing the hangman’s rope, proving that not all the band's songs trumpeted unbridled cheer. Ending the stellar four song sequence, DeYoung’s emotional vocals then enhance the title track ballad, which swells to yet another big harmonized chorus (the best on the album; it also features a ripping guitar solo, as had "Queen Of Spades," plus I just love DeYoung’s vocals on the “spread your wings and flyyyyyyy” line). Anyway, the band has their kitschy faults, mostly with the synths and vocals, but the bottom line is that Styx had two talented singer-songwriters in DeYoung and Shaw (and Young had his moments as well), plus even their detractors should admit that the band was comprised of solid musicians (John's brother Chuck rounded out the lineup on bass). So, much like Journey, another band who I have a soft spot for that most critics loathe, Styx can be quite enjoyable if the listener is aware of their limitations.

Paradise Theater (A&M ’81) Rating: B+
After a subpar outing, Cornerstone (best known for DeYoung's sappy #1 hit ballad "Babe"), our overly earnest gang are back again with an at times cynical look at the Reagan era. A loose concept album (very loose; most of the songs merely have the word “paradise” in them, and the same melody is repeated on three songs, two of which are merely an intro and an outro, plus some of the lyrics metaphorically allude to an old theater and its decline over a 30 year period), the superb first side contains some of the best stuff the band ever did. Unfortunately, the second half is pretty weak save for “Snowblind” (an intense, dramatic, atmospheric gem of an album track), though some solid guitar work somewhat redeems the lesser songs that are otherwise drenched in too much cheese. But the rollicking “Rockin’ The Paradise,” the jittery (new wave-y) “Too Much Time On My Hands” (Shaw's lone major contribution to the album), the supremely underrated “Nothing Ever Goes As Planned,” and the made for prom night power ballad “The Best Of Times” all show Styx at their very best and are extremely catchy. I could go into more details about each song (Young's "Half-Penny, Two-Penny" is also solid and plenty hard rocking even if it could be hookier), but the main point is that this is a very hit-and-miss album for me; when it hits (side one and "Snowblind") I thoroughly enjoy it despite its cheesiness; heck, sometimes I love it because of its cheesiness, like those "what'cha doin'" chants on "Rockin' The Paradide" or the "working, working..." chants on "Nothing Ever Goes As Planned." Anyway, along with REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity this #1 hit album will always evoke the summer of my youth (1981, to be exact), though it clearly runs out of gas - a harbinger of the lesser things to come (i.e. 1983's awful robot obsessed fiasco Kilroy Was Here which essentially ruined the band, or at least the Dennis DeYoung led version of the band).

Classics, Volume 15 (A&M ’87) Rating: A-
Styx are NOT one of the best bands of all time, as I once thought (hey, I was 12 years old!). They’re not nearly as bad as cranky critics would have you believe, either; Adam Sandler had a point in Big Daddy when he said the only reason Styx got a bad rep is that most critics are cynical a-holes! Since Styx are overly dramatic, corny, and pretentious (not to mention optimistic) – everything that critics hate to see in their rock bands, basically - it’s not surprising that Styx is a dirty word in those circles. This despite the fact that they wrote some great songs, were fine musicians, and had two interesting singers in the operatic Dennis DeYoung and the high-pitched Tommy Shaw (I'm not really a fan of James Young's vocals but he contributed some good songs and vocal performances as well). This compilation is exclusive to the band's A&M years (thus the band's biggest pre-A&M song, "Lady," is excluded), starting with 1975's Equinox (from which the celebratory sing along "Light Up" and the truly excellent epic "Suite Madame Blue" were plucked) and Crystal Ball (the stellar title track), the album on which Tommy Shaw joined the band and they moved away from prog-rock to a more straightforward hard rock sound. Classics, Volume 15 also includes most of the obvious high points from The Grand Illusion (the title track, “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” "Come Sail Away"), Pieces Of Eight (“Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” "Renegade"), Cornerstone ("Babe"), Paradise Theater ("Too Much Time On My Hands," "The Best Of Times" - "Rockin' The Paradise" is probably this album's biggest omission), and Kilroy Was Here (the ultimate "so bad it's good guilty pleasure" in "Mr. Roboto" and the tender ballad "Don't Let It End"). A live romp through "Miss America" is also included from Caught In The Act (raise your hand if you always say "we had dreams" after the "and the dreams we had" line every time you hear "Come Sail Away" - consider me guilty as charged), and the album is sequenced non-chronologically in an appealing manner. There are some great album tracks that are missing, like "Queen Of Spades," "Pieces Of Eight," "Nothing Ever Goes As Planned," and "Snowblind," but this is still a solid hits collection that provides plenty of feel good fun, even if it fairly reeks of a bygone era. Note: Greatest Hits supplanted the deleted Classics, Volume 15 in 1995 and features most of the same songs, while Come Sail Away – The Styx Anthology is a more comprehensive 2-cd survey that encompasses the band's entire career.

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