Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Styx Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Styx (1972, Wooden Nickel/RCA)                                                                  

D +    

Years before Styx finally started scoring hit singles, the band issued four largely-ignored albums on the obscure Wooden Nickel label. Though they were reissued by RCA many years later under different album titles and with completely different artwork, the original vinyl pressings of these albums are notoriously difficult to find today, none more so than their self-titled debut. The first Styx album is wildly different from all the others that followed for two major reasons: guitarist James Young helms lead vocals on the majority of the tracks, and four of the six tracks are actually covers allegedly forced on them by their record label (including, bizarrely enough, a cover of a song by P-Funk bandleader George Clinton.)  Unfortunately, none of those covers are good pieces of songwriting, and they don’t particularly fit the band, either, the result being that Styx sound less like here like the band you know and more like the Guess Who, especially on the ballad “Right Away.” The two best tracks are both originals, the very good Dennis DeYoung-sung “Best Thing” and the ambitious thirteen-minute four-part epic “Movement for the Common Man” (which includes the decent songs “Children of the Land” and “Mother Nature’s Matinee” but is undone by a series of man-on-the-street interviews pretentiously inserted into the middle of the track by producer John Ryan.)  The album as a whole ends up sounding like the product of a band that simply gave up too much creative control to its label and producer, though the band’s musical chops are certainly obvious and they do show potential here as songwriters.

Styx II (1973, Wooden Nickel/RCA)                                                              

B + 

A radical improvement on the debut, the band’s sophomore outing finds them taking more creative control over their sound, penning seven of the eight tracks. The album would bomb upon its initial release, but three years later, its power ballad “Lady” would suddenly find new life on radio and become the group’s first Top Forty single (and a Top Ten hit, at that!)  The album is centered on two fine prog-rock excursions, the meditative John Curulewski-penned “A Day” and Dennis DeYoung’s “Father O.S.A.” This is the only Styx album to not feature any cuts written or co-written by James Young, but he does helm lead vocals on the excellent DeYoung-penned opener “You Need Love” and the jubilant closer “I’m Gonna Make You Feel It.” Curulewski’s “You Better Ask” might be quite hooky, but its lyrics really push the boundaries of good taste, and the song’s inclusion here ends up hurting the album. Beyond that, however, this is a really solid set of songs and easily the best of the band’s four albums for Wooden Nickel.  

The Serpent Is Rising (1973, Wooden Nickel/RCA)                                      

C –  

Dennis DeYoung himself has described this album as one of the worst albums ever made, but, while this is not one of Styx’s finer moments as a band, it’s not actually their worst studio album. (That dubious distinction belongs to their self-titled debut.)  It is, however, one of the creepiest and most bizarre albums ever made, right down to the grotesque and ominous album cover. Even at its worst moments, Serpent is never anything less than fascinating, though, and it’s certainly one of the band’s most interesting albums, even if the set of songs isn’t all that great. While some of the songs are slightly pretentious (especially “The Grove of Eglantine” and “Jonas Psalter,” a song about pirates, hilariously enough), the album’s true undoing is that nearly all of Curulewski’s songs here are either too dark or too strange to be pleasant listens. “As Bad As This” is a bleak and haunting ballad about depression that inexplicably ends with an uncredited two-and-a-half-minute calypso song about proper toilet etiquette. (I swear I’m not making this up. It must be heard to be believed.)  Curulewski’s title track is every bit as unsettling, though not half as terrifying as “Krakatoa,” which features his heavily echoed voice screaming maniacally against a backdrop of synthesizer gurgles until his shrieking segues directly into a chorus of “hallelujahs” taken straight out of Handel’s “Messiah.” It’s an even creeper ending to an album than the apocalyptic final section of “Karn Evil 9” from Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery. James Young’s hard-rocking “Young Man” and “Witch Wolf” are both decent, though, and DeYoung provides the best and catchiest song in the lot – and a much-needed moment of levity – with “Winner Take All,” his best uptempo composition for the band to date.  So there is about half a good album here – it’s just that the rest of the album is so bad and so creepy that it’s hard to listen to in full. If you skip “As Bad as This” and everything after “22 Years,” it’s actually a semi-decent listen.

Man of Miracles (1974, Wooden Nickel)                                           

C +  

Second only to Styx II as the most consistent of the four Wooden Nickel albums, the band has thankfully dispensed with the ominous atmosphere and strange experiments of The Serpent Is Rising and is back on much more easygoing and pop-friendly territory here. It’s still a slightly strange album, if only for the reason that it went through three equally inexplicable incarnations: the album’s original pressing includes a first-rate punchy cover of the Knickerbockers’ ‘60s classic “Lies,” but the album was quickly pulled and “Lies” replaced with the cut “Best Thing,” which had already appeared in identical form on their self-titled debut album, while a second reissue (with new artwork and the shortened album title Miracles) replaced “Best Thing”  with the piano ballad “Unfinished Song.” It’s the original version with “Lies” you want to buy if you can find it. Like the debut album, the band still has the tendency here to occasionally sound like the Guess Who (especially on the James Young-sung numbers), but the songs are generally catchier and better than those on the debut (though “Southern Woman” is truly embarrassing and ends up sounding like a Deep Purple parody.) Highlights include the album-opening rockers “Rock & Roll Feeling,” DeYoung’s lovely ballad “Golden Lark,” and the power ballad “Christopher, Mr. Christopher.”

Equinox (1975, A&M)                                                                       

A –

The band’s first outing for A&M and its last album with Curulewski, Equinox is easily superior to any of the band’s four albums for Wooden Nickel. The band sounds more confident here, and its songwriting has shown remarkable growth as well. “Lonely Child” is DeYoung’s prettiest ballad since “Lady,” while his “Suite Madame Blue” (set up perfectly by Curulewski’s breathtaking acoustic instrumental “Prelude 12”) easily stands as the band’s most successful attempt yet at a prog-rock-style epic. “Mother Dear” is surprisingly the first co-write between DeYoung and Curulewski (who also share lead vocals on the cut as well), and it’s quite a catchy one. The album’s two opening cuts are the biggest knockouts of all. The soulful “Light Up” percolates like nothing else in the Styx catalog, to the extent that the song’s near-acapella breakdown arrives atop a bed of congas. Even better is the Top 40 hit “Lorelei,” which begins with only a bubbly synthesizer riff for accompaniment and keeps adding instruments one by one, the track gradually building into one of the hardest-rocking tracks in the Styx catalog, highlighted by the astounding drum work of John Panozzo and the most impressive wall of harmonies to grace a Styx record yet.

Crystal Ball (1976, A&M)                                                                  

B +

Only ever so slightly inferior to its predecessor, Crystal Ball marks Tommy Shaw’s debut with the band, having taken over for John Curulewski, who left the band just prior to the promotional tour for Equinox. Shaw makes a fantastic first impression, writing or co-writing all but two of the album’s seven tracks, including the gorgeous title track, which remains the finest ballad Shaw ever wrote for the group. Shaw also takes lead vocals on the album’s sole Top 40 hit, the DeYoung/Shaw co-write “Mademoiselle” and dazzles the listener immediately with both his vocal range and his emotive singing. (Even his ad-libs during the song’s vamp-out are bursting with joy and personality.)  The bluesy rocker “Shooz” also highlights Shaw’s vocal talents to great effect, while the fun album opener “Put Me On” finds the band writing from the point of view of a vinyl record and ends with a charming bit of studio trickery. The album’s sole flaw is that DeYoung’s own contributions aren’t up to his usual standard – “Jennifer” is a bit silly, while “This Old Man” is just simply dull – though he makes up for it with the melodic grandeur of the lovely album closer “Ballerina.”

The Grand Illusion (1977, A&M)                                                      

A + 

Arguably the most cohesive album the band ever made, this album is the one that finally turned the band into one of the biggest bands in America in the ‘70s. Shaw takes a slightly less prominent role on here than he did on Crystal Ball, but his songs here are just as good as his contributions last time out, especially the glorious “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” which opens with a stunningly beautiful extended instrumental passage in which Shaw’s acoustic guitar and DeYoung’s synthesizers play off each other to marvelous effect. The snarling guitar riffs powering James Young’s “Miss America” would make that song his best known composition for the group. What makes Illusion so superior to its predecessor, however, is that DeYoung’s songwriting is stronger this time around, and he delivers two iconic tracks in the theatrical rock of the concept album’s title track and, even better, the tour de force “Come Sail Away,” which begins as a simple but stunningly beautiful piano ballad but switches gears midway and becomes a guitar-powered arena-rock song sporting an atmospheric careening synthesizer solo that sets up the song’s final verse just perfectly. The song arguably remains the band’s masterpiece and one of the definitive classic-rock songs of the late ‘70s. 

Pieces of Eight (1978, A&M)                                                 

A –

A little less consistent than its predecessor, this disc suffers slightly from some obvious filler, namely the Queen-like pomp of “Lord of the Rings,” Shaw’s instrumental “Aku-Aku,” and the creepy synthesizer instrumental “The Message.” The rest of the album is pretty great, however. DeYoung doesn’t have anything here that quite reaches the heights of “Come Sail Away,” but his “I’m OK” is great fun, “Pieces of Eight” is a stunningly pretty ballad, and “Queen of Spades” features him and James Young trading off sections to great effect. The MVP of the album, though, is definitely Tommy Shaw, who penned all three of the album’s charting singles. The lovely and majestic mandolin-driven “Sing for the Day” is the album’s sunniest moment, while the organ-powered rocker “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” works up a serious sweat, largely thanks to John Panozzo, whose drumming has never sounded more impassioned than it does here. Even better is Shaw’s “Renegade,” an ominous rocker that’s cleverly completely acapella for its first forty seconds and features what may very well be the greatest instrumental break of any Styx record, the song coming to a completely dead stop before James Young kicks in with his greatest guitar solo to date before the rest of the band jumps back in to jam with him, John Panozzo’s drums swinging all the while before the song nearly goes back to acapella mode momentarily, with only John Panozzo’s swooping tom hits added to the mix to powerful results, the band never sounding better playing together than it does here.