progressive rock

REVIEW: Cybernauts – Live (2001)

Part Twenty-Six of the Def Leppard Review Series

CYBERNAUTS – Live (2001 Arachnophobia Records)

While fans awaited the return of Def Leppard with another new album to follow 1999’s Euphoria, Joe Elliott and Phil Collen released some recordings from their Cybernauts side-project, a fun David Bowie cover band.

But not just any cover band.

Cybernauts were formed as a tribute to the late Mick Ronson, featuring Spiders from Mars members Trevor Bolder, Mick Woodmansey, and Dick Decent.  The liner notes are a little bit contradictory when it comes to specific recordings.  One page in the booklet says the disc was recorded at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, August 7 1997.  On another page, Joe Elliott states that the album was “pulled together” from a five gig mini-tour.  Dublin was the final date on that tour.  18 tracks, and almost 80 minutes of music comprise this live disc.

Without any preamble, we jump right into the rock and roll of “Watch that Man” from Aladdin Sane.  Cybernauts are naturally a little more heavy handed but Leppard fans will love it.  Things get punky with “Hang Onto Yourself”, full speed ahead, with Phil Collen whipping up some guitar magic to salute Ronson, while the original guys bang it out with bedevilling youthful energy.  Massive hit “Changes” comes next, a little chunkier than the version you’re used to but still brilliant.  Joe’s lead vocal has the Leppard sound, the Spiders’ backing vocals sound like Bowie.  It’s a mash-up of two bands.

Acoustic guitars come out for “The Supermen”, but then Phil kicks in with the distortion.  So far, an album highlight though purists might baulk at the heavier rock approach.  It’s followed by an emphatic “Five Years”, with Joe doing an excellent job of the complex vocals.  Bouncing from album to album, they do “Cracked Actor” next, a nice boogie.  The familiar “Moonage Daydream” is welcome, and the keyboards recreate the lush backdrop authentically.  Another album highlight with exceptional lead work by Phil.

A Mick Ronson solo cut called “Angel No. 9” from his second album Play Don’t Worry is rolled out next, with a wickedly tasty guitar lick.  A brilliant selection, the backing vocals by the Spiders are quite sweet.  “Jean Genie” is so familiar is almost skippable, but they pretty much had to play it — can’t blame them.

It’s pretty much non-stop classics from there on it.  “Life on Mars” featuring Dick Decent on piano has a more delicate touch and they do a fine job of it.  “The Man Who Sold the World” works well with the keyboards providing the backbone and Phil Collen doing his best Ronson.  “Starman” is great fun; Joe is clearly enjoying himself.

“The Width of a Circle” is the long bomber, clocking in at almost 10 minutes.  Progressive, guitar heavy and epic.  After that exercise, “Ziggy Stardust” is rolled out, and always welcome.  That guitar riff, the familiar melodies, they never tire.  Of course, Leppard covered it a couple times but not as convincingly as this.

The Velvet Underground’s “White Light, White Heat”, which also appeared on Ronson’s second album, is a party.  Backing vocals on this are awesome.  Joe teases a “goodnight” at this point, but the tracklist on the back reveals three encores.

“Rock and Roll Suicide”, “Suffragette City” and Mott’s “All the Young Dudes” are a pretty good three-for-three.  Encores that start slowly and laid back like “Rock and Roll Suicide” does are often like a mini-set unto themselves.  “Suffragette City” blasts forth with punky energy and then “All the Young Dudes” is the anthem to end the party.

But that’s not it for the Cybernauts.  In 2001 they did a Japanese tour, recorded some stuff in the studio, and released it.  We’ll talk about that next time!

4/5 stars

Previous:  

  1. The Early Years Disc One – On Through the Night 
  2. The Early Years Disc Two – High N’ Dry
  3. The Early Years Disc Three – When The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Live at the New Theater Oxford – 1980
  4. The Early Years Disc Four – Too Many Jitterbugs – EP, singles & unreleased
  5. The Early Years Disc 5 – Raw – Early BBC Recordings 
  6. The Early Years 79-81 (Summary)
  7. Pyromania
  8. Pyromania Live – L.A. Forum, 11 September 1983
  9. Hysteria
  10. Soundtrack From the Video Historia – Record Store Tales
  11. In The Round In Your Face DVD
  12. “Let’s Get Rocked” – The Wait for Adrenalize – Record Store Tales
  13. Adrenalize
  14. Live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
  15. Retro-Active
  16. Visualize
  17. Vault: Def Leppard’s Greatest Hits / Limited Edition Live CD
  18. Video Archive
  19. “Slang” CD single
  20. Slang
  21. I Got A Bad Feeling About This: Euphoria – Record Store Tales
  22. Euphoria
  23. Rarities 2
  24. Rarities 3
  25. Rarities 4

Next:

27. Cybernauts – The Further Adventures of the Cybernauts

REVIEW: Styx – The Same Stardust (2021 RSD EP)

STYX – The Same Stardust (2021 RSD EP)

Anecdote:  I wasn’t able to get this Styx EP with seven exclusive tracks on Record Store Day, so I knew I would have to pay the “late tax”.  I was surprised that pretty much every copy for sale on Discogs was coming from Russia.  Given the current situation I didn’t want to risk having a record coming in from Russia.  I found one from somewhere else (Estonia perhaps) and bit the bullet and ordered.  Two days later I got an email saying, “We are relocating to Russia!  We will mail your record from there!”  I almost asked to cancel but decided to be patient, and it has finally arrived.  In perfect shape.  Whew.

To accompany their excellent new album Crash of the Crown, Styx released an EP with two exclusive studio bonus tracks, and five live.  Not bad value for an EP when all of them are previously unreleased.  The record is on beautiful, heavy transparent blue vinyl, is low on surface noise, and just sounds wonderful!

The title track “The Same Stardust” opens, and it’s a theme we often hear in science:  we are all, every one of us, made of the same matter from a star that exploded billions of years ago.  It’s a unifying theme, but not a wimpy song.  A crescendo of drums leads us to an upbeat rocker with lead vocals by Lawrence Gowan.  There’s a great little riff after the chorus, and Gowan’s lead vocal recalls the Beatles.  “Walk away from hate!” he sings, reflecting the sentiments of the Fab Four.  Tommy Shaw sings the powerful bridge and then rips into a melodically cool solo.  Easily of album, or single quality.

The second exclusive studio song is called “Age of Entropia” and it is best described as progressive like Styx of old.  Tommy sings this number with a gentle acoustic opening.  It builds into a more robust construction in time, really sounding like only one band:  Styx.  Good song but less instant.

Side two contains the live material, and the side opener is a track as desirable as the unreleased studio songs, if not more: a new live version of “Mr. Roboto” from 2020!  This often shunned hit has finally been recorded again in a live setting, now with Gowan on vocals.  It’s been tuned down a bit, but it still thrills.  As soon you hear that trademark keyboard opening, you can’t help but smile.  Especially knowing how rarely it gets played live.  We all miss Dennis DeYoung but it is clear that Tommy Shaw doesn’t really want to hear about him.  Gowan does an admirable job, as do all the Styx vocalists, as there is a lot going on.  He even adds some of his own flare.  There’s a slightly harder edge on this “Mr. Roboto” and that’s just fine.

Another treat, at least to those in the know, is “Radio Silence” from the excellent album The Mission.  One of the best tunes from that sci-fi concept album indeed, and the first live release of any song from it.  So that’s special, even if Crash of the Crown may very well have topped The Mission.  That’s subjective…but possible.

Classics follow, dominated by Tommy Shaw tuneage.  “Man in the Wilderness” has the same vibe as the newer material, cut from the same cloth.  The heavy solo section is jaw-droppingly cool with wicked wah-wah effects.  James Young gets the spotlight on his heavy hitting “Miss America”.  Always a welcome listen, his unique vocal stylings are necessary for the overall Styx sound.  And that riff!  Speaking of riffs, Tommy closes the disc with the legendary “Renegade”.  Still classic, still awesome, still hard to resist the urge to shake it!  And though it does sound tuned down, Tommy’s voice has an incredible timeless youth.

The Same Stardust is a damn near essential add-on to your Crash of the Crown album.  It would have made an awesome bonus disc to a deluxe version of…oh, man.  After what I paid for this, if they put The Same Stardust on a future deluxe edition of Crash of the Crown, I’ll be pissed!

4.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Pyramids On Mars – Cosmic Angels (2022)

PYRAMIDS ON MARS – Cosmic Angels (2022)

Release date:  May 31 2022

There are, at minimum, two special things about Cosmic Angels by Pyramids On Mars:

  1. Pyramids On Mars is one guy – Kevin Estrella – who played or programmed everything.
  2. This one is pretty cool.  “All song ideas written in one take, stream of consciousness.  No edits.”  Wow.

Entirely instrumental, Cosmic Angels is an enjoyable, atmospheric album that passes in no time flat.  In the real world, it’s 44 minutes of music, but if you close your eyes it goes by in a flash.

The easiest influence to point out on one listen is Joe Satriani.  There’s something here about the tone and chords on “Interstellar” that scream “Satch”, but it’s not all about the playing. There’s a balance to the instruments and an inviting vibe.  Kevin Estrella does have his own ideas here, and they are a delight to listen to as the song grows and evolves.  Multiple influences abound, and varied ones at that.  Estrella thanks a number of them inside:  from Rush, Queen, Devin Townsend and Peter Steele, all the way down to Bach and Vivaldi. Some of the Rush influence comes out on the second track, “Phonix From the Ashes”, which you can hear in the arrangement and bass line.

We could go on and on about influences, but it makes more sense to just listen for yourself and let the album unfold.  In essence:  if you like the kind of progressive instrumental rock that guys like Satriani create, then Pyramids On Mars should appeal to you.  Your brain is already wired to get it.  There’s also a futuristic, science fiction element to the album.  There are songs about aliens and UFOs, and you get this impression even without lyrics.  Some melodies are inspired by the violin, others by dolphin song.

Highlights:  the cosmic “Interstellar”.  The rhythmic and lethal “On Dragon’s Wings”.  The complex and challenging “Luftpanzer (Air Tanks)”.  The heartfelt tribute “Echoes of Peter Steele”.  The spacey and relaxing “Arcturian Sunset”.

Check out Kevin Estrella at PyramidsOnMars.com and support the artist!

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Polychuck – “Hero” feat. Derek Sherinian (2022 single)

Montreal’s Polychuck is a heck of a prodigy.  He’s a megatalented singer / songwriter / shredder / teacher / mixed martial artist (!!) who does it all, and now he’s expanding his palette and progressing.  Far beyond his first two EPs.  When we spoke to Polychuck on the LeBrain Train last year, he expressed his desire to get more progressive on his upcoming recordings.  By collaborating with former Dream Theater/Kiss/Alice Cooper keyboardist Derek Sherinian, he’s made a huge leap.  Also playing on this track are drummer Philipe Landry and bassist Frédérick Filiatrault.  With the added firepower, “Hero” has a fuller sound than previous Polychuck songs.  It’s like the playing field just got a whole lot bigger.

So let’s get to it.  Cut to the chase.  Polychuck, who is of Ukrainian descent, says “Hero” is a cry for peace, directly about current events.  In times of crisis, music helps sooth.  In turn, crises often inspire great music.

“Hero” commences with steely rhythm guitar with a wicked tone.  It bounces from heavy rocking to acoustic picking and an instrumental outro.  When Sherinian comes in near the start, he’s instantly recognizable.  His solo work here is lyrical, and the perfect compliment to the song.  Not to mention Polychuck’s own lead work, which is both impressive and melodic.  All the playing here is just awesome, period.

“Hero” is an impressive construction.  It’s complex, with several different sections including one at the end that reminds me of the keyboard part in “No More Tears” by Ozzy.  Importantly, all the sections work together like chapters in a story, and the flow is natural.  Best of all, “Hero” never stops being great through its 3:26 length.

Support up and coming talent like Polychuck and buy “Hero”.  If you love that Dream Theater vibe, you will absolutely dig it.

5/5 stars

“Mrs Tibbets” by Jethro Tull on the Sunday Song Spotlight

Jethro Tull’s brand new album The Zealot Gene has people talking not just because it’s their first album without Martin Barre on guitar since their debut.  It’s also because it’s really good!  Christmas music aside, this is the first studio album under the Jethro Tull banner since 1999’s J-Tull.com.  It’s essentially an outgrowth of Ian Anderson’s solo band, which he finally felt comfortable bringing back full circle to Jethro Tull.  Whatever!  It’s all good.

“Mrs Tibbets” is the first song on The Zealot Gene, and a surprising one at that.  Thought it’s not short at 5:53 in length, it has distinct pop qualities.  The 80s keyboards certainly bring to mind a past era, when Van Halen was topping the charts with their own keyboard-drenched music.  The flute is a main feature, delivering the first melodies and, as always, many jaw-dropping passages.  Florian Ophale on guitar makes comparisons to past lineups unnecessary, when the track gets heavily progressive mid-way through.  The axework has a nice vintage sound to it.

The lyric book references Genesis chapter 19 verses 24-28.

24 Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. 25 Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land. 26 But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

27 Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. 28 He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace.

I don’t think this is a song I’m going to crack conceptually after a few listens.  Give it a go and see what you think.  Brilliant track!

 

Blinkered against the harsh and raging sun
They said, divert your gaze, don’t look behind
It was time, they said, to do that thing
Mindful, they, of peace and peace of mind

Don’t feel bad, they said, about the numbers
Don’t feel bad about the melting heat
The burning flesh, the soft white cell demise
And the shattered ground beneath the trembling feet

Mrs Tibbets’ little boy
August morning silence breaks
Eyes to Heaven, Manhattan toy
Drops in for tea and Eccles cake

All for the good and ultimately
Saving precious lives in longer run
Set a course for home and happy holidays
Tell yourselves thank God what’s done is done

Mrs Tibbets’ little boy
August morning silence breaks
Eyes to Heaven, Manhattan toy
Drops in for tea and Eccles cake

Maybe if Lot had stopped and stood his ground
And maybe if Peter hadn’t turned away
What if that Judas stole no kiss?
What if, what if, Enola Gay?

Mrs Tibbets’ little boy
August morning silence breaks
Eyes to Heaven, Manhattan toy
Drops in for tea and Eccles cake

Have yourselves a merry little Christmas
Open parcels, gifts of different kind
A bigger bang will call for bigger bucks
So pay the ransom, don’t look behind

REVIEW: Rush – Working Men (2009)

RUSH – Working Men (2009 Anthem)

Rush weren’t really known as a “cash grab” kind of band.  That’s why the Christmas 2009 release of Working Men was so surprising to fans.

12 tracks, all but one previously released on live Rush albums of recent vintage. It is not difficult to figure out that this disc was created to keep Rush product on the shelves while the band was on break during the Christmas season. While the music is excellent (obviously), it is hard to imagine a Rush fan that would play this single-disc album before listening to the actual live albums that the tracks were sourced from.  This is Rush’s version of You Wanted The Best by Kiss, but with only one unreleased recording instead of four.

Here’s a tracklist, and a breakdown of where these tracks were lifted from:

1. “Limelight” (From Snakes & Arrows Live)
2. “The Spirit of Radio” (From R30)
3. “2112 Overture/The Temples of Syrinx (From Rush in Rio)
4. “Freewill” (From Snakes & Arrows Live)
5. “Dreamline” (From R30)
6. “Far Cry” (From Snakes & Arrows Live)
7. “Subdivisions” (From R30)
8. “One Little Victory” (From the R30 tour) (Previously Unreleased)
9. “Closer to the Heart” (From Rush in Rio)
10. “Tom Sawyer” (From Snakes & Arrows Live)
11. “Working Man” (From R30)
12. “YYZ” (From Rush in Rio)

“One Little Victory”, a stormy firecracker of a version, is the lone previously unreleased song. Is that one song worth your $15? You decide. Unfortunately “One Little Victory” is basically all you’re going to get for your money. There is no booklet and there are no liner notes to speak of. The cover art, once again by Hugh Syme, is quite nice, hinting at past works.

The songs fade-in and fade-out, rather than flow as a seamless listen. The selections lean heavily on oldies as opposed to newer tracks, which does not really reflect what a Rush concert was about at that time. Clearly, this was to entice consumers who wanted songs they have heard frequently on the radio. At least the running order is well sequenced for maximum firepower.

This release is not particularly for anybody except completists and Rush diehards. Everyone else would be well advised to spend their money on Rush In Rio, R30, or Snakes & Arrows Live.

2/5 stars, not for the music, but just because it’s a bit of a Christmas cashgrab.

 

REVIEW: The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (2003)

JETHRO TULLThe Jethro Tull Christmas Album (2003 Fuel 2000)

With an actual new studio album, The Zealot Gene, due in 2022, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album is no longer the final record by the storied band!  It is however the last one with Martin Barre, putting a (night)cap on the largest part of Tull’s discography.  Although it’s a seasonal album, it is very Tull and would not have been a bad farewell if it was indeed the last record (as we all thought it would be).  16 tracks, over an hour in length…but how Christmas-y is it?

With a blast of flute, “Birthday Card at Christmas” addresses those whose birthdays fall during the holiday.  A fine acoustic Tull tune (as they all are), it doesn’t sound particularly seasonal.  Which will suit many of us just fine.  Flute acrobatics stun the senses, trickling out the speakers like little blasts of hail.  Moving on to “Holly Herald”, this instrumental medley has more of the Christmas flavour.  Recognizable carols, with the flute providing the main melody.  Andrew Giddings’ accordion is a lovely touch.  Pure winter delight!

“A Christmas Song” is a Tull original, a re-recording of a 1968 B-side.  It has always been an intriguing song, sparse and stark.  Mandolin and acoustics ring true with the march of a drum behind.  It is logically followed by a re-recorded sequel tune, “Another Christmas Song”, which has its own modern flavour based on keys, flute and electric guitar.  This soft ballad is like the sound of a clean snow on Christmas day, though the lyrics offer more depth.

A jazzy instrumental “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen”, led by flute, reminds of the old Mr. Bean sketch where he conducts the Christmas band, and goes all jazzy.  Barre’s guitar here is sublime.  When Tull get jazzy, they never disappoint.  Just dig it and get down, in the snow!  It’s impossible not to like, especially if you love instrumental acrobatics.  The bass work by Jonathan Noyce just rolls.  Next is the re-recorded “Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow”, a 1982 original B-side.  A little less direct, a little more progressive.  A very Tull-sounding “Last Man at the Party” is another acoustic original.  The lyrics relay images of a traditional Christmas party even if the music is just Tull being Tull.  Bouncing flute, speeding acoustics.

“Weathercock” is a new version of the closing track from Heavy Horses.  It’s more about traditional country living, but with winter imagery.  Not an immediate song by any means, but fitting the vibe of the album.  Moving on to “Pavane” composed by Gabriel Fauré, this lovely tune has exotic, smooth and challenging sections, but it’s not very Christmas-y.  The original was a piano work, but this version balances the spotlight between players.  More seasonal sounding is “First Snow on Brooklyn”.  “I could cut my cold breath with a knife,” sings Ian.  A beautiful string section backs this original song, somewhat epic, warming the soul like a hot coffee at Christmas.

You’ll love “Greensleeved” (a take on “Greensleeves”).  It’s an instrumental version of the traditional classic.  Its ties with Christmas go back to 1686 so it is not out of place here.  But man does it swing!  This is just fun, with monstrous instrumental mastery.  Get up and dance to this brilliant little tune.  Then it’s a remake of Tull’s “Fire at Midnight”, one of their most memorable Songs from the Wood.  This take is more laid back, but is unmistakable as the Tull mainstay.  Somewhat obviously, “We Five Kings” is Jethro’s version of “We Three Kings”, once again rendered in a laid back jazzy instrumental vibe.  Challenging to play, easy to listen to.  Check out Barre’s acoustic guitar solo work.

The excellent single “Ring Out Solstice Bell” conveys that Christmas joy.  It’s likely the most Christmas-y of all the music on this album.  Anderson has an occasional knack for a universal melody and “Ring Out Solstice Bell” lets them float in the cold winter air.  A magical seasonal tune for anybody, even the Scrooges or Grinches on your list.  If there’s only one tune you need on this album, making it “Solstice Bell”.  It is, of course, an update of the original on side one of Songs from the Wood.  (The 2004 single from this album had two exclusive B-sides as well.)

One of Tull’s greatest instrumentals in their long illustrious history was J.S. Bach’s “Bourée”.  There is a new version on the Christmas Album.  It’s different.  Less swing, more relaxed.  Still Tull but not repeating the exact same track from the past.

Finally the album closes on a rare Martin Barre original called “A Winter Snowscape”.  Quiet, gentle, yet determined.  Barre’s acoustic work is shadowed by Ian Anderson on flute.  It is a perfectly understated closer to a unique Tull album.

Of course, like anything else, this album was reissued later on with a bonus live album called Christmas at St. Bride’s 2008.  As a live album it deserves its own standalone review, but it’s unfortunate that to get it, some will have to buy the album twice.  Not very Christmas-y…or perhaps the pinnacle of modern Christmas tradition?

On it’s own, this is a pleasant seasonal album to play while wrapping your gifts or celebrating with friends.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: The Moody Blues – Long Distance Voyager (1981 Remastered)

By request of Eric Litwiller

THE MOODY BLUES – Long Distance Voyager (Originally 1981, 2008 Decca remaster)

On album #10, The Moody Blues took it to the #1 slot.  Let’s take a dive and see what makes Long Distance Voyager work so magnificently.

Opening with a crash of soundtrack-like synthesizer, “The Voice” soon enters a comfortable 80s groove — think “The Highwayman” by Cash, Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson.  But it’s not country, it’s science fiction-like progressive rock.  Justin Hayward’s dreamlike vocal and the the vintage keyboards create an instant atmosphere.  A brief but killer guitar solo adds the right accents.  What a song!  A masterpiece indeed, “The Voice” personifies perfect in every way, from mood to melody to majesty.

Lush strings and tinkling computers mesh on “Talking Out of Turn”, which goes Lennon/Beatles on the first verse.  Bassist John Lodge sings on this lengthy study, which was still a successful single despite its length.  If the Beatles survived intact into the 1980s, perhaps they could have recorded “Talking Out of Turn”.  In other words:  high praise.

The omnipresent Disco movement has its impact on “Gemini Dream”, a dance able rocker with a killer beat and vocal melodies to match.  Expertly constructed, and one of the best examples of a rock band stepping outside their comfort zone into the dimension of dance.

Acoustic guitars ring out on “In My World”, the side one closer and an extensive song with many guitar textures, including some delicate pedal steel.  Long and deliberate, but an instrumental tour-de-force.

The second side commenced on the upbeat “Meanwhile”, a short song with quaint keyboards and irresistible Justin Hayward vocal melodies.  An uplifting chorus, and you are hooked.  Then it’s the wicked “22,000 Days”, like a synthed-up sea shanty!  Awesome song unlike most you will hear.  Trans-Siberian Orchestra ripped off this vocal style much later on.

The acoustic “Nervous” starts very early-Pink Floyd without the THC.  It transforms into a big, bold ballad powered by strings.  Awesome song that doesn’t care that it’s pompous and overblown, nor should it.  Ray Thomas’ “Painted Smile” has an old fashioned big-top style, a bit circus-like, with rich accompanying singing and an outstanding lead vocal slot.

A final song with a big bold chorus called “Veteran Cosmic Rocker” ends the album leaving you wanting more.  A bouncing progressive rock and roll anthem, this would make a great theme song for anybody looking for a corny yet spacey cue.  “He struts, he strolls, his life is rock and roll.”

Since that last tune leaves you hungry, the 2008 remastered disc includes a single edit of “The Voice” as dessert.  It actually bookends the album quite brilliantly.  Those big Dr. Who keyboards return one last time to make sure you leave this album satisfied.

I got to hear this CD because it was Ray Litwiller’s favourite album, and that was good enough for me.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Jethro Tull – The Very Best of Jethro Tull (2001)

JETHRO TULL – The Very Best of Jethro Tull (2001 Chrysalis)

Every fan had their first Jethro Tull purchase.  Mine was 20 years ago, with their newly released Very Best of Jethro Tull.  Why not?  I was working at the Record Store when a used-but-mint copy dropped in my lap for only $8 (staff discount).  It was only right of me to ensure it got a good home.

Unlike some “hits” compilations, this one didn’t strike with clusters of songs I wanted to focus on in the future.  Other compilations can do that.  For example I decided to hone in on the Brian Robertson Motorhead album immediately after hearing a double best-of.  With The Very Best of Jethro Tull, I liked it all equally.  I just wanted to get them all, with no particular priority.  It all sounded great to me.

The album is non-chronological and contains some edit versions.  “Thick As A Brick” is cut down from 44 minutes to just three — makes sense.  They chose the first three minutes, which are ojectively the best known.   Other edits are the single versions of “Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die” and “Minstrel in the Gallery”, while “Heavy Horses” gets a new edit bringing it from nine minutes to a more single-like three.  The songs span the 1968 debut This Was to 1995’s Roots to Branches.  Several albums are not represented at all, such as Benefit, A Passion Play, A, Stormwatch, Under Wraps, Rock Island, Catfish Rising, and J-Tull.com.  Justifiable?  That’s up to personal taste.  Several non-album singles are included instead, such as the well known “Living In the Past” and the wicked string-laden “Sweet Dream”.

The album has an excellent flow, only interrupted with the synth-y “Steel Monkey” from 1987’s Grammy-winning Crest of a Knave.  Preceded by the savage “Locomotive Breath” and followed by the tender picking of “Thick as a Brick”, it doesn’t fit in except as a speedbump.  If I may be so bold, I believe “Steel Monkey” was included simply because it would be odd not to include something off that controversial Grammy winner.

While I enjoyed all the songs, the one that stood out particularly strong was “Bourée”. I never heard Bach swing like that before! The diversity of this CD, spanning all styles of rock from progressive to blues to folksy. Yes, the flute can rock and Ian Anderson is the Eddie Van Halen of the instrument.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Styx – Crash of the Crown (2021)

“I don’t think Styx will ever top The Mission.” — Me

“I think Styx just topped The Mission.” — Also me

STYX – Crash of the Crown (2021 Universal)

Remarkable!  49 years old, and still putting out some truly superlative records.  What’s the secret?

Like their contemporaries Journey and Whitesnake, Styx have expanded to a seven-member band including new guitarist/songwriter/producer Will Evankovich.  With just as many songwriting credits on the new album Crash of the Crown as Tommy Shaw has, this addition feels appropriate.  James “JY” Young and Chuck Panozzo (original bassist, now part time) are the only links to the distant past.  Styx have not always been the most focused on new music (14 year gap between Cyclorama and The Mission) but it seems like Evankovich has sparked their creativity.  Two albums in a row, Styx have risen to high-water marks, pleasing fans and stunning critics.

If there’s a blatant concept this time it’s not as obvious, but recurring musical themes hint that there might be more going on than just 15 new tracks.  Crash of the Crown is assembled from smaller chunks of music that flow together in one seamless whole, but the individual songs are all under four minutes, including two brief interludes.

Opening with a wicked Lawrence Gowan keyboard bit, “The Fight of Our Lives” is a powerful and catchy intro to this distinguished album.  Tommy Shaw: lead vocals, backed by the increasingly thick Styx choir.  Pay attention to the main guitar theme as it’ll be back.  Beatles-y chords are another recurring affair.  (The Fab Four sound like a major influence on both Crash of the Crown, and the new Dennis DeYoung album 26 East Vol. 2.)

A progressive guitar/keyboard riff brings us to “A Monster”.  If anything it’s a song about the last two years.  “Here’s to the prisoners trapped in their cages,” could certainly be about the current time, “a monster chasing its tail”.  Big guitar solos and hooks make this an unorthodox and complex little winner.

Acoustics ring on “Reveries”, the first Gowan lead vocal.  It has a big powerful chorus and the acoustic base is reminiscent of classic 70s Styx.  But before too long, Tommy Shaw and JY rise up for a massive tandem electric guitar break.  Stuff like this is why they need a third guitarist now, so the rhythm doesn’t drop out live.  “Reveries” flows seamlessly into the dull rain of “Hold Back the Darkness”.  The foreboding tune, like clouds warning to stay ashore, is spare with piano and acoustics forming the basis.

Winston Churchill’s words form a part of “Save Us From Ourselves”, always a nice touch in a rock song.  It possesses a more upbeat pulse, but no less powerful.  The Tommy Shaw refrain in the chorus is typically bright and rhapsodic.  It builds into something stageworthy, and leads into the title track and single “Crash of the Crown”.  Individually, this song impresses less on the radio.  It belongs on the album, flowing in and out.  It’s a component of a larger piece.  Incidentally it’s the first Styx song with three lead singers.  In order:  JY, Shaw and Gowan, each with completely unique sections.  Stick with it, and a riff from “Fight Of Our Lives” returns to knock you back in your seat.  Then there’s some instrumental wickedness and robot vocoder madness.   It is like three or four songs crammed into one and it’s boggling why it was chosen as a single.  Except to impress the fact that Styx aren’t playing around.

You need a bit of a break after a workout like “Crash of the Crown” and so the folksy “Our Wonderful Lives” is the ideal tonic.  A huge singalong chorus is backed by simple kick drums, acoustics, and accordion.  It’s a beam of hope on an album born from dark times.  Sounding a bit like “39” by Queen, and completed with a blast of Beatles-y horns.

The dark growl of a Hammond B3 transitions into “Common Ground”, slower and thick with the modern Styx harmonies.  It has some very different parts, one pounding with heavy drums and one light and flighty.  While it stands as a song to itself, it also works to transition into “Sound the Alarm”, an RSD single and album highlight.  This handsome Shaw ballad is reminiscent of some of his past best and serves as a bit of a hippy-like anthem.  “There is no future in the way it was,” Shaw sings correctly.  All at once, it has ingredients similar to “Show Me with Way”, “Mr. Roboto”, “High Enough” and “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)”.  There’s sorrow, there’s hope, there’s bombast and a digital pulse.

The digital pulse leads directly into the drum-heavy “Long Live the King”.  It’s also the most Queen-like, with an absolutely May-ish solo.  Imagine if you tried to build a Queen song on top of the drum beat from Guns N’ Roses’ “You Could Be Mine”.

Gowan has a brief piano segue called “Lost At Sea” before the proper song “Coming Out the Other Side”.  This calm ballad has a taste of India with the tabla, but manages not to sound like the Beatles this time.  It recalls rebirth, and there’s a killer solo to go on top.  “To Those” goes full-blown upbeat triumphant Styx, a brilliant refrain brimming with adrenaline.  “For those who do survive, find beauty in your lives.  Don’t be afraid of love, stand up and rise above.”

Instrumental segue “Another Farewell” steers into the final track “Stream”, which sounds and reads like an ending to a story.  Whether the band intended to or not, it seems they’ve made another concept album in Crash of the Crown.  “We’ve never been a protest band,” insists Shaw, “We’re more like a gospel caravan trying to send out positive messages wherever we go.”  If that’s the case, then “Stream” must be the happy musical ending, an upbeat drift into the fade.

Perhaps there’s a clue to Styx’s meaning in the packaging.  Morse code hidden in the CD tray reveals the words “WHOS GONNA SAVE US FROM OURSELVES”.

According to the lengthy liner notes, Styx went into Crash of the Crown with no compromises and came out of it with the album they wanted.  With a diverse set of instruments at hand, they clearly had no inhibitions.  The end result is an album less direct the The Mission, but dense with ideas compacted into mere minutes of songs.  Fortunately most of those ideas were really excellent.  Any time a band like Styx makes an album, there’s a fear it will be the last one.  It sounds like this band has plenty more fuel left in the solid rocket boosters.  Whatever the future holds, Crash of the Crown is the kind of triumph any young band would hold as their magnum opus.  With Styx, there is so much history it’s futile to compare.

5/5 stars