progressive rock

REVIEW: Queensrÿche – Operation: Mindcrime (1988/2003 remaster)

QUEENSRŸCHE – Operation: Mindcrime (1988, 2003 EMI remaster)

After Pink Floyd made history by releasing The Wall in 1979, concept albums fell out of fashion.   Almost a decade later, two heavy metal albums brought the artform of the full-length story back:  Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and Operation: Mindcrime by Queensryche.  Of the two, Mindcrime had the more coherent linear story, but both remain high water marks for each band.

The Queensryche album sold slowly at first, as the band refused to make music videos to let the album speak for itself.  They changed course in 1989 when “Eyes of a Stranger” made it to MTV and MuchMusic.  Fortunes changed dramatically for Operation: Mindcrime.  The album eventually went platinum.

The reason Mindcrime was better suited as an album than music videos was the connected storyline running through each song.  Employing a classic frame technique, we begin at the end with “I Remember Now”.

“I remember now.  I remember how it started.  I can’t remember yesterday.  I just remember doing what they told me…”

The anti-hero Nikki is an angry, aimless addict who fell in with a radical political group called Operation: Mindcrime.  He is a disheartened young American. “The rich control the government, the media, the law.”  Mindcrime’s modus operandi?  Using drugs and brainwashing, would-be assassins are sent out to kill strategic political targets, building to revolution.  Inequality, corruption and the media have made the country an ugly place.  Dr. X, the mastermind behind Mindcrime, has total control over Nikki.  He also uses the nun Mary, a former prostitute, to feed Nikki’s needs.  Nikki and Mary grow closer until he receives the order:  “Kill her.”  She knows too much.

The first two tracks are just setup before you get to the meat.  “I Remember Now” and “Anarchy-X” create a powerful set of images, with anthemic guitars and the sound of massive crowds rallying to a cause.  “Revolution Calling”, the first real song, begins the narrative.  “Then I heard of Dr. X, the man with the cure, just watch the television, yeah you’ll see there’s something going on.”

Nikki is indoctrinated on the title track, an ominous riffy behemoth of a song.  Dr. X uses Nikki’s drug addiction to control him.  With nothing to lose, Nikki falls for the doctor’s words.  “There’s a job for you in the system boy, with nothing to sign.”  Nikki has no use for the government or politicians.  It all sounds good to him.  On “Speak” he receives his first assignment.  “I’m the new messiah, death angel with a gun.”  On a blazing fast track with a thick chorus, Nikki falls into his new life.  “Eradicate the fascists, revolution will grow.”  On “Spreading the Disease”, another kickass track with a chorus that goes on for miles, Nikki tells the story of Mary and his distaste for the church.  “Religion and sex are power plays, manipulate the people for the money they pay.  Selling skin, selling God, the numbers look the same on the credit cards.”

Queensryche take it slower (though not soft) on “The Mission”, as Nikki starts to feel disillusionment.  “I look around, my room is filled with candles, each one a story but they end the same.”  He keeps telling himself that he’s doing what’s right.  “My mission saved the world, and I stood proud.”  But then he is given the order he dreads:  Kill Mary.  This instruction opens album epic “Suite Sister Mary”, 10 full minutes of riffs, choir and orchestra (by Michael Kamen).  The riff alone stands like a monolith.  Vocalist Pamela Moore sings a duet with Geoff Tate as the character of Sister Mary.  As for that riff?  Chris DeGarmo was the master riff composer in this band, a hole they have never quite filled.

The second half of the story commences with “The Needle Lies”.  Nikki wants out, but finds that it doesn’t work that way.  There is no “out”.  Meanwhile Queensryche strafe the speakers with a thrashy blitzkrieg.  Drummer Scott Rockenfield cannot be contained.  Then on the quiet filler track “Electric Requiem”, Nikki discovers that Mary had made his choice to disobey orders irrelevant.  Dead by her own hand, Nikki is broken and tailspins into a mad depression.  This is portrayed on “Breaking the Silence”, another stone cold winner of a song with a mighty chorus.  The chunky guitar riff is to die for.

With his memory failing him, Nikki doesn’t even know if he killed Mary himself or not.  He questions everything on the ever-cool single “I Don’t Believe in Love”, one of the most remarkable of all Queensryche songs.  Once again the writing partnership of Tate and DeGarmo struck heavy musical gold.  Two shorter tracks (“Waiting for 22” and “My Empty Room”) fill in some story points, and Nikki is eventually caught.

Operation: Mindcrime’s biggest song is its final track and first single, “Eyes of a Stranger”.  Memories are but fragments.  “I raise my head and stare into the eyes of a stranger.”  It’s one of Queensryche’s most incredible recordings, a perfect storm of guitars, vocals and melody.  It’s neck deep in drama, with Geoff Tate at his most emotive.  The story ends with some questions left unanswered.  At least until 2006’s unnecessary Mindcrime II….

Operation: Mindcrime took Queensryche to an artistic level that fans and critics always knew they could achieve.  Their debut EP showed promise.  They didn’t live up to that potential until Mindcrime.  Though good, The Warning album wasn’t a stunner like MindcrimeRage For Order was brilliant but alienating.  Even when it was first released, Mindcrime did not blow all the critics away.  Only after it had been digested slowly over time did the masses realize they were sitting on something very special.  Queensryche had done conceptual work before, but more abstract.  Nothing as well-hewn as Mindcrime.  Musically it was like they distilled everything they had accomplished thus far, and concentrated it into pure rock majesty.

The 2003 CD reissue had two live B-sides as bonus tracks.  “The Mission” was originally released in 1991 on the B-side to “Silent Lucidity”.  It is a different recording from that on the live album Operation: LIVEcrime.  “My Empty Room” is a later acoustic recording, released in 1995 as a B-side to “Bridge”.  It’s interesting for its acoustic setting and percussion, but is best heard in the context of the “Bridge” single with its other acoustic counterparts.

Is Operation: Mindcrime a masterpiece?  The story is a bit Hollywood and a tad juvenile, but the broad strokes are remarkably still valid today.  Mindcrime is rivalled by only a few.  It’s a worthy, nay, important addition to any metal collection.

5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Queensrÿche – Queensrÿche (1983 EP/2003 remaster)

Part I of a Queensryche two-parter.

QUEENSRŸCHE – Queensrÿche (1983 EP/2003 EMI remaster)

Sometimes a reissue is done so right you just gotta “Take Hold of the Flame”.

The 1984 debut EP by Queensryche is one such release.  The original vinyl runs shy of 18 minutes, leaving plenty of space for bonus tracks.  For this, they included the audio for all 10 songs from their first home video, Live in Tokyo.  Wishes fulfilled.

The original four track EP put the quintet from Seattle on the map.  Opening with “Queen of the Reich”, the young band showcased their knack for riffs and screaming vocals.  Geoff Tate’s opening scream cannot be touched.  Tate seemed embarrassed of these songs later on (all written by Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo with one lyric by Geoff).  Though the songs are clearly a starting point, they’re nothing to be embarrassed by.  “Queen of the Reich” remains simple, majestic and powerful.

The “Nightrider” sails away but the riffs go on with pneumatic precision.  Early Queensryche were not that dissimilar from early Iron Maiden, but at least they were doing that sound well.  Curiously enough this self-produced EP was not recorded with the intention to release it.  Queensrÿche is actually just a demo, but the band were starting to make waves on the live scene and so the four songs were released as an EP.  It eventually went gold; very rare for an EP.

Flipping over to side two, “Blinded” is screamy and raw.  Not one of the bands’ most memorable tunes, but soon arrives “The Lady Wore Black”.  This is a metal ballad in the classic vein of “Beyond the Realms of Death” or “Remember Tomorrow”.  Tate’s voice cascades while the band weave a backing track of guitar thunder.  Along with “Queen of the Reich”, it still turns up on live setlists.

The live set in Tokyo, recorded in 1984, contains all the tracks from the EP, a non-album song called “Prophecy”, and several from the debut full-length album The Warning.  Opening with the “Nightrider”, Queensryche don’t let up through a generally fast and heavy set.  “Prophecy” keeps up the brisk pace, with a chorus that is miles ahead of “Nightrider”.  And this DeGarmo-penned smoker was a non-album track!  “Deliverance” from The Warning follows in its ashy footsteps.  It’s an onslaught of Warning tracks:  “Child of Fire” and “En Force” rolled out in heavy fashion.  This trio of Warning songs might be considered the slow part of the set.  They have a soundalike vibe as they steamroll the ears.

“The Lady Wore Black” brings a slower, dark atmosphere.  Tate’s sustain is unbelievable!  Then it’s a blast of classics to close the set:  “Warning”, “Take Hold of the Flame” and “Queen of the Reich”.  Magnificent metal through and through, with “Take Hold” being an unequivocal high point.  From Tate’s vocal to the exalted riffing, Queensryche nail it.

Don’t just get the EP.  Make sure to get the 2003 CD reissue with the glorious Tokyo show included.  You’ll be happy you did.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978, 2009 CD)

JEFF WAYNE – Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978, 2009 Sony CD reissue)

Simply put, it’s one of the greatest rock musicals ever: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.  Not as well known as, say Jesus Christ Superstar, but it is essential ownership for fans of:

  • both science fiction and rock musicals
  • concept albums
  • H.G. Wells
  • Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues
  • Phil Lynott

That’s a lot of niche.  Composer Jeff Wayne wrote a musical that spans multiple genres.  Progressive rock, Disco beats, space rock, spoken word, symphonic rock…there is a foot on all those bases.  A theremin-like synth hook recurs through the album, increasing the tension.  Richard Burton is featured as the narrating Journalist, speaking the words of Wells, creating the necessary serious tone.  Meanwhile Justin Hayward is featured as the main lead vocalist, singing as the Journalist in a shared role.  It is he that delivers the catchiest of refrains on the album:

“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said.  But still they come.” 

The story has of course been streamlined down from the original 287 page novel.  The plot remains the same, as do the major setpiece scenes.  The opening of the first Martian capsule in “Horsell Common and the Heat Ray” is impeccably narrated by Burton.  This also introduces a guitar theme that pops up again and again on the album.  And now it is clear the visitors from Mars have hostile intent, and weapons beyond those known to human science.

David Essex joins Burton on “The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine”.  He plays a young soldier, survivor of the first Martian attack.  “They wiped us out.  Hundreds dead, maybe thousands.”  Guitars and synthesizers mingle in haunting fashion.  Dramatic strings emphasise the danger, as it quickly becomes an action piece.  Another recurring musical theme is introduced:  the terrifying Martian cry of “Ulla!  Ulla!”

Hayward resumes his role as the Journalist on “Forever Autumn”, a ballad memorable for its lamenting chorus of “Now you’re not here.”  But the destruction also resumes with the refrain of “Ulla!  Ulla!”  Then “Thunder Child”, featuring vocalist Chris Thompson, describes a counter attack by the ironclad ship Thunder Child.  She puts up a valiant struggle, managing to damage one of the Martian fighting machines, but succumbs to the heat ray.  Collapse is imminent, and Earth now belongs to Mars.

The second disc, subtitled The Earth Under the Martians, continues the story with Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott as Parson Nathaniel.  A foul red weed has claimed the land.  The mad Parson barely survived a Martian attack and is discovered by his wife Beth (Julie Covington) and the Journalist.  Lynott portrays the character with manic delight, as the Parson is convinced the Martians are the devil.  His feature lead vocal is “The Spirit of Man”, where the Parson blames the death and destruction on the sins of all mankind.  They witness a new Martian machine that pursues, captures and harvests humans for their blood.  The Parson thinks he can destroy the Martian demons with prayer, but fails.  The Journalist survives, and meets the Artilleryman down the road.

The Journalist is delighted to see a familiar face again.  The Artilleryman is the polar opposite of the Parson.  He believes mankind can survive underground.  “Brave New World” is a dramatic Floyd-like ballad in tribute to the new life the Artilleryman sees for himself.  The chorus of “We’ll start over again!” is infectious like all the others on this album.  “We’ll even build a railway and tunnel to the coast!  Go there for our holidays!”  He makes the future underground sound like a paradise, but the Journalist doesn’t believe such grand plans can be accomplished by just the survivors.  Instead, he returns to London.

The city is blackened, looted and abandoned.  Darker music accompanies the narrator/Journalist on his journey through on “Dead London, Pt. 1”.  Then he notices two massive fighting machines, making sounds but unmoving.  Then the machines goes silent, and the string section from the opening track “The Eve of the War” returns to dramatic effect.  This is when he discovers that simple Earthen bacteria and germs have killed the Martians.  They had no immunity to our diseases, and so the Martian invasion was stopped not by man, but by the smallest living things.  “Dead London, Pt. 2” is a triumphant refrain symbolising the victory at hand.

Life eventually returns back to normal, and the Journalist is reunited with his love.  There remains a question of a future threat from Mars.  The epilogue conclusively answers that question….

The highly recommended 2009 CD reissue has an unlisted bonus, a medley of two of the big Justin Hayward pieces, “Forever Autumn” and “The Eve of the War”.  There is also a 2009 re-recording of “The Spirit of Man”.  This set comes recommended mainly for its lavish booklet, with full colour illustrations and pages of art.  It also has full credits and lyrics for every track, including dialogue.  The remastering is full and clear, without any obvious sonic flaws.  You can buy this album in a number of editions, with loads of remixes and outtakes, but this simpler 2 CD remaster is the ideal entry point.

Though the musical chapters are long, War of the Worlds flows by rather quickly.  Sometimes it bears sonic similarity to Alice Cooper’s elaborate Welcome to My Nightmare.  But it is far weightier and more expansive than that.  You can finish the album in a single sitting quite easily.  In fact, you probably should.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Queensryche – Speaking in Digital: A Conversation with Queensryche (1986 promo)

QUEENSRŸCHE – Speaking in Digital: A Conversation with Queensryche (1986 EMI America promo interview LP)

Here’s a nice little rarity for you, a full-length Queensryche interview disc from the Rage For Order era.  Promos are a funny thing for reviewing (and this is our second Queensryche promo review).  These records were never made for sale, therefore nobody reviews them.  Nobody…but us.  Is there any rock knowledge or collector’s value to be gleaned from this disc?  Let us find out.

It’s an attractive record, Geoff Tate’s digitally distorted face in black & white.  No Try-Ryche, but a neat digital Queensryche logo.  The interview is conducted by radio DJ Ralph Tortoro.  A very low-key Geoff Tate begins by answering general questions about the beginning of the band and their independent EP.  Chris DeGarmo is a bit more engaged and adds the details.  Shy Michael Wilton speaks up only on occasion.

You’ll also get bits and pieces of music:  Snippets of “Queen of the Reich”, “Warning”, and “Gonna Get Close to You”.  There are four full songs too:  a massive “Screaming in Digital” (so hot on vinyl!), “I Dream in Infrared”, “Chemical Youth” and “The Whisper”.

Interesting things I noted while listening:

  1. They hadn’t settled on the name Queensryche for the band until they had to print up the first EP, forced to make a decision.
  2. Maiden was one of their favourite bands to cover according to Chris.
  3. Tate clearly didn’t like being called “metal” even back in 1986.
  4. “NM 156” from The Warning is hailed as the track that showed the way of the future of Queensryche.
  5. Steve Harris loved The Warning and asked for Queensryche to open for Iron Maiden.
  6. Rage for Order is a “loose concept” album, examining order over three levels:  order in relationships, political order, and technological order.
  7. Other questions remain unasked.

The new digitally enhanced Queensryche of 1986 was destined to confuse people in the short term, gradually winning over fans as time went on and people “got” the album.  If you want to deepen your understanding of its themes, this record will help.  There’s more too; we won’t tell you everything.  As a fan, you should be able to decide if Speaking in Digital is the kind of thing you want in your rock and roll reference library.  The young, shy Queensryche interviewed on this LP are as cold as the machines that are striving for order in the lyrics.  It’s a dry but interesting listen.

3/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai – G3 Live in Concert (1997)

JOE SATRIANI, ERIC JOHNSON, STEVE VAI – G3 Live in Concert (1997 Epic)

It took me 21 years to finally buy this CD.  Why?  It was hard to get excited about three live Satch songs, three live Vai songs, and so on.  But a collector needs to catch ’em all, and it’s actually a pretty fabulous listen throughout.

Joe Satriani opens the set with “Cool No. 9” from his self-titled blues album.  Blues to Joe Satriani is a different kind of animal.  It’s trick-laden and thick with notes, although this doesn’t mean light on feel.  His landmark classic “Flying in a Blue Dream” is more what people expect from Joe.  I like to describe his albums as regular vocal rock records, just with the lead guitar singing the melody instead of a person.  I think I stole that description from Joe himself.  You can’t really call “Flying” a ballad but it sure is epic.  Finally it’s “Summer Song”, Joe’s big 1992 hit from The Extemist.  It doesn’t get more accessible for instrumental guitar rock.  Joe’s actually the perfect artist to open this CD for that reason.  His music, more than most instrumentalists, is door-opening for listeners.

The sublime Eric Johnson is in the middle position.  “Zap” is a tour-de-force of instrumental prowess, built into the framework of a nice shuffle.  Though you can certainly bop along if you like, the musicianship here is not for the timid.  “Camel’s Night Out” is a busy groover.  One of Johnson’s best tunes ever has to be “Manhattan”, which goes down unbelievably smooth live.  The playing is lyrical and warm.

Steve Vai’s threesome includes “Answers” and “For the Love of God” from Passion & Warfare.  “Answers” is one of Vai’s more challenging songs, fast and funky with weird tones and melodies.  This is probably the most blistering song on the whole disc, including a solo that isn’t in the studio version.  For all that, “For the Love of God” is the most awe-inspiring.  This ballad puts the passion in Passion and Warfare.  This is the one with Steve’s soul in it, every bend and every beat.  “The Attitude Song” is an oldie from the first Vai album Flex-able, just a solid rocker with some shredding.  Live it is much heavier than the tinny studio cut.

Finally, there is a trio of tunes with the three maestros playing together, as is the G3 tradition.  The blues standard “Going Down” is a typical jam, with Joe on vocals.  Then a tribute to Steve’s mentor, Frank Zappa, on “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” with everyone singing…and shredding.  Finally, Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” finishes the CD with Eric Johnson on lead vocals.  Of these three tracks, “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” smokes the other two.

May as well pick up the original G3 CD if you find it in the wild.  It’s good stuff.

3.5/5 stars

Just Listening to…Styx – The Serpent is Rising

Just Listening to…Styx – The Serpent is Rising

For Christmas this year, my beautiful wife bought me not one, not two, not three, but four Styx albums!  This was easier than it sounds, because 1) I have an Amazon wishlist, and 2) the first four Styx albums were handily reissued together in a 2CD set called The Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings.  I hadn’t heard any of these albums in full before Christmas.  All four albums were quite good, but the third, The Serpent is Rising, was especially intriguing to me.

I played the four albums in order, recognising a few songs and absorbing others for the first time.  After two full albums and over an hour of progressive rock, I was struck by a song so odd that I had to remove my headphones and check my computer to see what was going on.  Did a Youtube video somehow start playing in the background?  What I was hearing…did not sound like what I had heard!

Would you believe that way back in 1973, Styx were playing around with hidden tracks on albums?  On CD, the track came up with the name “As Bad as This”, written and sung by guitarist John Curulewski.  It is a low, bluesy lament, contrasting some of other more complex songs like “The Grove of Eglantine”.  When “As Bad as This” comes to a close, the last thing you’d expect to follow is a song about plexiglas toilets.

“Don’t sit down on de plexiglas toilet, said the mama to her son.  Wipe the butt clean with the paper, make it nice for everyone.”  All done acoustically in a really bad Caribbean accent.  I am not joking.  The hidden track “Plexiglas Toilet” is over two minutes of pure silliness.  I admit that I love it; it fits my sense of humour.  But this never, ever, ever should been on a progressive rock album!  How?  Why?  And it’s right smack in the middle!  It sits at the very end of side two of The Serpent is Rising!

Toilets aside, The Serpent is Rising is otherwise a pretty strong Styx album.   They were getting more diverse record by record, and their chops kept getting better.  Depending on the kind of Styx you like, the best song could be “Winner Take All” for its pop choruses, or the prowlin’ “Witch Wolf”.  But they really didn’t have a direction yet.  There’s rock, pop, blues, weird spoken bits, plexiglas toilets, and Handel’s Messiah.

The album is not cohesive at all, but a lovely gift it is!

Side one
1. “Witch Wolf” 3:57
2. “The Grove of Eglantine” 5:00
3. “Young Man” 4:45
4. “As Bad as This”
a. “As Bad as This” – 3:45
b. “Plexiglas Toilet” (Hidden Track) – 2:22

Side two
1. “Winner Take All” 3:10
2. “22 Years” 3:39
3. “Jonas Psalter” 4:41
4. “The Serpent Is Rising” 4:55
5. “Krakatoa” 1:36
6. “Hallelujah Chorus” 2:14

REVIEW: Styx – Regeneration Volume II (2011)

STYX – Regeneration Volume II (2011 Eagle Rock)

Long nights, impossible odds?  If you wanna discuss impossible odds, then let’s discuss re-recording your old hits.  It’s not usually a good idea.  In Styx’s case, it gave them a chance to sell some product while out on tour, but the new versions are no replacements for the old.

“Blue Collar Man” has that big fat organ riff, but it’s…different.  Technology can’t reproduce magic, and the original “Blue Collar Man” was pure magic.  It’s also missing Dennis DeYoung’s inimitable backing vocals.  The current Styx sure can sing, but Dennis’ voice was a big part of the chorus.  “Renegade” is more successful.  Todd Sucherman really stretches out on the drums.  The kid’s got talent!

James Young’s “Miss America” has more bite than the original.  “Snowblind” benefits from the re-recording, having more depth now.  Styx also get points for redoing “Queen of Spades”, now starring Lawrence Gowan.  Styx have plenty of hits, but just as important to fans are the deeper cuts.  Any time they get a little more spotlight is a good time.  “Queen of Spades” rocks regally, riffy and progressive.   “Boat on a River” is pretty authentic to the original, while “Too Much Time on My Hands” has some different keyboard flare.  Both are worthy inclusions.  This isn’t to say any of these versions are superior to the originals.  That’s impossible.  This is just to say they are enjoyable to listen to.

The bait to buy the re-recordings are two Damn Yankees songs:  “Coming of Age” and (of course) “High Enough”.  Styx have been known to perform “High Enough” in concert, but what are they like without Jack Blades and Ted Nugent?  Surprisingly good.  Styx can handle the singing, and James Young can riff and wail with the best of ’em.  “High Enough” in particular sounds great.  Lush and with more balls.

Interestingly enough, it looks like all the guys recorded their parts in different studios, all over the place.  Gowan was recorded in Toronto, and of interest to Rush fans is that Terry Brown co-engineered his parts.  The marvels of the modern world.

3/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Styx – Regeneration Volume I (2010)

STYX – Regeneration Volume I (2010 Eagle Rock)

I know what you’re thinking.  “Styx re-recordings?  Why the  hell do I need those?”

You don’t.  That’s why they added a new song (“Difference in the World”) exclusive to this set.

Initially, the EP Regeneration Volume I was sold exclusively online and at Styx concerts, but it was reissued with Volume II to regular retail as a double CD set.  Volume II has its own exclusives, which will be discussed in a separate review.  Aside from the cleaner sound, the most obvious difference is the more modern drumming by Todd Sucherman.  Original drummer John Panozzo had his own style and the difference is obvious.  That’s neither good nor bad; just an observation.

“Difference in the World” is a melancholy but good song.  Styx have a lot of good songs.  Tommy Shaw wrote another one.  There you go.

“The Grand Illusion” features singer Lawrence Gowan on an old Dennis DeYoung classic.  Considering how long Gowan has been with Styx now (almost 20 years!), it is justifiable to re-record old songs with him on a low-key release such as this.  It’s harder to justify Tommy Shaw’s “Sing For the Day” and “Fooling Yourself” which are damn near note-for-note accurate to the originals.  Tommy’s orchestral re-imaginings on his solo live album Sing For the Day! are a lot more interesting.  The biggest difference are Gowan’s backing vocals.  Put these versions in a Styx shuffle and they won’t be too obtrusive.

James Young takes the lead on “Lorelei”.  Of the re-recordings, “Lorelei” is clearly the best.  Dennis DeYoung sang the original, but James sings it live today since he’s the co-writer.  Doing a studio version with James is more than justified.   “Crystal Ball” is still as epic as it ever was, but has more edge with modern production.  The guitar solo is to die for.

What about “Come Sail Away”?  Unnecessary and perhaps detrimental to this EP.  Doing it live without Dennis is one thing.  It’s not a song you want to leave a Styx concert without hearing.  Gowan’s fine, but redoing this one in the studio can never live up to the original in any way, and you’re digging your own hole by even trying.  Magic cannot be recreated, only imitated.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Styx – Caught in the Act – Live (1984)

For Deke’s review at Arena Rock, click here!

 

STYX – Caught in the Act – Live (1984 A&M, 2018 BGO reissue)

“Hey everybody it’s Music Time!”

Sorta, anyway!  Styx were just about toast after “Mr. Roboto“, and Tommy Shaw didn’t want to sing any more songs about androids.  (Mars, however, was fine.)  He departed to check out some Girls With Guns, but not before Styx put out one more product before hiatus.  That would be the traditional double live album, which was actually Styx’s first.

Styx have lots of live albums now, but only two with Dennis DeYoung.  Caught in the Act is essential for a few key reasons.  It sounds great although there are clearly overdubs in places.  It is the only one with the classic lineup of DeYoung/Shaw/James “JY” Young/Chuck Panozzo/John Panozzo.  And it has plenty of classic Styx songs that still shake the radio waves today.

Like many live albums, Caught in the Act contained one new song.  Dennis DeYoung wrote the uppity “Music Time”, a very New Wave single without much of the punch of old Styx.  Shaw was so nauseated that he barely participated in the music video.  “Music Time” isn’t one of Styx’s finest songs.  It’s passable but clearly a misstep.  No wonder it was a final straw of sorts for Tommy Shaw.

With that out of the way, on with the show.  Styx opened the set with “Mr. Roboto”, a mega hit that got a bad rap over the years until nostalgia made it OK to like it again.  Fortunately only two songs from Kilroy Was Here were included, the ballad “Don’t Let It End” being the other.  Live, “Roboto” pulses with energy, far more than you would expect.  The disco-like synthetic beats complement the techno-themed lyrics.  Every hook is delivered with precision.  With the human factor that comes out in a live recording, “Roboto” could be one of those songs that is actually better live.

Styx have always been a diverse act, and this album demonstrates a few sides of the band.  Shaw and Young tended to write rockers, and “Too Much Time On My Hands”, “Miss America”, “Snowblind”, “Rockin’ the Paradise” and especially “Blue Collar Man” are prime examples of the best kind.  Long nights, impossible odds…yet a killer set of rock tunes.  Then there are the ballads.  “Babe” is a slow dancing classic, and “The Best of Times” is even better.  Finally, the tunes that verge on progressive epics: “Suite Madame Blue”, “Crystal Ball” and “Come Sail Away” have the pompous complexity that punk rockers hated so much.  This album is a shining live recreation of some of rock’s most beloved music.

The 2018 CD reissue on BGO Records sounds brilliant with depth, and has a nice outer slipcase.  You’ll also get a nice thick full colour booklet with photos and an essay that goes right up to 2017’s The Mission.  BGO is a well known, respected label.  This reissue is a must.

4.5/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Styx – Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology (2004)

STYX – Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology (2004 A&M)

Styx need to get their albums remastered and reissued pronto.  In the meantime, you can Come Sail Away with The Styx Anthology.

The great thing about the Styx Anthology is that it covers virtually all Styx history, even the first four albums on Wooden Nickel records.  Each one of those early albums is represented by a track (two for Styx II).  Those early albums had some good material on them that usually only diehards get to hear.  “Best Thing” and “You Need Love” are bright and rocking, just like you expect from Styx.  “Winner Take All” and “Rock & Roll Feeling” are consistent toe-tappers.  The jovial harmonies, and lead vocals (by Dennis DeYoung and James “JY” Young) on these tracks could easily be mistaken for later, more famous Styx.  Don’t forget the original version of “Lady” from Styx II, their first big ballad.  Styx’s flair for the dramatic was there right from the first.  (Remember “Lady” as performed by the Dan Band in the movie Old School?)

Shortly thereafter Styx signed with A&M.  1975’s Equinox boasted hits galore.  You should know “Light Up” and “Lorelei”.  But Equinox was their last with founding guitarist John Curulewski.  He was replaced by a guitarist with prodigious talent and a voice to go with it:  Tommy Shaw.  Shaw’s “Crystal Ball” is one of the best songs from the album of the same title.  “Mademoiselle” and “Shooz” are not far behind.

Styx enjoyed an abnormally long period of great, classic albums in a row.  After Crystal Ball came The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone and Paradise Theatre.  With a solid lineup they continued to crank out radio staples.  Their music became grander and more conceptual thanks to Dennis DeYoung.  Tommy Shaw and JY tended to provide balance with rockier songs.  Songs like Dennis’ “The Grand Illusion” are balanced out by Young’s “Miss America” and Shaw’s “Renegade”.  Sure, Shaw could write a ballad or two, but his are more rootsy like the acoustic “Boat on a River”.

Through “Come Sail Away”, “Babe”, “The Best of Times” and “Too Much Time on My Hands”, it is impossible to understate how hit-laden this CD set is.  “Blue Collar Man”, “Rockin’ the Paradise”…it’s seemingly endless!

Until it ends, right after “Mr. Roboto”.  Though their lineup was stable, Styx were volatile.  DeYoung was fired at one point for being too controlling.  Shaw threatened to quit if the song “First Time” was ever released as a single (it wasn’t and it’s not on here).  It came to a head for real with “Roboto”, from 1983’s Kilroy Was Here.  Though it went to #3, the tour did poorly and the band were not happy with DeYoung and his rock operatics.  Tommy Shaw stated that he couldn’t get into songs about robots (long before he wrote an album about Mars).  The Styx Anthology cuts you a break by not subjecting you to their last single before splitting, “Music Time”.

When Styx reformed in 1990 it was without Shaw, who was doing very well in the supergroup Damn Yankees.  He was replaced by singer/guitarist Glen Burtnik.  Burtnik’s single “Love is the Ritual” is a jarring change.  The seven years between it and “Roboto” are audible, as Styx forged a clear hard rock sound with the single.  Sporting synth bass and shouted “Hey!’s”, you couldn’t get further from the core Styx sound than “Love is the Ritual”.  With the new member singing, it’s hard to hear any similarity to Styx at all.  Dennis’ “Show Me the Way” has proven to be a more timeless song.  Although it resonated with Americans at the time of the Gulf War, today it is just a great song about keeping the faith.

Styx split again, but reformed with Shaw in 1995.  Unfortunately, founding drummer John Panozzo died from years of alcohol abuse and was replaced by the incredible Todd Sucherman.  “Dear John” is Sucherman’s first appearance on the disc, a tribute to Panozzo.  The somber Tommy Shaw ballad (from 1997’s Return to Paradise) simply had to be included on a Styx anthology.  The only Styx studio album ignored on the set is 1999’s Brave New World, and rightfully so.  Instead we leap ahead in time for the final song, featuring yet another lineup change, and one of the most significant.  Dennis DeYoung was let go and replaced by Canadian solo star Lawrence Gowan.  This has proven to be a fortuitous undertaking for both Styx and Gowan.  Gowan plays keyboards on “One With Everything” (from 2003’s Cyclorama), an epic six minute Tommy Shaw progressive workout.  It’s a brilliant song, and a perfect indication that for Styx, a whole new chapter had opened.*

Do yourself a favour. Go and buy Styx’s new album The Mission, and put The Styx Anthology in the basket too.  Then enjoy, and congratulate yourself for a great start on your Styx collection!

5/5 stars

* Two more lineup changes:  when bassist Chuck Panozzo fell ill, he became a part time bassist for Styx.  Glen Burtnik returned on bass this time and played on Cyclorama.  When he left again, he was replaced by Ricky Phillips from Coverdale-Page.