Ricky Phillips

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

 

 

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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 – The Mission (2017)

STYX – The Mission (2017 Universal)

Did anyone in 2017 expect Styx to come out with one of the best albums of the year?  Even though Styx have successfully carried on with Lawrence (But You Can Call Me Larry) Gowan on keys and vocals, nobody really predicted this!  Yet here it is:  The Mission, surely one of the best albums of the year so far,* and the best Styx in decades.

Here’s another unexpected twist:  The Mission is a concept album about colonizing Mars!  It has a coherent story and recurring hooks.  In many ways The Mission sounds like a lost album from Styx’s progressive rock heyday.  But you wouldn’t guess that if you only heard the Gowan-sung lead single “Gone Gone Gone”.  Although it’s about a rocket launch, you might not catch that on first listen.  The year is 2033.  “Light it up, let’s get this show on the road!”  This hard rocker came out of nowhere as one of the big surprises this summer.

“Hundred Million Miles From Home” (vocals by Tommy Shaw) has a funkier 70s groove.**  When the band harmonizes together, it sounds like vintage Styx.   “Hundred Million Miles” is a great song and also fairly accurate.  Mars was 100 million miles away from Earth as recently as the 2012 opposition.  Problems happen on “Trouble at the Big Show” (vocals by James “JY” Young), a slower groove with killer bluesy guitar work.  This moves into the ballad “Locomotive”, about the brave pilot of the ship Khedive.  Shaw pours passion into it, as he does the next one “Radio Silence”.  Just as interesting as the actual music is the spacey backing sounds.  It certainly adds atmosphere to an excellent vintage sounding song.  “Radio Silence” recalls some of Shaw’s 70s hits like “Boat on a River” at times.

Gowan returns to the microphone on the lovely piano ballad “The Greater Good”.  It sounds like quintessential Styx; hit quality material with soul.  Things start to get upbeat again on “Time May Bend” (another Gowan vocal).  If you’re not familiar with Lawrence Gowan, he is not a Dennis DeYoung clone, sounding closer to Steve Hogarth of Marillion.  (He even looks a little like “H”.)  Listen for a subtle musical “S.O.S.” signal in the backing track.

There are musical segues and radio voices between some tracks, but  “Red Storm” is the next full song. It’s a very progressive song with all the trimmings.  It’s based on Tommy Shaw’s excellent acoustic work, and it paints a picture.  The crew of the Khedive must brave a dust storm on the surface of Mars.  “Carry what you can, there’s no turning back, gonna make it to the mothership.”  There are avante-garde flashes of guitar noise that emulates the squeals of a radio, or perhaps metal on metal.  Then a rocking riff and solo…”Red Storm” has it all.

Gowan absolutely proves his mettle on the piano opus “Khedive”.  The blur of piano recalls classical compositions, and the guitar solo is pure Queen.  The minimal vocals continue the story:  “Onwards!  Onwards!”  Then we revisit the sounds of the 80s on “The Outpost”, the triumphant conclusion to the story.  The 80s synth and beats remind of the classic “Mr. Roboto” period of Styx, but it rocks solidly too.  Listen for a reprise of the “Overture” music from the start for the album.  Finally “Mission to Mars” is the denouement, a bright and lively end.

The Mission is brilliant for a number of reasons.  First and foremost — great songs.  You will play The Mission over and over, simply because it has great songs, as good as the days of old.  Second, although Lawrence Gowan has his stamp all over the album, it sounds like Styx and nobody else.  Having Gowan more involved is a good thing.  He has a 40 year career in Canada, and he didn’t have enough time on the Cyclorama (2003) album.  But this sounds way more like Styx than Cyclorama did.  Finally, this album is loaded with incredible playing by all the members.  This is easily the best lineup Styx have had since Kilroy Was Here (1983).***    Fans of the guitar (both electric and acoustic) will find many moments of musical ecstasy.

For Styx, this is mission accomplished!

5/5 stars

* One of the best album covers too.  Is that a port hole, or a turntable?  You decide.  

** Bassist Chuck Panozzo plays the funky bass on “Hundred Million Miles From Home”, his only appearance.  Chuck, the other original member besides JY, is only able to make sporadic appearances with Styx due to his battle with AIDS.  Ricky Phillips plays the rest of the bass parts, meaning Styx have two official bassists!

*** Lawrence Gowan (piano/vocals), Tommy Shaw (guitar/vocals), James “JY” Young (guitar/vocals), Todd Sucherman (drums), Ricky Phillips & Chuck Panozzo (bass)

REVIEW: Coverdale/Page – Coverdale/Page (1993)

COV PAGE_0001COVERDALE-PAGE:  Coverdale-Page (1993 Geffen)

Following the demise of Whitesnake and the failure of Zeppelin to mount a 1991 tour in support of their first box set, it was almost inevitable what happened next. It was something that many Zeppelin fans feared. Lead Snake David Coverdale, who was once derided as “David Coverversion” by Robert Plant, joined Plant’s erstwhile bandmate Jimmy Page in a new supergroup. Geffen’s John Kalodner (John Kalodner) helped facilitate this move which should have generated sales over 10 million units. Unfortunately another thing also happened in 1991: grunge.

The shame of it is that Coverdale-Page is a stunning rock album.   For years it haunted my bargain bins, simply because of the hard rock stigma that permeated the 1990’s.  Many fans refused to listen to it, others simply chose to mock superficial elements of it, such as Coverdale’s man-shrieks.  The fact that Page was looking and sounding great should be enough to warrant multiple listens by any serious rock fan.  He hadn’t released any new material since 1988’s Outrider.  As for Coverdale, it was a chance to get back to his bluesy rock roots, something he expressed a desire to do shortly after Whitesnake’s dissolution.

The studio band weren’t hacks either.  Ricky Phillips had played bass with Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain in Bad English, and he’s been in Styx for ages now.  Drummer Denny Carmassi was in Montrose (that’s him on the cover of the classic 1973 self-titled record) among many stellar bands, and he later did a stint in Whitesnake itself.  Coverdale and Page co-produced the album with veteran Mike Fraser.

Finally, the most important elements were also in place:  the songs.  11 songs, most in the 5-6 minute range, make up Coverdale-Page.  Those expecting or even hoping for a Zeppelin album were bound to be disappointed.  Despite the “Coverversion” nickname, Cov the Gov is his own person and persona.  Singing over Pagey’s classic Zeppish riffs does not a Zeppelin make.  Rather, Page and Coverdale comingle over their common ground, and naturally there are elements that have a Whitesnake aura.  To expect otherwise would be folly.

“Shake My Tree” was the perfect opener.  Pagey’s tricky little licks have that familiar sound, immediately.  Then the great lothario Cov the Gov starts howlin’…the stage was set within the first minute of the album.  The closest comparison I can think of would be “Slow An’ Easy” in terms of overall vibe.  Just replace Moody’ slide guitar with Jimmy’s intricate chicken pickin’.  David’s lyrics were as naughty as ever.  It must have burned Robert Plant’s ass to have to sing it when he reunited with Jimmy later on himself.  He seemed to be freestyling it quite a bit with David’s lyrics, barely sticking to the words at all!

“Waiting On You” would have been a radio-ready single.  It has that kind of smoking hard rock riff, a killer of a chorus, and great vocals.  Coverdale’s no poet, but I dig his words.  “Ever since I started drinkin’, my ship’s been slowly sinkin’, so tell me what a man’s supposed to do.”  Well, let me tell you David.  1) Drinking and boating is against the law, just like drinking and driving.  2) Put on your goddamn life vest!

I hesitate to call “Take Me A Little While” a ballad.  I mean, it is a ballad, but it’s also a pretty good bluesy workout for David.  It’s a little classier than the average “power ballad”, because hey…it’s Jimmy Page.  It doesn’t sound like other ballads by other bands, because not too many bands have Jimmy Page.  His playing and writing are unlike anyone else’s, he is one of the most recognizable musicians in rock and roll.

“Pride And Joy” was the first single, and what a single it was.  It starts off swampy and acoustic, before Jimmy’s big Les Paul announces its presence with some big chords.  Then David’s back in lothario-land, seducing “daddy’s little princess, Momma’s pride and joy.”  Despite the lyrics, the song’s still a stunner.  “Over Now” is also cool; a thinly veiled attack on Tawny Kitaen.

You told me of your innocence,
An’ I believed it all,
But your best friend is your vanity,
And the mirror on the wall.

It doesn’t get any nicer from there, but musically this is one of the most Zeppelin-ish songs.  While you can’t compare it to any specific song in the Zeppelin oeuvre, but it’s there in that slow relentless drum beat, the orchestration, and Pagey’s unorthodox guitar.

The closest thing to filler on Coverdale-Page is “Feeling Hot”.  It’s not outstanding, but it does show off the faster side of Jimmy’s playing.  It’s akin to “Wearing and Tearing” but with naughtier lyrics.  Once again it is Jimmy’s playing that I’m tuned in to.  That continues with “Easy Does It” which begins acoustically.  Like most acoustic moments on the album (and like Zeppelin), Jimmy’s guitar is recorded in layers, giving it real heft.  This all changes halfway through the song, when Jimmy’s Les Paul once again takes center stage.  Then it transforms into a bluesy prowl.

Possibly the most commercial song is “Take A Look At Yourself”.  Not a bad song, but definitely the most “pop rock”.  It’s probably closest to a Whitesnake song such as “The Deeper The Love”.  Had the year been 1990 or even 1991, “Take A Look At Yourself” would have been a top charting single everywhere.  David seems to have cheered up with new found love here.  However the heartbreak is not over.  “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is about as earnest as it gets.  At 8 minutes, it’s also the most ambitious song.  It’s the centerpiece of the album.  It sounds at once like it’s the most sincere song, showcasing some of Jimmy Page’s best post-Zeppelin guitar work.   As for David, he’s never sung better.

“Absolution Blues” begins similarly to “In The Evening”.  Fading in are layers of atmospheric guitars as only Jimmy plays them.  These give way to the fastest, heaviest song on the album.  It’s also one of my favourites.  You you can hear the elements of Jimmy and David separately, but working together.  The song goes through numerous changes before returning to that riff.  If you thought Jimmy Page had already written every great riff in Led Zeppelin, think again.  It’s “Black Dog” sped up to ludicrous speed.

Album closer “Whisper A Prayer For the Dying” is as cheerful and uplifting as the title alludes.  It’s has an epic quality and length like “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, but this time the lyrics are less personal and more topical.  David laments the innocent casualties of modern warfare, and refers to politicians as “bodyguards of lies”.  While certainly not profound, it’s refreshing to hear Coverdale change the bloody subject away from the female of the species every now and again.  Profound or not, I’m certain that it was heartfelt, and musically it kicks ass.  It’s also a perfect album closer for a dark and brooding record like this.  So there.

Hugh Syme (Rush) did the artwork.  Say what you will about the bland cover itself, but I like the way he used the “merge” sign much like the “object” was in the artwork for Presence.  And like many Zeppelin albums, there are no pictures of the artists anywhere.

The year 1993 was not a kind one to singers of Coverdale’s ilk.  Most of his competition had been replaced by Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, and Kurt Cobain.  One way or the other, the Coverdale-Page tour was not doing enough business and the plug was pulled.  David has since mentioned that he and Page had more songs, enough to get started on a second album.  He’s also expressed a desire to release those songs on some kind of deluxe edition reissue.  I hope that happens.  I’d buy Coverdale-Page again.  It would only be the third time.

4.5/5 stars

More COVERDALE at mikeladano.com:

Snakebite – Come An’ Get It – Slide It In – Whitesnake (1987) – Live at Donnington – Good to be Bad – Forevermore

More ZEPPELIN too:

Self-titled box setBox Set 2The Complete Studio Recordings