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Styx - Styx CD (album) cover




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2.80 | 125 ratings

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3 stars Debut of a great American band

Sadly, Styx suffers a bad reputation going all the way back to rock writers of their day. Sadly I say, because in my opinion, when one delves into their entire catalog as opposed to judging them by their radio hits, one finds a very good Midwestern American rock band who delivered colorful and exciting pop, rock, and even some prog (or art-rock if you prefer.) The snooty critics hated them back then and it seems that many of the same complaints get regurgitated and absorbed by people as they grow up, and I think it is sad for people who may have otherwise liked the music were it not for groupthink and their reputation as 'less cool' than other rock bands. Their beginnings go way back to the Chicago of the early 1960s when DeYoung met the Panozzos, barely teenagers, and they would toil in some form for a decade before becoming Styx and releasing this album. The first four Styx albums were released by Wooden Nickel Records and feel very different from their later, world famous albums released by A&M.

Back before the Tommy Shaw era, Dennis DeYoung and James Young shared creative duties with the turbulent and experimental personality of guitarist John Curulewski. They were young and working together, the result being a true band feel as opposed to later when material was often written individually and there was less camaraderie. The young Styx was hungry, they rocked hard, and there was a real spirit of adventure. While there are a few duds in the Wooden Nickel era, as a whole this material is surprisingly strong, edgy, and well worth investigation. Doing so has never been so easy and economical, as there is a new two-disc set which includes all four albums in great remastered sound, with new liner notes and some bonus tracks, for a very good price. (If you wait until this goes out of print, you may have to again pay big bucks to hear this music).

To begin, let me just say that if you've never heard the Wooden Nickel era, you don't really know jack about Styx. This era of the band has more in common with Deep Purple, Wishbone Ash, or Skynryd than it does with the group's popular late 70s era. There are flavors of British progressive rock, hard rock, blues, and Southern rock. James Young brought the hard rock to the table, while Curulewski brought progressive curiosity and great guitar work, and DeYoung was honing his ballads and theatrical tendencies while still thoroughly pumping the band's sound full of swirly organ, synth, piano, and even harpsichord. The Panozzo brothers may not have been musically gifted as other 70s rhythm sections but they certainly go the job done.

Martin Huxley describes the debut as 'an early blueprint for the quintet's blend of synthesizer driven art-prog and fist-pumping hard rock.' It included 'Best Thing' which was the original song that first caught the attention of Wooden Nickel's Bill Traut, specifically for the 'striking' voices of DeYoung and Young working together. Traut was smart enough to realize that while the band had aspirations of ELP and Yes, the musicians did not possess quite the same chops, and he brought in some people to help Styx define their sound and audience. While the band were not always thrilled with decisions that were made, there is little doubt Traut deserves some credit for his confidence in the band. He also provided the band name in a memorable way. The guys could not agree on what the new name should be and were tired of fighting about it, but Traut insisted their old name TW4 had to go. So they challenged Traut to pick the name and they would vote. He called his friend who was a heavy pot smoker and creative when he was high. He told him to smoke a joint and come up with 50 names by morning. The guy obliged and Styx was one of five that Traut picked and sent to the boys for review.

The debut completely stiffed and is derided by many, including members of the group. But I happen to love its blend of 'rock with feeling' and artsy pretension. The music rocks and is filled with color and personality. That is what I love about Styx when boiled down to the core. Color, good melody, and personality. They rock, they entertain, and they have this indefinable Midwest quality and work ethic. I love the blistering guitar work of JY on the highlight track, the 13-minute 'Movement for the Common Man.' There's a neat little sound collage where some old guys from the Depression era talk about the youth of the day. There's a beautiful closing section in 'Mother Nature's Matinee' where the synth and acoustic guitar come together with DeYoung's voice. It's not a perfect track by any means but it is entertaining and shows the various weapons the group possessed. The other tracks are very raw and garage but one must remember this was their first crack at the studio. For what it was, the results are very good in my opinion. There is a good amount of melody and energy despite the rather low budget feel overall.

I find the Wooden Nickel albums to be tremendously enjoyable and absolutely worth checking out, if you enjoy hard rock mixed with art-rock ambition. The early Styx albums are a bit like the early Billy Joel albums prior to 'The Stranger.' Not similar in their sound but similar in the way they are less realized, grittier works with some real gems hidden amongst a few clunkers. The first album however contains no clunkers to me personally, probably my favorite of the bunch. Then again, I often love the naivety and joy of debut albums. 3.5 stars.

Yes, I like 70s Styx. I even like Dennis. I will no longer live in shame.

Finnforest | 3/5 |


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