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Styx - Cornerstone CD (album) cover




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2.67 | 171 ratings

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4 stars What's not to like?

Sadly "Cornerstone" turned some people off of Styx which is really a shame. Sad, because it remains a fine slab of art-pop/rock and features some of the band's most diverse offerings. It also exposed some fissures in the Styxian terra which were unnecessary because there really was no musical crisis here. While DeYoung's desire to branch out a bit into romantic territories somehow threatened the testosterone section of the group, the album remains filled with the Styx spirit. I have the sense that Dennis was still stoked with positive energy, and had Tommy and James not thrown their hissy (and temporarily fired him) some of the coming decline caused by animosity could have been avoided. Tommy and JY wanted to compete more with their hard rock heroes but this was always a flawed strategy. In my high school and I'm sure others, Styx was never competing with the hard rock/metal kids anyway, but with the middle ground who were not afraid to love Boston, Foreigner, or Journey. And there were just as many of them as there were Angus and Nugent fans. The self-inflicted handwringing was taken too far, as their own sound was just as valid, and 30 years on it means more to me than anything from the Motor City Madman. Even if Styx had truly exiled or neutered Dennis, the really hard-rock lovin' kids were never going to accept a Shaw/Young band as something equal to Zeppelin, Rush, Nugent, or Sabbath. And frankly, without Dennis, those albums would never have been half as good as they were.

It's been many decades since I first listened to Styx and really hadn't listened to them much since the 80s, as my interests in other music took off. Lately I have been going through grief and tumultuous times by any standard, temporarily losing the need for anything dark or difficult from music. I chose to revisit this old band from the Midwest and discovered the core body of work far more impressive than history credits them for. The fans knew however, as this was the 3rd of 4 triple-platinum albums in a row. But to this day the band remains largely maligned by the rock press, proggers, administrative assistants, and barkeeps. All so unnecessary. It was good clean fun, great energetic melodic rock, and it remains so. Yeah, even Cornerstone.

More succinct, with more acoustic guitar and Rhodes keys the sound is more velvety, seemingly more "pop" and yet there is much more going on here. "Lights" is such an uplifting opener, Shaw singing passionately about the energy he gets from live performance. The harmonies are fantastic and it's almost impossible for me not to sing along (which is a frightening premise, I understand). Colorful instrumental overdubs are all over the place adding much life to these tracks so often dismissed. "Why Me" starts very Dennis-like quirky but goes into a nice sax/electric guitar trade, the lyrics somehow seeming a contrasting revisit to his "I'm Okay" optimism. Then came the song that elicited so many silly howls of protest, the big hit single "Babe." My oh my, the uproar! Apparently masculinities were threatened for the cool set. You'd think Roger Waters had left Pink Floyd and they continued without him or something. In truth it's really just a nice love song which along with "First Time" was Dennis indulging his McCartney appreciation. The song is a wonderful update of "Lady" in some ways. The chord progression is just killer in the chorus, that dip in there which introduces a bit of dark blue to the valentine, it's such good songwriting. Then he lets in Tommy with that well composed melodic solo. It's not supposed to be Hendrix, guys. Yet the whole album gets urine sprayed by legions of people. Shaw does slip up once with "Never Say Never" which gives hints of the mediocrity he was capable of, but he quickly redeems himself with "Boat on the River," a Styx fan favorite which also scored as a single with European audiences. A nice departure, it closes side 1 with a folk-tinged mandolin piece, filled with yearning vocals, accordion, and traditional bass. Interestingly, some in their management did not want Boat on the album, and it was DeYoung who chest-thumped on Tommy's behalf and said Shaw's track would appear or else. Teamwork. Styx was so good when they worked together.

"Borrowed Time" is a great lead-off for side two, pure classic Styx working as a band still. The energy level is very high here and I swear you can hear a little influence of Glam running through it. It's one of their best songs bar none. It was not "Babe" so much as "First Time" that really irked Tommy and JY, Tommy would call the song "moving in on Barry Manilow territory." While it was overreach on Dennis' part and got him fired briefly, the fact remains that it was but one song on an album with nine tracks. Hardly worth the mouthfoaming it brought on, though Dennis should have known better as the song is really weak. It would have been far more fruitful for the band to continue working together than divide into camps as they did. JY's "Eddie" provides the most hard rock on this album as he throws in some driving guitar-synthesizer lines. Tommy closes the album with a dark and heavy confessional called "Love in the Midnight." Shaw was the bad boy in Styx amongst mostly family men. His musical frustrations were manifesting in cocaine and ladies to a larger degree and here he discusses his "ravenous" late night self. It features some nice proggy instrumental dressings but mostly it is the vocal that sells it. I can see Tommy singing this one and whenever that vein pops WAY out on his neck, you know a good vocal is coming. Great closer. I'm floored when people continue to say this album is full of soft ballads. What album are they listening to? About two of the nine tracks fit that description, but much of this album rocks, exudes good energy, or is just plain diverse, ala the folk-vibe of Boat.

So if you enjoy Styx but always avoided "Cornerstone" because of its reputation, do give it a chance. Seven of the nine tracks are very worthwhile for Styxians and about half are truly superb. While the party was almost over, Styx would have one more trick up its sleeve, the grandiose and symbolic farewell "Paradise Theater." 3 stars rounding up for me.

Finnforest | 4/5 |


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