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Styx - Pieces Of Eight CD (album) cover




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3.61 | 260 ratings

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3 stars In the field of progressive jazz/rock fusion in the 70s the USA team led and the rest of the world followed. However, when it came to symphonic prog we had little to offer. As I've written before, if it weren't for the band Kansas this country would've had no response whatsoever to what the progmen of the United Kingdom and Europe were creating and exporting for our hungry ears to ravenously consume. I guess if there's a prize for coming in second because there were no other contestants then Styx would qualify for the runner-up trophy by default. Despite many attempts on my own to come up with a unifying theory as to why we never gave birth to a bonafide champion group in that category to compete with the likes of Yes, Jethro Tull and Genesis I concede defeat. I can't offer a satisfactory answer. The bottom line is this: No matter your personal opinion of Styx, they pretty much represent the gist of our national contribution to the symphonic prog cause and they're to be commended accordingly. It is what it is and they are what they are. Now, saying that doesn't mean we reviewers are at all obliged to give them one iota of slack. They still have to be held accountable for what they did and didn't do. Packed arenas and platinum record sales have never been automatics for garnering respect nor accolades in the prog rock community so their success is considered inadmissible evidence in the court system we adhere to in these parts. "Pieces of Eight" will stand or fall on its own merits (or lack thereof). Keep in mind, I never was much of a Styx fan and have only recently gotten aurally familiar with their most recognized albums but I feel that my indifference actually benefits being objective and unbiased in an assessment of their art.

One must admit that their biography is interesting. Over the course of a decade they scratched and clawed their way up from garage band oblivion to attain worldwide recognition with the original five guys intact before one got burned out and was replaced by a fellow named Tommy Shaw. That change proved to be the final piece of the puzzle. Soon fate propelled them into the ranks of the rich and famous via the runaway popularity of their breakthrough LP, "The Grand Illusion," with its proggy anthem "Come Sail Away" ruthlessly conquering the airways as if they were America's long-awaited answer to Emerson, Lake and Palmer. They instantly became the darlings of the rock crowd and this, their highly-anticipated follow-up record, stormed into the top ten of the album charts shortly after its release.

It opens with guitarist James Young's "Great White Hope," featuring a rumbling rock motif that supports a boxing match announcer's shouted buildup of the song's fantasized main event. The aggressive mien gives this number a bold persona and the layered harmonies behind Young's shouted "Look at me!" braggadocio are striking. It makes for a good start, yet I'd be derelict in my duty if I failed to point out the deficiencies in John Panozzo's drumming. There are too many occasions when his busy fills are ill-defined and distracting, especially when compared to those of Alan White or Bill Bruford. (Sorry to pit you against icons, pal, but when you step into the ring with heavyweights be prepared to take some punches.) James and Dennis DeYoung penned the next cut, "I'm Okay." It sports a pompous but duly large beginning that leads to a Hammond B3-heavy track and a big dose of Dennis' semi-operatic warbling. Shaw's guitar solo is hot, the cathedral organ interlude taped on location in St. James is surprisingly effective and kudos for the huge group-sung chorus at the end. Tommy's "Sing for the Day" follows and the best adjective for the tune is "refreshing." A sprightly synth leads to a perky, folk-styled air that's somewhat Jon Anderson-ish. The overall tightness of the track is indicative of the improvements the band was making in their studio acumen. The upbeat, youthful vibe they establish is quaint and contagious.

DeYoung's brief "The Message" is a mysterious instrumental vastly superior to the song it introduces, his plodding and overly dramatic "Lords of the Ring." The middle section of this number sounds like something they came up with during an impromptu jam session and deemed it a great space-filler. This exemplifies what I mean about groups on this side of the pond not being able to rival the awe-inspiring British prog juggernauts of that era. This is amateurish stuff. On "Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)" Shaw demonstrates once more what a game-changer he was for Styx. Here he proves that the band was a much better straightforward rock & roll outfit than an influential prog act. This catchy tune rose to #21 on Top 40 radio and continues to be a classic rock staple to this day. I only wish drummer John would've curbed his urge to overplay on the basic track. Dennis and James co-wrote "Queen of Spades" and it's one of their obligatory overwrought rock ballads (DeYoung's voice just bugs the crap out of me sometimes) that adheres to a very predictable pattern: Soft onset leads to heavier segment where reverb-drenched guitars echo into the ether before various themes are reprised along the way to a reunion with the opening mood. Ho hum.

The popularity of Tommy's "Renegade" did wonders in getting folks to part with their cash for this record and with good reason. It's an excellent rocker with an exciting arrangement. While it topped out at #16, solidly cementing their status as one of the planet's premier pop/rock groups, it also further diminished their fading prog credentials. Next is Dennis' "Pieces of Eight," yet another power ballad wherein his all-or-nothing, loud vocal approach really becomes tiresome. That's a shame because the music itself isn't half bad and their towering background harmonies give it a gallant aura. A short but graceful piano flourish segues to Shaw's instrumental closer, "Aku-aku." It has a pretty melody and chord progression, taking the album out on a peaceful note.

Styx was riding high in the late 70s and this disc (#6 on the LP charts) made it appear they could do no wrong. But the success of the record's three Tommy Shaw-written hits heralded the beginning of an internal power struggle that would ultimately cause enough friction to cause a band shut-down a few years later. Here's the conflict in a nutshell. While DeYoung's material definitely had more of a progressive slant, he was never able to compose involved epics that could hold their own against the likes of Genesis or Yes. Tommy, on the other hand, realized his prog limitations and concentrated on cranking out more radio-friendly rockers, a decision that proved wise. When this album hit the racks in fall of '78 punk and new wave were rudely shoving progressive rock off a cliff. Shaw was just observant enough to read the writing on the wall. One more observation. Decades down the road Dennis would aver that "Pieces of Eight" has some kind of spiritual vs. materialism concept running through it but I think that's hooey. It's a decent collection of tunes that marks the end of Styx as a pseudo prog group and the solidification of their standing as a pop/rock phenomenon. Nothing more. Two and a half stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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