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Styx - The Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings CD (album) cover

THE COMPLETE WOODEN NICKEL RECORDINGS

Styx

 

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3.35 | 23 ratings

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buck1110
4 stars A collective sigh of relief in rounding up all of these Wooden Nickel recordings can surely be heard now! Finally, we have all four Styx releases (not counting 1977's "Best Of") under one bonnet, as it were, and it's stunning.

"Man of Miracles"

Back in 1981, I had my first glimpse into the Wooden Nickel world of Styx. Of course, I, along with most of the rest of the world, had heard "Lady" from the Wooden Nickel years for the first time in 1975, when it enjoyed life for a second time, this time with resounding success that would help to propel Styx from more of a local band, to international stardom.

But back to that album. A friend of mine had gotten a few 8 tracks at a garage sale that summer, and "Man of Miracles" was one of them ("2112" by Rush being the other). Although we had to wait for our favorite songs to replay (no rewind or fast-forward on most 8 tracks!), it was (and is) a very rewarding album to listen to. The track list on 8 tracks was often juggled to accomodate space in each of the four 'programs,' and the order was quite different than that of the original album, but one curiosity I do recall, and that is that "Best Thing" (from Styx I) replaced "Lies" on this particular 8 track copy. I do not know if this was the case on all of them - whether it was a licensing issue, a space issue (it does not seem that "Lies" is any longer than "Best Thing"), or whatever. Years later, when RCA re-issued the Styx/Wooden Nickel albums, "Unfinished Song" appeared in the place of "Lies." That's got to be one of the most 'swapped out' songs around! The album has such a diverse compliment of songwriting - each member contributing in their own way and musical voice. (note: I've since read that "Lies" replaced "Best Thing" at one point. If anyone might know the answer behind the story, please email me.)

This 1974 release was Styx's last on Wooden Nickel. "Rock 'n' Roll Feeling" and "Just Havin' A Ball" have long been favorites of mine, with the latter having an interesting blend of guitar and keyboard, along with an incredible chorus/vocal harmonies and a very pleasingly long fade out. An extended space of silence sets the stage for the tone of the next two pieces, set into a sort of mini epic, by Dennis DeYoung. Recordings of thunder and a cello solo link the two and make a very pleasing shift in atmosphere. James Young returns in a very strong piece called "A Man Like Me," written for his wife, Susie. This is probably the first time that Styx used horns (a practice that they would continue throughout the rest of the 70s). It has such a powerful refrain and the levels were so high in the recording, that my vinyl pressings were always seemingly lacking in the ability to reproduce them faithfully. If it had been a pressing from the 50s on a label such as Liberty, with the virgin vinyl and deep grooves, then maybe it would've fared better. This is an excellent reason for this new remaster! Next up is "Lies" (or "Best Thing" or "Unfinished Song" - take your pick) - each executed nicely. As I prefer Styx's original material, I probably would prefer the latter two, but "Lies" is done in Styx's own style, and here, that means vocals, vocals, vocals, primarily. The combination of DDY and JY has always been very unique. "Evil Eyes" is a more sparse ballad, highlighted by accompanying vocals by the others. "Christopher, Mr. Christopher" is a track I've always liked - very original in the storytelling department and very exciting in the buildup and progression of the music. The ending is wonderfully unexpected, much in the similar mood as the ending of "Evil Eyes" - it drifts off and speaks for itself. "Man of Miracles" - the title track is a mini-epic combined with hard rock. James Young delivers great vocals, and Dennis shines with excellent organ work. The Hammond is becoming less frequent on this album - Dennis seems to be preferring the ARP string synth at this time.

"Man of Miracles" is more 'straight forward' than its predecessor, "The Serpent Is Rising", although it still retains an eclectic sense of style that would remain throughout most of the rest of the Styx catalog in the 70s.

"The Serpent Is Rising"

The next year, that same friend purchased the then-newly re-released RCA version of "The Serpent Is Rising" (1973) (RCA retitled it "Serpent" with new artwork that graced all of their Styx reissues from 1980). This album is such a joy to hear, and as huge fans of Queen, we relished in this 'new' revelation by Styx. The flow of the album is remarkably smooth, despite the sometimes highly eclectic juxtaposition of styles (e.g. "As Bad As This"). What really flowed through me and caught my attention was Styx's remarkable ability to harness feeling and breadth and depth of emotion into their recordings. The wonderful vocal blend was present from the first album and here is taken to new heights (e.g. "Grove of Eglantine," "Young Man," "Winner Take All," "Jonas Psalter") with Styx seemingly pushing the limits of the studios they used then.

"Grove of Eglantine" has to be my favorite vocal performance by Dennis DeYoung, and it seems to establish that romantic 'vagabond' type character which he would play from time to time in various songs ("Born For Adventure" et al). Also, this song features a Mellotron keyboard. Incidentally, this album marks the only time that a Mellotron keyboard was used on a Styx album. Dennis (as well as maybe James and John C) use the instrument tastefully and in a very orchestral manner, making it blend into the rest of the instrumentation seamlessly. Dennis later moved to ARP string ensembles on Man of Miracles, probably due to their improved portability and stability, when compared to the Mellotron, an instrument that is notorious for going out of tune and breaking down when used in live settings. Inspite of this, it adds a wonderfully shimmering color to the Styx sonic pallate not seen before or since.

"Young Man" has just about every element in place, moving from acoustic guitars, then full group in a hard rock section, with amazing vocals by James Young. The middle section can be considered very prog, being very reflective, before launching into the finale with the final seven crunchy chords.

The album moves from dense to sparse, with "As Bad As This" offering a natural contrast to the previous track, "Young Man." Just John Curulewski and his guitar, along with some 'big' drums, very nicely done, by John Panozzo, this piece is very reflective. The mood is then somewhat shattered by the very upbeat "hidden track". John Curulewski certainly plumbs the far reaches for new ideas, and comes back with amazing results. At first listen, one may wonder how the hidden track fits into the big picture, but somehow it does, "in the end" (no pun intended).

"The Serpent Is Rising" is probably Styx's more extrovertedly theatrical album (to date), bookended with a loose concept and very intriguing arrangements in every song.

Nicely Done Collection

Here, in this collection, we have Styx (I), Styx II, The Serpent Is Rising, and Man of Miracles. The packaging has been lovingly done, and the sound is terrific. The remastering sounds gentle, with little remastering or digital artifacts to color the original recordings. Styx favor keeping dynamics over remastering for sheer loudness, according to Bob Ludwig, and I think that is to be applauded. In the artwork department, I learned recently that Chuck Panozzo had quite a bit to do with Styx's album covers, and that he designed "Pieces of Eight"s cover. I wonder if he added his touch to these? I love the original covers, but I must admit that the RCA "graphic style" reissue covers from 1980 have a special place in my heart, as they were my first copies to own. Some of those are better than the others, with "Serpent" being the best, to me. Well, maybe "Serpent" is the only good one... The members of Styx certainly weren't happy with those RCA covers, but it's nice to see such attention to detail in this release. I'm sure Chuck is pleased!

My next wish is for the big, comprehensive Styx biography to be released, with complete tour dates, recording sessions, and the works!

A great deal of attention and care have been given to this collection - I highly recommend this release to all Styx fans.

buck1110 | 4/5 |

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