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Styx - The Grand Illusion CD (album) cover




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3.72 | 277 ratings

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3 stars Despite what you may think of Styx, if you were a citizen of the United States of America (especially in the 70s) and a fan of progressive rock music, they and Kansas were the only home-grown groups able to produce anything within light years of what was being imported from overseas in that genre, the United Kingdom in particular. It's still a conundrum to me, considering the popularity of symphonic prog hereabouts in that timeframe, that there weren't a plethora of American combos in fierce competition with the likes of Pink Floyd and ELP. Local bands covered Yes songs as proof positive of their musical prowess but when it came time for those same outfits to write original prog material the results were either woefully amateurish or they came out sounding like, well, Styx and Kansas. My theory is that those schooled in classical fare stateside were able to find orchestras and/or teaching positions to employ them in their chosen field whereas in smaller countries like England those limited slots were taken so blending classical into the field of rock & roll was an inevitable alternative. That opinion may be horse feces but it's the only thing I've ever been able to come up with to explain the phenomenon.

While I'm not crazy about Styx and never was I admit I have a huge amount of respect for them because they doggedly carried the prog banner around our continent when few others appeared to be up to the challenge. (I give a nod to Rush but they were from Canada and we weren't sure where that was.) My exposure to Styx came via their mid-70s tunes 'Lady,' 'Lorelei' and 'Suite Madame Blue' that garnered a modicum of FM radio play but none of those songs prompted me to purchase any of their albums. Face it; in comparison to what British ensembles such as Genesis were creating those tracks were anemic and non-addictive. Yet Styx kept at it, pushing themselves to constantly improve and learn from their shortcomings. When long-time member John Curulewski threw in the towel and the band replaced him with 'Bama-born singer/songwriter/guitarist Tommy Shaw they didn't get any proggier per se but they did become more accessible to the masses because the kid had a lot going for him. Regardless of how good a group was, the bottom line in those days was making their record label money and the charismatic appeal that Shaw brought to the show turned out to be the magic ingredient they'd been missing. After integrating into the Styx clique and getting his feet wet on the 'Crystal Ball' LP Tommy asserted himself as an equal in the sessions for the next album. His influence and input made an incalculable difference for 'The Grand Illusion' was quite impressive compared to what had come before. Even casual aural observers like me had to stand up and take notice.

Keyboard man/vocalist Dennis DeYoung penned the title cut and it delivers a suitably regal opening for the disc that eventually turns into a malleable mix of prog and pop sensibilities. Hats off to Shaw and James Young for injecting edgy guitar solos and riffs. The track's arrangement is surprisingly sophisticated and the biting words do a fine job of setting a somewhat sarcastic tone that will dominate the lyric content throughout the record. 'We made the grade and still we wonder who the hell we are,' Dennis sings. It may not be prog royalty but I've always liked Tommy's 'Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),' mainly for its tightness and snarky attitude. It's not complacent pop, either, as it takes the listener through some nice changes and I commend DeYoung for not letting his ARP ride turn tinny and annoying. I've read that Shaw wrote it for Dennis, confirming what I suspected about the guy's personality. On TV he always had the mien of an overcompensating showoff sporting a large, inferiority complex-produced chip on his shoulder that was off-putting. 'How can you be such an angry young man/when your future looks quite bright to me/how can there be such a sinister plan/that could hide such a lamb/such a caring young man?' Tommy asks because I guess he'd noticed it, as well. A tired, plodding beat doesn't pour a promising foundation for 'Superstars' and it retards the momentum established by the first two tunes. The spoken soliloquy is a tad too melodramatic for me to buy into, a case of them trying too hard to be 'serious.'

Next is DeYoung's compositional apex, 'Come Sail Away.' As ridiculously overplayed as this song is, it's almost impossible not to find sections to be comfortable with. As a prog rock song it's exemplary and the well-designed dynamics allow the track to build perfectly as it climbs steadily to the mountain top. The dominant theme of slogging through dark disillusionment persists, though. 'Somehow we missed out on the pot of gold/but we'll try best that we can to carry on,' Dennis avows. A flowery intro leads to predictable pedestrian rock cliches that abound in Young's 'Miss America,' a tune that desperately wants to be epic in scale but lacks the substance needed to transcend its deficiencies. James' guitar has plenty of bite but not enough to lift this frigate off the reefs. Shaw's 'Man in the Wilderness' is a power ballad that's definitely dated but it holds up better than most from that era in that respect. His road-weary words of 'All of the years I've spent in search of myself/and I'm still in the dark/'cause I can't seem to find the light alone' are deep enough yet when the song morphs into hard rock territory it loses a lot of its personality, growing tiresome fast. The brothers Panozzo, drummer John and bassist Chuck, hammer down a strong pulse for DeYoung's 'Castle Walls,' manufacturing an ominous feel for the rest of the band to add onto and things take an intriguingly proggy direction for the following six minutes, making for an enjoyable listening experience. However, the song's faux philosophical lyrics aka 'Life is never what it seems/and every man must meet his destiny' are despicably condescending and should be ignored. The closer, 'The Grand Finale,' epitomizes what prevented USA groups from attaining the status achieved by the aforementioned British prog juggernauts. It misses the all-important point entirely and possesses all the class and restraint of an excited 5-year old on Christmas Eve. It's grossly overdone, horrendously silly and downright embarrassing. They should've stopped while they were ahead.

Cleverly, since 'The Grand Illusion' was their 7th LP they seized the moment and released it on 7/7/77. Snicker if you will but that superstitious move proved to be wise on their part as the album raised them out of cult territory and into the mainstream as it rose to #6 on the charts. Alas, stellar it is not. I hate to beat on a dead mule but it's frustrating to hear a band with as much potential as Styx not to find a way to create the great American prog masterpiece that so many of us dreamed of hearing. Don't get me wrong, 'The Grand Illusion' is a decent album in its own way and theoretically as close as we Yanks ever came to progressive rock greatness in the 70s but that's exactly what's so damned exasperating. I reckon we western symphonic prog junkies just didn't have the pedigree that folks like Keith Emerson, Ian Anderson and Tony Banks had in their DNA and prog-related pop is the best we could conjure up in defense of our pride. I guess we should thank our lucky stars for Styx and Kansas, however, for without them we'd be touting the art of Three Dog Night as being adventurous and bold. Three stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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