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Styx - Cornerstone CD (album) cover




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2.67 | 180 ratings

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2 stars By the time Styx released "Cornerstone" in the fall of '79 their popularity was soaring while their prog-relatedness was plunging. This was good news for their label and for the members' bank accounts but a disappointing development for proggers who still held out hope for the USA producing a group that could rival the prog rock juggernauts of the world. Kansas was still a respectable and worthy representative of the cause but more and more they were proving to be the exception rather than the rule. Up and coming bands weren't attempting to follow in that brave band's footsteps and, as the glorious 70s came to a close, the overwhelming trend was toward new wave pop and away from challenging or exploratory music. Even the few groups that had dared to put even the most miniscule of prog elements into their sound were succumbing to the lure of manufacturing the all-important Top 40 hit single and abandoning their spirit of adventure. The guys in Styx are the poster boys of that inclination.

One aspect really sticks out to me about this record. When Tommy Shaw joined the band four years earlier he brought a more accessible writing style with him and it culminated in '78 as three of his songs from "Pieces of Eight" got promoted into heavy rotation on radio stations and sent sales of that album through the roof. Long time head honcho Dennis DeYoung understandably felt he was no longer the sole star of the show and decided that on "Cornerstone" he needed to stage a comeback of sorts by contributing more tunes this time around. Since his faux prog material no longer thrilled the masses as it once had he opted to take the "if you can't lick 'em, join 'em" approach and tried to compose stuff that resembled what he heard on the airwaves. That tactic, while it appears to be quite logical and failsafe, is the kiss of death for a songwriter's reputation and has the adverse effect of changing a group's image from being instigators to followers. Styx took no risky chances on "Cornerstone" and that's why it should hold very little interest for the residents of Progland.

"Lights" (the result of an alliance between DeYoung and Shaw) allows the album to make a somewhat grandiose entrance and, for a fleeting moment, the progman in me felt encouraged. The tune has operatic overtones on the verses and the choruses are strong due to the layered harmonies but the middle instrumental section is a letdown. It's rather trite compared to say, Genesis, but calculated to pose no threat to the ears of the average Joe. DeYoung's "Why Me" is next and it exemplifies the point I made in the previous paragraph. Supertramp was at their peak in the late 70s so Dennis simply emulated their style. The bouncy electric piano is a blatant rip-off and they even brought in a saxophonist to duel with the guitar on the bridge to complete the imitation. There's no crime in giving a nod to one's successful competitors but when the result is an inferior product that lacks the focus and class that makes that particular band unique it's downright embarrassing. The dubious "Babe" follows. In that era there were outfits like The Little River Band, Ambrosia and Pablo Cruise that were scaling the charts with slick soft rock ballads right and left. DeYoung wanted in on that action, obviously, so he penned this schmaltzy piece of fluff. This is so far from prog it might as well be a cut from the Bay City Rollers but it also achieved its main objective by becoming Styx's first #1 single so who am I to judge? (A prog reviewer, that's who!) All I know is that it completed the alteration of their persona from being imaginative renegades who bucked the odds to sellouts willing to betray their ideals for the sake of having a hit record.

Shaw's "Never Say Never" is an energetic, acoustic guitar and power chord-driven rocker that only impresses when compared to the nauseating "Babe." At least the number's steadily-building bridge has a smidgen of prog aromas wafting through the vocal arrangement. Tommy's "Bridge on the River" marks the apex of the album. Its prog folk feel is refreshing and I really like the light accordion and mandolin that decorate the track. They add amiable ambience to what otherwise might've been yet another unremarkable song. As a single it did nothing in the states but it was huge in Germany and Switzerland, giving the group some much-needed cred in Europe. "Borrowed Time" is another DeYoung/Shaw collaboration wherein a glittery intro sets the stage for a driving rock extravaganza but drummer John Panozzo's weak touch on the skins detracts from the potential impact the tune could've had. Despite their well-intended efforts, the tune is missing that definitive "wow" moment to make it special. "First Time" is another lame ballad from Dennis that only serves to reiterate the band's dilemma over what they wanted to be and Tommy's strikingly out-of-place raucous guitar solo shines a bright floodlight on the problem. Guitarist James Young fell into the same trap as DeYoung did, evidently, because his "Eddie" comes off like Rush having their worst day ever. To say it pales in comparison to that trio's work is a gross understatement and it goes even farther south with the inclusion of a cheap synth ride. The stringent guitar lead provides the only respite from the song's inherent mediocrity. Shaw's "Love in the Midnight" is the closer. The fat 12-string acoustic guitars give it decent depth and the tune at least displays a modicum of gumption on his part. Don't get me wrong, it's no prog gem, but it's better than most of the rest of the disc.

I don't consider this to be a very good record. There's no accounting for taste, though, and "Cornerstone" rose to #2 on the LP charts. But it wasn't because it was progressive, of that I can assure you. I read that after Styx got lambasted mercilessly by music critics in the UK while they were on their first-ever tour over there Dennis deemed their days as a prog band officially over. In other words, their pseudo progressive posturing didn't fool anybody in the country where prog rock was born and they retreated back across the pond with their tails tucked between their legs. I have no doubt that being a pop rock entity who could put on a flashy show looked warmly inviting and much more lucrative at that point and they never looked back. With this album Styx turned in their prog badges and set their sights on strolling the red carpet at the Grammys beside the pop elite with regularity. Another one bit the dust. 1.5 stars.

Chicapah | 2/5 |


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