CD Review: Styx – The Grand Illusion / Pieces of Eight Live

CD Review: Styx – The Grand Illusion / Pieces of Eight Live
Eagle Rock Entertainment
All Access Rating: C

Styx - The Grand Illusion/Pieces
of Eight Live 2013
Styx came into its own in the late 1970s, having stumbled upon the right mix of soaring progressive-rock bombast and the more down-to-earth, guitar-driven AOR anthems – like “Renegade” – that punched a clock, wore a hard hat and paid union dues.

Finding a middle ground proved difficult for Styx, as Tommy Shaw, feeling his oats, pushed for a direction that was tougher and more down-to-earth, while Dennis DeYoung favored power ballads and heady theatrics. That creative tension, when properly harnessed, as it was for 1977’s The Grand Illusion and 1978’s Pieces of Eight, produced magic, even if the critics scoffed. They didn’t understand, but the people did. That’s who Styx was speaking to anyway.

This is not the same band. It’s a shell of its former self, the dramatic flourish of DeYoung’s soaring vocals being missed most of all, as James “JY” Young and Tommy Shaw try to carry on with a newer lineup and the occasional appearance of original bassist Chuck Panozzo. What Styx has become is a Vegas act, living off its past and trading glitz and glamour for true grit. Or at least it would seem that way from the double CD The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight Live they have recently released.

A rather limp document of Styx playing both records cover to cover at the fabled Orpheum Theater in Memphis on November 9, 2010, The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight Live sucks the sneering venom out of “Miss America,” meanders its way through “Man in the Wilderness” like a clueless tourist, and sleepwalks it way through “Superstars.” Concerned more with being a genial master of ceremonies than singing the material with appropriate panache and vitality, lead vocalist/keyboardist Lawrence Gowan – his delivery pretentious and forced – bears much of the blame, but Young and Shaw are in for the lion’s share of it.

For whatever reason, they don’t feel the need to assert themselves or their instruments here, making for a record that sounds flabby and weak-willed, even if the melodic grandeur of “Come Sail Away” is as wondrous as ever, the winning earnestness of “Angry Young Man” comes shining through, and the pomp and circumstance of title track to The Grand Illusion rises to the level of that which is more often reserved for royalty. A glossy lacquer of synthesizers certainly suffocates their guitars, but more than that, they seem satisfied to remain in the shadows, content to make pretty sonic filament and beautiful harmonies, but nothing of real substance.

The hope is that Styx would rally during the Pieces of Eight portion of the evening, and they do to some extent, the lilting, progressive-folk gold of “Sing for the Day” glowing warmly and “Great White Hope” rocking with more vigor and hunger, thanks to Todd Sucherman’s rolling avalanche of drums. A bigger test remains, however, with “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegade,” and Styx falls flat on the former, playing as if they’re pulling an anchor behind them, before recovering slightly for a more rambunctious, but still somewhat impotent, version of the latter.

“Queen of Spades” is where Styx finally seizes the day, the guitars sharper and more biting, the rhythms more menacing and the synths adding color and texture rather than fighting for supremacy. And they traverse more diverse and sonically interesting territory in “Lords of the Ring” with more purpose, their collective vocals a glorious choir. It’s too little, too late, though, as Styx appears to be satisfied with reheating old leftovers rather than presenting its best material in fresh and invigorating ways. 
– Peter Lindblad

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