So, yeah ... Styx. Some of their hits are great, and some equally disliked -- "Babe" ... I'm looking at you. They were originally produced by former Dunwich honcho Bill Traut and recorded for his follow-up label Wooden Nickel. And I am a confirmed booster for Illinois rock. But I'd never heard any of Styx's actual albums until recently, when three of their first four discs appeared together in a local dollar bin and something compelled me to ante up at last. Part of the reason for my longtime reticence is that I'm not a huge fan of most classic rock with prog leanings.
The grandiose keyboard/fantasy rock combination I was expecting was occasionally in evidence, but so was a lot more straight-ahead hard rock than I would have guessed. That makes sense when considering the diverse sounds in their long list of hit singles, and the fact that the original band eventually splintered due to long-term arguments about what musical direction to take.
Of the three LPs I picked up, Styx II is the most commonly found due to the monster success of "Lady" a couple years after its initial issue. It's also a bit unusual in their catalog since Dennis DeYoung handles nearly all of the songwriting duties on his own. It's worth noting, though, that the proggiest track here was written by John Curlewski; overall the album is reminiscent of a much more rocking Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Their fourth disc, Man of Miracles sounds like an attempt to be relatively straightforward '70s hard rock, with no extended-length tracks and the songwriting duties spread around in the group's usual fashion.
The band itself has occasionally ignored its existence over the years; a lengthy 1999 Goldmine magazine article by Chuck Miller drawn from interviews with most of the participants doesn't even mention it. And in Sterling Whitaker's recent book The Grand Delusion: The Unauthorized True Story of Styx, DeYoung is indirectly quoted as calling it "one of the worst recorded and produced [albums] in the history of music." Ouch.
Other discussion of the album in Whitaker's book isn't much more complimentary, with a lot of talk about the group being unsure of direction, rushed by the record company, and so on. However, this album is such a strange creation it deserves another shot, if not from Styx fans then by listeners interested in odd rock experiments.
Serpent left me literally stunned on first listen, somewhat in awe of what I had just heard. "This is Styx???" I thought to myself. "What were they thinking. What were they on?"
The album starts out relatively normal, with the vaguely goofy occult rocker "Witch Wolf" and trashy-for-DeYoung, innuendo-laden "The Grove of Eglantine." Then there are three tracks from different universes: the grade-Z Deep Purple-isms of "Young Man," a nice John Curulewski acoustic number, and an unlisted "hidden" track. The album's eclecticism was enjoyable if awkward until the hidden track happened, and it became immediately apparent that Styx had fallen completely off their collective rocker. It's a calypso song about a plexiglas toilet. That sentence can't really prepare you for the stunning ridiculousness of this song's existence and placement on the album. Who knew they had a sense of humor?
From there the album somehow regroups and continues groping along trying out various musical modes. "Winner Take All" sounds like a proto-Styx hit, "22 Years" sounds like proto-AC/DC, "Jonas Psalter" is a good melodic DeYoung number, and the album's title track is an over the top slice of prog rock complete with weird effects and some crazy Moody Blues-style spoken word ramblings. Then, of course, the only way to end the album is with a couple minutes of the "Hallelujah Chorus" (?!?).
Styx has continued touring and releasing new music right up to the present day despite a couple hiatuses and the departure of various members, including primary vocalist DeYoung in 1999. Since then DeYoung has performed both his own new songs and a "Music of Styx" show, which he'll present at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on Friday, April 1. (Wooden Nickel BXL1-0287, 1973)