Review Summary: A great album that is often overlooked and forgotten
Hardly anyone nowadays knows Styx. Those that do have probably only heard their more popular songs like Come Sail Away and Renegade, or to an extent their four multiplatinum albums that spawned said singles. Styx’s pre-popularity catalogue is only known to dedicated fans of the band that bother digging into the band’s history. One of these is The Serpent is Rising, and its mere mention divides even the diehards into either those who think it’s one of their best, and those who think it flat-out sucks. Most fall into the latter group, including the band members. Dennis Deyoung himself called the album not only Styx’s worst, but the worst album ever made. Ouch. Surely it can’t be THAT bad, right?
The Serpent is Rising is Styx’s third album, and has a sound that is quite different from the Styx most people have heard. Serpent boasts a much more hard-rocking sound than other Styx releases, even going into heavy metal territory at times. This will come as a surprise and will catch pretty much anyone, whether they are a hater or fan of Styx, completely off guard. Take the opener, for example. Witch Wolf is a hard rock song complete with a foot-stomping guitar/synth riff, numerous guitar solos, and an excellent chorus with the traditional Styx harmonized vocals, and organ backing. Truly an awesome song, and a great way to kick of the album. Witch Wolf aside, there other heavy tracks on the album. Jonas Psalter tells a story of a ruthless pirate captain who conquers all he desires and is then assassinated. The song is one of the proggier numbers on the album, with many different parts and time signatures, and is one of the better tracks. The title track is the heaviest and darkest on the album. The riff is pure heavy metal, with an eerie chorus, and a raspy vocal delivery from John Curulewski (who was in Styx before Tommy Shaw). The remaining rockers: Young Man, 22 Years, and Winner Take All are also good songs, but not quite as good as the aforementioned. The songs on Serpent also do a good job at displaying Styx`s progressive side, as many of them change pace throughout the song.
Although the rockers are the focus of the album, it does have song variety. The Grove of Eglantine is not as “hard” as the rocking tracks. It has a nice bassline in the verses, and is overall very melodic. It really is a beautiful song, until you realize what The Grove of Eglantine is, and then, well, I’ll let you decide what to make of it. As Bad As This is a mostly acoustic ballad with drums and synths coming in at parts to accentuate, and conveys a sad, depressing mood. Also of note here is the hidden track, Plexiglass Toilet. It`s more of a joke track than anything else, dealing with a child’s fear of... you know. Personally, I don’t care for it, but it is uplifting after the depressing As Bad As This, and puts a smile on your face when you hear it.
Also of note, and a little on the WTF side, are the two recordings at the end of the record. I say “recordings”, because they are each around 1:30 each. Krakatoa is dark, consisting of Curulewski’s evil-sounding, echoing shouts over a synthesizer backing. The Halleujah chorus follows. It is not a Styx song, obviously, but it does sound rather epic, albeit out of place.
Now, the problem with this album, is simply that it`s too erratic, in a few different ways. For one, it can’t keep just one mood going. Some songs are dark and dead serious (As Bad As This, The Serpent Is Rising, Krakatoa), while almost every other track is happier and upbeat. Some of the songs just feel out of place next to each other, and in some cases, out of order. Krakatoa could have served as a really dark interlude had it been placed elsewhere in the album (like Radiohead’s Fitter Happier, for example), but even then the mood would have been broken by the happier songs. The Hallelujah chorus just doesn’t feel like it fits at all on this album. Aside from this, songwise, the album is pretty uneven. Don’t get me wrong, none of them are bad, but some just tower over the others (Witch Wolf, Jonas Psalter), while others are fun, but forgettable (22 years, Winner Take All).
So where does that leave us? Is Serpent Styx’s best album? No. Is it the worst album ever made? Once again, no. Serpent is actually a great album. Full of good songs and a few great ones that make for an enjoyable, yet fractured listen and may become one of your favorites if given a chance. Even the lesser songs are at least enjoyable. It`s worth checking out if you`re a Styx fan, and even if you`re curious as to what them doing heavy metal may sound like. However, it is not a good starting place for those new to Styx.