Review Summary: Dangerously cheesy
Out of all the progressive and arena rock bands that found their stride in the mid-70s, Styx might be the absolute cheesiest of the bunch. Despite claims that they put back-masked satanic messages into their songs, they were never going to be the ones to push the limits of music by melting faces like Tom Scholz did on guitar or what Neil Peart did on drums. Regardless of some ill-advised comparisons, Styx’s lead vocalist, Dennis DeYoung, could never hold a torch to Freddie Mercury, and none of the band members had the songwriting skills or general flare for creativeness of someone like Roger Waters. Yet somehow, Styx remained consistently popular because of about a dozen or top forty singles released between 1973 and 1983. While they remained commercially viable because of their singles, their most fully realized full album effort came in 1977 with The Grand Illusion
Of course, there is a certain amount of buy-in that one must have before listening to Styx, especially when dealing with a full album of their material. Fair warning to all interested - there must be a sincere effort on the part of the listener to look past all the cheesy instrumentation, the band’s style, the ridiculous lyrics, etc. For those who do open their mind, The Grand Illusion
is an honest to goodness, dare I say, solid progressive-rock effort (especially on its first side) at its core, even though it is incomprehensibly dated by nearly every musical definition possible. Opening with a carnival like atmosphere, the title track evolves nicely into something slightly more beefy. There are some simple, yet perfectly enjoyable progressive guitar solos, the rhythm section is strong and tight, and the keyboard hook actually does a nice job of grabbing the listener’s attention. The next track, “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” is loaded to the brim with all your favorite Yamaha TX816 keyboard effects and open acoustic guitar strumming, but its chorus (despite its melody being taken nearly note for note from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia”) is so addictive that it might as well be candy for your ears. The first half of the album is rounded out by Styx’s masterpiece, “Come Sail Away,” which by all accounts can be considered to be a progressive rock-radio standard, is nothing less than a sing along classic for the ages, gaining momentum nearly effortlessly so that it goes from being a solo piano ballad to an explosive arena-rocker, ripe for consumption via its repetitive chorus and outro.
The second half of the album shows Styx more experimental side – the songs on the back side are more drawn out, less focused on the hook, and more time is given to long-winded keyboard solos and atmospheres. “Miss America” probably takes the cake as being the worst song on the entire album, mainly because of its unappealing vocals and grating chorus, and the fact that it also runs for five minutes does nothing to help its cause. “Man in the Wilderness” and “Castle Walls” are miles better by comparison, courtesy of some hypnotic keyboard melodies and varied instrumentation with some synthesized flute work and decent guitar work. Thankfully, unlike many other progressive rock albums of the time, The Grand Illusion
is a relatively short affair, clocking in at just over 38 minutes, and that is the main reason why the album is bearable to listen to as a whole work. It is cheesy, corny, and wildly dated even by classic rock standards, and yet, it still has its moments despite some portions that will make you cringe. Illusion
is certainly no boat ride, but, nevertheless, it regularly overcomes these typical faults of its time, making it a shockingly worthwhile listen.