Review Summary: One of the best and most underrated rock records in history.
From 1977 to 1981, Styx released four multi-platinum records. They were the first band to ever achieve this feat consecutively
, which speaks to the brilliance of their work during that era. In the middle of that celebrated run was Pieces of Eight
which, while not quite a household name, still represents Styx at their undeniable peak. As the album eclipsed even the loftiest expectations set by its predecessor The Grand Illusion
, Pieces of Eight
became one of the last truly great rock ‘n’ roll albums that Styx would ever create (before Dennis DeYoung’s theatrical ambitions derailed harmony within the band). Generally speaking, it’s tied with The Grand Illusion
for possessing the honor of being Styx’s most critically acclaimed and highest-grossing record, and it’s also arguably one of the greatest classic rock albums of all time.
If The Grand Illusion
was essentially a greatest hits album, then Pieces of Eight
is overflowing with hidden gems ripe for the plucking. Most casual fans aren’t familiar with the gritty rocker ‘Queen of Spades’, the percussive gallops of ‘Great White Hope’, the sticky melody of ‘I’m OK’, the harmonic chants of ‘Lords of the Ring’, the poignant chorus of the title track, or the delicate beauty of the instrumental closer ‘Aku Aku.’ These tracks never earned extensive air time during the album’s release, but they’re among the best songs the band has ever composed and also contribute heavily to Pieces of Eight
’s mysterious allure. Those who enjoy Styx’s Greatest Hits
compilation should immediately delve into this album because it offers some of the best non-singles in the band’s catalog.
With that said, Pieces of Eight
is certainly anchored by some heavyweights. The record really belongs to Tommy Shaw (not Dennis DeYoung for once), who delivers three of the band’s biggest hits. ‘Renegade’ is possibly the
quintessential Styx song – a heavy rocker with a mindblowingly infectious chorus, an adrenaline-pumping rhythm, a complex guitar solo, and lyrics about life on the lam while running from “the long arm of the law.” ‘Blue Collar Man’ sees Shaw lament the embarrassment of unemployment, including the anger he feels towards those who “laugh in his face.” To at least some extent, it’s a track about the attitude of the rich towards the working class – Tommy embraces the blue collar role, but resents that he’s made to feel ashamed for it. In addition to these two stalwarts, we also get Shaw’s ‘Sing for the Day’, a melodic masterpiece and lowkey successful single that showcases his softer vocals and vulnerable side. Each of these songs have anchored Pieces of Eight
in classic rock lore, while the gems sprinkled around them are what makes the album worth returning to time and time again.
Thematically, the record picks up right where The Grand Illusion
left off, denouncing the pursuit of money and material possessions at the expense of one’s dreams. Most of this sentiment can be found in the eponymous ‘Pieces of Eight’, where Dennis DeYoung sings of a conversation he listened to while walking through town: “Out on the streets, I overheard a lady say – We now have everything, or so people say, but now this emptiness haunts me every day.” It’s a powerful sentiment that he elaborates on by singing, “We seek the lion's share never knowing why” and ultimately urges us, “Don't cash your freedoms in for gold.” Similarly, ‘Queen of Spades’ likens affluence to a black widow who lures us in with her riches (“How sweet is her warm embrace – safe in the scent of jasmine, so safe in her gold and lace”) only to kill us (“But when your die is cast she'll have the final laugh at you…Her love means only your death.”) It’s easy to forget just how high Styx was riding at the time – their fame, fortune, and glamorous 70s rock-star lifestyle only heightens the impact, one that should mean more coming from those who experienced lavishness only to warn us of its emptiness.
Pieces of Eight
is a rare blend of immense rock, delicate ballads, and heartfelt messages. It expounds upon the concepts laid out during The Grand Illusion
while taking them to deeper and darker places. The record is an ominous warning to those who seek money over all else; a stark reminder that material prosperity doesn’t equate to immortality, and that we’re all eventually going to die. It’s an album whose darker motifs are meant to encourage us to enjoy life’s simple pleasures – your favorite corner coffee shop, a song that makes you want to dance, the smile of a loved one – because at some point, no matter how much wealth you’ve accrued, the window of opportunity to live life will close. So go experience it while you still can…starting with Pieces of Eight
, one of the best and most underrated rock records in history.