Album of the Week 48-2013: Styx – The Grand Illusion

Before Styx fell victim to one of the greatest identity crises in AOR history due to inner band turmoil in the eighties, they were actually responsible for writing and recording a couple of the finest melodic Hardrock tunes. And although my favorite songs (‘Blue Collar Man’ and ‘Queen Of Spades’) are on its follow-up, none of their albums were as complete, consistent and just overall strong as ‘The Grand Illusion’. Very little albums in the late seventies were. Styx’ combination of AOR’s melodic sensibilities and hooky accessibility with song structures and a creativity more commonly associated with Progrock is used to unbelievable effect here.

One year prior, the first recordings with guitarist and singer Tommy Shaw resulted in the surprisingly good ‘Crystal Ball’, which already hinted at the potential realized here. Shaw brought to the band a pop savvy in composition – whilst still strongly rooted in Rock traditions – which complemented perfectly with the classically influenced theatrics of keyboard playing frontman Dennis DeYoung and the Hardrock leanings of the other guitarist/vocalist James Young. Shaw has the most pleasant voice between the three to my ears as well. All this contributed to the unprecedented brilliance of ‘The Grand Illusion’.

Conceptually, ‘The Grand Illusion’ focuses on the darker side of fame. While not strictly a concept album, the unifying theme does lend a great deal of continuity to the album. Also, the return of some of the themes heard earlier on the album on ‘The Grand Finale’ does suggest some Rock opera-like vibe, which fits Styx’ bombastic music quite well.

What makes this album their best, however, is the quality of the compositions. There simply isn’t one song I would skip on this album. This is helped by the fact that no two songs song alike. ‘Come Sail Away’ is probably Styx’ best known song and it’s probably the most proggy on this album, but despite that, it’s not even the best on the album. That would be a photo finish between Shaw’s Kansas-inspired masterpiece ‘Man In The Wilderness’, a song that means a lot to yours truly, and the DeYoung’s oft overlooked slow, brooding and gloomy work of art that is ‘Castle Walls’. Both songs are fantastic Prog songs highlighted by haunting melodies and strong instrumental work by all musicians involved.

The rest of the album has a little something for everyone as well. Young’s ‘Miss America’ is one of the band’s hardest rocking tracks, Shaw’s ‘Fooling Yourself (Angry Young Man)’ is one of the lightest moments and a breath of fresh air as such, while ‘Superstars’ relies on Queen-like bombast and very well-written contrasts and the awesome opening title track is a perfect moodsetter with some of the band’s best riffs and vocals.

Although all of these songs would find their definitive renditions on the DVD where Styx performed ‘The Grand Illusion’ and ‘Pieces Of Eight’ in its entirity released about two years ago – I simply find Lawrence Gowan’s voice much more pleasant to listen to than DeYoung’s – this is the album that shows Styx as their most accomplished. If you like the majesty of Prog, the melodic gloss of AOR and the accessibility of Pop, this is the place to turn to. It’s all expertly written and performed. Avoid only if you’re allergic to melody.

Recommended tracks: ‘Castle Walls’, ‘Man In The Wilderness’, ‘The Grand Illusion’

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