This is a crucial time for Styx and Journey, and they know it. Although their combination of smooth pop melodicism and hard-rock muscle has earned these bands a large following over the past five years, the ever-widening audience for such polished post-New Wavers as Men at Work, the Police and A Flock of Seagulls seems to indicate that Styx and Journey are up against stiff competition. As a result, the two groups are in the unenviable position of having to choose between soldiering on as before and risk ending up as dinosaurs, or attempting a change of direction that could cost them a sizable chunk of their audience. And no matter what, the surest failure of all would be the appearance of complacency.
Both Kilroy Was Here and Frontiers do at least lend the impression that these two groups are taking giant steps of some sort. The problem is that neither group seems sure of where those steps are heading.
Styx, for example, has decided to further the dramatic aspect of its work, a direction that first cropped up on their last album, Paradise Theatre. That record boasted a central concept but relatively little plot; Kilroy, on the other hand, has so much plot that Styx put together an eleven-minute video dramatization as a preface for its concert appearances. But despite the project's obvious ambition, it comes off as both simple-minded and trite.
Set in an imaginary future, the story centers on the struggle between repressive authority and rock rebellion. Representing the forces of evil is Dr. Everett Righteous, the head of the Majority for Musical Morality and the architect of a ban on rock & roll. The good guys are Jonathan Chance, "the rebel leader of an underground movement to bring back rock & roll," and Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (ROCK — get it?), a jailed rocker who escapes from prison by disguising himself as one of the robot guards. The synopsis inside the album package doesn't tell how this melodrama resolves, but it's not too hard to guess. Having rock & roll triumph over outrageous persecution is one of the oldest hack plots, and as always, there's no drama in this situation, just self-flattery.
Beyond the obvious ego inflation, though, Kilroy Was Here is a useful tactic for Styx. Its us-against-them dramatic mechanism carries the underlying message that Styx is rock & roll, a bit of psychological reinforcement that couldn't hurt in shoring up the band's following at a difficult time.
Although this dramatic overview may do wonders for the group's image, it poses some problems musically. Styx has always gone in for a somewhat showy sound, and Kilroy Was Here finds their writing at its Broadway best; unfortunately, while the melodies carry the all-purpose sparkle of a stage musical, the songs lack the sort of unity expected of a genuine theatrical production. Dennis De Young's "Mr. Roboto" is easily the catchiest tune on the album, but given the nature of its lyrics, it's hard to imagine anyone unfamiliar with the overriding concept making sense of it. His "Don't Let It End" seems unable to decide between sticking to the plot or filling the album's need for a good love song, and ends up an unsatisfying muddle. Tommy Shaw's "Just Get through This Night," clearly the album's best ballad, is plagued by a similar inability to make sense either as part of the drama or on its own. Only James Young's "Heavy Metal Poisoning" manages to work both ways, but between the band's uninspired playing and Young's cartoonish delivery, even that fizzles. By going after the best of two worlds — drama and music — Styx winds up with little of value from either.
It's hard to say what Journey is up to on Frontiers. With several of the group's members complaining to the press last year about how success had locked Journey into formula music, it seemed as if the band was signaling a shift to a less overtly commercial, more musically demanding sound. But as much as the sound on Frontiers has shifted, it's hard to believe that Journey thought there was any risk involved. Indeed, in some ways this is the band's most conservative effort yet.
Anyone who heard Here to Stay — the second album by Journey guitarist Neal Schon and former Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer, which was released shortly before Frontiers — could have anticipated the "new" Journey sound. Whereas the duo's first collaboration, Untold Passion, served as a busman's holiday for Schon, giving him a chance to stretch out in a freer, jazz-oriented format. Here to Stay is obviously sales conscious. Although "Turnaround" and "(You Think You're) So Hot" employ some admirably complex riffs (though all are in dependable 4/4 time), "No More Lies" and "Long Time" are typical FM rockers, and "Self Defense" is essentially Journey with Hammer sitting in.
Frontiers takes care to maintain an equally high level of musicianship, but those interested in that aspect of the band's music will learn little beyond how smart guys play heavy metal. Despite the band's musical ingenuity and undeniable chops, the aesthetic at work here never goes any farther afield than basic stomp and crunch. There are some interesting touches, such as the clever modal harmony in "Chain Reaction" and the zippy power-guitar figure behind "Edge of the Blade." On the whole, though, Foreigner did a better job of stretching the limits of heavy-rock formalism with Head Games — and with fewer debts to other acts. The most energetic workout here, "Back Talk," is strongly reminiscent of Van Halen's "Everybody Wants Some," while the album's best ballad, "Faithfully," sounds more like a Bob Seger tune than one belonging to Journey.
In the end, the best that any of these albums can do is buy some time for these groups, for neither Styx nor Journey can afford continuing as before. Whether or not they can manage a transition that will maintain their commercial vitality remains to be seen. Judging from these albums, I wouldn't hold my breath.