Styx is an arena band from the progressive school. Every gesture’s writ huge to the point of flatulence, their pomp is highly circumstantial (it’s the only way to get the last row’s attention) and around every chorus lurks a whirring synthesizer, if not a pipe organ hauled in from a genuine cathedral. The strategy becomes obvious: Dennis DeYoung’s synthesizer (though sub-Rick Wakeman fluff all the way) is crucial because without its bubblicious curlicues, Tommy Shaw’s and James Young’s guitar work would have to stand alone as more played-out, heavy-metal plod and Jethro Tull Jr. acoustic jive. No one of these parts amounts to much on its own, but when smeared together, each contributes to the kind of fantasy-land effects that groups like this run on. Which at least makes Styx tight. Tight as a tissue.
Young, DeYoung and Shaw all compose, and while the music’s nothing to speak of (if you’ve heard Yes and Queen, you’ve heard it all), the lyrics are a little more interesting. It’s not insignificant that only one of Pieces of Eight‘s ten tunes is about loving somebody else — and even that includes a line like “And as your surrogate leader I’m bound in your search for the truth.” Like an album-long suite based on Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” what these songs say — and what a lot of bands such as Styx have been saying for some time — is this: we are hot shit. Not just because we’re badass guitar heroes, not because we’ve got soul or play so great, not even because we’re rock stars. No, we are hot shit because, beyond even the divine right of synthesizers, we are aristocracy, we are noble, we are kings. (If you don’t believe it, look at all our money, not to mention our regal vestments.)
This point of view is most explicitly expressed in “Lords of the Ring,” which is no more offensive to J.R.R. Tolkien (who might even deserve it) than any of the many monstrosities perpetrated in his name by other groups: “And now the message is clear/For I became a lord this year.” “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” looks back to a time when his liege Tommy Shaw was actually on the unemployment line; even against “impossible odds,” he asserted then that he would work and win because “I’ve got the power and I’ve got the will. I’m not a charity case.” “I’m O.K.” shows Styx basking in self-satisfaction at the end of their long struggle for upward mobility, while both “Great White Hope” and the title track depict nothing less than a troubled ruling class: “I’m just a prisoner in a king’s disguise.”
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What’s really interesting is not that such narcissistic slop should get recorded, but what must be going on in the minds of the people who support it in such amazing numbers. Gall, nerve and ego have never been far from great rock & roll. Yet there’s a thin but crucial line between those qualities and what it takes to fill arenas today: sheer self-aggrandizement on the most puerile level. If these are the champions, gimme the cripples.