The Grand Illusion by Styx

Buy The Grand Illusion

The Grand Illusion by StyxAlthough it was seventh overall studio album for the band, The Grand Illusion was the second album from Styx to head towards a more radio-friendly direction. The Chicago based band with a traditional prog-rock approach, began to write more mainstream material with the arrival of guitarist Tommy Shaw in late 1975. Shaw joined fellow guitarist James “JY” Young and keyboardist Dennis DeYoung as the band’s trio of songwriters and lead singers. Each brought a distinct style which  contrasted with the others. Yet they also complimented each other in various ways and, for the most part, Styx forged a decently harmonic sound.

The Grand illusion itself is a pleasant listen, albeit a bit uneven and less-than cohesive. The fantastic first side contains all the radio and chart hits with a much less inspired second side featuring some under-developed pieces which render the album short of greatness. The album showed the great potential of Styx band as a sort of “prog lite” outfit with much more pop crossover appeal than their earlier work. This would be a template set for bands like Genesis, who followed suit in subsequent years and through the 1980s.

Seven turned out to be the lucky number for the band as this album (their 7th overall, released on 7/07/77) went triple platinum in sales and spawned a couple of hit singles. Thematically, the concept of The Grand Illusion examines the futility of solely aspiring to fame. According to DeYoung, it is about the struggle to overcome self-deluding superficiality in order to affirm one’s genuine value.
  


The Grand Illusion by Styx
Released: July 7, 1977 (A&M)
Produced by: Styx
Recorded: Paragon Recording Studios, Chicago, 1977
Side One Side Two
The Grand Illusion
Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)
Superstars
Come Sail Away
Miss America
Man In the Wilderness
Castle Walls
The Grand Finale
Primary Musicians
Dennis DeYoung – Keyboards, Synths, Vocals
James Young – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Tommy Shaw – Guitars, Vocals
Chuck Panozzo – Bass
John Panozzo – Drums

 
The intro march of “The Grand Illusion” draws you in immediately, complimented in short time by the stop/start nature of the first verse. This theme song by Dennis DeYoung eventually breaks into the more driving, melodic choruses and features early guitar fills by Shaw and a soaring lead by JY later in the song. More than any other song on the album, this opener finds the nice balance between between progressive and AOR, which appears to be the band’s vision for this album.

Tommy Shaw’s “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” begins with a nice opening synth sequence by DeYoung which compliments Shaw’s acoustic strumming. The song eventually settles into a strong rhythmic beat by bassist Chuck Panozzo and his brother, drummer John Panozzo, before another nice synth lead. Both this song and Shaw’s ballad, “Man In the Wilderness” are written in the same vein as material by the band Kansas, revealing that band’s influence on Styx.

“Superstars” is a collaborative effort by DeYoung, Shaw, and Young, which built like a show tune with a rock backbone. Although the song does contain some rewarding and entertaining sections like the nice lead guitar, it does sound a bit dated like something which could have been on a teen-oriented TV show of the era, not to mention the title itself.
 

 
Closing the first side, “Come Sail Away” is the album’s true masterpiece. It is a beautiful song with a refreshing, simple piano arrangement by DeYoung up front. The song is adventurous and romantic with just a tinge of strangeness like a journey into the unknown. There are a couple of great moments when the melodic, keyboard driven sections are cut sharply by a strong, rock-oriented, guitar-driven arrangement. The mid section contains dualing synths by DeYoung and JY, which adds to the mystique of the song with its “modern” sequencing and new agish overtones. Long considered a pioneering power ballad, “Come Sail Away” is a much richer number and is perhaps the finest Styx would ever forge.

JY takes lead vocals on his track “Miss America”. It starts with a synth rendition of the traditional song before giving way to a sharper, driving verse and a thickly harmonized chorus. “Castle Walls” starts with a heartbeat-like bass line by Chuck Panozzo with overlain Baroque keys by DeYoung before Shaw and Young again trade guitar leads later in the song. “The Grand Finale” closes the album as a sort of reverse-overture which incorporates elements of the better songs from the first side.

The success of The Grand Illusion launched Styx into the most successful era of their career with three more successful albums up to and including their blockbuster Paradise Theatre in 1981. The band built of the theatrical, pop-oriented, and soft rock elements of this 1977 album to bring them the widespread success that they had worked towards for years.

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1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

 

Paradise Theatre by Styx

Paradise Theatre by Styx

At a time when the “concept album” had all but gone out of fashion, Styx released Paradise Theatre, an album that loosely couples a fairly interesting concept with some strategically placed (albeit unrelated) pop and rock songs.

The concept itself is one of rapid decay and lament to a past Golden Age symbolized by an actual theater on Chicago’s west side built on the eve of the Great Depression and dead by the mid 50’s. Brought forward to the turbulent economic times around 1980, this concept worked well. But concept itself is not enough, in the end it is all about the music.

Although the album is a little less than the band’s best output (The Grand Illusion four years earlier), the music did tap into a popular confluence between the band’s long-time, loyal listeners and a new crop of pop-rock fans that were suddenly starting to pay attention to durable bands from the 1970s such as Rush, Pink Floyd, Supertramp, and Styx.
 


Paradise Theatre by Styx
Released: January 19, 1981 (A&M)
Produced by: Styx
Recorded: Pumpkin Studios, Oak Lawn, IL, 1980
Side One Side Two
 A.D. 1928
 Rockin’ the Paradise
 Too Much Time On My Hands
 Nothing Ever Goes as Planned
 The Best of Times
Lonely People
She Cares
Snowblind
Half-Penny, Two-Penny
A.D. 1958
State Street Sadie
Musicians
Dennis DeYoung – Keyboards, Vocals | James Young – Guitars, Vocals
Tommy Shaw – Guitars, Vocoder, Vocals
Chuck Panozzo – Bass | John Panozzo – Drums & Percussion

 
Musically, Paradise Theatre contains a nice balance among the band’s three primary songwriters, Dennis DeYoung, Tommy Shaw, and James (JY) Young.

Shaw’s best contribution is the hit “Too Much Time On My Hands”, which is about as good as a pop single got for that era. It contains a nice mix of synth effects, a classic guitar solo, crisp and catchy lyrics, and well-delivered vocals. Besides some great axe work, Shaw also adds the top-end harmonies that distinguishes the Styx sound.
 

 
JY’s efforts were back-to-back tracks on the album’s second side. “Snowblind” is an anti-drug song with a lugubrious feel throughout. In spite of it’s noble message for society on the surface, it was targeted by Tipper Gore’s PMRC and other anti-rock groups for allegedly backwards masking Satanic messages. The band was truly offended by these charges and would mock them on their next album, Kilroy Was Here, with genuine backwards messaging.

“Half Penny, Two Penny” may be the best rock song on the album. A mini-suite in of itself, it builds to a crescendo with some excellent lead guitar and just the right touch of piano and saxophone (by guest Steve Eisen) in the coda where repeatedly JY screams;

“I wanna be free!”

The Best Of Times single

But the concept itself and all the songs that surround it, truly belongs to DeYoung. “The Best of Times” provides not only the top hit on the album, but the recurring theme with the opener “A.D. 1928” and the closer “A.D. 1958”. Many longtime fans (and apparently some band members themselves) lamented the heavy introduction of ballads by Denis DeYoung, starting with the soft-rock hit “Babe” on the previous album, Cornerstone. But this is a case where the ballad is supreme (and not so much sappy) with strong influence from each of the members of Styx and the obvious endorsement of fans at large.

However, some of the other “theme” songs really tend to straddle the line between legitimate rock opera and some high school theater production. This is especially true for “Rockin’ the Paradise” and “Nothing Ever Goes As Planned”, both popular songs on the album, each of which can either be interpreted as entertaining or over-the-top on any given day. For this reason, Paradise Theatre never really rises to the level of excellence of the best rock operas, such as The Who’s Quadrophenia, although it is still an interesting and enjoyable listen.

A nice touch was added to top off the album, a classy, “song after the last song” in the same fashion as “Her Majesty” off Abby Road by The Beatles. The half-minute long saloon-piano piece called “State Street Sadie”, adds just a touch of nostalgia right out of the 1920s that brings home the overall theme of Paradise Theatre.

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RA

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1981 albums.

 
 
1981 Images