Brave New World
"How will I know if there's a place/for me in the brave new world?"
— "Brave New World"
Styx's first album in more than 15 years to feature all three singer-songwriters from the group's late '70s heyday is a patchwork affair that shows sparks of the band's creative brilliance, but certainly not the triumphant return that fans would have hoped for.
Part of the problem is that much of this disc doesn't sound like a Styx album. The band's last disc, 1990's Edge of the Century, which had Glen Burtnik filling in for Tommy Shaw (Burtnik is now currently filling in for Chuck Panozzo on the band's summer tour) had a more consistent Styx sound than this record.
Shaw's tracks on Brave New World sound indistinguishable from his solo material of the past 15 years, and Dennis De-Young's songs smack heavily of his solo work as well.
The high grandiose three-part harmonies of Shaw, DeYoung and James "JY" Young which always pulled their disparate writing styles together are either missing or mixed so far in the background that the connecting Stygian thread seems thin.
That said, there are some great songs. Shaw's "Best New Face" is a hand-clapping rocker with supporting vocals that reach back to the mid-70s era Styx sound.
"Just Fell In" is a catchy retro rocker despite some cheesy "horn" keyboards and JY's backwards masking intro. This is getting to be an old joke. He first did it on 1979's Paradise Theatre.
"Brave New World," opens with a nice mysterious aura. The disc brings out that classic big Styx vocal attack in its chorus, though some better mixing could have made it sound even bigger. Shaw and JY duet on the full-tilt Styx rocker "What Have They Done To You" and Young's main vehicle, "Heavy Water," should bang some heads in concert.
DeYoung clocks in with two well-toned ballads in the adult contemporary radio-ready "While There's Still Time" and "Goodbye Roseland," a piano hymn reminiscent of the somber reflective spirit of Billy Joel's "Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)." He also brings in the flavor of some of his recent musical theater work on "Fallen Angel," a finger snappin' mid tempo rocker peppered with background "oooo's." It's a little light for a Styx record but an interesting sidetrack.
While looking at it song for song, Brave New World seems to offer some gold. As a holistic work, something still seems awry.
Part of the problem becomes evident on a quick read of the liner notes.
DeYoung produced and recorded his songs here in Chicago while Shaw and James Young finished their work in L.A. with Ron Nevison, who produced Shaw's Damn Yankees projects.
Nevison knows how to mix rock records, but he doesn't know how to mix Styx records.
This album probably would have turned out better if the whole band had been in the same studio for the recording and mixing of the disc as they always were in the past.
Another problem on the production side of Brave New World is in the song order. In the first six tracks, DeYoung is only represented once, again making it feel like a Tommy Shaw solo disc.
This is part of the "feel" problem with this Styx album. As the "voice" who owns most of the Styx hits from "Babe" and "Mr. Roboto" to the most recent "Show Me The Way," DeYoung's near-absence makes the first half of the album seem anemic, even though it includes some fine material from Shaw.
With 14 songs, the album also rambles on too long, and feebly attempts to make this into another Styx "concept" album by mentioning "Brave New World" in a couple tracks and then ending with a weak "Brave New World Reprise" that listens like a "hooked on Styx" replay of the album's main themes.
Drop the ill-conceived reprise and your least favorite Shaw track (I would dump "Number One"; despite its adventurous modern rock chorus, most of the song plods along) and DeYoung's painful attempt at a social statement in "High Crimes & Misdemeanors (Hip Hop-Cracy)" and reorder the disc a bit and this would have been a stronger album.
I reprogrammed the album on my CD player to play "Every-thing Is Cool" as the intro track, since it opens with an instrumental guitar riff nod at "The Grand Illusion," nicely tying the old Styx into the new. Drag "While There's Still Time" and another DeYoung track closer to the front and you get a much more "Styx-like" album.
Given that Shaw and Young are currently touring without Panozzo and DeYoung (who's been suffering from an undefined illness for the past couple years), and the splintered nature of this "reunion" album, Styx's continued place in the Brave New World is certainly questionable.
There's enough good stuff on this CD to prove the group is a still-viable rock powerhouse, but if they're going to do it again, next time around, they need to all be on the same page — and in the same studio.
During roughly the same period Styx was kicking out platinum album after platinum album, another Illinois band — Champaign's REO Speedwagon, was coming into its own as FM rock and ballad champions.
As with so many bands of the era, REO was first known for its bombastic bar rockers like "Roll With The Changes" and "Ridin' The Storm Out" but eventually found a new niche churning out even huger hits from their softer side.
This disc collects 11 of their best ballads, from "Time for Me To Fly," "Keep On Loving You" and "Can't Fight This Feeling" to "Take It On The Run," "In My Dreams" and the Clinton campaign theme, "Building The Bridge."
It also includes two new tracks, a country-tinged shuffler "Til The Rivers Run Dry" and "Just For You," a radio ready, piano-based hymn (co written with fellow Chicago rock veteran, Survivor's Jim Peterik) that could easily put REO back on the adult contemporary charts again. The band is currently opening for Styx on select dates of their summer tour.
While the band members claim a deep love of Elvis Costello and The Police, on their debut album, this new Chicago foursome shows off their chops by doing dead-on impressions of two other punk-pop bands — Green Day and fellow Chicagoans Smoking Popes.
Lead singer Chris Envy generally sticks to the same nose-thumbing snarling delivery as Green Day's Billie Joe. Still on songs like the sweet strings-augmented ballad "Unspoken Words," the shuffling "Second Chance" (which mines the same '70s vein as Coward did on their 1997 debut) and the acoustic guitar ballad "Someone," Envy slicks it back with more of a Popes-ish loungey delivery and some nice harmonies.
Is it groundbreaking stuff?
Do they create a new, fresh "sound" that will immediately identify their songs as being by Showoff to radio listeners?
Does it matter?
Clones or not, they've created a sharp little disc of three-chord pop-punk songs that either of their apparent idols would be proud to include on their own albums.
If you're missing a fix for Green Day or the Popes, Showoff is there for you.