You've got to expect some bad with the good when you name yourself after a mythical river leading to hell. Chicago's South Side heroes Styx are currently having a bit of both.
The band is in the midst of a career resurgence that includes nabbing a gold record for their 1997 double live Return to Paradise "comeback" disc and having their hits "Mr. Roboto" used in a VW commercial, "Come Sail Away" abused in a "South Park" episode and celebrated in Adam Sandler's Big Daddy movie.
In fact, Sandler manages to play Styx songs a handful of times in his movie and talks about the group in dialogue as the best band ever! People are covering Styx these days, too. Last year saw two covers of "Babe," (one of them a rap!) and a dance version of "Mr. Roboto." And in June, the band released Brave New World, its first studio album since 1990's Edge of the Century. But amid this surge of success, the band's most recognizable voice and longtime leader, Dennis DeYoung, has been suffering from health problems linked to a virulent bout of the flu. The illness started nearly a year and a half ago following Styx's last world tour and left the singer painfully sensitive to light and prone to uncharacteristic bouts of exhaustion.
"This thing actually landed in the nervous system of my face, which has made me sensitive to light," DeYoung explains. "My face gets hot, my eyes get bloodshot. It's absolutely insane. This thing has ruined my life! I've been to 15 different doctors and they just say sometimes viruses do weird things to your system. And this weird thing happened to me."
The result is that while the reunited Styx has just released Brave New World, its first studio disc in 15 years featuring all three front singer-songwriters from its classic '70s lineup of DeYoung, Tommy Shaw and James Young, the band is currently out on the road without DeYoung who couldn't commit to tour dates due to his health. Unfortunately, the less obvious impact of DeYoung's illness can be heard in the tracks on Brave New World as well as in his absence from the stage this summer.
As Styx's longtime concept album "visionary" and studio leader, DeYoung somehow always managed to pull together the disparate rock styles of Shaw and Young with his own light ballad touch on the band's previous releases. But this time around, Shaw and Young finished and produced their tracks in an L.A. studio on their own, while DeYoung completed his here in Chicago. Song orders and mixing were done while the band members were scattered around the country and even the album artwork was chosen without full band approval.
The result, not surprisingly, is an album that sounds unfocused, fragmented. There are some fine moments on Brave New World, but it's obviously not the work of a vibrant studio collaboration from a band in its prime.
It's not the first time bad luck has hit the Styx camp during the heydays of reunion. The band regrouped without Shaw in 1990 for Edge Of The Century, and original drummer John Panozzo was unable to join a subsequent reunion tour.
His eventual death was memorialized in "Dear John," a Shaw-sung studio track on Return to Paradise. Considering the splintered quality of the new album, and the fact that half of Styx's remaining members are now on the road while the other half are sitting it out here in Chicago (bassist Chuck Panozzo is also absent from this tour; Burtnik is filling in for him), there's a chance that John Panozzo's eulogy of a couple years ago is really the marker of the last true collaboration of Chicago's top vocal rock band of the '70s.
With movie studios snapping up older Styx tracks lately for soundtracks (and there are even more interesting projects in the wings, DeYoung hints), the singer is hopeful that the band does still have a future following Brave New World. But he admits that he's currently unsure about it. The current tour (which doesn't yet have a Chicago date) is underway without his blessing.
Will he eventually join the tour sometime this fall?
"At this moment I have no plans to do any shows whatsoever," he says. "I asked the rest of the band to wait for me to get better before touring, but apparently it wasn't meant to be."
Will there be another Styx studio album?
"I don't know," he says, sounding beaten. "And that's the truth."
If there is to be a future for this band other than a mining of nostalgia hits for movie and TV show vehicles, DeYoung, Shaw and Young will need to closet themselves in the studio, all at the same time in the same place, to rediscover the magic they had two decades ago. The gestalt that produced The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone and Paradise Theatre is painfully absent on Brave New World. The trademark Styx three-part harmonies are subdued or missing entirely, with Shaw's and DeYoung's tracks sounding like unconnected solo efforts shoehorned together to fill out one CD.
There's a smile-grabbing instrumental nod at "The Grand Illusion" leading off Shaw's "Everything Is Cool," but outside of that, the Styx sound fans have lined up to hear for decades is hard to finger here.
DeYoung says if he'd been at the boards finishing the album as he always was in the past, Brave New World would have sounded more like a Styx album.
"A lot of the sound has to do with the way the album was put together in separate places," he says. "If I had been able to do on this record what I always did in the studio, those disparate styles, I believe, would have come together better."
Instead however, Shaw and Young finished their portion of the album without the keyboardist's input, as they geared up a DeYoung-less band to tour the material once it was released (Note: They recruited Lawrence Gowan, a singer-keyboardist from Canada to fill in and sing DeYoung hit songs like "The Best of Times," "The Grand Illusion" and "Come Sail Away").
But DeYoung admits that even his own new material for Brave New World, which includes a ballad rescued from Q-Modo his Hunchback of Notre Dame musical of a couple years ago, along with a quiet piano ballad and a light reggae number, was not written in the classic Styx mold.
"Some of the things that I wrote for this album were less traditionally Styx-like, but as an artist, you can only record that which you've written," he says. "I'm not making excuses. I like what I've done. But if it isn't like a traditional Styx record that makes people happy in that way, I can understand it because it isn't a traditional Styx record."
While it may not be the strongest or most Styx-ish comeback disc the band could have produced, one thing hasn't changed. A DeYoung ballad, "While There's Still Time," was sent to radio as a single in mid-July. Predictably, it's a heartstring-strumming adult contemporary-ready ballad. And if some things in Styx have changed, the sureness of DeYoung's hand in painting easy listening ballads remains the same.
The "Best of Times" indeed.
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