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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Styx

The Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings

Review by Gary Hill

This double disc set is a compilation of the first four Styx discs, all in one place. These albums (originally released on Wooden Nickel Records – hence  the title) are often forgot about with the media attention focusing more squarely on the later hit-driven mega-star period of the group. That’s a shame because these are some excellent albums. Hearing them again reminds me that Styx were a progressive rock band at first – and these albums really show that fact off. It has me re-evaluating the whole history of the group. Surely they had a lot of straight ahead pop rock hits, but really most of their albums have enough prog rock to put them close to that genre. Plenty of prog bands turned their sound towards the more streamlined and mainstream oriented music to further their careers. I think I’m going to start looking at Styx more like that. Without question I’d put this release in the progressive rock category and I might very well change the rest – after all we put everything from Rush into prog rock based on the strength of their progressive rock period. Perhaps I should extend the same courtesy to Styx. Truth be told not everything here qualifies as progressive rock, but most of it does. Not every song is incredible either, but the majority of this CD is.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Movement For The Common Man
Drums lead us in, then the group kick out in a hard rock motif. This somehow reminds me of Mountain just a bit or perhaps Free. The chorus has a more 1960’s pop rock feel to it and we get a short instrumental break after it. They return back to the song proper but then launch out into a killer instrumental excursion – with a chorus planted in the middle of it. This gives way to a drum solo. They drop it way down after this solo to a Doors like sound and then fire out into a smoking ELP oriented jam (that obviously has some great keyboard work within). They continue onward with this in a very progressive rock like motif. It seems about ready to fire out into something new when they stop abruptly. Then we get some sound effects and a little sound bite of some “man on the street” conversations. At around the seven minute mark some guitar rises tentatively. The clips go away and the band bring this up into their take on “Fanfare for the Common Man.” It’s more guitar oriented and slower than ELP’s adaption. This gives way to another jam that’s more collaborative in terms of which instrument drives it. Then they shift out into a faster paced section and keyboards solo over this. We get the next vocal segment from there. They throw in plenty of instrumental sections as this carries onward, the guitar and keyboards each getting some serious solo time. They turn it metal for a short time and then drop it way back down to a sedate balladic motif. The next vocal section comes over the top and other instrumentation lends emotion and power to the mix. They fire back out into the faster paced sounds for another instrumental foray. We are given a couple variations before they bring it to an end. At over thirteen minutes in length this is definitely an epic. I also put forth that it’s progressive rock.
Right Away
The guitar sound that leads us off here is very Beatles-like. They shift out from there into a harder edged jam with James Young singing. As the bluesy chorus joins it’s in a group vocal performance manner. This one is pretty straight forward.
What Has Come Between Us
The section that leads this off with its fast paced changes and cool instrumental work really calls to mind early Yes quite a bit. They drop it way down for a slow balladic motif for the first vocal. With some varying segments and some great instrumental textures and killer vocal arrangements, this is really a progressive rock ballad. Mind you, that represents the bulk of the song. We get several harder edged, but still quite progressive rock oriented movements on this.
Best Thing
A hard edged riff makes up the main impetus of this track. Layers of keyboards and a classic “wall of sound” Styx vocal arrangement pulls it more into the progressive rock realm. They move it out into a smoking hard rock jam later in the track. Then it’s taken down to a prog ballad approach. As more vocals are added I can definitely hear a Captain Beyond leaning here. Some more instrumental work takes us back to the song proper. With all the changes and alterations I’d consider this progressive rock – even though it has some straightforward segments.
Quick Is The Beat Of My Heart
A wacka wacka guitar makes up the backdrop for a lot of this song. The vocals on this remind me of “Renegade” from later in the group’s career. They give us a pretty typical Styx powered up “wall of sound” chorus. There are some proggy elements in the arrangement on this one, but overall I’d see it as a hard rock song. We get a cool guitar riff based section that reminds me of early Fleetwood Mac (you know, the blues period). There is a nice keyboard solo over the top of this followed by a smoking guitar solo.
After You Leave Me
The hard edged sound that leads this in is not dissimilar to what was considered heavy metal at the time. They drop it way down to a keyboard based balladic sound for the verse and when it’s powered back up this has much more of a progressive rock texture. We get the classic Styx harmonies on the chorus here.
You Need Love
The first track from Styx II, this comes in with a keyboard dominated jam and then shifts out to a fiery guitar oriented movement. A vocal segment that’s at once vintage Styx, Starcastle and Yes serves to herald the song proper. Fast paced this is a cool jam that’s got heavy dosages of Styx rock and roll and progressive rock. After the chorus they fly out into a series of segments that encompass a number of types of music.
Lady
This was Styx’ first hit and it seems likely that most people reading this review will have heard this one. It’s a prog-like powered up ballad and still holds up extremely well despite its age.
A Day
Here we have an understated and rather mellow excursion that reminds me a bit of some of the 1970’s jazzy rock bands, but also of early Yes. They power it up somewhat as they carry on and this is definitely another that I would consider to be progressive rock. It’s a great song that works through some intriguing alterations. There are some psychedelic elements to this at times. This motif holds it for the first few minutes. They shift it out into fast paced jam that definitely brings us even further into the progressive rock realm as they carry on. There is a killer keyboard solo as they continue. At around the six minute mark they drop it back down to the song proper.
You Better Ask
This isn’t progressive rock at all, but rather closer to the something by The Eagles from The Long Run album. This isn’t bad, but it’s definitely not a high point of the set.
Little Fugue In
This is a neo-classical keyboard solo and definitely another that serves to pull this into the progressive rock zone. It serves as the introduction to the next cut and segues directly into it.
Father O.S.A.
They come in with a progressive rock progression that’s much in keeping with the instrumental that preceded it. After running through for the intro they drop it back to a balladic section and Dennis DeYoung delivers some evocative vocals. This segment serves to create a good chunk of the song, but they also include some more powered up segments and at least one expansive progressive rock journey. This portion serves as the extended outro.
Earl Of Roseland
At times this is rather straightforward, but it also has a good deal of progressive rock elements. You have to love any song that mentions “Spiderman and the Human Torch.” There is a mellower section, but overall this one rocks out quite nicely.
I'm Gonna Make You Feel It
This definitely has more classic Styx sound. The vocal presence we are used to hearing from these guys is all over this and it’s a fast paced rocker. There a few intriguing twists and a killer keyboard solo.
Unfinished Song
Starting in mellow balladic modes, this one turns into a more powered up piece. It’s another that I would be quite comfortable with placing in the progressive rock category. It’s a great way to end the first disc and is one of my favorites on show here.
Disc 2
Witch Wolf
Keys start us off here and this is a powerhouse progressive rock jam. It’s got both a classic Styx sound and plenty of prog in the midst of this arrangement. This is quite a strong cut and a great way to bring us into disc two in style. 
The Grove Of Eglantine
A Renaissance (the period of time, not the band) inspired segment starts us off here. This grows out into a fairly straightforward, but still proggy, piece that’s got a lot of energy and some cool touches.
Young Man
This one is definitely progressive rock in my book. An acoustic guitar driven balladic motif is accented by harder edged vocal explosions. They through some killer instrumental segments into this and it’s got plenty of changes and alterations. The keyboard solo on this is particularly tasty. Interestingly enough a metallic texture takes this later, complete with vocals that quite similar to Rob Halford screams. They turn this segment more prog-like and use it to close out the piece.
As Bad As This Is
A bluesy acoustic guitar ballad style starts this off and carries it forward. It’s two minutes in before they change this motif at all. The guitar turns more intricate and keyboards bring in a progressive rock texture. This powering up doesn’t stay around, though. They drop it back down after a short time to the section that preceded it. At about three and a half minutes a false ending leads to a bouncy reggae-like journey. This is OK, but feels a bit contrived and silly. As they carry along the vocals seem to become tongue in cheek, leading me to think that this segment was sort of a joke.
Winner Takes All
A fade up brings us in here. They work this out to a bouncy and fun number. It’s got some proggier segments and is quite an accessible little number.
22 Years
This is much closer to some of the more straight ahead rockers that Styx would be known for later in their career. In some ways this reminds me of fellow Illinois rockers REO Speedwagon.
Jonas Psalter
The lyrical content of this one is epic, even if the song itself is not. This is another that has definite progressive rock tendencies built into a concise structure. The classic Styx textures are here, too. The closing crescendo and drop to sea music is a nice touch and a classy way to end things.
The Serpent Is Rising
King Crimson, Yes and Gentle Giant meet on this cool, twisty sort of introduction. A dramatic keyboard and vocal segment ensues. This gives way to another instrumental section and then they bring it back with a bit more powered up version of this vocal portion. Then we’re off into an extended instrumental motif. When they come back to vocals it’s even more powerful, in terms of the music, vocal delivery and layers of voices.
Krakatoa
Prog rock? Definitely! Weird? Yes, it is! This is only about a minute and a half in length, though. An angst ridden spoken/shouted voice leads us off and carries this. Then keys come in with a noisy/non-melodic texture and build this until it segues into the next piece.
Hallelujah Chorus
Styx brings this in straight out of the weirdness of the last piece. It’s a pretty straightforward take on this classical number. If that’s not prog, I don’t know what is.
Rock & Roll Feeling
This is straightforward hard rocking number that’s quite cool.  Somehow it reminds me a little of White Witch, of course with a Styx angle. They pull it out into a jam that is one hundred percent Styx, but then shift out to an almost honky tonk based jam that really calls to mind WW even more.
Havin' A Ball
This is the first track from Man of Miracles. This feels very much like the Rolling Stones when they come in. Add a bit of a prog rock element (but only a minor one) and you have a pretty good idea of the sound of this – mind you with Styx vocals.
Golden Lark
Pretty and balladic the main focus of this track is keyboards and vocals (DeYoung). There are some symphonic elements to this and it’s quite prog-like. The sounds of a storm segue this into the next number.
A Song For Suzanne
The storm sounds that came from the previous piece are joined by violin. It plays through for a time and drops away. They work this into some rather odd territory from there, space rock sounds skimming across the top. The vocals come over with a distant (down in the mix approach). They work this one through into a lusher arrangement. Then it sort of ends and they pull out into a more straightforward rock approach for the vocals. A progressive rock instrumental movement is used for the punctuation on this segment. As they work through the next vocal portion they power it out with more layered vocals and other sounds. They move this through a number of dramatic changes in this dynamic and powerful arrangement.
A Man Like Me
Here we get a pretty straightforward rocker. It gets quite fiery as they continue on, but doesn’t wander far from its origins.
Evil Eyes
This is pretty and balladic in the opening motif. They turn it out towards harder rocking territory as it carries on. It works through a number of changes and is another that I’m quite comfortable logging under “progressive rock.”
Southern Woman
With a straightforward hard rocking basis, this one is a solid cut, if not a standout. It has some cool bursts of instrumental fire here and there.
Christopher, Mr. Christopher
An opening fanfare gives way to a more balladic structure. They turn this more rock and roll for the pre-chorus and then bring in the Styx vocal wall for the chorus. They drop it back to a very progressive mellow motif for the next vocal section. They pull it through several changes and alterations as they carry on. This is quite a powerhouse number and very progressive rock in nature.
Man of Miracles

Dramatic, but mellow, progressive rock sounds start us off here. It drops back and drums that call to mind the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey herald the next section. They power in with one of their typical powerhouse vocals on top of vocals section. This carries it for a time and then gives way to a smoking riff driven guitar based section. When the vocals enter I am really reminded of Kansas quite a bit. They take us out through a number of cool changes and musical motifs as this is built into quite the intriguing piece. It’s an excellent way to end things.

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