[29 November 2011]
Styx has endured a lot of slings and arrows over the years, not all of them fully deserved. The band has frequently been disdained as vacuous arena rockers, bloated prog-dinosaurs, and even silly theatrical balladeers. Much of the reason for why their music is so divisive stems from the tension between original singer/songwriter Dennis DeYoung and guitarist/songwriter Tommy Shaw, who joined the band just before it began to embark on its most commercially successful phase in the late ‘70s. DeYoung wanted to impose his sometimes overblown theatrical ambitions on the band, while Shaw just wanted to rock.
The result was a series of commercially successful albums such asThe Grand Illusion (1977), Pieces of Eight (1978), and Paradise Theater (1981), albums that turned Styx into multi-platinum arena superstars but were reviled by critics and the rock intelligentsia precisely because they never seemed to fit together into a particularly coherent vision. When Styx found a perfect balance between DeYoung’s admittedly spotty ambitions and Shaw’s sometimes simplistic attitude, their music could hit some undeniably irresistible peaks, but for the most part these tensions simply resulted in uneven recordings. When the band broke up and reformed several times, ultimately forcing DeYoung out in 1999 (and replacing him and most of the original members with hired hands), it seemed that Shaw’s vision for the band had won out, even if it meant that Styx would become even more reviled by critics always eager to slam the band.
Now with Regeneration Volume I & II, Styx has earned one genuinely unfortunate criticism: greedy. Over two discs (previously available only at Styx concerts), this new line-up of the band has re-recorded many of their biggest hits and album tracks, along with some other material. These re-recordings appear to be nothing more than attempt to fatten the pockets of the band’s current line-up at the fans’ expense. That may sound excessively suspicious, but how else to explain just how redundant these versions are? For one thing, these are not “unplugged”, live, or newly arranged versions, with new instrumentation. That would be somewhat infuriating, but at least you could argue that these new versions could be considered attempts at some sort of redefinition.
These, on the other hand, are completely pointless. Styx recreate the original recordings with exactly the same arrangements, the same instruments, the same production. The tinny, primitive organ and synthesizer parts in “Fooling Yourself” and “Blue Collar Man”? They’re there. The same boxy, ‘70s-style production? It’s there. The same guitar solos? All there. Even the spontaneous moments of the original recordings, like the buried scream at the beginning of “Renegade”, are recreated faithfully. What’s more, the timings of these versions differ from the original recordings by only seconds, not even tens of seconds. Mostly, this proves that new singer Lawrence Gowan is a dead ringer vocally for DeYoung (which is presumably why he was hired), since his version of “Come Sail Away”, which was originally DeYoung’s showcase number, sounds indistinguishable from the original. Which only raises the question: why should anyone care about these versions? The original recordings are perfectly acceptable, obviously, since Styx go out of their way to recreate them. Why not just get those?
The answer, apparently, is to both line Styx’s pockets by duping fans into buying these versions of songs they already have and also as yet another opportunity to rewrite DeYoung out of the band’s history. Styx’s efforts to blot DeYoung out are astonishingly extensive; his name does not appear in the band history on Styx’s official website. Moreover, only one of his showcase songs appears on this collection. There are no re-recordings of “Lady”, “Babe”, or “Don’t Let It End”, all of which were huge hits for the band, but were also DeYoung’s signature songs. There’s also no new version of “Mr. Roboto”, DeYoung’s song that cemented the huge rift within the band because of its pretentiousness. The current members would likely say that “Mr. Roboto” wasn’t included because its lyrics are so silly, but then why include a new version of “Queen of Spades”, which has equally silly lyrics? At least “Mr. Roboto” is endearingly goofy and not a dopey, misogynist piece of cock-rock swill, which “Queen of Spades” most assuredly is.
As if these re-recordings weren’t bad enough, the album, in an extremely cynical move, also includes new versions of “High Enough” and “Coming of Age”. These are of course not Styx songs but songs originally recorded by Shaw’s short-lived early-‘90s “supergroup” Damn Yankees, with Ted Nugent and Night Ranger’s Jack Blades. These are especially useless—not only are these songs lifeless hair-metal hackwork, but these re-recordings are downright terrible, far inferior to the originals, which takes some doing. Also included is a new song, a rather nondescript power ballad named “Difference in the World”. At least it’s an attempt to create new music rather than rehash old memories, even if it isn’t very good.
Then again, maybe if Styx had spent the same amount of time and energy to make even a couple of songs worth of new music rather than two CDs of regurgitated mush, that new music might have theoretically been worth hearing. This, on the other hand, is worthless, even for (or maybe especially for) devoted fans. It’s possible to argue that Styx’s best music deserves a critical reappraisal, but only if you actually examine these songs’ original renditions and not these re-recordings. Track those down and forget this collection. If you really want a souvenir of this line-up of Styx, you’d do better to buy a t-shirt instead.