|Styx - Cyclorama|
|Music Disc Reviews DVD-Audio|
|Written by Bryan Dailey|
|Tuesday, 01 June 2004|
When bands that are staples of classic ‘70s rock radio make albums in the year 2004, it’s very hard to listen objectively. Most people, myself included, know Styx best from their epic hit song “Come Sail Away” and a few other radio hits, including “Fooling Yourself” and “Mr. Robato.” Their progressive sound, with thick-layered vocals and grandiose piano parts, is still intact many years later on their latest album Cyclorama.
The first Styx album since their 1999 album Brave New World, Cyclorama has been remixed for 5.1 DVD-Audio and re-released by Silverline. I didn’t expect to hear any songs that are going to get lumped into the classic Styx set list of hits, but I was curious to see, so many years after their “prime,” if Tommy Shaw and the rest of Styx could muster a sound that is reminiscent of their heyday yet at the same time updated.
Looking at the album credits, I noticed that although most of the songs are sung by bandleader Shaw, the vocalist most people normally associate with the sound of Styx, a handful other band members take the mic. One guest spot really caught me off-guard – Mr.. Slingblade himself, Billy Bob Thornton, handles the vocal duties on the very short but rocking number “Bourgeois Pig.” Many actors wish they were rock stars, just ask Bruce Willis, Kevin Bacon or Jim Belushi. Thornton does a pretty respectful job, although the song that he sings on is less than a minute long. He certainly doesn’t embarrass himself, but it’s not the higher register vocal styling that you have come to expect from Styx. You can hear him in the vocal booth at the studio taking a drink of water (or perhaps an adult beverage) before he does his brief singing duties. Another guest appearance on the disc is Tenacious D, the acoustic rock ‘n’ roll duo of Jack Black and Kyle Gass, who sing the backup vocals on “Kiss your Ass Goodbye.” I’d guess that Tenacious D are big fans of Styx, as they often write epic songs of their own. Having a hip band like The D on their album was a smart way to give a reason to kids, who might have only heard of Styx because their brothers played them on cassette in their Camaro in the ‘70s or ‘80s, to discover Styx for themselves now. Like Thornton’s appearance on Cyclorama, Tenacious D doesn’t have a big part on the record, but you can hear their signature “oooohs and ahhhhs” in the rear channels. The mix on this track is very smooth and even.
On the track “These Are the Times,” singer James Young sounds much like Queensryche’s Geoff Tate as does the arpeggiated guitar line. Bombastic drums thunder from the front speakers as the song builds to the thick-layered chorus that features several layers of overdubbed backing vocals in the rears. The balance between the electric and acoustic guitars is very clever as the lead plays lines that harmonize well with the rhythm guitar. When the guitar solo comes in, the whole mix moves up to the front channels, but returns to full surround for the outro as staccato backing vocals bring the song back to the main verse before another rocking version of the chorus.
I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again. Classic R&B and progressive rock are the two best genres to remix for surround sound. The instrumentation and vocals are usually recorded in ways that really lend themselves to 5.1 mixes. On Cyclorama, the rears are used primarily for vocal harmony tracks. On songs like the hard rocking “Captain America,” mixing engineer Gary Lux smartly keeps most of the mix up in the front and center speakers. Some of the recent hard rock records that I have heard in surround, including The Foo Fighters latest and Metallica’s Black Album, suffer from trying to cram too many distorted guitars in the rear speakers. Unless you have full-range speakers as your rears, hard rock albums end up turning into a sonic mess when the action moves behind you.
For some strange reason, carrots are a big part of the artwork and onscreen menus of this disc. The front cover features a large carrot coming out of the sky, looking like a cyclone being watched by a bunch of men who are standing on the beach. As the songs on the disc are playing, still images that contain the name of the song are displayed onscreen. Each photo has a carrot somehow worked into the photo. Some of the photos tie into the songs, such as on “Killing the Thing That You Love,” which has a photo of a man holding a bloody carrot. I cant even begin to explain what the significance of the carrots is, but I just know from years of buying progressing rock albums by other bands like Rush and Yes that it’s just best to go with it and assume that it’s part of the whole “art rock” thing.
The song that sounds most like vintage Styx is “More Move for the Money.” The piano part is a little like a Queen tune, but Shaw’s distinct vocal style sets it apart. During the instrumental breakdown, the piano comes up in the mix, another signature Styx move.
As a refresher for those who have forgotten what a classic Styx song sounds like, the band has a short version of “Fooling Yourself (Palm of your Hands)” that features some ultra-lush four part harmonies that would impress Boys II Men. This was a good idea and a bad idea at the same time. It makes you realize what a classic song this is, yet they only sing one bar of it, then segue into the silly rock song “Captain America.” It leaves you wishing you could hear a full version of all of their hits in surround sound. It may happen someday, but for now you’ll have to live with about 30 seconds of “Fooling Yourself” in surround.
I came into listening to this album with much skepticism and was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed more songs that I had expected. There is a lot of filler on Cyclorama, but mixed in there are some good musical nuggets. The mix is not overly adventurous, but it is always interesting and serves the songs well. Never does a vocal pop out of the rears that kills the vibe of the song and the sound of the instruments are a good update on the classic round sound of a band we all know from about 30 years ago. Styx can still rock and in surround there is a new reason for Gen X and Y to figure out why their brothers all had Styx cranking in the Camaro.