When Dennis DeYoung decided to retire, he hit upon the idea of one final, grand release that would recount his fifty years in the business with an autobiographical slant. Since Dennis rarely thought on a small scale and had always been blessed with a very theatrical voice, the idea of him taking his last curtain call with something resembling a musical about his life didn’t seem that silly. In fact, a big idea got even bigger with Jim Peterik’s help, and the planned final album had to be split into two volumes.
‘96 East: Volume 1’ was a patchy affair, but when it hit the mark, it did so splendidly. Between the Styx-meets-ELP grandiosity of ‘East of Midnight’, the massive Styx infused pomp of ‘Run For The Roses’ and confident AOR workout ‘A Kingdom Ablaze’, fans were given at least three examples of DeYoung’s talents at their best. Unfortunately, a couple of over-saccharined ballads that pushed Dennis too far into sub-Disney territory and the embarrassing faux anger of ‘All Due Respect’ did the first part of his musical tale no favours, making the first disc a somewhat inconsistent listen that would only have long term appeal to the most forgiving fan.
Released almost a year to the day later (much later than expected), ‘96 East: Volume 2’ is a much stronger effort. There are a couple of obvious clunkers, but when these arise, DeYoung’s superb voice is often enough to carry the material with ease. Listeners are dropped into the middle of DeYoung’s life story with ‘Hello Goodbye’, which isn’t a cover of The Beatles’ famous hit from ’68, but has a similarly bouncy attitude. The rhythm rattles along like an old Turtles hit; the vocals serve up a jubilant vibe throughout – Dennis has rarely sounded so happy – and a compliment of horns and chiming guitars more than bolsters a fantastic melody throughout. The choice of title is by no means accidental, as various lyrics pay tribute to the fab four’s legacy. Even though this piece of pop occasionally sounds more like ‘Shine’ by Take That than a bona fide McCartney banger, it’s a superb start to this disc – and actually a contender for the one of the best DeYoung solo tunes of all time. Keeping up the momentum, the rockier ‘Land of The Living’ opens with a choir of vocals that hark back to ‘Grand Illusion’ and are used effectively throughout, especially when fleshing out a great pop hook. Faced with one of the rockiest riffs, DeYoung offers a taut lead vocal that taps into some perfect AOR – almost as if he’s giving everyone a glimpse of how Styx might’ve sounded had they existed in 1987. With Mike Aquino contributing a superb lead guitar break and the second half of the track really capitalising on a great hook, it’s another essential listen.
The even more retro feel at the heart of ‘The Last Guitar Hero’ allows for some great organ work always helping to drive a funky riff. DeYoung over sings a touch on a tune that sounds like a Deep Purple ‘House of Blue Light’ cast off, and a few of the lyrics seem a bit clumsy, but these minor flaws don’t spoil what’s essentially a very solid rocker. If there were any danger of it sagging, it’s quickly rescued by an absolutely killer guitar solo from an unlikely source when Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello steps up for several bars of his trademark theatrics. Morello’s trickery is so, so distinctive, but despite coming from a very different musical background, his performance really fits the all round bombast of the number. The tail end of the song drops into a slower and slightly more prog oriented mood, but again, there’s plenty within the core melody that’s broadly appealing for the older rock fan, especially with a the help of bluesy guitar part hinting at an Andy Latimer vintage from 1978.
After an absolutely stunning trilogy of rockers, the album then takes a dive into more “typical” DeYoung fare, when the piano ballad ‘Your Saving Grace’ sounds like an unpleasant collision between an old Styx ballad and one of Jim Peterik’s nasty show tunes. Gospel choirs and a religious overtone take something sappy into the realms of almost unbearable, but if you’re able to grit your teeth and plough on through, an unexpected highlight comes from a melody borrowed from ‘The Best of Times’, very much reminding everyone that this was designed as a chapter in a celebration of a huge body of work. ‘Made For Each Other’ – sequenced a couple of tracks later – is potentially worse when Den goes full on Broadway musical when he recounts times in the park and a relationship that would endure the decades. An occasional punch of AOR guitar work helps save face, but it really is absolutely saccharine stuff meant for the most forgiving fans only.
Luckily, ‘96 East: Volume II’ isn’t completely front-loaded: ‘There’s No Turning Back Time’ is something of an unexpected gem that sounds like an old idea from ‘Styx II’ reworked with some lovely shimmering guitar work reminiscent of ex-Genesis man Anthony Phillips. Its understated music suits the vocal perfectly, while the tune’s reflective nature seems perfectly designed to fit this project. Even when DeYoung reaches for much bigger notes and it all goes a bit “stage”, there’s plenty within the music that keeps it grounded, right up until the climax where hard rock guitars pierce through the rhythm and a shameless prog rock keyboard solo paves the way for a selection of vocal gymnastics that could have been inspired by Styx’s ‘Serpent Is Rising’. Offering some quiet and thoughtful sounds, a few fine melodies and – eventually – some well executed bombast, this covers a lot of bases to become a highlight.
‘St. Quarantine’ comes with a lyric that’ll age the album terribly in years to come, but on the other hand, it proves that this was a work in progress right up until the final whistle. There’s a sly humour in the way DeYoung takes the lyric “Bless us St. Quarantine, patron saint of broken dreams” and delivers it with all the gusto of a celebratory mantra. It certainly brings a whole new viewpoint to making the best of a bad situation. Musically, there are a few nice nods to late 80s/early 90s AOR, but DeYoung and Petrik’s fascinations with a theatrical sound tends to hamper any long term enjoyment, before the theatrics go for broke on ‘Little Did We Know’, a stomping throwback to the biggest excesses of Styx circa 1976. Bits of the tune – the early Queen-esque rhythms, rigid bass work and lead guitars piercing through the chorus – are all superb from first listen, even if the finer points of the performance are in danger of being swamped by the general bluster. As always, DeYoung’s sense of boundless vision and great voice should be applauded and there’s definitely a great melodic rock tune in here somewhere. On first listen, this can seem especially tiring, but by the time you’ve heard it a few times, the main hook – loaded with multi-layered harmonies and a genuine feeling of gusto – creates something of an earworm…like it or not. Squarely between the DeYoung pomp rock of yore and something he dreamed up for a non-existent musical, it won’t be for everyone, but those who get it will absolutely adore it. Time and patience are certainly required here, but in terms of huge and theatrical, it’s very impressive.
In many ways, from thereon, the album has nowhere else to go and nothing more to prove, but the aching balladry of ‘Isle of Misanthrope’ – not a million miles away from one of Toby Hitchcock’s emotive performances with Pride of Lions – allows listeners a little time to wind down and reintroduces the shimmering acoustic sounds from earlier, before dropping into something that could easily stand alongside the massive pomp of Styx’s ‘Grand Illusion’ LP, For something that started in such a sickly and divisive fashion, by the time the louder and crunchier elements take over, it’s all great, theatrical rock that as much celebrates DeYoung’s place in the history books as his waving goodbye in the present. As if to hammer home this has all been done with a very knowing smile, a re-recording of ‘Grand Finale’ closes this final chapter with a near-perfect replication of its 1977 self, except with a much beefier sound. It suggests that Dennis is proud of his past, comfortable with his present and more than happy with leaving something that blends the old with the new as his final recorded work.
Despite a couple of tracks that are destined for the skip button, ‘96 East: Volume 2’ is mostly great, and when heard in tandem with the previous disc, it definitely sounds much stronger all round. Although there’s a feeling that both volumes would have been more effective if edited down to a single album, it’s sort of understandable why DeYoung would want to share all of his last musical ideas with the loyal fans and, of course, some will love all of it, warts and all. For those who bought ‘Volume 1’ and loved it, ‘Volume 2’ has the potential to sound like a musical goldmine. For those who’ve not yet heard anything from the ‘96 East’ double set, it’s worth checking out the first three tracks on this second disc first and then backtracking. As frustrating and inconsistent as it can seem at first, the greatest bits will certainly reward your efforts in the long run.