STYX – The Serpent Is Rising

styx serpentThe first Styx album (self-titled, 1972) is an overlooked slab of pomp rock. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but any band wishing to open their debut long player with a thirteen minute epic fusing hard rock with flourishes of Aaron Copland and what sounds like a conversation with a New York cabbie must have something, right? With that track, ‘Movement For The Common Man’, Styx announced their arrival in a typically grand style. The rest of the album, while nowhere near as complete sounding as 1977’s ‘Grand Illusion’ or as obviously song oriented as any of the albums from then onward, still makes for interesting listening decades after its original release. 1973’s ‘Styx II’, by contrast, is a more sedate affair – sedate in the world of early Styx means still very much still pompous and overblown – but, naturally, a bigger input from vocalist/pianist Dennis DeYoung, brought with it a much stronger element of musical theatre.

With these two records as a solid grounding, the band went all out for their next long player ‘The Serpent Is Rising’. Released in October 1973 – the third Styx LP to hit the shelves in just eighteen months – it has to be said, it has less of a focus than its predecessors. It doesn’t sound as if Styx had been tempted to use up leftover material though, rather more that this time out, the gloves were truly off. Coming from the days when bands were allowed to spend record company money (no matter how meagre a budget) while still very much on a learning curve, it sounds as if Styx intended to throw everything at this recording bar the kitchen sink to find out, once and for all, what styles worked for them…and which ones really didn’t.

Beginning with one of the album’s essential cuts, the fantasy themed ‘Witch Wolf’ has a main riff that sounds like a cross between a Steppenwolf tribute and proto-Molly Hatchet, with guitarist James Young hitting upon a simple but rather satisfying groove, upon which his wailing rock ‘n’ roll vocal sits rather confidently. Such strong musical bones would have made a great track as is – particularly with bassist Chuck Panozzo adding some serious muscle throughout and a classy descending scale – but naturally (as is often the case with early Styx) the fun doesn’t stop there. An unexpected mid-section sees the rockier elements falling away for a little atmosphere, while an overblown chorus finds room enough for harmonious falsetto vocals, with the whole band rising to embrace the more ridiculous elements of their craft. It’s never as melodious as Styx would become in just a couple of short years, but it sets ‘Serpent Is Rising’ off on the right path. Similarly, Dennis DeYoung’s ‘The Grove of Eglintine’ – an odd fantasy tale of a wicked wench and a lover’s bond – brings the pomp rock, big style. Again, guitarists James Young and John Curulewski can be relied upon for a great 70s riff – not too heavy, a little southern in it’s execution – but in contrast to ‘Witch Wolf’, it’s not the riff which wins out. It is DeYoung’s huge and curly vocal leaves its indelible mark even though this performance merely hints at the showtune element he would fully embrace by 1977’s ‘Grand Illusion’. His piano flourishes are mixed very highly for aural excitement, too, which is also very much a plus. Structuring the vocal in such a way that Styx can really go to town on the huge – and faintly ridiculous – harmonies very much places the band in a well-earned position as the transatlantic equivalent of Queen. Make what you will of the rest of the LP, In all, ‘Serpent’ has a terrific opening couplet.

Taking elements from both styles, Young’s ‘Young Man’ hits hard for complex rock thrills. Bringing the first appearance of an acoustic guitar, Young strums hard before adopting a voice that’s so performance oriented, the lyrics are almost impossible to decipher. Huge pomp-rock vocals weave in and out shamelessly and with the inevitable arrival of the whole band just after the end of the first verse, ‘Young Man’ soon becomes a great seventies workout. The guitars are chunky but not too dirty, the rhythm section are tough – John Panozzo’s snares have a very pleasing flat sound, typical of the era – and DeYoung gets the opportunity to indulge in a huge Hammond organ solo where a guitar solo would have been, had this been constructed with a little less flamboyance. By the closing movement of this number – not even clearing five minutes, but including enough mood changes for ten – Young wails uncomfortably over a minimalist backdrop, before the rest of the band come back in for what could only be fairly described as a full-on prog rock wig-out. DeYoung launches into a solo where hammers the organ like Keith Emerson with eleven fingers, while the rest of the band careen and crash like they almost know their musical destiny but still haven’t got a firm grasp of the reins. There’s a grumbling complexity and a genuinely thrilling element of chaos, but somehow – kind of against the odds and even with a few dubious bits – Styx makes it work.

As if the band realised at this point that both they and their listening audience needed respite – or perhaps, even, a short lie down – Curulewsky takes charge for ‘As Bad As This’, a very downbeat acoustic affair. His playing, leaning towards a Moody Blues mood-on, is sparse while his lead vocal sounds suitably reflective. Bringing in JY on second guitar, his electric rings gently, while keyboard washes and a kick drum hint at something much bigger afoot – and then surprisingly, everyone steps back for JC to deliver a second verse in the same manner as the first. It’s dark and moody, but so familiar. After such strong beginnings comes an uncredited two and a half minute interlude that’s so unutterably awful, it threatens to write off the rest of the album. It’s certainly so painful to listen to, you might just want to throw your copy of the album out of the window and pretend this whole thing just never happened. Tackling a horrible calypso tune (seriously, what was the fascination with calypso in the 70s?), the band throw themselves head first into a straight up island in the sun type rhythm that sounds very much procured from one of the Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band’s racist pieces of “comedy”, complete with faux West Indian accents. After a verse of this, you’ll finally work out the lyrical content: it’s a rather crass tale of a child’s fear of going to the toilet. Like Zappa without the sneering satirical bite, it’s just painful. It’s perhaps one of the worst tunes committed to plastic during that decade… [Curulewsky’s replacement, Mr. Tommy Shaw, a fully paid up member from 1976 onward – the vital missing piece in the Styx jigsaw – would never stoop to such awfulness.]

Thankfully, for the bulk of the middle of this bonkers third record, the man from quality control comes to have a stern word in their shell-likes and, with that, Styx embark on the second side of the LP and with that, drop a couple of absolute corkers. DeYoung’s ‘Winner Take All’ – the album’s sole single – is a perfect example of huge 70s pop-rock. A strutting rhythm, allowing crisp rhythm guitar lines and a jubilant piano line, provides the bulk of the music, but as is so often the case with a DeYoung composition there’s just as much focus on the vocal: his own voice is overblown and a little theatrical, while the resultant harmonies from JC and JY, multi-tracked with DeYoung bring much hugeness. These three minutes look forward to the more streamlined and song-based Styx, while simultaneously sounding like early 70s Queen jamming with Jeff Lynne and Richard Tandy, remoulding Pilot’s ‘January’ into something much grander… Yes, it’s very much of its time, but in terms of big 70s rock, it’s also terrific. Equally good, Curulewski’s ’22 Years’ – another chorus driven piece – has all the hallmarks of early Head East; a great riff, a catchy chorus and great musicianship all come together for a solid rock workout. The dual vocal between DeYoung and Young celebrates the good time mood, a saxophone fleshing out the riff brings pure 70s indulgence and the overriding melody – melody proving far more essential than any kind of musical showboating in this case – makes this an easy album highlight. This is so good, it is hard to believe it’s from the pen of the same musician who contributed the album’s worst material.  

Back into the more fantastical, ‘Jonas Psalter’ opens up with falsetto vocals and some utterly shameless 70s keyboard work, before DeYoung wails unapologetically about piracy on the high seas. His performance is one of his worst – both in terms of lyrical construction and eventual performance – though these four minutes are saved from utter despair thanks to a few nice musical moments. Chuck Panozzo’s bass work is understated, but occasionally rises to allow a glimpse of a few interesting flourishes and the guitar interplay between JC and JY is more than admirable enough. Closing with an accordion playing a sea shanty that has a melody borrowed from ‘Greensleeves’ might just be labouring a point, though. The title cut – another Curulewski number – centres around a stodgy twin lead riff, but it somehow transcends it’s basic stomping, mildly threatening outer shell to become one of the album’s better rockers. Borrowing heavily from the early Uriah Heep blueprint, the guitars come together in reasonably good form despite the feeling they could be capable of more. The gravelly voiced Curulewski, meanwhile, does his utmost to convey the menace of the impending serpent (which the sleeve art depicts with all the menace of the rubber snake in the Doctor Who story ‘Kinda’) and somehow succeeds in doing so without sounding too silly. Obviously the song-writers talents here are a pale shadow of the man who’d come to replace him in 1976, but the more basic elements of this number are lifted considerably by the rest of Styx showing far more flair. The occasional keyboards have an occasional spacey vibe, DeYoung’s harmony vocals are shrill and distinctive, while parts of JY’s solo have a messy and apocalyptic quality that, although far from the best solo you’ll hear in your lifetime, is a perfect fit for the piece in question.

Tacked onto the end of this jumble of recordings are two short offerings which – much like the uncredited track about the lavatory – should only invite much head-scratching from the listening audience. ‘Krakatoa’ is an aggressive spoken word piece which finds Curulewski shouting angry poetry – much like a volcanic eruption – over minimalist keyboard noise for a minute and a half, before sliding into the closing track ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ which, as you can guess, is a performance of the piece from Handel’s ‘Messiah’. These numbers have a feeling of being very much bolted on. They lend the suggestion that this could have been a concept album, but if that was ever the case, Christ alone knows what the concept was, is, or was even intended to be.

Once they’d signed to a bigger label and the hits started coming, Styx disowned this album. It’s definitely no ‘Pieces of Eight’ or ‘Paradise Theater’, but its best moments are better than the band have ever given it credit. At least half of it should be embraced by the listener looking for big melodies and an alternative to Kansas. Dennis DeYoung once called it the worst album ever made…and not just by Styx. He’s probably never heard Graham Bonnet’s pre-Rainbow travesty ‘No Bad Habits’ (that veers near calypso at one point too), so we should only assume that – much like bands are more likely to remember the savage reviews than the generally positive – it’s only the offensively bad bits of ‘Serpent’ that ever loom large within the collective Styx memory. That’s a pity; it’s not the best Styx record by a long margin, but it’s definitely an interesting one.

[‘Serpent Is Rising’ is available in its entirety as part of the Styx ‘Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings’ 2CD set.]

September 2015