Styx. They are the awkward sex of the Prog Rock scene. Denis De young has become something of a mythical figure – an ever mercurial demon-trickster God who does not understand when enough is enough. I am sure he is nothing like that but the memetic nature of hyperbole dictates that like David Bowie, DDY would totally tame an elemental dragon before lunch and lease it out as an Uber Taxi.
To understand the music of Styx, you have to understand that it is the music of conflict. On the one hand stood De Young: an experimentalist who would not bat an eyelash at the prospect of a twenty minute long synth-fuelled solo. On the other was James Young, Tommy Shaw and the rest of the band (it would seem); more traditional Prog Rock architypes who just wanted to make sweet riffs, wear shirts with frilly sleeves and go home. Both were great in their own unique way. Personally, I believe it would be wrong to say one group was more talented than the other. This was the conflict which marred a lot of the bands work but also defined it.
Styx is at its best when these two opposites collide. A Styx song should sound like two rival bands fighting for the microphone. Don’t believe me? Listen to “Come Sail Away” (sadly not on this album). It is without a doubt the closest we will ever come to hearing the exothermic start of creation. I do not care if you are a man, woman or anything in between, listening to that song will give you a boner made out of lightning. All of it is lunacy – the synth riff two thirds in; the unexpected power chords which echo through time and space just to dick slap your ears; each magical beating moment imbued with cosmic power and fear. It is without a doubt a true distillation of what a Styx song is – bombast; love; terror and little bit shit.
But I am not reviewing that. I am review an album. And if Come Sail Away is the best a Styx song can be, then Cornerstone is the same but in album form.
Where oh where to begin? The album was a departure from the more experimental rock sound of previous entries. Some purists may argue that Styx shone brightest in their earlier work. I have to disagree. This is a pure delight here from start to finish. The music segues from genre to genre, as each track tries its best to divert from the emotion of its precursor. There is the likeable insanity of “The Light” whose opening synth bars flagellate you from the get go, to the Shaw written “Boat on a River” which eschews the pop/synth/rock colour scheme in favour of a little bit of folksy warmth. Everything in between is a joy, with De Young given top ballad marks on “Babe”. Fun fact, whenever you play “Babe”, somewhere an empty lighter ignites itself one last time. Side 1 is not even the best.
That would be side 2. Oh lawd (say this out loud in your best Cajun accent for full effect). I want to take a minute and talk about “Borrowed Time”. From the opening “bippilly boops” which wash over you warm and sanguine to the party crashing noises of Shaw’s guitar, this has arguably been one of my greatest guilty pleasures. I don’t want to ruin the surprise of the chorus but you will be squealing along with glee in your best falsetto. Somehow this track manages to lick itself inappropriately in the corner without being disgusting. It just sits there, clad in hair with one of its hind legs stretched high into the air licking away while maintaining eye contact with you.
Finally but no less great is “Eddie”. This song touched me in ways that made me blush (the act was consensual). The synth solo leaps at you – pantheresque – and throttles out all other ambient noise in the room. Much like “Borrowed Time”, you would be hard pressed to find a more operatic delivery of a chorus outside of an album by Queen.
I cannot recommend this album enough. Layers upon layers of light and sound poured from my speakers. To those of you who cannot control their animal urge to sing along loudly, this is a gem and deserves its spot in any collection. Sure, there are some numbers which don’t survive repeat scrutiny. However as whole, this is as alive and conflicted as any good Styx work should be. Nobody seems to have taken the reigns here and for me, that chaos makes a little bit of magic every time this record is played.