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Pieces of Eight

A&M 4724
Released: September 1978
Chart Peak: #6
Weeks Charted: 92
Certified 3X Platinum: 11/14/84

Styx is an arena band from the progressive school. Every gesture's writ huge to the point of flatulence, their pomp is highly circumstantial (it's the only way to get the last row's attention) and around every chorus lurks a whirring synthesizer, if not a pipe organ hauled in from a genuine cathedral. The strategy becomes obvious: Dennis DeYoung's synthesizer (though sub-Rick Wakeman fluff all the way) is crucial because without its bubblicious curlicues, Tommy Shaw's and James Young's guitar work would have to stand alone as more played-out, heavy-metal plod and Jethro Tull Jr. acoustic jive. No one of these parts amounts to much on its own, but when a smeared together, each contributes to the kind of fantasy-land effects that groups like this run on. Which at least makes Styx right. Tight as tissue.

Young, DeYoung and Shaw all compose, and while the music's noting to speak of (if you've heard Yes and Queen, you've heard it all), the lyrics are a little more interesting. It's not insignificant that only one of Pieces of Eight's ten tunes is about loving somebody else -- and even that includes a line like "And as your surrogate leader I'm bound in your search for the truth." Like an album-long suite based on Queen's "We Are the Champions," what these songs say -- and what a lot of bands such as Styx have been saying for some time -- is this: we are hot shit. Not just because we're badass guitar heroes, not because we've got soul or play so great, not even because we're rock stars. No, we are hot shit because, beyond even the divine right of synthesizers, we are kings. (If you don't believe it, look at all our money, not to mention our regal vestments).

This point of view is most explicitly expressed in "Lords of the Ring," which is no more offensive to J.R.R. Tolkien (who might even deserve it) than any of the many monstrosities perpetrated in his name by other groups: "And now the message is clear/For I became a lord this year." "Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)" looks back to a time when his liege Tommy Shaw was actually on the unemployment line; even against "impossible odds," he asserted then that he would work and win because "I've got the will/I'm not a charity case." "I'm O.K." shows Styx basking in self-satisfaction for upward mobility, while both "Great White Hope" and the title track depict nothing less than a troubled ruling class: "I'm just a prisoner in a king's disguise."

What's really interesting is not that such narcissistic slop should get recorded, but what must be going on in the minds of the people who support it in such amazing numbers. Gall, nerve and ego have never been far from great rock & roll. Yet there's a thin but crucial line between those qualities and what it takes to fill arenas today: sheer self-aggrandizement on the most puerile level. If these are the champions, gimme the cripples.

- Lester Bangs, Rolling Stone, 12-28-78.

Bonus Reviews!

Styx is a good hard-rock band as hard-rock bands go, which isn't very far. Most of the performances here are energetic for the sake of being energetic, and that is really what rock is all about, even it its dotage. The trouble with bands of the Styx type is that, for lack of any other subject matter, they continually draw on their own insecurities and lingering immaturity for song material. Either that, or they take cues from their youthful audience. Thus Styx sings "Great White Hope," about the audience waiting for them to flop, and "Lords of the Ring" (a reference to the Tolkien fantasy novels), about a pure world where violence is righteous and children can be children forever. Remind you a little of the Woodstock Nation kids who thought they'd never reach thirty? The wheel turns and, yes, it goes nowhere. Nor, I fear, does Styx.

- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 2/79.

Styx has become a major recording and touring act since its last LP, the breakthrough The Grand Illusion. With each album, the five-man band's music becomes more refined and slick without sacrificing artistic values. In ways, this album can be taken as an extension of the "Grand Illusion," with its vivid lyrics again making a commentary on the human condition. What keeps Styx from stagnating is its luxury of having three writers and three vocalists. The orchestrations are craftily constructed and the instrumental firepower, paced by soaring guitars and synthesizer, are executed precisely. And the lyrics have something to say. Best cuts: "Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)," "Great White Hope," "Lords Of The Ring," "Pieces Of Eight," "I'm OK."

- Billboard, 1978.

Pieces of Eight continued Styx's winning streak, selling over three million copies over the years. Styx was savvy enough to make their art-rock appear like arena-rock, as the "Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)" single indicates, as well as the hit "Renegade." * * * *

- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Pieces of Eight is the best of the individual albums, with durable rockers such as "Renegade" and "Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)." * * *

- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Coming off a two-year, 400-date tour and the triple-hit single, triple-platinum The Grand Illusion, Styx consolidated their success with 1978's Pieces of Eight, which reached Number Six on the US album chart. The album boasted two hit singles -- the US Number 21 "Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)" and the Number 16-peaking "Renegade." "Blue Collar Man" -- inspired by the memories of a then-unemployed Tommy Shaw -- featured a Hammond Organ sound and twirling guitar riff, which if it didn't exactly exactly doff its cap to Deep Purple, certainly anticipates the hit singles of Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow.

The jaunty, jogging "Renegade" follows a similar path, but the band stretch out more -- or perhaps back to an earlier sound -- on the more complex balladry of "I'm OK," while returning to their progressive roots on "Sing To The Day." This is something of a crossroads -- as AOR beckons on the hit singles, the prog blueprint still flutters, no more so than on "I'm OK," which, in a nod to those godfathers of pomp, Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, features a pipe organ solo by Dennis DeYoung, recorded at Chicago's Cathedral of St James.

The album sleeve was designed by Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis, who also worked on many Pink Floyd album covers and are responsible for some of the decade's most iconic album images.

As of 2004, Pieces of Eight was the #66 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

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