Sunday, July 7, 2013

Styx: The Grand Illusion: Side Two

Side Two:

5. Miss America
 Every year, in the U.S., and hundreds of other countries around the world, women of all races, cultures and bikini-types compete against each other in one large pageant for a title that is only respected for one thing: It's ability to ensure the winner a reasonably lucrative career as a model of some kind.
   But every once in a while, a woman appears at one of these contests who is obviously over-qualified and should be running as a candidate for president. Miss Utah, 2013 is one such example. When asked a question about pay inequity, she dodged three different ways, while at the same time, squeezing in the word 'jobs', 'education' and 'leaders' into her answer. After giving her perfect answer, she walked away smiling happily, leaving everyone wondering what the heck she means by what she said. An absolutely brilliant performance. Sadly, Miss Utah was not being tested on her political acumen. She was in a beauty pageant and not a political interview, where she would've been judged much less harshly, and had an entire conflagration of people to defend her and her confusing, albeit devilishly clever, statements. Clearly Miss Utah is another, much more intelligent version of Sarah Palin, and should've entered politics and not a beauty contest, where her skills of confusion and misdirection are wasted on those who are too busy staring at her boobs to actually look up and ask: "What did she say? I don't get it. What does that mean? Something about jobs?"

    But Miss America is only one form of pageantry and spectacle that provides little in the way of social benefits or even real entertainment. Sure, it serves as a talent pool of models for various advertisers to choose from, but essentially it just makes people feel good about themselves and their country or region and provides a little entertainment and nothing more. Usually things like the Miss America pageant are a good distraction from the real problems of any given nation or society, and the bigger the event, the better the distraction. And the United States is not alone. There are many other countries that will and have done the same thing as the US, in order to distract it's people from the truth of the problems within their borders.
   The Prime Minister of Canada, in 2010, sought to avoid questions in parliament on Canada's role in the torture of detainees in Afghanistan, so Stephen Harper officially prorogued parliament, completely shutting down the federal legislature for the entire duration of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Big show, Big distraction. I'm sure that it certainly helped that Canada's Men's Hockey Team won Gold, too.
    Before the Olympics 2012, Britain's government under Prime Minister David Cameron instituted numerous, and now infamous, austerity measures, cutting back on social welfare programs to the poor and middle class, to combat the debt and deficit problems of the government, while at the same time spending close to £9 billion (US$13.8 billion) on the Summer Olympic Games. Athletics are not a bad thing to invest in, but certainly if the U.K. can come up with £9 billion for the Olympics, then the austerity measures seem comparatively unnecessary.
    And currently, in Brazil, they are spending some R$28 billion (US$12.6 billion) on massive Soccer stadiums and facilities to host the World Cup 2014, while education, health care and the general state of the infrastructure and roads in Brazil seems to be in a general state of decay. Thousands of people have been in the streets for weeks, first protesting the raises in public transportation fees, but also protesting numerous problems that they feel have been created by a corrupt government that has misspent public money.
   At least you could say that the Miss America pageant isn't government funded (although sponsors may enjoy tax breaks we don't know about.) but next year, it's unlikely that anyone outside of the modeling and advertising industry will remember who won the Miss America pageant 2013. And although their respective countries  had, and will have, a great time hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, their local and regional governments will likely be paying off the debt incurred at those sporting events for years to come. Absolutely none of the previously existing problems will have gone away or be diminished by any of these wonderful events, no matter how they claim to represent their countries.

6.Man in the Wilderness
Ever get the feeling that you might be in over your head? If a thousand or ten thousand people were to suddenly turn their heads to look at you, would you have something to say? Something that you'd like everyone to know? Even if you did have something to tell those people, something important, would there be a little part of you that thought that it might be dangerous to do such a thing? Wouldn't it be safer to shut-up and quietly sneak away?
   But what if you felt like you didn't have any choice? That you were thrust into this situation, partly of necessity and partly because you felt you had to do something and couldn't just keep quiet and faded into the background.
   A modern example of such a person might be Ed Snowden. A man who was paid very well to be more or less wallpaper. Sure he was paid to collect vast amounts of data on people, but he was expected to remain essentially anonymous. An average and perhaps otherwise normal person, now suddenly finds himself well-known the whole world over. Everyone knows his face, who he worked for, what he did for a living and what he did to become famous. Thanks to social media and a few terrible and tasteless journalist, you might even know who his girlfriend is or what some of his relatives think of him.
  You see Edward Snowden let us in behind the curtain that is the Illusion of good government and the pretense of democracy, and let us see what we may have alread guessed, and that's that several governments around the world are spying on their own people, even those, and especially those, in the supposed democratic countries. (U.S., Canada, UK, Germany)
   But rather than being congratulated as a hero, Ed Snowden is pursued for 'espionage' (ironic, considering what he exposed). At the same time, those who were (and still are) spying on their own country (i.e.: fucking assholes and overpaid peeping toms stealing taxpayer money with every fucking byte of data that they copy and peruse without our permission.) are not pursued as criminals, but essentially enjoy the protection of their corrupt and stupid elected representatives in government.
   Unfair as it may seem, it's Ed Snowden that is being treated as a criminal, even though he sought to expose crimes, and yes, even though that makes no sense.

7.Castle Walls
Tiresias, in Greek mythology, is most famously known as the blind clarivoyant that told Oedipus what he did not want to know, that it was Oedipus himself who murdered King Laius.
 But Tiresias also advises Zeus and Hera, and, in one story, he displeases Hera by striking two snakes, and Hera decides to teach him a lesson by turning him into a woman for seven years.
  Tiresias is used as a character in the song Castle Walls likely because he/she is an ambiguous character. Through developing mythology, Tiresias is presented as a figure with seemingly "a foot on either side of the line". Tyresias is both male and female, both blind and seeing, present and future and a mediator between the Gods and Mankind. He is also standing between this world and the underworld.
   I think all of us travel through this sort of 'neither here nor there' state at some time in our lives. Some of us get stuck in the sometimes soft and comfortable middle ground of not having to make a decision or pick a direction and go. But let's hope that you don't go to the Oracle or seer or psychic simply for the pleasure of returning again in another week or two. I would guess and hope that we all have bigger plans, our sights set farther ahead, to see beyond the middle ground or the place where we are right now. Perhaps to go to our destiny.
8.The Grand Finale
   Today, Styx, like many other bands, has gone through enough line-up changes that more than half the band is non-original. Tommy Shaw and James Young are the only names that appear on the Grand Illusion album that are still performing/touring in the band today. Despite some controversy, Lawrence Gowan replaced Dennis DeYoung on lead vocals and keyboards in 1999 and has done quite well enough that the band continues to tour successfully, including playing many of the songs from the Grand Illusion album.
  Although Dennis DeYoung says that he is open to rejoining with Styx, the truth is that a real re-union of the 'original' members cannot actually take place. Original drummer John Panozzo passed away in 1996, while his brother Chuck Panozzo, due to health problems, is a part-time musician, filling in on bass with the band as a 'guest' during gigs.
   It's difficult to categorize what Styx has done throughout their career as a band, but they have been described as everything from techno-rock to hard rock to progressive rock at various times and eras of their existence. Sometimes they are viewed as too commercial to be compared to Yes or Genesis, and too elaborate and musically grandiose to be compared to straight-ahead rockers like AC/DC or Kiss. I would lean towards placing them with the progressive bands, but to some extent, they are in a category of their own.
  The Grand Illusion is Styx's seventh studio album and their true breakthrough success album. It's their first multi-platinum album, and in my humble opinion it has to be considered as one of the best albums of all time. Many might not agree. Some, understandably view 'Kilroy was here' as their most widely appealing album, especially with it's easily recognizable hit song 'Mr Roboto'. Many of Styx' most loyal fans think that 'Crystal Ball' was the pinnacle, less commercial and hence an under-appreciated album that might be considered more daring than Grand Illusion. And some of the real 'hardcore' Styx fans think that an album named simply: Styx II, on the independant label 'Wooden Nickel Records' was the very best of the band hands down. I have to say, although I'm a Styx fan, that Grand Illusion stands quite well on its own, without the context of Styx' previous or later albums, and it's music and it's 'concept' is strong enough that it will win over those who are non-fans or only casual fans of the band.
    Musically, The Grand Illusion is as complicated and varied as anything Styx has ever done. Beginning with big, grandiose sounds and rolling drums, moving through wavering and lilting vocal-dependent medium-paced songs, through acoustic breaks and keyboard and piano solos, finally to straight ahead hard rock guitar riffs. The band sounds grandiose and bombastic as if playing in a gigantic circus tent for 'the greatest show on earth', but moves through the songs seemlessly and without throwing the listener into a spin because of the changes.
    The Grand Illusion is what some call a 'small c' 'concept album' because it doesn't tell a story with characters, etc, but rather the songs fit a theme. And what makes any 'concept album' successful is the ability of the music to take the listener along with it as the pace and mood rises and falls and the lyrics come into play and fade away. This is one album that succeeds in taking the listener along from the very first song to the last. In fact, the pace and order of the songs seems decidedly perfect, and The Grand Illusion is one of the best and smoothest albums to listen to right through from beginning to end.

  In listening to Grand Illusion through to the end, one of the most striking and powerful aspects of the album is not the thump of a pounding rhythm on the drums, or a bass-riff, or strike of a power chord on the guitars, but the incredible sound achieved by the combined voices of the band. Who would ever think that, with all the keyboard intricacy, synthesizers, instrumentation and breaks and changes in timing that you would want to sing along with this album, but by the end of the first side, you'll find yourself singing 'Come Sail Away' as loud as your neighbours will put up with. Styx, dare I say, at one time rivaled Queen or even Sly and the Family Stone in it's combined vocal sound, and the Grand Illusion album is a great example of that vocal power.
    The Grand Illusion works on many different levels, and not just because it has the obligatory 'crossover appeal' that many marketing people always use to describe great albums that everyone likes regardless of genre. The songs fit together, work together and they push and develop the theme of the album. The illusion this album is referring to is one that we, both as individuals and as a society, are living with and something that we see every day, whether it's commercialism or superficiality, pageantry, or simply a big show that is designed to distract you from the things that are likely more important, or more worthy of your time. The Grand Illusion draws attention to the fakery and facades of life and holds them up in front of the listeners and says something like: "Look at this. This is bullshit! It's nothing but a lie and a distraction from all the things that people really care about. We don't have to be like this or live like this. It's someone else's fantasy. It's just an illusion."
    And perhaps that message is just as important today as it was in 1977. In 2013, the pace has only ramped up. People in this new Millennium are inundated with the same sorts of messages that were part of the illusion in the late 70s. The sort of stuff that starts as a news item or a paragraph of an article, suddenly becomes a social media 'meme' in about thirty seconds, then goes viral in a half a day. Even those who are very young are seemingly mind-blasted with video games and celebrities and advertising and spectacle and pageantry and distraction to a level that seems altogether unhealthy. In fact, I picked this album to review after all this time, because it's message, against all odds, needs to be repeated again. It needs to be blasted out there to drown out or at least diminish all the meme and tweets and the conflagration and jumbled-up mix of advertising, spectacle, disorientation, distraction and .... bullshit.
    It's just a big fucking illusion. It's isn't modern communication or societal integration. It's a constant stream of gobbledy-gook provided by advertisers, corporations and even our governments, that we're expected to muddle through when we would much rather have a conversation with our friends and neighbours over a coffee or a beer and discuss things that we really care about, like our jobs (or lack of), our friends, our kids, our health care, daycare or maybe even just something as simple as that album that we listened to again after so many years...

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