XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus
1 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
“Stone of Sisyphus” (Chicago XXXII) is supposedly the great “lost” Chicago album. It should have stayed that way. Rumor has it the suits at Warner Brothers (then the band’s label) were so offended by what they heard they took the tapes and had them hermetically sealed. Rhino Records has bravely broken the 15-year Sisyphus silence, but the suits were right; this rock don’t roll. It’ll leave you feeling stone cold.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king punished by Zeus for his trickery -- he stole his brother’s throne, seduced his niece, and betrayed Zeus, the King of the Gods. You can’t fool father nature, so Zeus punished Sisyphus by cursing him to spend eternity rolling a bolder up a hill. Each time Sisyphus pushed the boulder to the top of the hill, it rolled back down again. At least Chicago got the title right. As it says in the liner notes, “Stone of Sisyphus” was supposed to be Chicago’s triumphant return to the top, a risky stab at playing the type of challenging rock fusion they had once made that had dominated the radio. Instead, it rolled back down and knocked the group flat.
The main problem with “Stone of Sisyphus” is it’s a crushing bore by a band whose talents had deserted them after their seventh album. It’s a bitter but fitting coincidence that the group referred to the album as “S.O.S.”
There was a time in the 70s when Chicago was a rock juggernaut. Groups such as Lighthouse, The Keef Hartley Band, If, and The Ides of March modeled their sound after them, augmenting the basic guitar-drums-keyboard-bass structure with horns. Terry Kath was a monster axe-man envied by none other than Jimi Hendrix, with a soul train baritone that shook the stage; slick-fingered bassist/vocalist Peter Cetera hit blinding high notes; the horn section (Walt Parazaider, sax & flute, Lee Longhnane, trumpet, vocals and James Pankow, trombone) played with the power of a big band; drummer Danny Seraphine was a stickfest rhythm machine and mellow-voiced keyboardist Robert Lamm was a prolific catalyst whose early compositions (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “Beginnings,” “Saturday In The Park”) seldom missed the top 40. The group had the audacity – and the talent – to release double albums that sold in the millions.
By Chicago VIII, however, the group was beginning to stagnate. Terry Kath was the first to depart in 1978, although not of his own accord. Disillusioned and depressed, he was contemplating leaving the band, and was medicating himself pretty heavily in the process. Performing his own macabre version of Russian Roulette for friends after a marathon party, Kath accidentally shot himself. His famous last words were: “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.” Unfortunately he was, and his death was instantaneous. Seraphine, who witnessed the act, was never quite the same. Kath was replaced by wholly inadequate guitarist Bill Champlin, a gruff voiced hack who’d founded Sons of Champlin, a San Francisco band no one’s ever heard of that somehow released six albums. Ironically, it was Seraphine who lobbied for Champlin to join the group; Champlin would lead the charge to get Seraphine, his writing partner, ousted from Chicago in 1990 because his playing onstage had become “sloppy.” (Oddly, Tris Imboden, Seraphine’s replacement, is less creative and more slug-fisted than he was.) As if to acknowledge no one guitarist could replace Kath, other string men such as Donnie Dacus and Dawayne Bailey also entered the fold. Prior to Seraphine’s ouster, the group received another major body blow when Peter Cetera departed for a solo career in 1985. By then the group had become known for its adult-contemporary Cetera sung ballads such as “Hard Habit To Break,” “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and “Stay The Night,” so losing their high-pitched bassist was like losing their identity. Cetera was replaced by Jason Scheff, the son of Jerry Scheff, who served as Elvis’ bassist in his touring band. Coincidently, Scheff sounded like Cetera and had his heartthrob looks. What he was missing was Cetera’s talent.
By 1993, the group (particularly underused the horn section), was aching to revisit the raw experimental music that had earned them their reputation in the 60s. Enter producer Peter Wolf (not the lead singer for J. Geils; this dude had produced Santana, The Who, Big Country and Grace Slick, among others). Encouraged by the group to roll Sisyphus up the hill, Wolf’s pedigree would suggest he was up to the task. Instead, Pete got et by the wolves. His production is over the top, glossy, congested, and shrill.
Wolf’s overconfident production is only one of the many stones in the album’s wall of bad taste. The lyrics are sophomoric. They sound like the type of half-hearted filler songwriters invent during early rehearsals before they sit down and write the real words. (For example, Paul McCartney sang “ham and eggs” before coming up with “yesterday.”) The lack of spark and originality only proves the group had shot its creative bolt long ago.
A fierce but muffled drum intro introduces “Stone of Sisyphus” as the horns take charge pushing the music uphill. Sounds like Tris Imboden is using one of those 80s cheapo drum sets with the plastic heads that deadens the beat. The singer, Lee Loughnane, is reaching a bit, and has a very vanilla voice like Richard Page, the shrieker for Mister Mr. It’s not easy to sing “I’m gonna take the Stone of Sisyphus, I’m gonna roll it back to you,” with passion, and it’s equally difficult to digest without bursting into hysterics. “Sisyphus” isn’t on par with the quality of the material the group produced from Chicago 1-7, but it has stones (ouch), and drives with an energy lacking in their David Foster guided bubblegum ballads. When I was listening to the track for the first time I had no idea that with the exception of “All These Years,” the lead track I felt so ambivalent about would become one of only two salvageable tunes on the album.
Sisyphus’ rock begins to roll back downhill with “Bigger Than Elvis,” a honking example of the Chicago I’d come to hate. It’s a colon-twisting piano based ballad with a shrill Jason Scheff vocal straight out of a Bud Light commercial (“Mr. over emoting lead singer man”). In the hope of giving the song some credibility, the group invited Elvis’ back up singers, the Jordanaires, and Jerry Scheff to participate. To my knowledge, neither put the session on their resume. You can’t tug at the heart strings with second-rate material. Somewhere the Kang is having a Bacon and Marshmallow Fluff hamburger and is cursing the day he hired Jerry Scheff. Some things may be bigger than Elvis, but this twaddle isn’t one of them. Elvis has left Chicago.
A chunky block party-guitar riff opens Robert Lamm’s bouncy “All These Years,” the pearl in a quarry of claptrap. Despite the sunny arrangement, the audio bits of Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon serve as a commentary on the political tumult the country faced in the 60s and was still struggling with in the 90s, with little hope for change. The horns punch in and out and there’s a nifty sudden break after the first verse that reminds us Chicago was once capable of surprising us with nearly ever note they played. “All the years we wasted, all the years we tried. All the restless hours, all the times we cried. All the years we gambled, all the years you lied, all the hopeless dreamers, all the dreams have died. ”
“Sisyphus” rapidly descends into the valley of despair with “Mah-Jong.” What’s this? A slice of R & B about a game played by old ladies? Don’t bother breaking out the Manechevitz or the brisket for this one. It tries to be funky, but Chicago isn’t the Ohio Players, so get this funk outta my face. “She don’t mah-jong, she don’t play?” If Terry Kath had sung this and Imboden had a real kit instead of an empty milk carton to bang on, this might not sound so bland. Come to think of it, Kath would have shot himself again if he’d been asked to sing this idiotic waste of a groove. Bill Cham-pain is truly a middle-of-the-road, faceless vocalist with as much soul as Neil Sedaka, and at least Neil has “Bad Blood” to make a case with. Without a doubt the dumbest song Chicago ever recorded.
How convenient. The dumbest song the group has ever waxed is followed by “Sleeping In The Middle Of The Bed,” which wins my award for Chicago’s all time worst song, and I’ve sat through “Look Away” and other horrors visited upon my ears by Bill Cham-pain. You want inappropriate? How about Chicago doing a rap song! This is truly Vanilla Ice awful, despite the boost of inner city horns. Somebody needed to tell Robert Lamm he didn’t have to strain to sing, much less talk. “Flashing like a neon, noisy as an A-bomb” indeed. This should have been called “Schlepping Through the Middle of Bobby’s Head.” If you need proof white guys can’t and shouldn’t rap, here it is. Be careful what you walk in when you step in the middle of the road, Bobby.
How sweet... wind chimes and a gushy Kenny G. clarinet backdrop that’ll hit you right in yesterday’s lunch. That’s “Let’s Take A Lifetime” which feels as if it lasts a lifetime. Welcome back to bad ballad Chicago. I’m sure when Peter Cetera heard this one he was overjoyed he’d played his get out of Chicago for free card. “Let’s take a lifetime all that we desire. Build it day by day, into forever. Let’s take a lifetime, all that you require, let’s not hurry through the night when our love will last a lifetime.” This is further proof that Jason Scheff’s material needed waste management.
“The Pull,” one of Lamm’s more personal songs, almost manages to yank “Sisyphus” out of the mire and set the album back on a positive incline. Characterized by a muffled dance beat, menacing horns, and a scratchy vocal, it has some, well, pull. But Imboden remains impotent, his impaired percussion resembling a Stegosaurus thwacking his tail against your front door. (If you’re smart, you’ll ignore the knock.) I never thought I’d say this, but the guitar solo is the song’s greatest moment, a tribute to big hair and overkill.
The slickafying of Chicago continues with “Here With Me (A Candle For The Dark).”
Danger, Will Robinson! Blow by this quickly or you’ll get burned! Wolf creates a firestorm of noise by producing too many highs and no lows. Unlike the Cetera era, it takes the absence of bass up to this point to make you notice it when it’s present. There’s a very odd and out of place campy aside out of the school of sugary Paul McCartney dance hall interludes that sounds like the group was recorded partying at Bennigan’s while eating two dollar wings. “Here With Me” suffers from running in place guitar, and a very annoying, groin-grabbing second vocal from Cham-pain, who continues to prove he ain’t no Terry Kath. Hell, he’s not even Terry Thomas.
Third world “Daktari” influences give way to Toto-like wanna-be jazz in “Plaid.” Jazz can be difficult enough to plod through without trying to mix in unnecessary bursts of horns, programmed percussion that’s sounds like a lost Amazon tribe beating out a curse on a log, and vocals in the “Rosanna”/Steely Dan vein that try to trick the listener into believing that the more you change the rhythm the more intelligent you are. If you’ve made it this far into the album (and likely you won’t), you’ll realize by now that this often debated, lionized “lost” album is a stone cold disaster and you’ve been “Plaid.”
Since Imboden can’t hold your interest, let alone a beat, the group employs programmed percussion for “Cry For The Lost,” a by-the-numbers, blowhard ballad. Bass player Scheff infuses some interesting muddy Jack Bruce patterns before the song shifts to low gear, swamped by syn strings and Cham-pain’s’s fire horn of a vocal. And to help you remember you’re listening to Chicago, how about a brief, slick sax solo from the previously invisible Walt Parazaider? Cry for the lost greatness that was once Chicago. “Cry” is completely lost.
Too bad “The Show Must Go On” isn’t the eccentric Leo Sayer tightwire tune Three Dog Night recorded. No, it’s another slogging, easy listening rocker with an inert old man vocal from Lake Cham-pain and whack-that-rubbish-bin drumming from Imoden. No, the show must end… PLEASE!
I Am A Rock…Or Jesus, Mary and Joseph, There’s More (The Bonus Cuts)
I won’t waste your precious time describing how horrifying the three “works-in progress” demos sound, but they did bring to mind another Greek mythological character, Oedipus, who poked out his own eyes. After listening to the demos for “Love Is Forever,” “Mah-Jong,” and “Let’s Take A Lifetime,” and “Stone Of Sisyphus (No Rhythm Loop),” you’ll want to puncture your eardrums until sweet deafness frees you from the curse of Sisyphus.
The suits were right. If the David Foster/Peter Cetera ballad period had damaged the band’s reputation, “Stone of Sisyphus” would have ruined it. But this isn’t the worst album Chicago recorded. That award goes to their next album, “Night and Day,” the big band (!!!) album they recorded in 1995. Could the loss of original members Kath, Cetera and Seraphine mean that much? Apparently so. The drumming is ponderous, flat and a migraine waiting to happen. Cetera’s voice could pierce right through you at times – but Scheff’s for Pete’s sake imitation can send all the dogs (and humans) in the neighborhood scurrying under their beds. Kath’s hefty steak and potatoes vocals and attack dog guitar couldn’t be duplicated, but that should have been a queue for Robert Lamm, the group’s other smooth vocalist to step up. Instead we get Scheff and Bill Cham-pain sounding as if they’re auditioning for a big hair band.
My advice? Pick up Chicago II, III, V, VI, VII or Chicago Transit Authority (their debut). The group had important or at least entertaining things to say back then, plus musicians who could carry it off. “Sisyphus” is one laborious stone that should have remained unturned.