By: Mark Strickland - Music.AllAccess.com
“The Mission,” is a return to the classic Styx sound that also takes the band and their audience a giant leap in a new direction. If you like science-fiction and rock music, then this could be the soundtrack to your travels wherever they may take you.
We’re not sure if NASA’s New Horizons project named a newly discovered fifth moon around Pluto after the mythical river Styx or the band (which was named after the mythical river Styx), but if you’re looking to push the boundaries in science, mythology or music, then space is the perfect place. So to anyone who scoffs at Styx for doing a concept album, what would you do if you had a frickin’ moon of Pluto as your namesake? “The Mission” was inevitably their next step.
There are two types of Styx fans. First, you have the classic fan who thinks of the songs “Lady” or “Blue Collar Man” when someone mentions Styx. Then there is the casual fan who might vaguely recall “Babe” or “Mr. Robato.” So if you’re not familiar with the entire Styx legacy, then we’ll get you caught up in a bit so you can find some great classic songs from this legendary band to add to your rock playlists.
But back to “The Mission”: This album starts off with an explosive instrumental introduction called “Overture” that pushes the boundaries of musicianship and technology. This leads the listener right into the first single “Gone, Gone, Gone” now being played at rock radio. To the dedicated Styx fan, the reaction to this song would be, “Yeah! They’re back! Styx rocks!” While the casual fan might be thinking, “What was that? That was Styx?!?!?”
“Gone Gone Gone” features singer Lawrence Gowan on vocals and keyboards. Gowan has a slightly different vocal timbre than Tommy or J.Y., but his voice still fits nicely into the classic Styx sound. Next, Tommy Shaw steps up to the mic on the fist-pumper, “Hundred Million Miles” and J.Y.’s darker side makes a cameo appearance on “Trouble At The Big Show.”
The album flows nicely between tracks and features some great guitar work (both electric and acoustic) on songs like, “Locomotive” and “Radio Silence.” These songs also reveal the solitude and loneliness of space, and no sci-fi story would be complete without emphasizing the risks of drifting away from the mothership or being destroyed, and “Radio Silence,” “The Greater Good,” “Ten Thousand Ways” and “Red Storm” all demonstrate this well.
Styx tours tirelessly and the band is extremely tight. In addition to having three talented front-men, the Styx rhythm section features musical veterans Todd Sucherman on drums Ricky Phillips on bass. Their virtuosity translates to the album well. Lawrence Gowan takes some musical liberties on the /classical/bluesy/ragtime inspired “Khedive” and the band also ventures into deep space with tracks like “Time May Bend” and “The Red Storm” before arriving safely at the “Outpost” at the end of their “Mission To Mars.”
The first incarnation of Styx formed in the late ‘60s under the names Tradewinds (then TW4) on the south side of Chicago. The band was then fronted by charismatic singer/keyboard player Dennis DeYoung who had teamed up with Panozzo brothers, John and Chuck on drums and bass respectively. When guitarists James “J.Y.” Young and John Curulewski joined in the early ‘70s, they officially settled on the name “Styx” after landing their first deal with Wooden Nickel Records. This is the lineup that broke the band through with their first hit “Lady” which to this day stands as one of the greatest love songs of all time.
That would be enough of an accomplishment for many bands, but Styx carried on to eventually become one of the biggest stadium acts of the ‘70s and 80s. Styx was on a roll producing top selling albums like “Equinox,” “Crystal Ball,” “The Grand Illusion,” “Pieces Of Eight,” “Paradise Theater” and “Cornerstone.”
In contrast to today’s rock acts who scowl and scream in an effort to sound cool or tough, Styx came from an era in rock and roll where alto male singers (in bands like Queen, Yes, Rush, Triumph, Queensryche, etc.) were singing in harmony and pushing for the top of their range. Styx were unique in that they had three lead singers who created three-part harmonies together. And of course, the songs usually included a climax with an instrumental or solo section, something that seems absent from today’s music and is the equivalent of sex without … okay, I’m starting to go off on a tangent now but you get the point.
Some call this genre of music “progressive” which is a term that often sounds pretentious. I simply prefer to call it “musical.” This was music for musicians and music lovers. These were the songs that allowed you to escape from the world by slapping on your headphones and letting the music take you on a journey.
Now if you’re the casual fan looking to make some additions to your playlist from the early years of Styx be sure to include these gems: “Lady”, “Man Of Miracles,” “Lorelei,’ “Suite Madam Blue,” “Light Up,” “Crystal Ball,” “Sweet Mademoiselle,” “The Grand Illusion,” “Fooling Yourself,” “Miss America,” “Man In The Wilderness,” “Come Sail Away,” “Blue Collar Man,” “Renegade,” “Queen Of Spades,” “Boat On The River,” “Borrowed Time,” “Best Of Times, “Rockin’ The Paradise,” “Too Much Time On My Hands,” “Snow Blind” “Show Me The Way,” “Brave New World,” “The Walrus,” “One With Everything,” and so many more. You can sample the rest of their material on whatever service you prefer to see what other songs from their catalogue interest you.
All these great songs gave Styx enough material to transcend generations and still tour the country with more than 100 dates a year giving them a reputation as one of the hardest working bands on the road today. But like rock and roll itself, many rock and heavy metal bands of that day lost their way as they strayed off course in search of an even bigger pop hit than the last one. Styx was no exception to this fate. Many of their die-hard rock fans felt disillusioned when Styx went off course in the ‘80s. This eventually took its toll on the band causing them to break up in 1983. Dennis, Tommy and J.Y. did a few solo projects and the band re-grouped in 1990 with a new lineup as Tommy Shaw was committed to his new group, Damn Yankees.
Styx regrouped with Tommy Shaw in 1995 for a greatest hits compilation and the album “Brave New World.” This got them back on the road again before splitting again in 1999. After some more personnel changes, they recorded the albums “Cyclorama,” and “Big Bang” which resulted in more great songs like “A Criminal Mind,” a very “musical” extended piece called, “One With Everything” and a great rendition of the Beatles “The Walrus.”
In addition to Tommy Shaw and J.Y., the current Styx lineup also includes Lawrence
Gowan on vocals and keyboards, Todd Sucherman on drums, Ricky Phillips on bass and an occasional appearance by co-founder/bass player Chuck Panozzo.
“The Mission” is a very musical album from beginning to end. These songs stick with you after a few listens. In my interview with James Young a few years back, I asked J.Y. about any new Styx music on the horizon. While he was open to the idea, he mentioned that creating new Styx music would have to be a game changer. Well, “The Mission” seems to be accomplished in this area.
Will man colonize Mars or the edge of our solar system in our lifetimes? Probably not, but if the human race is not looking to the future and taking chances, then we risk our own inevitable extinction. Styx has not only delivered new music with a positive message about the future for their fans, but they may have succeeded in planting a seed in the back of mankind’s collective consciousness as well. One thing is for certain, as the human race ventures out to the great unknown, we’ve now got the perfect soundtrack for the journey.