By Mike Mettler, chief information officer of the Global Space Exploration Program (GSEP)
“We can do this.”
This was the mantra undertaken by STYX as the band spent almost two years on and off behind closed doors working on the music that ultimately became known as The Mission, its sonically sweet 16th studio album and most ambitious, most challenging, and most rewarding release to date. And now, right here at the literal stroke of midnight on June 16, 2017, The Mission (Alpha Dog 2T/UMe) has officially lifted off and is available for listening via the format of your choice.
“The planets truly aligned for The Mission, and I couldn’t be prouder,” says STYX vocalist/guitarist Tommy Shaw, who co-wrote the album’s storyline with longtime collaborator Will Evankovich (Shaw Blades, The Guess Who). Continues Shaw, “It’s our boldest, most emblematic album since Pieces of Eight.” Adds STYX co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, “This album is an incredible artistic expression that resonates with the best parts of our past, but is intended for modern-day consumption. I’m very excited about it.”
Indeed, The Mission is an aurally adventurous 43-minute thrill ride that chronicles the trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumphs of the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2033. From the hopeful drive of the lead single “Gone Gone Gone” to the pivotal harmonic convergence of “Radio Silence” to the stargazing machinations of “Locomotive” to the rough-riding blaze of glory that permeates the hard-charging “Red Storm” to the elegiac optimism of the closing track “Mission to Mars,” The Mission succeeds in delivering the greater good from a band that continues to fire on all cylinders, 45 years after signing its first recording contract.
In fact, The Mission displays the best aspects of the ongoing in-harmony musical intersection of the six-man STYX team: the aforementioned guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, original bassist Chuck Panozzo, drummer/percussionist Todd Sucherman, and bassist/vocalist Ricky Phillips. These six men have been collectively committed to rocking the Paradise together with audiences far and wide by averaging over 100 shows a year every year since (yes) 1999, and each one of them is fully invested in making the next show better than the last. Founded in Chicago in 1972, STYX has the unique distinction of being the first band in rock history to have four consecutive certified multimillion-selling albums in a row: 1977’s The Grand Illusion, 1978’s Pieces of Eight, 1979’s Cornerstone, and 1981’s Paradise Theatre.
The band’s acclaimed pedigree most definitely infused the recording sessions for The Mission with an even deeper-rooted sense of purpose and duty. “The Mission is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to be a part of something unique and special that’s happening in real time right in front of you,” believes Evankovich, who also produced the album that was recorded primarily at Blackbird Studios, The Shop, and 6 Studio Amontillado in Nashville. “It is one of those albums that musically and cosmically showed you the next right thing to do every step of the way. I will forever be grateful and proud of what we did to create this body of art.”
Indeed, the extra in-studio elbow grease applied by Shaw, Evankovich, and the entire band on the production side of things clearly paid off with the end results. “Working on The Mission was so fun and so easy,” marvels Jim Scott (Wilco, Tom Petty, Dixie Chicks), the man who mixed the album at his own Plyrz Studio in Nashville. “STYX is so experienced, and so bold. My job was to balance it all and try to enhance and emphasize the dynamics of the actual songs, and the transitions between them. In other words, I concentrated on the obvious, and also made the loud things loud! It was a very pure and simple mostly analog recording, and I mixed it the same way — no samples, and no shenanigans. Each time I listened back to it, I found each song could have other meanings and images separate from the overall space saga.”
The space saga Scott refers to is the crux of the music that makes up The Mission. The storyline was created to reflect the viewpoint of the six-person crew enlisted for the maiden voyage of Khedive, the first entry in a new fleet of nuclear-powered interplanetary spacecraft underwritten by the Global Space Exploration Program (or GSEP, for short). The Khedive team consists of The Pilot, a fully hands-on, seat-of-the-pants born leader; a First Officer who serves as the team’s big-brother figure; an Engineer who is skeptical of every phase of the mission but remains confident in his own abilities to make the best of any technical situation; and a Top-Shelf Trio of science, astrophysics, and survivalist experts.
An invigorating combination of freedom and trust is what ultimately led Shaw down The Mission’s highly focused songwriting path. “It’s been so long since we made a STYX album like the ones we did before, because so much has changed,” Shaw acknowledges. “We are rough-edged and badass when we’re out on the road, and we know it. But, to a man, while we were making this record, everyone got very real and dug down deep in unfamiliar territory, and gave the performances you hear. Anything we can do to make the songs better — that’s what we do. It was all hands on deck, and it’s such a cool thing after all these years to still have that together. To have this album come out now, when the brotherhood of the band has never been stronger, well — it’s the sweet dream we never imagined. The truth is, it is a dream fulfilled.”
The Mission also draws from over four decades of STYX’s uninterrupted string of barnburning chart hits, joyous singalongs, hard-driving deep cuts, and wide range of stylistic cornerstones. From the progressively sweeping splendor of “The Grand Illusion” to the hunker-down fortitude of all that is the “Blue Collar Man,” from the majestic spiritual love for a special “Lady” to the poignant rumination on the fleeting nature of fame in “Miss America,” from an individual yearning for true connection as a “Man in the Wilderness” to a soul-deep quest to achieve what’s at the heart of one’s personal vision in “Crystal Ball,” from the regal reach-for-the-stars bravado of “Come Sail Away” to the grainy all-in gallop of that rugged “Renegade” who had it made, STYX continues to draw on an unlimited cache of ways to immerse one’s mind and body in their signature sound — and The Mission only serves to add to an impeccable track record.
The collective strengths of The Mission are not lost on JY. “Tommy likes to say, ‘From a tiny acorn a giant oak doth grow,’” Young recites. “And my genetic material is there too, so I helped birth this child, and if it turns out to be the most successful thing we’ve done — well, that’s why we make STYX records. It shows how we work as a team. The skill level of the band has allowed us to go do things we just couldn’t have otherwise in the past. And that’s not a knock on Mr. John Panozzo or Mr. John Curulewski at all [the two original STYX bandmembers who have passed away]. As I’ve said before, I’ve surrounded myself with home-run hitters after the people we’ve lost. I really do love this album, and what we’ve done on it. It’s a great collaboration.”
Gowan loves how The Mission reflects the band’s core identity. “The album feels simultaneously comfortable and new,” observes the keyboardist/vocalist. “It’s both entertaining and charming, and a natural progression of our sound. There’s a tip of the hat to all the great music of that era, which we made sure to highlight by my utilizing all those vintage Oberheim synthesizer sounds. That DNA, quite frankly, is what’s in all those great, classic STYX albums anyway, and I can see all kinds of cross-references that appear on this album. I feel great about it. It’s also been particularly intriguing to hear Tommy mutter a couple of times, ‘This feels like The Grand Illusion.’ I take that as being quite the positive response.”
Sucherman feels the band has struck the right balance for the here and now. “This record has so much great ear candy on it from start to finish,” the drummer notes. “And I think the ebb and flow of it was tailored just right, too. The spirit of how well we all work together is captured here — that overall sense of fun mixed in with the light and shade of the material itself. Plus, the fact that the storyline is rooted in some sort of scientific truth, based on our relationship with the New Horizons team [the NASA scientists who named Pluto’s smallest moon after STYX in 2015], adds a certain warmth and gravitas to it. That just lends even more depth to the space story at hand.”
Phillips is impressed with how harmoniously the album came together. “I’ve done a lot of sessions over the years and played on songs and albums that have had big productions and gone all the way to No. 1, but The Mission was by far the easiest, most seamless recording project I’ve ever been a part of,” the bassist admits. “Everyone was so prepared. That’s the beauty of us having worked together over all these years, and being out there every night onstage and seeing each other more than we see our families. That’s all paid off, because everybody in STYX knows what works in this unit. In fact, I don’t remember us having a single struggle over any of the material at all.”
The band’s all-in sense of harmony has been a STYX hallmark for years and years. “We've all come to a joyful place together, and we've surrounded ourselves with other joyful people,” confirms JY. “Music is this amazing force that comes from a higher place. I'm humbled for this band to have the great success that it has, and I recognize what we have could go away in an instant. This music is channeled through myself and my bandmates, and, along with our crew, we bring this great joy to our stage performance. The audience shows up and they're in a joyful mood too, because they know they're going to hear a joyful performance, and they're reflecting that back.”
As the band prepares to bring the music of The Mission alive onstage for fans both new and old,STYX hopes the wave they’re riding is one that never crests. “We just want to keep on doing this,” asserts Tommy. “We want to let life take its course and let this music continue to be the soundtrack to it. It's like a photo album where you keep adding some new photos of what’s in your house. You know, you’re adding some new furniture, and you’re also building onto the structure of the house, and you’re building the family. And this band’s photo album will continue to evolve as long as we live and play this music.”
Let the final assessment of The Mission go to original STYX bassist Chuck Panozzo, who added his signature low-end tones to “Hundred Million Miles” and is the man both Shaw and Young rightly describe as the “connection to source.” Panozzo has a knack of always being able to find a way to bring the best of STYX past, present, and future all together in one place, as he concludes: “The Mission is a sincere and honest representation of how STYX built upon where we were in the 20th century in order to go somewhere new in the 21st century.” And that’s really the gist of The Mission, STYX’s bold sonic voyage into an exciting new frontier with the goal of discovering how the universe’s mysteries unfold — and then creating the perfect soundtrack to accompany it. Light it up, let’s get this show on the road!