Celebrating all the fine prongs of Crash of the Crown, Styx’s truly transcendent 17th studio album that was released exactly one year ago today on June 18, 2021.
“We are not shy about accepting ideas on the songs we write, which makes them all co-writes. I’ve found this helps the songs and encourages ideas, and the songs tend to reflect the band mentality. Someone has the original vision, melody, chord progression, and basic lyrics, but having so much creative talent to lean on makes finishing these songs a real celebration.” —Tommy Shaw
By Mike Mettler, Resident Styxologist
Sound the Alarm! Styx’s utterly majestic 17th studio album, Crash of the Crown, was released exactly one year ago today on June 18, 2021 via Alpha Dog 2T/UMe on a variety of formats — namely, 180-gram high-grade clear and black vinyl, CD, and all major digital platforms. Wait a minute — can Crash of the Crown really be one year old already? Well, to slightly modify a song title from another classic Styx album — yes it can!
Not only that, but thanks to the interest and excitement surrounding the runaway success of Styx’s current Live & UnZoomed summer tour with good friends REO Speedwagon and Loverboy, Crash of the Crown recently ascended to No. 30 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart. (It’s got legs, baby!)
“We did something extraordinary in creating Crash of the Crown. It came to us so naturally,” admits guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw before adding, “Absolutely no obstacles were going to get in the way of how we approached creating this album — and everything came out exactly the way we wanted to hear it.”
Let me reiterate the basic FAQs about Crash of the Crown (or COTC, for short) — some of which are also included in the album’s inner-sleeve liner notes, as written by yours truly, your resident Styxologist. Produced by Will Evankovich — the man behind the boards for the band’s previous studio masterpiece, June 2017’s The Mission, who became an official full-time member of Styx during the summer of 2021 — Crash of the Crown is a come-one, come-all clarion call that celebrates the creative mindmeld of seven musicians-slash-brothers in arms at the top of their collective game. The proof can be found throughout all 45 minutes of COTC, whether it’s the wistful observational musings of “Reveries” — an instantly catchy song featuring Styx’s patented, always-uplifting four- and sometimes five-part harmonious vocal blend on its choruses — the unmistakable snarl of “A Monster” that’s bolstered by a whirlwind outro solo from co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, the breathe-easier singalong mantra that permeates “Sound the Alarm,” the dark yet redemptively hopeful cautionary tale that frames “Hold Back the Darkness,” or the elegiac communal grace of “To Those.” In essence, Crash of the Crown is a modern-day sonic chronograph of the endless regenerative cycle of the rise and fall — and rise again — of our shared human experience.
TO THOSE WHO FOUND BEAUTY IN THEIR COTC GROOVES
I asked two of COTC’s key content creators just a few short hours before they took to the stage at the Ameris Bank Ampitheatre in Alpharetta, Georgia on June 17, the night before this hallowed release anniversary, to tell me how the album and how it was received feels to them today, a full year later.
“As we tour this album with REO Speedwagon and Loverboy, it feels like we got a second shot at releasing it again,” observes Will Evankovich. “We are exposing a lot of new faces to these songs, and it’s exciting to see their reactions. I’m very proud of this album from start to finish. Without trying too hard, it naturally took on a different flavor than the previous album, The Mission. I’m proud of the effort we all put into this record. The level of creativity and stewardship in this band is a blessing, and testimony to how this album still speaks to longtime Styx fans.” (Hear hear, brother Will!)
For Tommy Shaw, COTC has turned up nothing but roses. “One year ago on this day, Crash of the Crown stopped being our own private gem that we created, and was released to the world!” he told me, with much gusto. “Most all the music was created before we knew what was coming. Once we knew we would not be touring or traveling due to the pandemic, we figured out how to get the recording done with new technology that sprang out of the need to keep creating. Soon, it was just another day of recording.”
That said, Tommy points out every Styx song is a family affair. “As you’ll notice on the COTC writing credits, we are not shy about accepting ideas on the songs we write, which makes them all co-writes,” he clarifies. “I’ve found this helps the songs and encourages ideas, and the songs tend to reflect the band mentality. Someone has the original vision, melody, chord progression, and basic lyrics, but having so much creative talent to lean on makes finishing these songs a real celebration.”
The band is, well, positively passionate about COTC making its presence known to Styx’s many, many fans across the globe. “Oh, is it out today?” Lawrence Gowan asked me on release day a year ago, somewhat rhetorically but fully in his typical, playful Gowanesque fashion. “OMG, I haven’t got a thing to wear!” Adds Tommy, with a wink, “After this, maybe we’ll have the guts to do that polka album we’ve all been talking about!” As you can tell by the degree of their levity, Styx are excited beyond words to celebrate everything that COTC is, and will be — and, naturally, that means the next logical step in doing just that is to go back on tour and road-test the album’s many aural wonders right where they belong: onstage. (More on that in just a bit.)
COTC: SONG BY SONG WITH TOMMY SHAW
Tommy took some extra time out of his typical pre-show preparations to analyze COTC song by song, so I’m going to turn the remainder of this particular section of the story over to his own exact words. “This is like finding out where our parents were when we were conceived,” Tommy notes with a laugh. Take it away, maestro. . .
Tommy Shaw: Will wrote “The Fight of Our Lives,” which was a great rallying opener. And the writing demo for “Monster” was born in my hotel room in Penticton on Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, during that break where we traveled through Glacier National Park and then stopped at the lake for a couple of days.
Will sent me a music track for what would become “Reveries.” I heard the melody and the first line of lyrics in my head, so I wrote more lyrics and recorded a version with his tracks. It’s one of those songs that, as a writer, tells you where to go next. I wish they were all like that!
“Hold Back the Darkness” came as a result of a good friend’s loss of a son to an accidental drug overdose. When there are no words in real life, a song can help express what you’re feeling.
“Save Us From Ourselves” — the title says it all!
The title track, “Crash of the Crown,” contains bits that were compiled over a few years of dressing-room jams in 5/4 that made it to soundchecks, and were then extended into a mini-suite.
“Our Wonderful Lives” was a latecomer, but it made it to the album just in time.
“Common Ground” took advantage of other dressing-room and soundcheck jams that had been evolving over the previous couple of years. When Lawrence wrote the section he sings, we knew it would be a great vocal opportunity — and he ran with it. One of my favorite LG vocals I’ve ever heard!
“Sound the Alarm” started in my hotel room at The Venetian in Las Vegas, when we were doing a residency there with Don Felder [in January 2018]. I made sure I recorded a little iPhone movie! This song was the result of me tuning a little Gibson acoustic guitar to an open-E chord. The title and the melody of the first verse flowed out of me like an old song I already knew, and I was recording it with my iPhone so I wouldn’t forget it. I wish they were all that easy! It was enough to get the song off the ground and finish it when we recorded it. It was pre-pandemic, even though it might sound like it was about that. It’s one I love performing every night.
“Long Live the King” was a Will Evankovich creation. Those beautiful Fender Electric 12-string arpeggios all through it make it a fun one to navigate as a player. I was happy to get to sing that one. It’s a tale as old as time that reminds me of Marie Antoinette’s response of “Let them eat cake” when confronted with the news that her subjects were starving. Very fun to sing that one.
“Lost at Sea” is one that Lawrence wrote about the siren’s song seduction of the sea that can drive one mad to the point of following that calling. At least that’s how I interpret it! It’s a beauty, and it opens the way to “Coming Out the Other Side,” another wonderfully sung verse by LG, and a tale about the joy of getting through a challenging situation and seeing it through — the joyful feeling of surviving and thriving.
That joy is obvious in “To Those,” a reminder to try and not be beaten down or made bitter by life’s challenges.
“Another Farewell” was composed and arranged by Will Evankovich, and it feels like the final melancholy moment before awakening into a dreamy new day, floating on a “Stream” under a clear, sunny blue sky.
. . . and with that, Tommy had to dash, in order to get ready for last night’s show in Alpharetta, Georgia — a trooper if ever there was one!
OUR WONDERFUL LIVE PERFORMANCES
And speaking of playing live, COTC has been, and continues to be, well-represented in Styx’s live sets. Right off the bat, the album’s opening track, the rousing “The Fight of Our Lives,” begins every night as the band’s new walk-on song, taking over that hallowed set-starter’s slot from The Mission’s “Overture.” Other COTC songs peppered throughout Styx sets over the past year include the Lawrence-led “Reveries,” the all-in multi-movement masterpiece “Crash of the Crown,” and the wholly prescient “Save Us From Ourselves,” as well as Tommy doing some of the truly uplifting “Sound the Alarm” acoustically before going into “Crystal Ball” — before he switched over to playing it in full more often than not (depending on the venue and how he feels in the moment).
After the first show of the summer 2021 tour that took place in St. Augustine, Florida, Tommy told me, “COTC songs went over big time. We’re taking on a lot of new things, but it’s a very exciting time to be working with Will onstage in the live mix. We’re moving the details forward at light-speed now.”
Tommy continues to sing Will’s praises, now that’s he a seasoned full-set performer with the band. (Prior to June 16, 2021, Will had played onstage with Styx in various segments of Mission-specific sets in 2019 and 2020.) “Over the last several years, Will has become a welcome and integral part of the band behind the scenes with co-writing and production of our new music,” Tommy notes. “This time around, we encouraged Will to take on the album mixing job for COTC as well. It was a natural next step to continue his role with us onto the stage. Will also took his first overnight trip in the band bus after the first show. We are now taking this to a new level out there, where the creativity levels we enjoy during writing and making records can continue uninterrupted.”
For his part, Will was quite gracious as he shared his thoughts with me directly following that June 16, 2021 show. “After many years of playing in Shaw Blades, and then seeing that relationship evolve into Tommy and I working through a terrific writing relationship, it manifested into the Styx universe,” Will clarifies, “and it is a massive universe of epic music. The entire band is made up of the finest musicians and creative artists you will find today. We have created a couple of really strong albums together, and I am now honored to have been asked to play this amazing collective of new and timeless music. I am looking forward to, to borrow one of our lyrics, ‘keep moving forward’ with this amazing group of musicians.”
Expect to see, and hear, Will onstage with the band for the entirety of every live Styx set moving forward — right where he belongs!
LONG LIVE THE EASTER EGGS
As both Tommy and Lawrence discussed on talkshoplive online on June 17, 2021, the eve of the album’s release, there are indeed a number of Easter eggs embedded all throughout the entire COTC package, much like there were for The Mission. This is again thanks to the teamwork between Tommy and the art direction and overall package design oh-so-expertly executed by Todd Gallopo, the visual visionary head of Meat and Potatoes, Inc. who also handled the same duties for The Same Stardust EP, The Mission, and iconic Styx catalog reissues under the UMe banner such as The Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings, Come Sail Away: The Styx Anthology, and Rockers, to name but a few.
In fact, your Styxologist was hanging out in Tommy’s backstage dressing room at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills, California, on January 12, 2020, when Tommy first played a combination of early and mostly finished versions of most of the tracks that would appear on COTC for Gallopo to hear firsthand so he could begin visualizing the album-design concept you now have before you. Soon enough, Gallopo began formulating the crater-centric theme that would bless the main cover image — all of it done idea-by-idea in conjunction with Tommy. In fact, Gallopo can be given credit for convincing Tommy to remove the word “The” before the full COTC album title because Todd felt it would make the phrase read awkwardly and look too wordy on the cover — and his instincts were dead-on about that.
Not only that, but a cavalcade of Easter eggs — such as all the Morse code that appears on both the interior and the exterior of the overall package — was brainstormed by Shaw, Gallopo, and company. For my part of the proceedings, I too added a number of Easter eggs to the liner notes text itself, so have fun figuring out them all!
One final thing on this egg-centric topic: I won’t give it all away here, but I will confirm the various people you see scattered all over the cover in various poses and with different, shall we say, props are not members of the band or their vaunted crew. One of them, seen at the very top of the crater peering down inside with a trusty reporter’s notebook in hand, is indeed yours truly (an honor I will forever cherish, in fact). We’ll eventually dive deeper into identifying some of the other COTC Easter eggs in future stories, but for now: enjoy the hunt!
INSIDE THE CROWN OF CREATION
Let’s go inside the making of COTC, shall we? Some of the following has been adapted directly from the COTC liner notes I wrote between October 2020 and February 2021 — but, of course, you will have to buy a copy of the album to read all of them!
Styx’s holy mission to fulfill the laser-focused vision outlined by guitarist/vocalist and chief songwriter Tommy Shaw for Crash of the Crown was undeterred, regardless of some of the socially distanced hurdles imposed on the recording process due to this past year’s pandemic.
Some COTC songs had already been in the works during the days of The Mission (such as the aforementioned “Reveries”), while some were workshopped in hotel rooms all across the continent while the band was on tour (the way “A Monster” was born and bred during a scenic tour break in British Columbia), and others reached final fruition during the recording process itself (like the angelic vocal bridge that cements the relieved bliss of “Sound the Alarm”). The recording sessions for Crash of the Crown mainly took place in Shaw’s home studio in Nashville — albeit in strategic, quarantine-approved doses. “Because we connected so well as a band when we recorded The Mission, I just had to go there to make my contributions,” recounts bassist Ricky Phillips. “Tommy and Will are very clear about what they wanted for each song, and my job is to play the best parts I can to make every song better.” Adds original Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo — who provided his signature low-end tone for the inspirational “Our Wonderful Lives” and the acute aquatic fever dream “Lost at Sea” — “I traveled over 900 miles by car to record with Will and Tommy in person. They’re both so good at getting the best bass performances out of me in the studio. Making that trip to Nashville was the highlight of my year!”
Prior to the lockdown, keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan had laid down many vocal and instrumental tracks in Nashville in the fall of 2019, including some of the synthesized flourishes that reign over the unifying come-together entreaty of “Common Ground” that recall The Who at their Quadrophenia peak. “And then I also got to use some gear I never thought I’d have the chance to play on a Styx record, like Tommy’s Hammond B3 organ,” he confirms. Gowan later followed through with a number of additional keyboard elements (with his vintage Minimoog and Mellotron among them) and other lead and background vocal duties from his homebase in Toronto. Meanwhile, drummer Todd Sucherman was ensconced in Austin, having recorded all his world-class percussion in his home studio with the help of Audiomovers Listento plug-in technology without compromising the quality of his playing in the least. “You know how meticulous I am when it comes to recording my drum parts,” Sucherman affirms, “and using Audiomovers ensured I could do everything I wanted on each track with nothing left to chance.”
The title track — which world-premiered during Eddie Trunk’s “Trunk Nation” show on SiriusXM satellite radio’s Volume channel on May 6, 2021 — holds the unique distinction of featuring three lead vocalists, with JY lending his distinctive baritone to the opening verses, Tommy heading up the heroic stacked-vocal middle section, and Lawrence taking the lead for the final verse — another Styx first. “Perhaps the closest thing to it for me would be how Tommy and I traded lead vocals on ‘Snowblind,’” observes JY in reference to the foreboding, concert-favorite track from Styx’s chart-topping multiplatinum January 1981 release, Paradise Theatre. For his part, producer Evankovich — who co-wrote the bulk of COTC with Shaw in addition to singing and playing a multitude of instruments throughout the entire album — freely admits he was hoping to coax a David Bowie-circa-“Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” vocal vibe from Young, who was mostly happy to comply. “Will would sometimes ask me to do up to eight passes on various things, and I never like to do more than two or three,” Young recalls with a booming laugh. “But I respect Will as a producer and Tommy’s vision for the album, so we made it work. I gave them plenty of options.”
One of Shaw’s pivotal COTC contributions comes courtesy “Our Wonderful Lives,” a song he first previewed acoustically during the Big Love Benefit Concert that streamed online in January 2021 — and a track that serves as a stirring ode to taking stock of the finer points of life amidst trying times. It’s also the first-ever Styx song to feature a banjo, an instrument Shaw has occasionally played onstage as well as on some of his own solo recordings. “I never imagined playing banjo on a Styx record,” reveals Tommy, “but as we were cutting ‘Our Wonderful Lives,’ I thought maybe a touch of Americana might work — so I auditioned it, and it felt like it belonged.” Not only that, but another, er, wonderful “Lives” surprise comes by way of the jubilant piccolo trumpet solo from guest performer Steve Patrick, which exhibits quite the deliberate Beatlesque flair.
After spending the pandemic year on the touring sidelines, Styx are beyond eager to play as much of Crash of the Crown live as they can. “I can’t wait to feel that group energy whenever we get back on the same stage together,” Shaw admits. “We did something extraordinary in creating COTC. It came to us so naturally, and we can’t wait to bring these songs to life the way they’re meant to be played.”
As Styx continues to do full justice to COTC music out on the planks, we can visit and/or revisit all 15 of its majestic studio tracks to continue taking us to new and renewed aural heights. Beyond the shadow of a royal doubt, I hereby decree Crash of the Crown to be a timeless album for the ages. Long live the king!