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Styx - The Mission

“Long awaited” doesn’t even scratch the surface when discussing the length of time Styx fans have had to wait for this one, the band’s 16th studio effort. It’s been a 14 year wait for original songs, but I would say The Mission, which gets unleashed on the world on June 16th, is well worth the wait.

I felt that this release was full of surprises, the first being that it’s a concept album. After Kilroy Was Here put a floppy disc straight through the heart of the band, I really didn’t see the band ever returning to the conceptual realm again. Now understand, this is a concept that takes on the idea of the first manned mission to Mars; something that is a very real possibility in the not-so-distant future it may seem. Cornball concept characters like Kilroy’s Dr. Righteous or Colonel Hyde don’t rear their ugly heads. Instead, we get something a little more elegant and a lot less Hollywood. The storyline was co-written by vocalist/guitarist Tommy Shaw with his longtime friend and collaborator Will Evankovich (Shaw/Blades).

The next surprise was that it didn’t try to be The Grand Illusion or Pieces Of Eight. Sure, the classic Styx harmonies are expertly plastered all over this, and it has all the elements of what makes Styx a great band, but this feels fresh and new. These are songs that you haven’t heard before. It’s not a rehash of the old days. Honestly, I thought we might get something like that with this release.

And the biggest and best surprise for me was the fact that Lawrence Gowan is all over this record. Gowan, who has been showered with awards and accolades in his home country of Canada, is a key component in the overall sound of this record.

Because of all the things going on throughout this album, I am going to break it down song by song and tell you what I hear. 

1.  “Overture”  (1:23)

      A short intro piece that has some of the best elements of the band within it. Drummer Todd Sucherman, arguably the best drummer out there, makes his presence known immediately, bassist Ricky Phillips lays down an excellent bassline, while Gowan puts his incredible keyboard skills to work. The core of the concept is immediately placed upon the listener as well with the lyric, “Calling out to the universe, for the future of Mother Earth”. Welcome back guys.

2.  “Gone Gone Gone”  (2:08)

     “Light it up, Let’s get this show on the road!” That’s the catch phrase that caps off the chorus of this short kick in the teeth. Gowan sounds vocally strong while the band throws every ounce of aggression at you through manic soloing and signature harmonies. 

3.  “Hundred Million Miles”  (3:40)

     Tommy Shaw takes the lead vocals on this simple rock song, which has the great harmonies, a catchy chorus, and even a little talkbox guitar solo in there, a la Don Felder or Peter Frampton.

4.  “Trouble At The Big Show”  (2:30)

     And now it’s James “JY” Young’s turn to put his vocal stamp on the album. While JY delivers his clear and deep “cool cat” vocals, he does it over almost constant soloing that has a bluesy Robin Trower effect. Phillips is amazing on bass, and the harmonies are sheer perfection.

5.  “Locomotive”  (5:04)

      One of the more elegant pieces of music on the record, this one starts with Tommy Shaw and his acoustic guitar soaring on top of a keyboard strain. This song has an incredibly atmospheric feel reminiscent of classic Pink Floyd (think “Shine On Crazy Diamond”) thanks to Gowan’s synth and Phillips’ groove heavy, jazzy bassline. There’s even a short “da doo doo da” vocal harmony that harkens back to the sound of the band’s beginnings.

6.  “Radio Silence”  (4:17)

     With a keyboard intro that sets the mood, it quickly subsides to let Tommy Shaw’s vocals carry the verse. As Shaw soars, so do the keyboards and the incredibly sharp harmonies. The song reaches its bridge and explodes with a powerful guitar riff and gripping vocals that drive the song to its finale. The track ends with an isolated vocal from Tommy Shaw, which has a devastatingly powerful effect. 

7.  “The Greater Good”  (4:10)

     Gowan and his piano grab the wheel for this one, but Shaw falls in for the second verse and ends up in a duet with Gowan. Their vocal trading works really well here. Some clean and gentle harmonies for the relaxed refrain make this one of the more subtle, softer songs on the record. 

8.  “Time May Bend”  (2:31)

     Gowan is at his very best with this one. He is vocally powerful and in control here. He almost seems like he’s conducting the fantastic choir-like harmonies in the chorus when he punches in “Calling out to the universe” and they answer with “Shine your light on me.” I feel that this is not only a powerful moment on the record, but a powerful moment in Styx’ recorded history. I’m not sure we’ve ever heard Lawrence Gowan take control of the Styx machine quite like he does in this song. He is the maestro here, and it is so refreshing and powerful. One of my favorite tracks on the record.

9.  “Ten Thousand Ways”  (1:22)

     A very short piano and vocal interlude that does a nice job of carrying the mood and flow of the record.

10.  “The Red Storm”  (6:04)

       This one is Tommy Shaw’s excellent clean vocals and his equally sharp 12-string in the beginning, but ends up being a progressive, almost “arty” song. This is another song that carries on the Pink Floyd vibe, only adding a “Lucky Man”, ELP-like keyboard sound as well. Look for the song to open up around the 3:30 mark with Sucherman losing his mind on the drumkit, which is a backdrop for a completely punishing guitar solo. 

11.  “All Systems Stable”  (:18)

       Just a spoken word connection between tracks.

12.  “Khedive”  (2:04)

       Ladies and gentlemen, Lawrence Gowan. This is just Gowan doing what he does best, hammering out a tremendous classical piano piece. His speed and dexterity on keys really is astounding, and this is a nice demonstration of that. This also serves as a perfect intro to the next song.… 

13.      “The Outpost”  (3:50)

           This is the point where the journey starts to flourish and the mood gets lighter and more uplifting. Again, Gowan takes command of the ship here, and steers it into paradise. With a bright and piercing keyboard sound, and some extra large harmonies on the chorus, this is one of the strongest tracks on the album. This has all of the classic Styx elements firing at full speed, and the bright sound of the song gives it an 80’s retro feel.

14.      “Mission To Mars”  (2:43)

           Like “The Outpost,” this is also a bright and cheerful song that is reminiscent of an 80’s sound. We get more of Shaw on vocals, but this time he almost sounds like he’s channeling Neil Young with a lilting tone that really fits the mood and theme of the record. And, harmony vocals appear throughout the record, but this whole song seems to be made up of all the harmonies that came before it. A great, rousing finish to a real work of art.

It took a while to happen, but it has happened in grand style. The entire band is firing on all cylinders, especially Phillips and Gowan. There is a theme and flow here that is edgy yet comfortable, astral yet grounded. With the shortened song structure, the whole record feels like a collection of snippets that flow together seamlessly. The song lengths can be a bit frustrating because you want to live longer inside these melodies. Just when you start to set up house, the band gently moves you into a new residence. As frustrating as that can be, I’ve quickly come to realize that that is the real beauty behind the record. The band gives us so many places to live, and we can call each of them home.

It may be too early to call it a masterpiece, but I can safely say that Styx has released one of the best albums in their catalog, and that’s saying a whole lot. 

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