By Alan Sculley
When the current Styx album, The Mission, arrived in June 2017, it ended a 14-year run without an album of new original material from the veteran band.
For years, the band members debated whether there was any point to even doing a new album. As founding member James Young explained to this writer in a 2013 interview, for veteran bands, many factors argue against making new albums.
Illegal downloading has cut into album sales to the point that it can be hard to make money on a new album. Radio only seems interested in playing the hit songs of veteran bands and has been resistant to spinning new tunes. And doing a new album, in the case of Styx, would mean taking time away from touring, which is now the band’s main source of income, and losing personal time the band members could spend with their families and friends – something that is limited for a band like Styx that plays some 125 shows a year.
But guitarist/singer Tommy Shaw, the band member who was the catalyst in creating The Mission, said this was a project that just seemingly demanded to happen.
“You know, (it’s like) when you’re doing something new and you’re wondering am I doing the right thing. Is this insane?” Shaw says. “A lot of times life will give you a warning to say this is crazy. Stop now. Or, you’ll see signs that just come out of nowhere that say I think we’re going in the right direction. And this kept happening.”
The Mission was not a product of extensive forethought, band meetings and planning. According to Shaw, it literally began with a few musical notes he played about two years ago.
“We were on the road and I wrote this little riff. And if you listen to the album, it’s the very last song on the album (Mission to Mars),” he says. “I wrote the beginnings of that on the road, a little riff and some chords. I took it home and I laid it out in a ProTools file and I wrote the little middle section to it. Then it was like ‘Well, I’m anxious to sing it.’ It’s going to need some words so I can sing it. So, I sat down and I wrote the lines ‘Now I can say it/This is the day/ We’ll be on our way/ On our mission to Mars.’ And I wrote that down because the song has this kind of upbeat, kind of joyful vibe to it…And so that’s what I wrote, and it was like where did that come from? It’s just what came out.”
Shaw says he liked the feeling of excitement and anticipation of those words, but he then wrote a more cautionary set of lines for the middle section, which brought a whole different dimension to the song and triggered him to start thinking in much bigger terms about where his little burst of inspiration might take him.
“The middle section was a left turn,” Shaw says. “That’s where the idea came into my head that this is really about the individuals, the human beings that are on that mission, what they’re going through. It’s very exciting and everything, but when they strap in on that rocket, they’re getting ready to leave everything and everyone, all the things they ever knew, they’re leaving it behind and they may never return.
“That right there, that’s the human situation and humans going through these life-altering situations. That’s something that Styx is good at, is writing about people going through life. All of a sudden it became not just this fun little thing. All of a sudden it took on a (sense of) ‘Wait a minute, there might be something here.’”
From there, Shaw teamed up with songwriting collaborator/producer Will Evankovich – and before long, Styx keyboardist/singer Lawrence Gowan – to continue exploring the emerging album until the trio was ready to propose doing the album to other band members (Young, drummer Todd Sucherman, bassist Ricky Phillips and occasional concert guest star and original bassist Chuck Panozzo).
“If I had just gone to them with one song and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this song about a mission to Mars. Let’s do a record,’ if they had said that to me, I would have gone ‘Eh, really? Are you sure?’” Shaw says.
“So, Will and I went to great lengths to make sure the pieces we had sounded like a finished record, so you didn’t have to imagine it. You could listen to it and go ‘Wow, this really sounds good.’ So, by the time they heard it, it was a really good demo for a new Styx album. That was when everybody thought this is for real.”
Eventually The Mission turned into a story that chronicled the ups and downs of the first mission to Mars in 2033, with Styx’s three vocalists each singing the parts of a character in the story (Shaw as the pilot who likes living life by the seat of his pants, Gowan as the first officer who brings a big brother personality to the mission and Young as the engineer who must be satisfied with the technical workings of the mission).
But while the story is futuristic, the music on the album is very much old school, classic Styx – something that was very much a goal for The Mission. The band’s signature mix of hard-charging guitar rock and hooky pop (mixed with a bit of progressive rock and plenty of backing vocals and harmonies) is very much intact, as the new album weaves together concise hard-rocking tracks like “Gone Gone Gone” and “The Outpost,” the grooving pop-soul of “Hundred Million Miles” and more multi-faceted prog-ish tracks like “Locomotive,” “Time May Bend” and “Radio Silence.”
Styx’s sound has certainly worked for the band. After building a sizable grass roots following – especially in the Midwest – the band broke through in a big way in 1977 with The Grand Illusion. Then like that signature album, Styx’s next three studio albums – Pieces of Eight (1978), Cornerstone (1979) and Paradise Theatre (1981) – also topped 2 million copies sold before the band’s momentum started to stall. Over the next decade, the band broke up a pair of times in the ’80s and early ’90s and went through a series of personnel changes, the biggest of which was replacing original singer/keyboardist/songwriter Dennis DeYoung in 1999 with Gowan.
The current band lineup has stayed intact since 2003, and Styx has returned to being a strong draw on the concert circuit.
The band’s many hits (such as “Come Sail Away,” “The Best of Times,” “Blue Collar Man” and “Too Much Time on My Hands”) remain the foundation of its live shows, and Shaw says the band has been careful about adding songs from The Mission into its live set, noting that “Gone Gone Gone” was the only new song in the set prior to the album’s release.
“We crash into it, kind of the same way it does on the album,” Shaw says, adding that now that fans are able to hear The Mission the group is seeing how fans are responding to help decide which new songs to add to the set. “That will help determine if we add any more to our set.”
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, October 7
Where: Casino del Sol’s AVA Amphitheater, 5655 W. Valencia Road
Info: 1.855.765.7829, casinodelsol.com