Styx crosses solar systems and generations on ‘The Mission’

“Putting The Mission out now, when the brotherhood has never been stronger — well, it’s the sweet dream we never imagined. It’s a dream fulfilled.”

Reinforcing a consistent, unbroken level of staying power while also remaining a relevant force musically are two things virtually impossible to sustain in today’s music business, let alone across the decades. Many artists who came of age in the initial rock era — if they still even exist, that is — have long been relegated to the nostalgia bin or oldies circuit, trapped in the recurring hell-cycle of a perpetual Twilight Zone episode in the role of an old-school jukebox cranking out creaky hits on demand.

This is decidedly not the case with Styx, the melodic prog-rocking band out of Chicago celebrating its 45th year of operation in 2017 with a powerfully cosmic new studio effort, The Mission, now available in multiple formats via Alpha Dog 2T/UMe. A concise, 43-minute-long concept album about the first manned mission to Mars, The Mission builds on not only the band’s hi-res-leaning recording mantle, but also on the high-octane performance muscle they tirelessly flex out out on the road. It gets a workout: Styx has averaged a minimum of 100 live performances a year uninterrupted since, yes, 1999. (Do the math: That comes to circa 1,900 gigs — and counting.)

This powerhouse pedigree serves to inform the sonic meat of The Mission, for which yours truly had the distinct privilege of being enlisted to write the album’s liner notes. Having been secretly privy to the record’s evolution over the past 2½ years, I can report that The Mission is easily the band’s best, most fully realized effort since its literal perfect bookend, The Grand Illusion, which was released exactly 40 years ago today on the intergalactically perfect stardate of 7/7/77.

The Grand Illusion continues to be a resonant topic today,” agreed Styx co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, as he sat down exclusively with Digital Trends before a performance in Paso Robles, California. The band’s interest in the cosmos stretches back to the title track of 1974’s Man of Miracles (“He was a man of miracles/Riding golden meteorites/Ruler of distant galaxies/Born of the Northern Lights”), in addition to the fact that Young also has a degree in mechanical and space engineering.

“Morphing Come Sail Away into a song about a starship and not just a sailing ship was my idea,” Young confirmed about the song whose lyrics were mainly courtesy of the band’s former keyboardist/vocalist, Dennis DeYoung. “And Come Sail Away was also lifted by the release of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the same year. Yes, 1977 was definitely the year for outer space.”

Your humble Audiophile columnist recently traveled with the band on the West Coast during the first week of this summer’s aptly named United We Rock tour — on which Styx shares the bill with co-headliner REO Speedwagon and opener Don Felder (formerly of the Eagles). I observed firsthand a generational cross-section in the audience that skewed even more toward a younger demographic than I’d seen on tours past. Which naturally raises the question: How and why does a band like Styx connect with the youth of today?

“This is our album,” a 22-year-old who would only identify himself as Joe told me about The Mission while he was in line to buy a tour shirt at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on June 24. “And Styx is a real band, where everyone in it knows how to play their instruments really well and can all sing live. I love seeing them do their classic songs like Renegade, don’t get me wrong — but now I kinda feel like I have my own new music of theirs that mixes their vintage sound with the more modern stuff I like.” (Kinda hard to argue with that logic, I must admit.)

This kind of genuine reaction is literally music to the ears of the chief architect of The Mission, guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw. “It’s been so long since we made a real Styx album like the ones we did before,” Shaw told me while we hung out in his dressing room in Paso Robles before that night’s show, citing The Grand Illusion, 1978’s Pieces of Eight, and Side 2 of 1975’s Equinox as his compositional cornerstones. “Success took its toll on the spirit of the band. So much has changed, but putting The Mission out now, when the brotherhood has never been stronger — well, it’s the sweet dream we never imagined.”

“We are rough-edged and badass on the road, and we know it.”

Shaw paused for a few seconds. “No, the truth is, it is a dream fulfilled. The Mission reflects a vulnerability and rawness we never experienced as a band. We are rough-edged and badass on the road, and we know it. But, to a man, in making this record, everyone got very real and dug down deep in unfamiliar territory, and gave the performances you hear.”

A good bit of The Mission’s visceral aural nature stems from Shaw’s hardline stance that it be recorded and mixed in an analog fashion, rather than doing it digitally. “Everyone else is going for that modern, spanked out, ‘get it louder’ thing with digital recording,” he explained. “Well, you can make this album louder by turning it up!”

I noted the Mission template is strong enough that he and producer/collaborator Will Evankovich were able to play with its volume dynamics and not worry about distortion. Shaw nodded in agreement, then observed, “And people need to know when you listen to this album in headphones and you hear all of this stuff happening, none of that is an accident. Jim Scott’s mixing here was just so heavenly. The way he has the vocals sit there in the mix — they don’t sound like they have any effects on them. There’s always a little bit of tape delay so you’ve got the flavor of it spread around through the stereo spectrum, but you’re not aware of it. It just sounds right.”

Naturally, I had to ask producer/engineer Jim Scott, perhaps best known for his work with Wilco, to clarify his own sacred Mission duties. “Mixing an album like this where the producers and the players are experienced and bold is so great and fun and easy,” he told me from his Nashville homebase. “There was great attention to detail during the tracking and the overdubs. My job was to balance it, 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 made the loud things loud.”

Scott further concurred the analog nature of The Mission was its not-so-secret weapon. “It was a very pure and simple analog recording, and I mixed it the same way — no samples, and no shenanigans,” he said. “I mixed it through a vintage Neve console with some EQ, compression, reverb, and tape delay, and printed it to tape.”

The most postmodern song on the album without a doubt is Red Storm, which features a furiously headbanging power-riff section that would do Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree fame proud.

“With Red Storm, we were pleasantly surprised no one ever said, ‘Stop doing that,’” Shaw recalled. “Everyone went along with it. It’s a beast we had to tame, just to record it. It’s a style of playing we toyed around with in One With Everything [from 2003’s Cyclorama]. We’ve been playing together for a long time, and everybody just jumped at the opportunity to explore.”

“We’ve been playing together for a long time, and everybody just jumped at the opportunity to explore.”

Keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, who’s been in Styx since 1999 and is often their main onstage foil, observed, “It didn’t surprise me when my son Dylan came in and told me, ‘This record sounds really good.’ He was really, genuinely intrigued with it, you know? He was able to connect the dots from Red Storm to something he actually liked. He told me the song reminded him of Katatonia [a Swedish progressive metal band]. And to my ear, I hear modern metal as well, which is where prog went.”

And this development is quite key, for the sounds created for far-reaching tracks like Red Storm, Locomotive, and Time May Bend show the band is willing to push the sonic envelope rather than just retread its creative wheels. “The other good thing about it is, somehow, those newer elements don’t seem jarring or out of place,” Gowan pointed out as we stood together next to his keyboard onstage at the Sunlight Supply Ampitheater in Ridgefield, Washington just before two full-set rehearsals commenced on June 19, a day before the summer tour got underway. “I don’t exactly know why, but maybe it’s because of what frames them both before and after. We’re not trying to draw you into, ‘Look! This is the new Styx!’ You don’t get that feeling from this record, even though half the lineup is different from the ‘classic’ lineup.”

Producer Evankovich filled in the track’s bona-fides: “Red Storm has that almost nursery-rhymelike dark melody in the verses that are very much like Porcupine Tree and Radiohead, which Tommy and I were both listening to at the time,” he confirmed. “I’m a big fan of Nigel Godrich’s productions. In the track Airbag on OK Computer (1997), he arbitrarily hit the mute button on the drums in that mix, where it breaks down. It’s not their drummer, Philip Selway, playing it. It just happened organically, which is really great.”

Styx Tommy Shaw pose
Jason Powell
Jason Powell

Evankovich rightly remarked how Red Storm also weaves classic tones into its modern touch. “What also makes Red Storm really nice are the textures to it, like those Richard Wright [of Pink Floyd] keyboard sounds,” he said. “I’m really glad Lawrence was into playing that Oberheim synth and adding those ARP strings and Crumar Orchestrator strings on the choruses to really solidify that 1978 progressive rock feel to it. Those vintage keys and synths were the glue that made all those transitions go together pretty seamlessly.”

Young, who’s acknowledged as The Godfather of Styx and the man most critical of their efforts both onstage and on record, admitted to being pleased with the overall results. “It’s been a labor of love, but I am truly, pleasantly surprised and delighted by the response to the Mission concept,” he noted. “Tommy will often say, ‘From a tiny acorn a giant oak doth grow.’ My genetic material is in there and 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.”

Shaw posited that if the demand is there, Styx would be open to playing The Mission in its entirety live later this year, sometime after the triple-bill summer tour is over and they return to playing longer sets. “If there’s an audience for it, then fuck yeah! I mean, I’d pay to go see it. I know people!” he exclaimed, and we both laughed. “We’re all planning on doing it, so we’re prepared to do it. And since it runs 42 minutes and 8 seconds, it’s not that long to add into the middle of a full set.”

Would Shaw denote The Mission as a career highlight? “I would have to say so,” he concluded. “The main thing I wanted was to have all six bandmembers represented on it. When I listen back to it, it’s been a treat hearing how everybody got the opportunity to shine. I’m really proud of it. I think the planets truly aligned for The Mission.

This here Audiophile would have to agree. For Styx, it truly is a Mission accomplished.

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