Did anyone in 2017 expect Styx to come out with one of the best albums of the year? Even though Styx have successfully carried on with Lawrence (But You Can Call Me Larry) Gowan on keys and vocals, nobody really predicted this! Yet here it is: The Mission, surely one of the best albums of the year so far,* and the best Styx in decades.
Here’s another unexpected twist: The Mission is a concept album about colonizing Mars! It has a coherent story and recurring hooks. In many ways The Mission sounds like a lost album from Styx’s progressive rock heyday. But you wouldn’t guess that if you only heard the Gowan-sung lead single “Gone Gone Gone”. Although it’s about a rocket launch, you might not catch that on first listen. The year is 2033. “Light it up, let’s get this show on the road!” This hard rocker came out of nowhere as one of the big surprises this summer.
“Hundred Million Miles From Home” (vocals by Tommy Shaw) has a funkier 70s groove.** When the band harmonizes together, it sounds like vintage Styx. “Hundred Million Miles” is a great song and also fairly accurate. Mars was 100 million miles away from Earth as recently as the 2012 opposition. Problems happen on “Trouble at the Big Show” (vocals by James “JY” Young), a slower groove with killer bluesy guitar work. This moves into the ballad “Locomotive”, about the brave pilot of the ship Khedive. Shaw pours passion into it, as he does the next one “Radio Silence”. Just as interesting as the actual music is the spacey backing sounds. It certainly adds atmosphere to an excellent vintage sounding song. “Radio Silence” recalls some of Shaw’s 70s hits like “Boat on a River” at times.
Gowan returns to the microphone on the lovely piano ballad “The Greater Good”. It sounds like quintessential Styx; hit quality material with soul. Things start to get upbeat again on “Time May Bend” (another Gowan vocal). If you’re not familiar with Lawrence Gowan, he is not a Dennis DeYoung clone, sounding closer to Steve Hogarth of Marillion. (He even looks a little like “H”.) Listen for a subtle musical “S.O.S.” signal in the backing track.
There are musical segues and radio voices between some tracks, but “Red Storm” is the next full song. It’s a very progressive song with all the trimmings. It’s based on Tommy Shaw’s excellent acoustic work, and it paints a picture. The crew of the Khedive must brave a dust storm on the surface of Mars. “Carry what you can, there’s no turning back, gonna make it to the mothership.” There are avante-garde flashes of guitar noise that emulates the squeals of a radio, or perhaps metal on metal. Then a rocking riff and solo…”Red Storm” has it all.
Gowan absolutely proves his mettle on the piano opus “Khedive”. The blur of piano recalls classical compositions, and the guitar solo is pure Queen. The minimal vocals continue the story: “Onwards! Onwards!” Then we revisit the sounds of the 80s on “The Outpost”, the triumphant conclusion to the story. The 80s synth and beats remind of the classic “Mr. Roboto” period of Styx, but it rocks solidly too. Listen for a reprise of the “Overture” music from the start for the album. Finally “Mission to Mars” is the denouement, a bright and lively end.
The Mission is brilliant for a number of reasons. First and foremost — great songs. You will play The Mission over and over, simply because it has great songs, as good as the days of old. Second, although Lawrence Gowan has his stamp all over the album, it sounds like Styx and nobody else. Having Gowan more involved is a good thing. He has a 40 year career in Canada, and he didn’t have enough time on the Cyclorama (2003) album. But this sounds way more like Styx than Cyclorama did. Finally, this album is loaded with incredible playing by all the members. This is easily the best lineup Styx have had since Kilroy Was Here (1983).*** Fans of the guitar (both electric and acoustic) will find many moments of musical ecstasy.
For Styx, this is mission accomplished!
* One of the best album covers too. Is that a port hole, or a turntable? You decide.
** Bassist Chuck Panozzo plays the funky bass on “Hundred Million Miles From Home”, his only appearance. Chuck, the other original member besides JY, is only able to make sporadic appearances with Styx due to his battle with AIDS. Ricky Phillips plays the rest of the bass parts, meaning Styx have two official bassists!
*** Lawrence Gowan (piano/vocals), Tommy Shaw (guitar/vocals), James “JY” Young (guitar/vocals), Todd Sucherman (drums), Ricky Phillips & Chuck Panozzo (bass)