“I don’t think Styx will ever top The Mission.” — Me
“I think Styx just topped The Mission.” — Also me
Remarkable! 49 years old, and still putting out some truly superlative records. What’s the secret?
Like their contemporaries Journey and Whitesnake, Styx have expanded to a seven-member band including new guitarist/songwriter/producer Will Evankovich. With just as many songwriting credits on the new album Crash of the Crown as Tommy Shaw has, this addition feels appropriate. James “JY” Young and Chuck Panozzo (original bassist, now part time) are the only links to the distant past. Styx have not always been the most focused on new music (14 year gap between Cyclorama and The Mission) but it seems like Evankovich has sparked their creativity. Two albums in a row, Styx have risen to high-water marks, pleasing fans and stunning critics.
If there’s a blatant concept this time it’s not as obvious, but recurring musical themes hint that there might be more going on than just 15 new tracks. Crash of the Crown is assembled from smaller chunks of music that flow together in one seamless whole, but the individual songs are all under four minutes, including two brief interludes.
Opening with a wicked Lawrence Gowan keyboard bit, “The Fight of Our Lives” is a powerful and catchy intro to this distinguished album. Tommy Shaw: lead vocals, backed by the increasingly thick Styx choir. Pay attention to the main guitar theme as it’ll be back. Beatles-y chords are another recurring affair. (The Fab Four sound like a major influence on both Crash of the Crown, and the new Dennis DeYoung album 26 East Vol. 2.)
A progressive guitar/keyboard riff brings us to “A Monster”. If anything it’s a song about the last two years. “Here’s to the prisoners trapped in their cages,” could certainly be about the current time, “a monster chasing its tail”. Big guitar solos and hooks make this an unorthodox and complex little winner.
Acoustics ring on “Reveries”, the first Gowan lead vocal. It has a big powerful chorus and the acoustic base is reminiscent of classic 70s Styx. But before too long, Tommy Shaw and JY rise up for a massive tandem electric guitar break. Stuff like this is why they need a third guitarist now, so the rhythm doesn’t drop out live. “Reveries” flows seamlessly into the dull rain of “Hold Back the Darkness”. The foreboding tune, like clouds warning to stay ashore, is spare with piano and acoustics forming the basis.
Winston Churchill’s words form a part of “Save Us From Ourselves”, always a nice touch in a rock song. It possesses a more upbeat pulse, but no less powerful. The Tommy Shaw refrain in the chorus is typically bright and rhapsodic. It builds into something stageworthy, and leads into the title track and single “Crash of the Crown”. Individually, this song impresses less on the radio. It belongs on the album, flowing in and out. It’s a component of a larger piece. Incidentally it’s the first Styx song with three lead singers. In order: JY, Shaw and Gowan, each with completely unique sections. Stick with it, and a riff from “Fight Of Our Lives” returns to knock you back in your seat. Then there’s some instrumental wickedness and robot vocoder madness. It is like three or four songs crammed into one and it’s boggling why it was chosen as a single. Except to impress the fact that Styx aren’t playing around.
You need a bit of a break after a workout like “Crash of the Crown” and so the folksy “Our Wonderful Lives” is the ideal tonic. A huge singalong chorus is backed by simple kick drums, acoustics, and accordion. It’s a beam of hope on an album born from dark times. Sounding a bit like “39” by Queen, and completed with a blast of Beatles-y horns.
The dark growl of a Hammond B3 transitions into “Common Ground”, slower and thick with the modern Styx harmonies. It has some very different parts, one pounding with heavy drums and one light and flighty. While it stands as a song to itself, it also works to transition into “Sound the Alarm”, an RSD single and album highlight. This handsome Shaw ballad is reminiscent of some of his past best and serves as a bit of a hippy-like anthem. “There is no future in the way it was,” Shaw sings correctly. All at once, it has ingredients similar to “Show Me with Way”, “Mr. Roboto”, “High Enough” and “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)”. There’s sorrow, there’s hope, there’s bombast and a digital pulse.
The digital pulse leads directly into the drum-heavy “Long Live the King”. It’s also the most Queen-like, with an absolutely May-ish solo. Imagine if you tried to build a Queen song on top of the drum beat from Guns N’ Roses’ “You Could Be Mine”.
Gowan has a brief piano segue called “Lost At Sea” before the proper song “Coming Out the Other Side”. This calm ballad has a taste of India with the tabla, but manages not to sound like the Beatles this time. It recalls rebirth, and there’s a killer solo to go on top. “To Those” goes full-blown upbeat triumphant Styx, a brilliant refrain brimming with adrenaline. “For those who do survive, find beauty in your lives. Don’t be afraid of love, stand up and rise above.”
Instrumental segue “Another Farewell” steers into the final track “Stream”, which sounds and reads like an ending to a story. Whether the band intended to or not, it seems they’ve made another concept album in Crash of the Crown. “We’ve never been a protest band,” insists Shaw, “We’re more like a gospel caravan trying to send out positive messages wherever we go.” If that’s the case, then “Stream” must be the happy musical ending, an upbeat drift into the fade.
Perhaps there’s a clue to Styx’s meaning in the packaging. Morse code hidden in the CD tray reveals the words “WHOS GONNA SAVE US FROM OURSELVES”.
According to the lengthy liner notes, Styx went into Crash of the Crown with no compromises and came out of it with the album they wanted. With a diverse set of instruments at hand, they clearly had no inhibitions. The end result is an album less direct the The Mission, but dense with ideas compacted into mere minutes of songs. Fortunately most of those ideas were really excellent. Any time a band like Styx makes an album, there’s a fear it will be the last one. It sounds like this band has plenty more fuel left in the solid rocket boosters. Whatever the future holds, Crash of the Crown is the kind of triumph any young band would hold as their magnum opus. With Styx, there is so much history it’s futile to compare.