Will Evankovich

REVIEW: Styx – The Same Stardust (2021 RSD EP)

STYX – The Same Stardust (2021 RSD EP)

Anecdote:  I wasn’t able to get this Styx EP with seven exclusive tracks on Record Store Day, so I knew I would have to pay the “late tax”.  I was surprised that pretty much every copy for sale on Discogs was coming from Russia.  Given the current situation I didn’t want to risk having a record coming in from Russia.  I found one from somewhere else (Estonia perhaps) and bit the bullet and ordered.  Two days later I got an email saying, “We are relocating to Russia!  We will mail your record from there!”  I almost asked to cancel but decided to be patient, and it has finally arrived.  In perfect shape.  Whew.

To accompany their excellent new album Crash of the Crown, Styx released an EP with two exclusive studio bonus tracks, and five live.  Not bad value for an EP when all of them are previously unreleased.  The record is on beautiful, heavy transparent blue vinyl, is low on surface noise, and just sounds wonderful!

The title track “The Same Stardust” opens, and it’s a theme we often hear in science:  we are all, every one of us, made of the same matter from a star that exploded billions of years ago.  It’s a unifying theme, but not a wimpy song.  A crescendo of drums leads us to an upbeat rocker with lead vocals by Lawrence Gowan.  There’s a great little riff after the chorus, and Gowan’s lead vocal recalls the Beatles.  “Walk away from hate!” he sings, reflecting the sentiments of the Fab Four.  Tommy Shaw sings the powerful bridge and then rips into a melodically cool solo.  Easily of album, or single quality.

The second exclusive studio song is called “Age of Entropia” and it is best described as progressive like Styx of old.  Tommy sings this number with a gentle acoustic opening.  It builds into a more robust construction in time, really sounding like only one band:  Styx.  Good song but less instant.

Side two contains the live material, and the side opener is a track as desirable as the unreleased studio songs, if not more: a new live version of “Mr. Roboto” from 2020!  This often shunned hit has finally been recorded again in a live setting, now with Gowan on vocals.  It’s been tuned down a bit, but it still thrills.  As soon you hear that trademark keyboard opening, you can’t help but smile.  Especially knowing how rarely it gets played live.  We all miss Dennis DeYoung but it is clear that Tommy Shaw doesn’t really want to hear about him.  Gowan does an admirable job, as do all the Styx vocalists, as there is a lot going on.  He even adds some of his own flare.  There’s a slightly harder edge on this “Mr. Roboto” and that’s just fine.

Another treat, at least to those in the know, is “Radio Silence” from the excellent album The Mission.  One of the best tunes from that sci-fi concept album indeed, and the first live release of any song from it.  So that’s special, even if Crash of the Crown may very well have topped The Mission.  That’s subjective…but possible.

Classics follow, dominated by Tommy Shaw tuneage.  “Man in the Wilderness” has the same vibe as the newer material, cut from the same cloth.  The heavy solo section is jaw-droppingly cool with wicked wah-wah effects.  James Young gets the spotlight on his heavy hitting “Miss America”.  Always a welcome listen, his unique vocal stylings are necessary for the overall Styx sound.  And that riff!  Speaking of riffs, Tommy closes the disc with the legendary “Renegade”.  Still classic, still awesome, still hard to resist the urge to shake it!  And though it does sound tuned down, Tommy’s voice has an incredible timeless youth.

The Same Stardust is a damn near essential add-on to your Crash of the Crown album.  It would have made an awesome bonus disc to a deluxe version of…oh, man.  After what I paid for this, if they put The Same Stardust on a future deluxe edition of Crash of the Crown, I’ll be pissed!

4.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Styx – Crash of the Crown (2021)

“I don’t think Styx will ever top The Mission.” — Me

“I think Styx just topped The Mission.” — Also me

STYX – Crash of the Crown (2021 Universal)

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.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Tommy Shaw and Contemporary Youth Orchestra – Sing For the Day! (2017)

TOMMY SHAW and Contemporary Youth Orchestra – Sing For the Day! (2017 Universal)

These kids can play!

Tommy Shaw, accompanied by Will Evankovich, conductor Liza Grossman, and a whole orchestra full of highschool kids will blow you away on the live concert CD Sing For the Day!  It’s astounding to think that this room full of kids is so good that they got to perform the hits of Shaw with the master himself, and get it released as an album.  What gifted young musicians they must be.

Styx fans will adore Sing For the Day! for its roll call of classic songs, performed acoustically with the orchestra.  Styx music lends itself well to that kind of pomp and circumstance.  The album also boasts a number of Shaw favourites outside of Styx, like his first solo hit “Girls With Guns”.  With a new arrangement, “Girls With Guns” is almost unrecognizable but yet familiar.  You’ll also get Damn Yankees’ excellent “Come Again” and of course their hit ballad “High Enough”.

The album commences brilliantly with “Overture” from the newest Styx album The Mission.  Bar now set “high enough”, they run through “Girls With Guns”, “Too Much Time on My Hands” and “Fooling Yourself” with aplomb and joie de vivre.  You wouldn’t be going out on a limb to suggest that these kids do as good a job of it as Styx themselves do.  “Crystal Ball” soars majestic.  “Boat on a River” simmers quietly.  Most of the arrangements offer a freshness while being true to the spirit of the originals.  The only sputter is “Renegade”, which is stripped down and a little strange.

Set highlights include “Diamond” from Tommy’s 1997 album 7 Deadly Zens, a pretty incredible track.  “Come Again” is brilliant, as is the bombastic oldie “Man in the Wilderness”.  “Blue Collar Man” is among the best versions of the song ever recorded, and completely different from the original.  Fans should enjoy just about the whole shebang.  Casual listeners would recognize a number of these songs and might get a kick out of these novel interpretations.

Do not hesitate if you happen to find this CD in the wild.  It’s better than you might expect.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Styx – The Mission (2017)

STYX – The Mission (2017 Universal)

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!

5/5 stars

* 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)