The Mission : Possibly THE Best Styx Album !?
Styx was one of my earliest favorite bands. The first album i ever purchased was Paradise Theatre, in the summer of 1981, while at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto (yes they had record outlets set up there).
I loved that album at the time – Best Of Times, Snowblind, Rockin The Paradise… neat gatefold and cool etching on one side of the LP. Back at our local Sam The Record Man I picked up almost everything else prior to, save for the first 4 albums – I got ‘The Best Of’ – to cover that era. From those 70s albums – Equinox, The Grand Illusion, and Pieces of Eight (on picture disc) were and still are my favorite Styx albums. Throw in Crystal Ball and Cornerstone and it was quite a period for the band. Kilroy Was Here came out in a huge deal of promotion with the film (which I believe was played at their concerts on that tour!?). That album had a few memorable songs, but in retrospect pretty disappointing for me (I will have to put it on later). I thought the story / concept and packaging was pretty cool though. The subsequent double live album was anti climactic, sounding a bit tired (I think the band’s reunion live set Return To Paradise is far superior), and not to mention that studio track released as a single – “Music Time”, just ridiculous pop stuff – no wonder they split sooner after!
From 1984 to ’88 Tommy Shaw and Dennis DeYoung each released 3 studio albums, while James Young released 2 (one with Jan Hammer). I really liked Desert Moon at the time, but lost interest in the next 2, while Shaw’s Girls With Guns is an absolute classic ’80s album, and the 2 that followed were pretty decent as well. I have JYs album City Slicker, but never got in to it. From this point I moved on to other things, I missed subsequent solo albums from Shaw, Young, and (intentionally) DeYoung’s albums of Broadway hits.
When Styx resumed in 1990, Shaw was gone (joining ‘super-group’ Damn Yankees, followed by a few albums with Night Ranger’s Jack Blades). In his place was Glen Burtnik, a solo artist also on A&M Records. Burtnik was a multi instrumentalist, singer and writer, and seemed a good fit for the band. However, when Edge Of The Century came out I just never got it. It was a bit too mainstream pop and featured another DeYoung ballad as the big hit. I didn’t get the actual album on CD til years later, and see I missed very little. On record Burtnik was good, and contributed to half the songs, and in particular the hit “Love Is The Ritual” and the title track. But I can’t stand the production / sound of this album, and every other track is a ballad! JY is barely on this thing. Sad. And as much as I think Dennis DeYoung was the key figure during the band’s classic era from 75-81, I think he’d sorta lost the plot at this stage. Although “Show Me The Way” was a hit at the time, I think that this and/or perhaps some of the other ballads would’ve been better suited to a solo album.
When the classic Styx resumed in the late ’90s they released a great live album with 3 new songs, most notably “Dear John” – written for John Panozzo (who passed away in ’96). Todd Sucherman filled in on drums here and remains a member of the band today. Bummer this ain’t on vinyl! The band’s subsequent studio album was highly anticipated ( I thought it would be great, at least), but it was a bit disappointing. Tommy Shaw was the major writer on this one, and put in the most memorable songs – “I Will Be Your Witness”, “Everything Is Cool”, and the title track. James Young contributed to 5 tracks, “Heavy Water” being the album’s rockiest tune. DeYoung contributed just 5 songs, 3 of which are ballads! what is disappointing about this album is that it seems to be less of a band effort – too many ballads, too little collaborations, too much filler. With DeYoung’s contributions sounding like he was recording an entirely different album than a Styx album. DeYoung developed health issues at the time and the band took the opportunity to carry on without him. Despite the timing, it was the best thing for everyone involved, I’d say. Don’t get me wrong – I am a fan of DeYoung’s work; he is an amazing writer, singer and keyboard player, I just don’t think his direction suited the band anymore.
The band chose Canadian singer/writer/keyboard player Lawrence Gowan to replace DeYoung. Gowan had a number of hits in the ’80s, particularly in Canada – “Criminal Mind”, “Strange Animal”, “Moonlight Desires”… Gowan is an energetic performer and though there is a group of DeYoung faithfull fans who would disagree – his voice and playing suits the classic Styx era tunes just perfectly.
In 2002 with Gowan in the band, as well as Glen Burtnik back as bass player (Chuck Panozzo being ill and tho still a member, his role is limited) Styx released Cyclorama. By then I’d lost a good bit of interest in the band, but was curious. Cyclorama was a nice surprise, though a bit lengthy. A far better Styx album than any since Paradise Theatre. The band had contributions from everyone, 4 of whom sang lead, and it sounded like a band again – and everyone seemed to enjoy making this album (Almost all tracks are co credited to the entire band). Shaw contributed favorites “Waiting For Our Time” and “Yes I Can”, while James Young sang on (and presumably was lead writer) on “These Are The Times” and “Captain America” – 2 of the best tracks he’s ever done. Gowan’s “Fields Of The Brave” and “More Love For The Money” and Burtnik’s “Killing The Thing That You Love” – all classy stuff.
The band toured and Burtnik eventually left the band, with Ricky Phillips (ex Babies) joining on bass (and Chuck Panozzo coming out on tours for a few songs and appearances). Sadly, (in my opinion) the band missed the opportunity to follow up Cyclorama sooner than later, opting to stay out on tour for years, while releasing a number of live albums, a covers album, and an album of classic Styx tracks re-recorded. I did pick up and liked the latter album titled Regeneration (2011), and the live DVD of the band performing The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight albums in their entirety. But over nearly 14 years of nothing really new – it is easy to grow cynical and lose interest [again].
It was Dennis DeYoung’s live album of a couple years back that got me pulling my Styx albums out again. I thought it was an amazing set, and this guy still sounds so good after all these years! His voice, his keyboard playing – and his band which includes 2 guitarists that resemble Styx’s guitarists from a distance, and one who can sound remarkably like Tommy Shaw performing Shaw’s songs — this was what Styx sounded like to me – But during a certain period. I did pick up DeYoung’s 100 Years From Now in all this, and thought it was pretty decent; definitely rockier than his previous stuff. I would love to hear DeYoung make a new studio album of classic Styx sounding material though.
Having wished for a new DeYoung album sounding like classic Styx would be ideal, but it seems the band has beat him to it with The Mission. A new album, recorded quietly, with no mention of it until it was ready.
After 14 years, what could the band have to offer!? After one solid album in 2003 and a few duds before that, how great could it be!? Well, if the band set out to go back and make it sound like a classic Styx album (Equinox, Grand Illusion), as I’ve heard Tommy Shaw say [check out those youtube interviews!], they succeeded IMO.
Originally conceived by Tommy Shaw and producer Will Evankovich, The Mission is more than one could’ve expected, with the lyrics revolving around a futuristic trip to Mars, and the band pulling off an authentic ’70s sound and feel throughout this album. This is not just another Styx album of rock, pop, and ballads – it is the Best Styx album since Paradise Theatre (or arguably Pieces of Eight)! Certainly a return to the progressive period before that. I have had this album since shortly after it came out, and have not tired of it, there is just so much to hear and follow track to track.
When Gowan’s keyboards kick in during the “Overture” I am instantly reminded of classics like “Light Up” and “The Grand Illusion”, as if this piece could work right up to either one of those tunes. But it is the lead off upbeat track “Gone Gone Gone”, sung by Gowan – it’s short and to the point, which is to catch your attention and kick things off with the line “Light it up – let’s get this show on the road!”. Already sounds like a great show opener! Classic concept and packaging – gatefold LP, with story, cast of characters, lyrics…
The Mission is not simply something you can pick a few favorites out and skip right to them (though i do have a few favorite pieces), but more so – lyrically and musically, it is something that really is worth listening straight through.
Each song is connected in the story and musically, with no fadeouts or big drum endings, but there’s a real musical flow from track to track, and a few shorter pieces that segue and connect. Gowan’s use of older equipment – moogs, synths, etc… give this such a cool ’70s vibe, with not only shades of mid ’70s Styx, but a bit of Pink Floyd at times – see “Locomotive”, which also features a guitar break very reminiscent of David Gilmour. a number of classic tracks here, from more mainstream catchy pop-rock like “Hundred Million Miles From Home” and “Radio Silence”, to “The Greater Good” – which starts as a ballad and picks up with Gowan and Shaw exchanging lines (as per the story), and on to the epic prog piece “Red Storm”.
This album really is more of a progressive album than anything the band’s ever done. James Young only has one lead vocal here, on the somewhat slower funk track “Trouble At The Big Show”. I would say the only thing this album misses is that one JY rocker that usually stands out. That’s not to say this album is soft; musically it’s heavy and pretty upbeat throughout. I don’t just hear traces of ’70s Styx, but other progressive influences. This is a Styx album that is in a class of it’s own.
KJJ, Oct ’17 [rev 02/21]