When the current Styx album, “The Mission,” arrived in 2017, it ended a 14-year run without an album of new original material from the veteran band.
For years, the band members had debated whether there was any point to even doing a new album. As founding member James Young explained to this writer in a 2013 interview, for veteran bands, many factors argue against making new albums.
Illegal downloading has cut into album sales to the point that it can be hard to make money on a new album. Radio doesn’t seem to want to play new songs by veteran bands. And doing a new album, in the case of Styx, would take time away from touring, which is now the band’s main source of income, and time with families and friends.
But guitarist/singer Tommy Shaw, the band member who was the catalyst in creating “The Mission,” said this was a project that just seemingly demanded to happen. It started with a few musical notes Shaw played years ago.
“We were on the road and I wrote this little riff. And if you listen to the album, it’s the very last song on the album (“Mission to Mars”),” he said. “I took it home and I laid it out in a Pro Tools file and I wrote the little middle section to it.”
Next came a few lyrics.
“So I sat down and I wrote the lines ‘Now I can say it/This is the day/ We’ll be on our way/ On our mission to Mars,’” Shaw said. “It was like where did that come from? It’s just what came out.”
Shaw said he liked the feeling of excitement and anticipation of those words, but after writing a more cautionary set of lines for the song’s middle section, he felt he was onto something bigger.
“The middle section was a left turn,” Shaw said. “That’s where the idea came into my head that this is really about the individuals, the human beings that are on that mission, what they’re going through. It’s very exciting and everything, but when they strap in on that rocket, they’re getting ready to leave everything and everyone, all the things they ever knew, they’re leaving it behind and they may never return. And that right there, that’s the human situation and humans going through these life-altering situations. That’s something that Styx is good at.”
From there, Shaw teamed up with songwriting collaborator/producer Will Evankovich – and before long Styx keyboardist/singer Lawrence Gowan — to continue exploring the emerging album until the trio was ready to propose doing the album to other band members (Young, drummer Todd Sucherman, bassist Ricky Phillips and occasional concert guest star and original bassist Chuck Panozzo.)
“Will and I went to great lengths to make sure the pieces we had sounded like a finished record so you didn’t have to imagine it,” Shaw said. “You could listen to it and go ‘Wow, this really sounds good.’ So by the time they heard it, it was a really good demo for a new Styx album. That was when everybody thought this is for real.”
Eventually “The Mission” turned into a story that chronicled the ups and downs of the first mission to Mars in 2033. But while the story is futuristic, the music on the album is very much old school, classic Styx – something that was very much a goal for “The Mission.” The band’s signature mix of hard-charging guitar rock and hooky pop (mixed with a bit of progressive rock and plenty of backing vocals and harmonies) is very much intact, as the new album weaves together concise hard-rocking tracks like “Gone Gone Gone” and “The Outpost,” the grooving pop-soul of “Hundred Million Miles” and more multi-faceted prog-ish tracks like “Locomotive,” “Time May Bend” and “Radio Silence.”
Styx’s sound has certainly worked for the band. During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the band reeled off four straight albums that sold at least two million copies — “The Grand Illusion” (1977), “Pieces of Eight” (1978), “Cornerstone” (1979) and “Paradise Theatre” (1981) before the band’s momentum started to stall. But after replacing original singer/keyboardist/songwriter Dennis DeYoung in 1999 with Gowan, the group has built its way back to being a strong draw on the concert circuit.
The band’s many hits (such as “Come Sail Away,” “The Best of Times,” “Blue Collar Man” and “Too Much Time on My Hands”) remain the foundation of its live shows, and Shaw said the band has been careful about adding songs from “The Mission” into its live set, noting that “Gone Gone Gone” was the only new song in the set prior to the album’s release.
“We crash into it kind of the same way it does on the album,” Shaw said, adding that now that fans are able to hear “The Mission” the group is seeing how fans are responding to help decide which new songs to add to the set. “That will help determine if we add any more to our set.”