Review: Styx – “The Mission”

Image result for styx the missionI still remember the first time I ever heard Styx. It was “Come Sail Away” on a crappy little Panasonic digital FM clock radio in 1977. The album The Grand Illusion, Styx’s seventh, was famously released on 7/7/77, making today it’s 40th anniversary. What better way to celebrate that than to focus on a brand-new album which has been lauded as a return to Styx’s heyday. And so, the Mission begins.

The Mission, Styx’s 16th studio album and it’s first album of original material in 14 years (following 2003’s excellent Cyclorama). It’s a concept album, built around the story of a crew on a mission to Mars on the rocket ship Khedive, focusing on the characters of the Pilot (Tommy Shaw), the First Officer (Lawrence Gowan) and nominally, the Engineer (James Young). Critics have raved over it, calling it Styx’s best album since Grand Illusion and 1978’s Pieces of Eight. Having been a Styx fan for a long time, and having really loved Cyclorama (which I thought was pretty darn great), I came to this album with a mix of excitement and cautiousness, therefore I wanted to sit with it for a while before I reviewed it.

Here’s the bottom line: The Mission is good. Like, really good. Like, this album has been stuck in my head for weeks. Like, this album came out the same time (within a few weeks) as a new album by Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham, a new Bowie live album, a reissue of Prince’s Purple Rain featuring newly released songs from the vault, and I was excited about all of them. But it’s The Mission that has taken the forefront position in my affections. But I’ll admit – I didn’t love it right away.

Unsurprisingly, Tommy Shaw takes the lead on the album; he’s been the defacto leader of the band since Dennis DeYoung departed in 1999; he wrote and developed the album’s concept (with Will Evankovich from his side band Shaw Blades) and plays its main character. I’m pleased with the amount of material that Lawrence gets to deliver. I’m a big fan of Styx’s current lineup (I’m definitely not one of those in the “It ain’t Styx if there’s no Dennis DeYoung” camp), and Larry is a fantastic keyboardist, vocalist, songwriter and performer. Hearing him on almost equal footing with Tommy makes me happy. What makes me very unhappy is the role that JY is given. I’ve been a big JY fan for decades; his songs are always album highlights for me. But here, as the Engineer, he’s relegated to one lousy 2-minute song. Really? There couldn’t even be a second 2-minute song for him in the second half of the story? Or this one 2-minute song couldn’t have been made into at least a 3-minute song by being given a second verse and chorus? Or the Engineer couldn’t have had a verse in another song? To be perfectly honest, hearing how sidelined JY is was one of the roadblocks I had to liking this album at first.

But there were other things that seemed to be missing as well, things that really stood out on first listen. For instance, there’s not much in the way of big, epic keyboard solos that mark many of Styx’s classic hits, like “Fooling Yourself.” Also, there’s very little of the trademark harmonized Tommy/JY dual guitar lead, something that could be heard prominently on Styx albums in the 70s and 80s. Upon further listens, though, I began to appreciate the album for what it is rather than what it isn’t. And what it is is a very strong album with a simple yet engaging storyline told through a collection of excellent songs. Maybe not as readily commercial as classic Styx albums — there’s no “Renegade” or “Blue Collar Man” here — but honestly, even if it was, would it get any airplay? 2003’s Cyclorama had some excellent songs on it that stand up to any classic Styx single, but the album sadly underperformed, putting Styx off of doing studio albums for a long time. The major exception to this is the album’s opening track, “Gone Gone Gone,” which was released as the lead single. It’s a short, punchy, incredibly catchy, straight-to-the-point rocker that grabs your attention immediately and doesn’t let go. Built around a fiery JY guitar lick, it’s his best contribution on the album.

But a lack of commerciality doesn’t mean that the rest of the album suffers. No way. The Mission is equipped with some major hooks, even on the longer, more complex tunes. These songs embed themselves in your brain, lodge themselves into your soul. The album kicks off with three songs that set the tone and introduce the characters and the story’s setting: “Gone Gone Gone,” sung by Gowan, in which the First Officer reflects on the excitement of lift off and the mission that lies before the crew; “Hundred Million Miles From Home,” sung by Shaw, a pretty standard Styx rocker that shows the Pilot thinking back on the love that he’s leaving behind; and “Trouble at the Big Show,” sung by JY, in which the Engineer basically gripes about his job.

And that’s what makes The Mission really work: Yes, it’s about a crew of astronauts making a journey to Mars, but while every song tells another chapter of that story, the focus is always on the universality of the emotion each character is experiencing. True, most of us will never fly a mission to another planet, but we all recognize thrill, anticipation, loneliness, love and loss, fear, longing, and hope.

Such an example is in “Locomotive,” a rather sophisticated little song sung by Shaw. The Pilot’s estranged father stares at the sky and wonders where his son, nicknamed Locomotive, is and whether he’ll ever come back home. Who can’t connect in some way to a song like that? Following that is “Radio Silence,” which is, musically and thematically speaking, this album’s “Man in the Wilderness.” With the rest of the crew in deep sleep, the Pilot takes a lander and sets out to assess the situation on the surface of Mars; he finds that he’s never felt more alone or isolated in his life. This song captures the classic Styx sound, awash with the band’s signature harmony vocals, and is the closest thing to Grand Illusion that the band achieves on this album.

The highlight of the album, though, is a 10-minute suite of songs in the second half, featuring the most complex arrangements on the album, at the point in the story where the crew is reunited with Locomotive on the surface, as a huge dust storm is moving in and threatens their survival. “Time May Bend,” sung by Larry, has verses in 7/4 that shift surprisingly into a 6/8 chorus. It conveys the importance of the Mission, that people on Mother Earth are depending on them. “Ten Thousand Ways” is little more than an interlude, and sounds more like it’s excerpted from a larger piece and stuck in between two other songs; it’s a quiet rumination on all the things that can go wrong in a crucial situation. It’s one of my favorite musical moments on the album and is definitely an idea that wants more development. “Red Storm” is, without a doubt, the best song on the album. The crew is caught in a massive storm on the surface of Mars, and this rhythmically complex tune — it jumps around from 5/8 to 6/8 with a brief 7/8 instrumental break in the middle — gives the listener the feeling of being buffeted by turbulence, and yet it remains incredibly melodic and very accessible. Drummer Todd Sucherman, who’s featured heavily on this song, released a brilliant video of himself playing this song in his studio:

The album wraps up with a Larry spotlight, a musical depiction of the rocket “Khedive”, a brilliant piano solo that shows what a competent player he is and makes you wish there were more parts like this for him on the album. The conclusion to the tale, “The Outpost”, has the crew of the Khedive heading out to their next stop — an outpost on Pluto’s moon Styx (yes, there really is a moon called Styx) — in an uptempo, celebratory, and almost epic song that looks with hope to the future. In a nice touch, there’s a bridge that is beautifully reminescent of “Suite Madame Blue” from Equinox (1975). It’s a great song, but as a wrap-up to the expansive storyline that has unfolded over the previous 40-or-so minutes, it’s just a little shy of bringing the tale of these brave astronauts to a satisfying close. It should have been expanded a bit, more along the lines of Cyclorama‘s magnificent closer “One With Everything,” genuinely one of the greatest songs in Styx’s entire catalog. Had “The Outpost” been given a treatment similar to that, it would be the perfect ending to an already strong album.

But then, as a weird little coda, there’s one additional song, “Mission to Mars,” that narratively and musically makes almost no sense. It takes place early in the story, a couple of weeks prior to the launch, and has the crew looking forward to what lies ahead. Musically speaking, it’s the weakest moment on the whole album, and makes the album feel incomplete, like there should be something else following it. But honestly, make a playlist of your own and either drop this song or move it to just after “Gone Gone Gone” and I think your listening experience will be greatly improved.

For an album about flying into outer space, The Mission manages to remain remarkably grounded, relatable, and recognizable. It’s to the songwriters’ credit that most of the “sci-fi” is relegated to the liner notes and is not the focus of the songs; at the same time, while the songs stand on their own and can be enjoyed outside of the context of the album’s concept, the storyline definitely enhances the experience. The Mission has quickly become my third favorite Styx album, behind the twin titans that are The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight. For a band that’s been around for 45 years, and is celebrating the 40th anniversary of their first major success, to put out an album this damn good that rivals its greatest musical achievements, is truly remarkable. Well done, Styx.

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