Styx, ‘The Mission’ Roundtable Review: Our Writers Tackle Four Big Questions
Styx is back with The Mission, their first studio album in over a decade. Rather than play it safe, the group put together a concept album about mankind's first journey to Mars. Did they stick the landing, or burn up in the red planet's atmosphere? The nerdy scientists at UCR mission control weigh in below:
OK, be honest. When you first heard Styx was making a concept album about a mission to Mars, you thought..
Nick DeRiso: “I’m Kilroy. Kilroy. KILROY.” It wasn’t that Styx couldn’t manage such a thing, it was just that their last attempt at an album-length theme had gone so spectacularly off-course. The previous Paradise Theatre hasn't aged all that well in places, either. But Tommy Shaw promised an emblematic project, specifically referencing Pieces of Eight – Styx’s best album. And they delivered.
Matt Wardlaw: "Oh, please don't let this be corny." And I told Tommy that had been my first thought prior to actually listening to it. He had a good reaction, telling me, "Honestly, you don’t need to read any of that stuff. There should be no reading required in rock and roll. Just sit down and enjoy the music." For anybody who hasn't heard the album yet, that's good advice -- you don't need to be up on the story. Just dive on in.
Rob Smith: … Is Dennis DeYoung back in the band? I thought they were done with the concept album thing.
Matthew Wilkening: Of course, there was an initial bit of "oh noooo..." disbelief, as thoughts of three-minute long between-songs skits filled with tacky mission control transmissions raced through the mind. But after remembering things such as how well the band incorporated Lawrence Gowan into their lineup, and how seriously Tommy Shaw took his 2011 solo bluegrass album The Great Divide, that cynicism was quickly replaced by curiosity. Which, as you'll see, was rewarded.
But now that you’ve heard The Mission, what’s your verdict?
DeRiso: For all of its obvious pretensions – including, but not limited to, a six-person assignment to (yep) deep space, on the (yep) maiden voyage of an interplanetary vessel called Khedrive, after (yep) our world risks uninhabitability in the year 2033, and including a first song titled (yep) "Overture" – The Mission is a focused, punchy affair. Not just because it boasts a vinyl-era attention to detail at just over 40 minutes, but also because of the way the band's focus has re-oriented toward rock music in the post-Dennis DeYoung era. James "JY" Young almost stomps a hole in the stage under his wah-wah on "Trouble at the Big Show," while Styx nearly out-Deep Purples Deep Purple on "Gone Gone Gone." Elsewhere, "Locomotive" provides a smart moment of introspection, while "Red Storm" shows off a proggy side too often obscured by the likes of "Babe" and "Don't Let It End." At the same time, Gowan makes his presence known on "The Greater Good" and the instrumental opening cut. I'm guessing the larger goal here was both a return to (rock) form, and to establish their next-era credentials as something more than a touring act. Mission accomplished, Styx.
Wardlaw: I was a big fan of Cyclorama, their last proper studio album, which was released in 2003. I always hoped that they might make another album as good as that one. For a lot of years, it didn't seem like that was going to happen. So I was really, really happy when news of this album emerged and absolutely blown away when I listened to it. It feels very similar to how I felt when I got my hands on the new Kansas album [The Prelude Implicit] last year and a few years before that, the Fly From Here album from Yes. In both instances, those bands made albums that sounded like something that they might have put out in their classic era -- and probably caught a lot of folks, who might not have thought they had another album like that in them, by surprise. What's interesting about this record is that Styx stated their intentions up front when they put out the announcement -- that they had gone in to make an album that would sound like classic Styx. As we all know, when a band does that, it can feel awfully awkward and forced. That's not how this Styx record feels at all. No matter what their intentions might have been, these are great Styx songs, plain and simple and it's really cool to hear that, 45 years after they released their first album. As soon as I listened to this record for the first time, I immediately went on their website the next day and ordered vinyl. It's got that kind of old-school vibe.
Wilkening: This is one of the most pleasant classic rock surprises of the past decade. "Concept album" can often be code for an album that's too long and struggles too hard to fit all the lyrics into some lame b-movie science fiction plot, but The Mission is a lean, mean 42 minute tour through the band's many strengths. It's also expertly sequenced, with the ends and beginnings of each song matching up perfectly and helping to both create and shift moods and advance the story.
Smith: There's no reason this should work. None whatsoever. But it does. Minus the lyrical references to Mars, this sounds like a 1977 or 1978 Styx record—instrumentally, vocally, texturally. "Hundred Million Miles" is a great example; rejigger the third line of the chorus, and this could be something left off Pieces of Eight for some reason. After Cyclorama, I thought they were done creatively—just another classic rock band playing the festival circuit. Who'da thunk that a concept record about a Mars mission would bring something cool out of them again?
Which The Mission song would you play first for a skeptical old-school Styx fan? Which one do you think has the best chance to earn a permanent spot in their set lists?
DeRiso: “Gone Gone Gone” isn’t the best song on The Mission, but it frames both the album theme and Styx’s guitar-centered, old-school focus – a treat for any die-in-the-wool Wooden Nickel-era fan. Meanwhile, Tommy Shaw's boldly episodic, harmony-lifting “Locomotive” begins with a thrilling call back to "Boat on the River" from 1979’s Cornerstone.
Wardlaw: I'd probably go with either "Time May Bend" or "The Red Storm." Both of those have cool prog moments scattered throughout that will really connect with old school fans. Tommy has noted that "Time May Bend" has a direct musical tip of the hat to the Equinox album and there are bits of "The Red Storm" that kind of remind me of "Crystal Ball," among other things. Honorable mention to "Locomotive" which combines the futuristic vibe with the feeling of a classic "road song." I can see "Radio Silence" becoming a fan favorite. Both "Hundred Million Miles" and "Gone Gone Gone" are classic Styx rockers with the latter being quick and dirty, clocking in at just a bit over two minutes, making it an easy one to stick into the set list.
Smith: Either "Hundred Million Miles" or "The Greater Good."
Wilkening: I'm sure I'm in the minority, but "Gone Gone Gone" is just a little too safe / by the numbers to me - it doesn't fully live up to the big hooks, melodies and textures that follow later on the album. I'd cue up "Hundred Million Miles" and then I'd be really surprised if they turned it off anytime in the next five or six songs.
Bonus question: What’s the greatest Styx song of all time, and why?
DeRiso: “Lorelei,” Styx’s second Top 40 hit. Though co-written with J.Y. for 1975’s Equinox, this song is, from its thunderstruck romanticism to its majestic anthemic conclusion, just quintessentially Dennis DeYoung — not to mention one of the soaring high points of the band’s pre-Shaw era. If there’s a mild complaint to be made about The Mission, it's that they struggle to match this kind of outsized pomp without DeYoung. Maybe because it nearly became all pomp at the end. But still.
Wardlaw: The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight live DVD really brought me back around to a lot of those tunes, but in this case, I've got to go with "Shooz" off the Crystal Ball record. Such a hard rockin' Styx jam and one that I wish they'd put in the set list!
Wilkening: It would be near-impossible not to say "Renegade" if it was playing nearby, but the answer's gotta be "Come Sail Away," one of the best "sing along in the car" songs ever.
Smith: "Come Sail Away." It's everything that is good and Styxian in one package—the ballad and bombast, the spritely piano and the humongo-'70s stadium-rattling gee-tar, the Dennis and the Tommy and the JY. Everything. Bonus points for the fact it's a mind-blower the first time you listen to it on headphones.
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