“We can do this.” This was the mantra undertaken by Styx as the band spent almost 2 years on and off behind closed doors working on the music that ultimately became known as The Mission, its sonically sweet 16th studio album and most ambitious, most challenging, and most rewarding release to date.
Today, on June 16, 2017, The Mission (Alpha Dog 2T/UMe) is officially launched on HDtracks in glorious hi-res 88/24 (as well as on 180-gram vinyl and other format options, if you so choose). I’ve been listening to the album semi-clandestinely since February, as I was asked (and honored) to write the album’s liner notes, and I can personally vouch for the hi-res option as being your best listening bet. The Mission is a fully analog recording that sounds better and better every time you listen to it in hi-res.
“The planets truly aligned for The Mission, and I couldn’t be prouder,” says vocalist/guitarist Tommy Shaw, who co-wrote the album’s storyline with longtime collaborator Will Evankovich (Shaw Blades, The Guess Who). Continues Shaw, “It’s our boldest, most emblematic album since Pieces of Eight.” Adds Styx co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, “This album is an incredible artistic expression that resonates with the best parts of our past, but is intended for modern-day consumption. I’m very excited about it.”
Indeed, The Mission is an aurally adventurous 43-minute thrill ride that chronicles the trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumphs of the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2033. From the hopeful drive of the lead single “Gone Gone Gone” to the pivotal harmonic convergence of “Radio Silence” to the stargazing machinations of “Locomotive” to the rough-riding blaze of glory that permeates the hard-charging “Red Storm” to the elegiac optimism of the closing track “Mission to Mars,” The Mission succeeds in delivering the greater good from a band that continues to fire on all cylinders, 45 years after signing its first recording contract.
In fact, The Mission displays the best aspects of the ongoing in-harmony musical intersection of the six-man Styx team: the aforementioned guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw, co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young, keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, original bassist Chuck Panozzo, drummer/percussionist Todd Sucherman, and bassist/vocalist Ricky Phillips. The band’s acclaimed pedigree most definitely infused the recording sessions for The Mission with an even deeper-rooted sense of purpose and duty. “The Mission is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to be a part of something unique and special that’s happening in real time right in front of you,” believes Evankovich, who also produced the album that was recorded primarily at Blackbird Studios, The Shop, and 6 Studio Amontillado in Nashville. “It is one of those albums that musically and cosmically showed you the next right thing to do every step of the way. I will forever be grateful and proud of what we did to create this body of art.”
Indeed, the extra in-studio elbow grease applied by Shaw, Evankovich, and the entire band on the production side of things clearly paid off with the end results. “Working on The Mission was so fun and so easy,” marvels Jim Scott (Wilco, Tom Petty, Dixie Chicks), the man who mixed the album at his own Plyrz Studio in Nashville. “Styx is so experienced, and so bold. My job was to balance it all and try to enhance and emphasize the dynamics of the actual songs, and the transitions between them. In other words, I concentrated on the obvious, and also made the loud things loud! It was a very pure and simple mostly analog recording, and I mixed it the same way — no samples, and no shenanigans. Each time I listened back to it, I found each song could have other meanings and images separate from the overall space saga.”
The space saga Scott refers to is the crux of the music that makes up The Mission. The storyline was created to reflect the viewpoint of the six-person crew enlisted for the maiden voyage of Khedive, the first entry in a new fleet of nuclear-powered interplanetary spacecraft underwritten by the Global Space Exploration Program (or GSEP, for short). The Khedive team consists of The Pilot, a fully hands-on, seat-of-the-pants born leader; a First Officer who serves as the team’s big-brother figure; an Engineer who is skeptical of every phase of the mission but remains confident in his own abilities to make the best of any technical situation; and a Top-Shelf Trio of science, astrophysics, and survivalist experts.
An invigorating combination of freedom and trust is what ultimately led Shaw down The Mission’s highly focused songwriting path. “It’s been so long since we made a Styx album like the ones we did before, because so much has changed,” Shaw acknowledges. “We are rough-edged and badass when we’re out on the road, and we know it. But, to a man, while we were making this record, everyone got very real and dug down deep in unfamiliar territory, and gave the performances you hear. Anything we can do to make the songs better — that’s what we do. It was all hands on deck, and it’s such a cool thing after all these years to still have that together. To have this album come out now, when the brotherhood of the band has never been stronger, well — it’s the sweet dream we never imagined. The truth is, it is a dream fulfilled.”
The collective strengths of The Mission are not lost on JY. “Tommy likes to say, ‘From a tiny acorn a giant oak doth grow,’” Young recites. “And my genetic material is there too, so I helped birth this child, and if it turns out to be the most successful thing we’ve done — well, that’s why we make Styx records. It shows how we work as a team. The skill level of the band has allowed us to go do things we just couldn’t have otherwise in the past. And that’s not a knock on Mr. John Panozzo or Mr. John Curulewski at all [the two original Styx bandmembers who have passed away]. As I’ve said before, I’ve surrounded myself with home-run hitters after the people we’ve lost. I really do love this album, and what we’ve done on it. It’s a great collaboration.”
Gowan loves how The Mission reflects the band’s core identity. “The album feels simultaneously comfortable and new,” observes the keyboardist/vocalist. “It’s both entertaining and charming, and a natural progression of our sound. There’s a tip of the hat to all the great music of that era, which we made sure to highlight by my utilizing all those vintage Oberheim synthesizer sounds. That DNA, quite frankly, is what’s in all those great, classic Styx albums anyway, and I can see all kinds of cross-references that appear on this album. I feel great about it. It’s also been particularly intriguing to hear Tommy mutter a couple of times, ‘This feels like The Grand Illusion.’ I take that as being quite the positive response.”
Sucherman feels the band has struck the right balance for the here and now. “This record has so much great ear candy on it from start to finish,” the drummer notes. “And I think the ebb and flow of it was tailored just right, too. The spirit of how well we all work together is captured here — that overall sense of fun mixed in with the light and shade of the material itself. Plus, the fact that the storyline is rooted in some sort of scientific truth, based on our relationship with the New Horizons team [the NASA scientists who named Pluto’s smallest moon after Styx in 2015], adds a certain warmth and gravitas to it. That just lends even more depth to the space story at hand.”
Phillips is impressed with how harmoniously the album came together. “I’ve done a lot of sessions over the years and played on songs and albums that have had big productions and gone all the way to No. 1, but The Mission was by far the easiest, most seamless recording project I’ve ever been a part of,” the bassist admits. “Everyone was so prepared. That’s the beauty of us having worked together over all these years, and being out there every night onstage and seeing each other more than we see our families. That’s all paid off, because everybody in Styx knows what works in this unit. In fact, I don’t remember us having a single struggle over any of the material at all.”
Let the final assessment of The Mission go to original Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo, who added his signature low-end tones to “Hundred Million Miles” and is the man both Shaw and Young rightly describe as the “connection to source.” Panozzo has a knack of always being able to find a way to bring the best of Styx past, present, and future all together in one place, as he concludes: “The Mission is a sincere and honest representation of how Styx built upon where we were in the 20th century in order to go somewhere new in the 21st century.” And that’s really the gist of The Mission, Styx’s bold sonic voyage into an exciting new frontier with the goal of discovering how the universe’s mysteries unfold — and then creating the perfect soundtrack to accompany it. Light it up, let’s get this show on the road!