Wheeling Through the Galaxies — Styx’s “The Mission”

At long last, after 14 years, we finally have a new Styx album. As a longtime Styx fan (“Stygians,” is that what Styx fans are called?), this is a pretty exciting time for me, as it marks the first time in my life when I can get excited about a new Styx release, considering “Cyclorama” contained at best one good song (here’s looking at you, One with Everything). What’s more, “The Mission” is a concept album, and while this might be upsetting to former vocalist Dennis DeYoung, who’s prog proclivities put him at odds with his bandmates, “The Mission” is proof that Styx can still do what they did best in the late-70s — condense expansive, progressive concepts down into accessible, digestible chunks, and still make some damn fine records. While “The Mission” never reaches the emotional highs of “Paradise Theater,” the ingenuity of “Pieces of Eight,” or the pomp of “The Grand Illusion,” it’s a worthy entry to Styx’s 45-year catalog and a testament to the talents in this band, both old and new.

Like any concept album should, “The Mission” begins with a track called Overture, which, like everything else on the album, is short and to the point. Relative newcomer Lawrence Gowan (with “relative” meaning “very relative” — he’s been in the band since 1999) doing some great synth work and providing the only vocals on this track. However, as is often the case with this album, the spotlight is stolen by drummer Todd Sucherman, an absolute showman — he wouldn’t fit in in Styx were he not — who joined the band after the sad passing of their founding drummer John Panozzo in the ’90s. Overture swings right into Gone Gone Gone, a jaunty, ridiculously upbeat tune that served as the album’s first single. Guitarists Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young keep the groove moving with the able assistance of Sucherman, and while Gowan has the primary vocal credit on this one, the real joy comes from the full vocal harmonies of the chorus, which are so reminiscent of early Styx it’s almost ridiculous. It’s hard not to think of Rock & Roll Feeling or You Need Love when listening to Shaw, JY, and Gowan in the chorus, though the fun ends nearly as soon as it starts. This ends up being a common thread through “The Mission.” While not necessarily a bad thing, half the songs clock in under 4 minutes, with only a few tracks fully realizing the great ideas put into them. It’s almost as though the band came up with some great hooks, but didn’t know how to expand upon them, and this is evident in both Overture and Gone Gone Gone, as well as several later tracks.

Next is Hundred Million Miles From Home, putting Tommy Shaw behind the microphone for a great turn on a tune that’s reminiscent of some of Shaw’s best slower songs from the ’70s like Lights and Crystal BallMiles is a pretty simple track, but it shows that even with Dennis DeYoung’s notable absence in the band, Tommy Shaw is as much an able lead singer as he was 40 years ago. A weird, talk-boxy guitar solo permeates the latter half of the song, but the catchy chorus and ever-present harmonies make Miles one of the best tracks on the album. Trouble at the Big Show is a bluesy turn for the band, and Sucherman’s bombastic swing drums would take the center stage were it not for the inevitable once-an-album welcome appearance of JY’s turn as main vocalist. He shows he’s still got more than what it takes as a singer, but has a lot more interesting work to do as a bluesy interjection to Shaw and Gowan’s chorus than the anger and grit he used to display during his vocal turns. And, I must say, it works quite well, as brief as it is.

Locomotive is a contemplative, acoustic powerhouse featuring — nay, showcasing — Tommy Shaw, the arguable star of Styx post-DeYoung, and it works as a soft, emotional break from the rockers preceding it. Shaw hearkens back to his earlier, softer work like Boat on the River while still coming up with an interesting take on his usual love song — this one’s from a father to his estranged son in space, and he manages to capture that sense of longing even better than Elton John does on his famous song of a similar subject. The guitar solo near the end is one of the best things Styx has ever made (honestly not sure if it’s Shaw’s or JY’s). Next comes Radio Silence, my current favorite track on the album, and all but an outright sequel to Man in the Wilderness, one of Shaw’s best songs. While promoting this album, the band often compared it to 1978’s masterwork “Pieces of Eight,” and Radio Silence is the song that really cements these comparisons as valid, as few would argue that that album was what confirmed Tommy Shaw as a powerhouse addition to the band. Shaw once again takes center stage alongside JY’s cutting guitar and the band’s tight, crisp harmonies in the chorus that make this an instant Styx classic.

The Greater Good is perhaps the cheesiest song on the album (just look at that title), but it really wouldn’t be Styx without it. A conversation between the two lead vocalists, and, by extension, the two main characters of the album’s story, takes center stage here, and Gowan gets to display a little bit more reservation than he’s previously shown. This coupled with his flamboyance on previous tracks, allows him to firmly cover the gap left by Dennis DeYoung once and for all. Shaw and Gowan both drip emotion in this song’s verses, and the subdued piano and drum parts alongside the fantastic guitar solo at the bridge keep this one from getting too silly despite its rather silly chorus and message. Time May Bend puts Gowan back in the driver’s seat for a brief, excellent resurgence of most of the themes from the overture. There’s not much to the verses, but the swinging, sweeping chorus is some of Gowan’s best vocal work on the album. It’s followed by the even briefer Ten Thousand Ways, a sort of extension of Time May Bend with some synth ambiance, subtle piano, and vocal harmonies that serve as a lead-in to Red Storm.

Red Storm is probably the second-best track on the album, and shows Styx at perhaps the proggiest they’ve been since the ’70s, and it’s a triumphant return to form for them. Everyone is at their best instrumentally here, with certain parts being reminiscent of Aku-Aku, and Shaw’s vocals over top, while sometimes out of place, give more credence to the album’s otherwise fairly subtle story, and the constantly present piano and steel guitar give the song an exotic, other-worldly feel fitting to a song about, well, Mars. Post-fantastic guitar solo, Gowan and Shaw give some more of the excellent harmonies we’ve become accustomed to, and the closing synth through the fade leading to some light piano noodling textures the piece with mystery. Khedive is pretty much an excuse for Gowan to show off his piano virtuosity, and it gets the job done with gusto.

The Outpost pairs a suitably computerized-sounding verse with a rollicking, catchy chorus, and the way the two work together makes this track somewhat reminiscent of a Queen song. Gowan’s vocal work is, once again, on point, and JY’s thick-sounding guitar work through the chorus makes The Outpost’s hook one of the most memorable of the album. Additionally, Sucherman’s drumming is, once again, superb. The album closer Mission to Mars is a simple, ELO-esque track featuring all of the vocalists in those trademark tight harmonies of some fun, sometimes goofy lyrics documenting the story at large. While not a particularly cerebral song, it’s a good time, and works well as the ending to the album.

While “The Mission” certainly isn’t the most ambitious or interesting Styx album, it displays a lot of musicality and ultimately serves up a welcome return to form for the veteran rockers, and shows that life after DeYoung truly is possible. Relative newcomers Lawrence Gowan and Todd Sucherman earn their stripes and show they can more than match the pomp and flamboyance of their bandmates and tell a pretty good story with their first concept album since the oft-maligned “Kilroy was Here”. While many of the tracks feel truncated or not fully-realized, there’s enough here to make a full album’s worth of really solid pseudo-prog, with Red Storm serving as the possible exception to this moniker. Like some of the best concept albums (“Clockwork Angels,” anyone?) the concept is subtle and somewhat buried, which means that the songs work as well on their own as they do as a cohesive unit. “The Mission” demonstrates that these guys aren’t done yet, and we’re the better for it.