HISTORY WITH BILLY BOB’S:
In January of 2007, “Come Sail Away” rockers Styx performed at the club for one of their 8 shows at the World’s Largest Honky Tonk. A guitar signed by the band hangs in the Guitar Bar today.
Harmony. Chemistry. Balance. Grit. Dexterity. Determination. Solidarity. Terms that describe a Super Bowl champion? Well, almost. These are words that define the core essence of STYX, the multimegamillion-selling rock band that has forged an indelible legacy both on record and onstage.
Never known for resting on their laurels, STYX has now added a triumphant new chapter to their never-ending story of success: namely, The Mission, the band’s sonically sweet 16th studio album and most ambitious, most challenging, and most rewarding release to date.
“The planets truly aligned for The Mission, and I couldn’t be prouder,” says STYX 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.
The band’s acclaimed pedigree most definitely infused the recording sessions for The Mission with an even deeper-rooted sense of purpose and duty, something that can be directly attributed to the six men comprising STYX having invested themselves in rocking the Paradise together with audiences far and wide by entering their second decade of averaging over 100 shows a year, and each one of them is committed to making the next show better than the last. “Every night, we go on that magic carpet ride together,” observes original bassist Chuck Panozzo, who joins the band on tour as often as he can. “The thing I always like the most is the immediate response we get when playing live,” notes JY Young, an integral force of nature in the band since its 1972 inception and the one who helped steer the band to landing its first recording contract with Wooden Nickel Records.
“And this is as good a live band as there is,” continues JY, who’s also known far and wide as The Godfather of STYX. “Someone once told me, ‘I’ve seen Paul McCartney, I’ve seen the Rolling Stones, I’ve seen U2, I’ve seen the Police. But my favorite show last year was STYX.’ I like to say we’re the best-kept secret — but perhaps we’re not anymore.” Adds the perennial wunderkind Tommy Shaw, “There are so many portals to reach your musical soul, and our live show is like a religious experience where people come to commune and testify. We have a pretty sophisticated audience, and we really respect that. We didn’t use to have people who would come see every show, but now they’re coming back again and again for more. And we owe it to our fans to continually rehearse, prepare, and improve.”
The space saga that is the crux of the music that makes up The Mission is just the kind of envelope-pushing creative endeavor Shaw refers to above. The storyline was forged 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. And to have this album come out 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/onstage shaman. “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.”
Gowan also looks forward to how the band will develop The Mission in the live arena. “Something feels fresh with these guys every time I walk out on stage with them,” he admits. “It’s not lost on anyone that we’re pretty fortunate to be doing this. I look across the stage and I’m as entertained as much as the audience is as to how strong the band is. There’s not the slightest sliver of doubt that we’re all going to leave everything we can onstage every night.”
Agrees drummer and percussive dynamo Todd Sucherman, “This is a band that never has a bad show. I think our level of professionalism, musicianship, and spirit carries that across every night. The fact that we have so much fun when we’re playing — that’s very contagious. That’s a miraculous feat in and of itself. We never walk off the stage thinking, ‘What happened?’”
Sucherman also feels that, with The Mission, 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.”
Ricky Phillips, bassist, background vocalist, and the backbone of the backline, 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.”
Being in tune with the degree STYX is ready transfers to the live stage as well. “There’s a lot going on up there. It’s a multilayered, multilevel show with a number of elements going on beyond the music itself,” Phillips observes. “I find a symmetry with the give and take and all of the different emotions we touch upon. As many people as I’ve had the privilege to play with, I’ve never had the pleasure of being part of a situation like this one.” And that’s the crux of the unique rock and roll feeling STYX shares with its fans show in and show out.
January 18th, 2003