The music of Styx has often been otherworldly, situated in a comfortable place between prog rock and arena rock, with plenty of chart makers along the way since their 1972 debut. But with their new album, The Mission, they literally want to take listeners on a journey to other planets and astronomical systems.
The record — the band’s first studio effort in 14 years — has sold very well, with hardcore fans snapping it up. A greater challenge for Styx — and any classic rock act today putting new music — is reaching the casual fan who won’t hear it on the radio. Or who might be more inspired to secure a copy of Greatest Hits than The Mission.
“We’re pretty thrilled with it. But it’s almost like having a child. How are we going to raise it? Let’s just have it and find out!” Tommy Shaw laughs. “But we didn’t have much choice. This music sort of just visited itself upon us, like a radio going off in your head. And it all started with one little guitar idea that’s on the fade at the end of the album. And I sent it to Will [Evankovich], my songwriting partner. And I said if we’re going to go out there, let’s go way out there.”
In a nutshell, the concept behind The Mission is this: It’s the year 2033 and a six-person crew of the spaceship Khedive are on their way to one of Pluto’s moons, called – appropriately enough – Styx, to establish an outpost for human migration. On the dangerous journey, they make a pit stop on Mars and get caught up in a life-threatening storm. Social media watchers and the crew’s loved ones back on Earth follow every development.
In real life, Pluto’s moon “Styx” was actually discovered and named by the International Astronomical Union in 2012. The album’s tracks are sung from the perspective of three different characters: The Pilot (Shaw), The First Officer (Lawrence Gowan, singer/keyboardist since 1999) and The Engineer (founding guitarist James Young). The plot line came from Shaw and Evankovich.
Shaw says that they’ll play a handful of tracks from The Mission – along with classics sung/written by him (“Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man,” “Fooling Yourself,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Crystal Ball”) and a slew of others in the summer “United We Rock” tour. The package has them sharing the stage with friends and previous tour mates REO Speedwagon and former Eagle Don Felder.
The difference between these “summer shed” shows and regular headlining Styx shows, according to Shaw, basically comes down to trimming their stage time and not digging as deep into their catalogs.
“Between standing and dancing and having some adult beverage and waiting in between acts in the heat, it’s a lot to ask people to stay too long. And we know their limits," he says. "I know that people want to hear the songs that are connected with their past, but we love this new album so much, we’re taking that risk and playing those, and they do fit in with everything else. So far, no one’s getting up and leaving for the bathroom!”
As for his own classic songs – many of which could feasibly be about the same protagonist at different stages of his life – Shaw says he writes about what he knows. “As you’re going through life, you’re usually staring down some sort of question, like ‘How am I gonna get through this’ or ‘What is this all about’ or ‘Why is this going on?’ And answering those questions forces you to figure out who you are and where you are going.”
The rest of the current lineup on disc and stage includes Todd Sucherman (drummer since 1995), Ricky Phillips (bassist since 2003) and founding bassist Chuck Panozzo, who makes featured concert appearances as often as his health will allow. Much of the material sounds very much like classic Styx, with “Gone, Gone, Gone,” “Hundred Million Miles from Home,” “Radio Silence” and “The Red Storm” standing out.
Though Gowan has been with the group nearly two decades, the legacy of Dennis DeYoung still hangs over proceedings. As those who’ve seen the VH-1 "Behind the Music" episode know, DeYoung developed a medical condition that made him sensitive to light, and asked Shaw and Young to postpone an upcoming tour. They declined, but the bond between the three was already fissuring over musical control and direction. DeYoung was ejected, but maintains an active solo career, his concert set lists understandably dominant on Styx music.
The DeYoung question comes up often enough that James Young addresses it in the band’s current press materials. He praises DeYoung’s musical contributions and knack for writing hit songs, but adds, “He just didn’t want to be part of a democracy. We truly wish him well. We did some incredible work together, but there’s no basis for us to work together again.” For his part, DeYoung has always been open to coming back to Styx in some form, and when Rocks Off spoke with DeYoung in 2015, he was working on his autobiography.
“We went through an awful lot together and had the reunion in 1996. We tried to put it back together, but it didn't work, and it resulted in us being taken to federal court,” Shaw himself reflects. “We spent a year before we were victorious, and when something like that happens, you don’t want to go back,” he says. “We still have a relationship with Dennis because of the songs and the publishing, but it’s all through a third party.” The lawsuit Shaw refers to was filed by DeYoung, aimed at preventing the current group from using the name Styx.
There’s another question out there about the legacy of Styx, and that’s inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall has done a better job in recent years inducting long-overdue classic rock acts (Deep Purple, Yes, Journey, Chicago, Electric Light Orchestra), but there are still some head-scratching exclusions. The top three slots held by The Doobie Brothers, Peter Frampton, and Styx.
For Shaw – who has attended a couple of ceremonies as an observer and came away unimpressed – he says he has a “lot of opinions” on it. Until recently, he said he wanted to be inducted after he dropped dead – so he wouldn’t have to attend the ceremony. But that thinking has evolved.
“Now, it seems like there is more input from fans. I think the timing is probably right for Styx to be in, but I don’t have a vote. But if it happens, I’ll go, I’ll be gracious, we’ll play a few songs, and then we’ll go back to what we do,” he says.
Shaw and Young are the only full show players in the classic five (drummer John Panozzo, Chuck’s brother, died in 1996 at the age of 47 from the ravages of alcoholism). So the pair have an extra-close relationship.
“I’ve grown up with JY; we have a life story together that precedes the current band. He’s like my big brother. And when Chuck is onstage during ‘Come Sail Away,’ we create a triangle around Todd. And I just look at the two of them and think, ‘God, we’ve been through so much…and we’re still here!’”
For a band that has had enough hits to fill more than one CD, “Come Sail Away” has become its anthem, it’s calling card over the years and a surefire audience sing along. Shaw says he always knew it would be a game changer for the group.
“It was a nice song when Dennis brought it in, the verses and the chorus. But then when we arranged it and embraced it as a band, it was JY who suggested that it’s not a sailing ship, but actually a spaceship taking people away. And we just blew it up. And that beautiful little song just exploded. That song became this epic thing with different meanings and that great synth solo. It was the most cinematic thing we’ve done.”
Which brings us back to that song’s exploration of outer space and The Mission. The band has had friendly relations with NASA over the years, and Shaw says there is likely to be some project collaboration, with Styx music and images from space. He also consulted some people there while writing the story and lyrics for The Mission.
A few years ago, the band was invited by the government agency to Washington, D.C. to watch images being beamed back by the New Horizons spacecraft as it passed the planet Pluto (err…former planet Pluto) and its Styx moon.
“Music will take you to some awesome places,” he sums up. “But we never imagined it would take us somewhere like that!”
The “United We Rock Tour” with Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Don Felder is July 29, 7 p.m., at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive. $27.50-$99.50. www.woodlandscenter.org or 281-364-3024.
For more on Styx, visit www.styxworld.com
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