The Mission

Styx

It’s been nearly a decade and a half since we had an all-new studio album from Styx. The Mission, an honest-to-goodness ‘concept’ album, is their sixteenth. Recorded over a two-year period at various studios — Styx is a hard working live band after all, and it took time to get into studios and complete a long-form work — original Styx members guitarist and vocalist James “JY” Young and bassist Chuck Panozzo are on board here, as are guitarist and vocalist Tommy Shaw (who co-wrote the storyline with his longtime collaborator Will Evankovich), keyboardist and vocalist Lawrence Gowan, drummer Todd Sucherman and bassist Ricky Phillips.

The story involves an imagined first-manned mission to Mars, undertaken in the year 2033 with the spaceship Khedive leading the way. We as much learn about the ship’s crew members across these 14 songs as we do the Global Space Exploration Program, which the nuclear-powered interplanetary Khedive is part of. “Overture” begins the journey with its heavy key and guitar riffing, and Todd Sucherman blasting through the grandiosity with his blistering drums rolls. We even get a Mr. Roboto-like voice near the tune’s end, calling all to join in “the future of Mother Earth.”

“Gone Gone Gone” follows, a heavy rockin, organ-thrumming tune, showcasing one of Styx’s big strengths — their amazing harmonies. Unfortunately, this is a prime example of the band attempting to kill two-birds-with-one lyric, telling the story of the Khedive as well as trying to present some sort of obvious concert opening number. It’s loaded with a ‘welcome to the show’ kind of sensibility.

“Trouble at the Big Show” features more harmonies on the chorus, plus JY’s dirty lead playing and low sardonic vocal carrying the verses. Like many of the tunes here, the Styx boys are in and out real quick with this one. They know enough never to let a tune stay too long where it overstays its welcome. “Locomotive” is a Tommy Shaw acoustic guitar-based ballad that pops along with lead bass and Sucherman’s tight snare delivery. This is the first great song on The Mission. The lyric works on all levels and the band keeps the layering of instruments and vocals well-studied to create a thick tapestry.

Songs like “Radio Silence” — by its very title you can tell what it’s about, given the context here — features wailing guitars and those harmony vocals. “Ten Thousand Ways to Be Wrong” is built with strings and layered vocals, functioning as an intro to “The Red Storm,” with its fast acoustic picking, Sucherman’s best maneuvering and piano plucking. Shaw masterfully tells the tale on this one where the lyric does indeed serve both masters. This is Styx at their best, reminding one of the band’s best Grand Illusion moments.

Gowan gets a piano keys workout (with strings backing) on the classically inspired “Khedive,” while “The Outpost” is another multi-layered vocal rocker (Sucherman really is the linchpin to making Styx rock these days) and “Mission To Mars” ends the whole concoction. This is an all-high rock performance from a classic American rock band who really have never sounded better. The concept here hinders Styx a little too leadenly, but for sheer musicality and the mix of high harmonies (and the fact that we haven’t heard something new from this band for so long), The Mission is a strong, solid effort.

~ Ralph Greco. Jr.

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