Styx is on a musical “Mission”

Published on September 11th, 2017

 

By Jim Dail

Over the years in music, there have been numerous so-called concept albums, often met with derision from some fans and critics. Make no mistake though, for Styx and their new album “The Mission,” this a concept album that has many fans thinking it might be one of the best album they have ever made.

“You see these social media things where people talk about their top five Styx albums and this one is in the top, so that’s a pretty good sign,” said keyboardist and vocalist Lawrence Gowan. “We love that the younger people have discovered the band and are championing this era.”

Of course, Styx is legendary with such classics as “The Grand Illusion,” “Renegade” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “Come Sail Away” and “Babe.” The band will perform Friday at Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage and then at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona on Saturday night.

“Yeah, this record is definitely a full-load concept record,” he laughed. “It is the unapologetic duty of any band from the progressive rock era to have a concept album!”

Of course, albums like “The Grand Illusion,” “Paradise Theater” and “Kilroy was Here” have long been considered at least partial theme records.

“The new record really emerged a little bit at a time and then it coagulated into comprising a theme and a story line as the plot thickened,” he said. “Tommy had this song two years ago when we were at Catalina and he came in and said it was called ‘Mission to Mars.’ I thought it was captivating and it had a charm to it, so I said ‘Let’s work that up in sound check.’”

As Gowan points out, the band tries a lot of things out in sound check or even in the dressing rooms before shows.

“It’s amazing how much new music the band has that has never been heard,” he said. “We’d be playing all kinds of things because we didn’t have time to make a record yet.”

Shaw went home and did his own demo for the song but returned with more.

“He came back with another piece called Locomotive and Will Evankovich, who had a history with him from the Shaw-Blade projects, heard the two songs side-by-side and thought there was a connection,” he said. “He figured that maybe we could put together a group of songs in a mini-suite like a NASA mission or something.”

Meantime, James Young was noodling around on the guitar during warm ups.

“He kept playing the riff that opens ‘Gone. Gone. Gone,’ and I told him we have to make a song out of that,” he said. “And I was doing a piano piece called ‘Khedive’ that I would use to lead into ‘Pieces of Eight.’”

The name also happened to be the name of the ship Gowan’s dad had been on in World War II.

“So, these things and themes began to emerge,” he said.

He gives Evankovich credit for helping shape the record.

“He assumed the role of the producer because he was a writer and producer and became a member of the band but also an outsider during the recording,” he said. “That’s who you need as a producer. He had that cold eye to be able to discern what is in and what is out and not be beholden to any one person in the band. So, as it started to go further down the road, he and Tommy began to sculpt the story.”

The album continued to come together.

“I had some of the verse going on ‘The Greater Good,’ and then came up with the chorus,” he said. “With ‘Radio Silence’ we had the idea that there’s a man cut off from communication, so Tommy, Will and I spent a week crafting that song.”

Then Pluto came along.

“It was one of those things that life hands to you and right in the middle of all this we were invited by NASA to witness the arrival of an unmanned space ship, The New Horizon, as it arrived at Pluto and we were in the room with all these NASA people who were jumping up and down like they won the Super Bowl,” he said. “It was an amazing moment. They had discovered a fifth moon orbiting Pluto and they told us they had named it Styx. That’s why we were invited!”

Of course, that became another piece of the puzzle.

“I said that has to work its way into this song somehow and that’s where Outpost came from,” he said. “The song that began it all, ‘Mission to Mars,’ wound up being the ending to the record. The concept came together in an organic way. It was kind of like gathering wool and it developed its own trajectory.”

One key that the band had in mind though was that the songs could stand alone and also have other meanings.

“I don’t think it’s heavy handed,” he said. “You can pick the songs and have different ideas. For example,  it is amazing how ‘Radio Days’ from my camera angle can mean one thing to me but something else to another listener. As Tommy says, ‘There is no reading required!’”

The test is in the listening.

“Tommy took it home and said this is the closest feeling he has heard us do since ‘Grand Illusion,’ he said. I usually don’t listen to a record for a year or so but this one I just really liked. To have that happen is just a great invigorating moment.”

It’s also a bit of nostalgia.

“We figured that if it’s going to sit next to those records from the ‘70s, then we should make it like we are living in 1979,” he said. “So we shut off all the modern electronics and recorded to tape with machines with big knobs and recorded it in a studio in Nashville. The human factor is not lost.”

The other thing that is constant is how the band feels in relation to the stage.

“There’s a kinetic energy and no matter how bad things are going during the day, we walk of the stage happy and in a good place,” he said. “I think the audience does too.”

IF YOU GO

When: 9 p.m. Friday, September 15; Pomona 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 16

Where: Agua Caliente Casino, 32-250 Bob Hope Drive Rancho Mirage; Pomona – Los Angeles County Fairgrounds

Admission: $55-$85; Pomona $45-$125

Information: https://www.hotwatercasino.com/styx; Pomona http://styxworld.com/tour

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