Sound — 9
To me, it's always seemed a shame that fans will most likely only remember Styx for songs like "Come Sail Away", "Mr. Roboto" and "Too Much Time On My Hands". Aside from their major hits, in their heyday, Styx were a band with some serious progressive rock credibility, among the likes of Kansas, Rush and pre-Steve Perry Journey, being a direct counterpart to the UK prog scene of the time with larger pop appeal and heavier guitar playing. With albums like "The Grand Illusion", "Crystal Ball" and "Pieces of Eight" (as well as peripheral albums to that era, "Equinox", "Cornerstone" and "Paradise Theater"), the band established that they have some serious chops as well as brilliant songwriting. However, since their initial 1984 breakup and subsequent reunions, the band has been putting out material of relatively mixed quality, featuring the all-too-typical of the time power ballads and a sort of phoned-in attempt to cash in on nostalgia. Not helping matters much was vocalist/keyboardist Dennis DeYoung's departure, and though his replacement, Lawrence Gowan, is an incredible musician with a solid career of his own, the band seemed to become, at this point, a nostalgia act, playing their hits on tour rather than work on anything new (their most recent album of all-new material was "Cyclorama" in 2003, and the band released a collection of cover songs, "Big Bang Theory" in 2005).
This would change earlier this year when the band announced the release of their first new album in 14 years, a concept album about a mission to Mars. To be honest, given how quickly "Cyclorama" sank from the radar, it's not hard to see why expectations weren't really high. And to be honest, first single "Gone Gone Gone" was good classic rock fare, but felt more like a brief teaser rather than a full-on experience. But when you couple it with the album's opening "Overture", it suddenly takes on a bit of a prog-rock urgency, featuring the trademark Styx vocal harmonies, and as you cycle through the tracks on the album, the connection to the band's 70s legacy only deepens. From the funky tone of "Hundred Million Miles from Home" to the psychedelic wah-infused "Trouble at the Big Show", to moody balladry a la "Space Oddity" in "Locomotive" to full on prog-rock on "Time May Bend" and "Red Storm", the album is chock full of references to the band's past. At times, on tracks like "Radio Silence" and "The Greater Good", the band almost seems to nod to the bands that have imitated the 70s US prog scene style such as Spock's Beard and Transatlantic with vocal harmonies that would do Neal Morse proud.
The instrumental and vocal performances on this album are astounding, with much of the music providing a backdrop for the album's story of a Mars mission in the year 2033, and as such with most concept albums of this type, there isn't a lot of overplaying, but there are plenty of great solos, and the proggier tracks on the album, "Time May Bend" and "Red Storm" have some very wonderful guitar playing from Tommy Shaw and James Young, and the latter has a great keyboard solo from Gowan. Vocally, Shaw, Young and Gowan share vocal duties throughout the album, and each performs quite well, even if some of the voices have aged a bit. Drummer Todd Sucherman gets ample time to stretch out on the album, and his playing on "Red Storm" is great. Ricky Phillips handles the low-end well on bass throughout the album (save for an apperance from original bassist Chuck Panozzo on "Hundred Million Miles from Home").
The album's not without a couple of overblown missteps, however, and the one-two punch of "All Systems Stable" and "Khedive" is just too corny to come out of any decade besides the 1970s, however this is easily forgiven by the absolutely amazing "The Outpost" that follows it, as perfect of an example of Styx's wonderful proggy pop/rock style as anything they've released in ages. Album closer "Mission To Mars" acts as kind of an "end credits" of sorts for the album, re-encapsulating a lot of the musical themes of the album and incorporating some vocal work reminiscent of Yes' Geoff Downes era.
The production on the album is exemplary, very clean and with loads of headroom, and given the sometimes dense sound of the record, it's surprising that it never gets too fatiguing to listen to. Also worth noting is that while the album is a concept record, and in this day and age that usually equates to an over-bloated double-disc set that's multiple hours long (see Dream Theater's "The Astonishing" for a particularly egregious example), Styx have managed to pack a fully-loaded story and a huge variety of musical styles into something that would have easily fit onto a vinyl record in the 70s (personally, I'm hoping to catch the vinyl release of this myself).
Lyrics — 8
It seems a bit like a far off concept, but with so much news coming from Elon Musk and NASA's Orion Program, there's something oddly gratifying, currently relevant, and interesting about a concept album about a mission to Mars. It's one of the most exciting prospects in space travel in our time, and the likelihood that those of us reading will see a manned Mars mission in our lifetime is quite high. Taking place in 2033, where an ailing Earth sends its first astronauts to Mars to set up its first colony on their ship, the Khedive. The troubled mission goes through the expected turmoil, particularly between different characters. In the course of their months of isolation on the Khedive en route, the characters begin to go a bit out of their head, and by "Radio Silence", one character begins to describe a different vision of the Mars mission than the excitement of "Gone Gone Gone": "I wake to darkness/Remembering the fear/I'm really here/So far away/Lost, helpless/Were words I'd never say/Until this day/All I get is/Radio silence (so lonely)/No communication/Radio silence/Anybody, can you hear me?/I need a little mercy/It's gonna take a little faith to see/The Mission/It all comes down to me". Even so, there's a bit of a sense that the characters on the album still push through for the mission, and after the tribulations of "Red Storm" ("You know I never asked for this/Always knew there was a risk/Should've been easy/Storm is closing in/I can feel the grinding wind/Panic is coming out"), by "The Outpost", the odds that had been stacked against the valiant astronauts have turned out to be in their favour.
Vocally, the band is near the top of their form, with Lawrence Gowan and Tommy Shaw pulling the majority of the heavy lifting as lead vocalists, though James Young sings lead on "Trouble at the Big Show". Gowan's vocals are reminiscent of Steve Hogarth (Marillion) and Neal Morse (ex-Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, Neal Morse Band), and while he can pull off Dennis DeYoung's style quite effectively, on "The Mission", he doesn't seem to try too hard to sound like the band's former singer, instead putting his own spin on the band's vocals. Tommy Shaw sounds pretty much the same on this record as he always has, though due to age, it seems his voice is a little pitchier than usual and it's slightly noticeable on some of the album's softer tracks, though it's not really as bad as it could be, and is kind of refreshing to hear vocals that are quite obviously not pitch-corrected in this day and age.
Overall Impression — 9
After so many years since the band's last album of all-new material, and being relegated to the nostalgia-act festival circuit, it certainly has left many skeptical of whether this band could ever release something relevant again. And when you consider some recent attempts by contemporaries to do the same (Boston's uninspired "Life, Love & Hope" being a prime example), it only adds to the skepticism. But in a huge surprise twist, Styx has managed to do something that outshines many of their peers and actually made an album that's relevant, current, and, dare I say it, cool. Along with Kansas' "The Prelude Implicit" and Deep Purple's "Infinite", it seems that the resurgence of Styx on "The Mission" may be held as a good example by other classic rockers, and if this were to prove to be Styx's final album for whatever reason, I'd say they were leaving on an incredibly high note (not that there are any rumours of Styx's impending demise, though, as they seem to be touring stronger than ever).
By giving a nod to their classic '70s material, while adding a layer of current, contemporary lyrical subject matter, Styx have crafted an album that may be their best since "Paradise Theater", and could even be seen as a throwback, musically, to their days signed to the Wooden Nickel record label. This album may be one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, and don't be too surprised if this ends up on my personal top 10 of 2017.