I know I usually do much more serious posts, but anyone who has seen me present may have picked up on the fact that Styx is one of my favorite bands with the way I’ve named some servers, WSFCs, FCIs, and AGs in demos. I have a long history with the band … ’nuff said.

Music is a big part of what I do both personally and professionally. I figured it’d be fun to do a review of the new Styx album The Mission that was released today. I’ve had it for a few days (thank you – you know who you are), so I’ve had a chance to digest it. The Mission is the first Styx album of all original tunes since 2003’s Cyclorama, which is good but uneven effort. If you know Styx at all, you may be saying “But they’ve released …” – yes they have. I’m discounting all live albums, compilations, and even the covers album. Sure, one of those albums had a few new cuts but they were bad so let’s not speak of them *cough* “Just Be” *cough*.

The Music

Many bands have had what have been billed as “return to form” albums – Aerosmith has had a million of those since the 90s (spoiler alert: none were a return to 70s form Aerosmith). The Mission has basically been billed as the return to 70s form for Styx, and while not totally that, it is closer to the glory years than Cyclorama ever was. It’s a short album by modern standards – clocking in at just over 42 minutes.

The Mission is partially the brainchild of Tommy Shaw and producer Will Evankovich, who is the third man in Shaw Blades’ live show and has worked with Tommy on various other projects including his orchestra show last year in Cleveland (which I also attended). While it may be driven by those two, it’s clear the whole band made it a Styx album and it’s not just a Tommy Shaw solo project featuring Styx-as-backing-band album.

“Gone Gone Gone” is a throwback to the early Wooden Nickel days of Styx, and is almost a bit of a cross between “Southern Woman” (compare the riffs) and “Rock and Roll Feeling”. “Hundred Million Miles From Home” is a fun song, which evokes some Eagles-esque influences especially in the guitar playing. It also features original bass player Chuck Panozzo, one of my bass influences. It has a bounce that makes it feel more like classic Styx than anything else on the album. Speaking of bass playing, Ricky Phillips does a great job (probably my favorite on the album being “Trouble At The Big Show”). “Locomotive” sounds more like Wish You Were Here-era Floyd than Styx, but that’s not a bad thing. “Radio Silence” has echoes of the Grand Illusion classic “Man In The Wilderness”, is one of the strongest songs on The Mission, and is very clearly a Styx tune.

There’s some nice odd meter stuff on the album such as “Time May Bend” and “The Red Storm”. Todd Sucherman is a beast on drums. Lawrence Gowan’s piano playing on songs like “Ten Thousand Ways” and “Khedive”, which also features some nice nods to Queen, is good. There’s even a nod to the Who on “The Outpost” right around 2:33. I’m glad they used what appears to be a vintage Oberheim (OB-X? OB-XA? OB-8?) along with other analog synths on songs like “The Outpost” which gives many songs that classic Styx keyboard sound (from Grand Illusion on, the Oberheim is closely associated with Styx and former member Dennis DeYoung).

The Mission is not without its flaws to my ears. The effect on Tommy’s voice at the end “Overture” reminds me of the voice effect used to introduce the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disney (that’s not a good thing; it’s one of my favorite Disney things but jarring here). While “Hundred Million Miles” is currently my favorite song on the album, the weird effect used on Tommy’s vocals during the verses seems unnecessary. Since they were going the old school way, having some touches of Taurus pedals would have been nice, too, at points.

What I’m not completely buying into is the concept album aspect of The Mission. For a band that went kicking and screaming into doing a concept album like Kilroy Was Here (and had two loose concept albums prior to that – Grand Illusion and Paradise Theater), the fact they’d embrace one now is baffling. Apparently it’s just as hard to write good songs about going to space as it is about robots and censorship. Many of the songs on The Mission stand on their own (and may become concert staples, such as “Gone Gone Gone”). Others do not work out of context (“Mission to Mars”, which if I’m going to be honest has some pretty bad lyrics and is probably my least favorite song followed by “The Greater Good” which has good vocals and musicianship, but the song is just limp for me). That said, the whole is greater than the individual parts. I don’t feel myself wanting to skip and jump around to different tracks.

The Sonics

Anyone who knows me knows I care about sound quality. Much has been made of the fact that The Mission was tracked to (analog) tape. That doesn’t mean anything if it’s engineered, mixed, and mastered poorly. I’m happy to report that the album sounds very good. It is not brickwalled (but some may still say TOO LOUD), and has benefits from starting out all analog. The Mission breathes more than a lot of albums I’ve heard in the past few years. Drums and bass have a sound that you cannot totally get from an all digital recording. The stereo mix has a nice soundstage, nice and wide, with the instruments all having great placement. While it has touches and nods to the classic Styx sound (such as the way the harmonies are mixed), it’s still a modern mix to me but has a vintage vibe that I dig.

For folks like me, I’m happy to see it’s available in high resolution at 88.2/24 from places like Quobuz, ProStudioMasters, and HDTracks. Comparing the CD quality (44.1/16 non-MP3 thank you very much) to the hi-rez, the hi-rez is clearly the winner. There’s more depth and air than the CD; it sounds much more natural and pleasing.  Having listened to the CD-quality tracks for a few days, I hear the difference immediately. If you’re into such things as I am, I’d recommend the hi-rez over the CD. I am curious why they chose 88.2/24 versus 96/24 or 192/24 given they had an analog starting point. No matter, it sounds good. I don’t like vinyl, so I have not heard it nor do I plan on buying it. Having been recorded to analog, it should sound good since it should be analog all the way through. If vinyl is your thing, the LP isn’t terribly expensive.

My only really major disappointment is I have not been able to hear the 5.1 surround mix that was completed. I think it is a huge missed opportunity not to release it as the same time as the regular album or as part of a deluxe package which had the CD (or LP) and that. It is supposedly being released later this year later on Blu-ray (and maybe DVD). I hope it is not shelved.

The Inevitable Comparison

Being a Styx nerd, the question will come up for some: “Is The Mission better than Dennis DeYoung’s 2007 album One Hundred Years from Now?” (and then you could ask … which version of that album – the original Canadian or the later US version which had slightly different tracks). DDY didn’t make a concept album, so doing a straight 1:1 comparison is not easy. Truth: I like both The Mission and One Hundred Years From Now. The fact we have two solid studio efforts that do not suck is a happy problem to have. Both tip their caps to the classic Styx sound, but are also modern at the same time.

However, there is no song on The Mission that is better than “Crossing the Rubicon” on One Hundred Years From Now, arguably the most “classic Styx”-like song (and probably the best track) released on any Styx-related studio album since the 80s. There’s also nothing on either album that’s going to convince you to like and/or hate Styx or DDY more or less if you’re predisposed to one side or the other. For example, if you do not like DDY’s more mid-tempo or ballad-y things, songs like “I Believe In You” or “There Was A Time” are not going to change your mind; also don’t believe the hype, Dennis can still rock with songs like “Private Jones”.

The Verdict

The bottom line: The Mission is a strong showing from Styx and a solid 7/10 for me.  It’s a fun listen end-to-end, and with its short running time, goes by quickly. Placing it in the list of “where does The Mission sit in the pantheon of Styx studio albums?”, it’d be somewhere in the middle of the pack. If it is the last studio effort we see from Styx, this is a worthy final Mission from the band.