Forty years after it gave us The Grand Illusion, Styx is flying to Mars on its first new album in 14 years.
The group will release The Mission on June 16 -- four days before Styx begins its summer tour with REO Speedwagon. The album -- whose opening track "Gone Gone Gone" is premiered below -- was recorded at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, co-produced and co-written with Will Evankovich, a longtime collaborator of Tommy Shaw's in the Shaw/Blades band and who also plays with The Guess Who. The Mission was under wraps -- not only from fans, but for a time from Shaw's bandmates.
"It's been kind of secretive from the very beginning," Shaw tells Billboard. "Will came up with this song called 'Locomotive,' and then I wrote some parts to it and some more lyric and we demoed it out and suddenly it started feeling like a story of some kind. It didn't take long for it to feel like this should be for Styx." But Shaw decided to keep quiet until he and Evankovich came up with more ideas, which eventually turned into a thematic song cycle about the first manned mission to Mars.
"We kinda snuck around for a long time," Shaw acknowledges. "The idea of me coming to everybody else and saying, 'Look, Will and I have an idea for us to do an album about a mission to Mars' wasn't something I could confidently go in and talk about. I think everybody might have been overhearing little playbacks and this and that and the other and they were getting curious. I'm sure there were some discussions on the bus when I wasn't around. There finally came a point where it was, 'Let's bring everybody in.'"
Both Shaw and fellow guitarist James "J.Y." Young recognized the fortuitous timing. First was the discovery of a fifth moon around Pluto, which was named Styx -- not explicitly after the band, but it did introduce the group to New Horizons, which discovered the moon and befriended the band and "helped us out with the mythology and images and science of it," according to Shaw. Young, meanwhile, says he "had in my mind we should've been doing this [new music] awhile ago, but now it's the 40th anniversary of The Grand Illusion, so wouldn't it be great if we had a record that had some resonance with our heyday but nonetheless was reflecting our current lineup and their capabilities to perhaps go beyond what we did then, and here we are."
"Gone Gone Gone" was born from a guitar riff that Shaw heard Young playing in the dressing room. "Tommy said, 'That's something cool,'" Young recalls, "and I said, 'I'm trying to write a song with it,' but never did write a song, so he and Will came up with the rest of the song and the lyrics, and Lawrence (Gowan) delivered the vocal like nobody's business." The song went through a couple of incarnations, including one on which Gowan -- who played a number of vintage keyboards on the album -- recorded a Hammond B3 organ solo. "But we realized that needed to be JY's solo, and when you hear it you understand why," Shaw says. "And for being on stage Lawrence needs to be out in front as much as possible on that song, away from his [keyboards]."
Young also hopes that "Gone Gone Gone," which clocks in at a brisk 2:09, might snag Styx some radio play for the first time since its cover of The Beatles' "I Am The Walrus" in 2003. "Obviously at this point classic rock radio is not geared to playing something new," he says, "but I think it may have a chance to squeak on because it's strong enough. It's a guitar thing that really captures your attention, and by the time it loses your attention it's over. So maybe that can work."
Styx would like to perform The Mission in its entirety at some point but will have to wait until the REO tour ends in late August. Nevertheless the band is confident that the album's vintage sound will click with Styx fans. "As soon as we got to thinking about a Styx album, it was, 'What's our favorite era of Styx?'" Shaw says. "To me it's The Grand Illusion, Pieces Of Eight. That was the prime. We wanted to make sure (The Mission) sounds like the Styx everybody grew up with, so that was the margins for it."
The Mission's track list includes:
2. Gone Gone Gone
3. Hundred Million Miles
4. Trouble at the Big Show
6. Radio Silence
7. The Greater Good
8. Time May Bend
9. Ten Thousand Ways
10. The Red Storm
11. All Systems Stable
13. The Outpost
14. Mission to Mars