“We showed up yesterday and we haven’t played any of these songs all together in the same room at the same time,” Tommy Shaw tells us. “So yesterday we worked up one in the dressing room. Everybody knew their parts and was ready to play it, and it sounds great. Weird, but it’s so nice to be able to play these songs and listen to each other for the first time in the last two years [the first time they’d played them together since latest album Crash Of The Crown was made].”
Understandably, the Styx guitarist and singer is sounding ebullient. As the world gets to grips with the ongoing effects of the COVID pandemic, the American rock veterans are back to doing what they do best: making great music and playing it live.
“We are ready to hit the ground running,” says an equally upbeat and enthusiastic Lawrence Gowan (keyboards/vocals). Shaw and Gowan are talking to Classic Rock from a warm and muggy Florida where the band kicked off their US tour at the St. Augustine Amphitheater on June 16.
“I got up this morning, showered, dressed, started walking down to this coffee shop, and I had to turn back because I was soaked. It’s so hot and humid,” Shaw laughs.
Another reason for their shared good mood is Crash Of The Crown, Styx’s seventeenth studio album, which was released in June. As you would expect of a band with Styx’s pedigree, it’s brimming with a vibrancy that belies a band knocking on the door of their 50th anniversary.
It’s 15 songs of supreme quality, five of which – opener The Fight Of Our Lives, Reveries, Sound The Alarm, the title track and the atmospheric Lost At Sea – have made the band’s new live set, which is already festooned with such classics as The Grand Illusion, Rockin’ The Paradise, Miss. America, Crystal Ball, Come Sail Away and even the oft-mocked Mr. Roboto.
The album rocks hard, and benefits from Shaw’s ear for a potent melody, while longtime fans will be enthused by a distinct progressive sound, which comes from Gowan’s epic keyboard flourishes. It is also something of a concept album, in that the songs flow through an amalgamation of historical events that occurred on such notable dates in history as 1066, 1455, 1775, 1861, 1941, and even 2001, without citing any by name.
“It’s almost like a diary,” explains Shaw. “It’s like using the album to look at life. You look at it all gloom and doom, and boom and you come through the other side. This isn’t forever. Let’s get through this and don’t do anything stupid or regretful while you’re doing it. Try to take care of your end of things."
As it has with everyone, the way the world has existed over the past 15 months has had an impact on Styx. Work on Crash Of The Crown began in earnest at Shaw’s home studio in Nashville during autumn 2019, with Gowan and producer Will Evankovich.
Safety precautions took precedence for all band and crew involved, with much diligent quarantining and testing required before any one of them could travel to Shaw’s home base. And yet it’s no morbid look back at the failures of history, and sounds positive and upbeat with it’s opening rallying cry of ‘We will not give in’. But then such positivity has been a mainstay of Styx’s sound over the years.
“You know, we’ve always kind of been like that,” says Shaw. “I think it’s the way we were all brought up. You learn from what happened and you move on and try not to make the same mistakes too many times again. We were all kind of raised that way, I suppose. We’re not a religious band by any means, but we do like to look and see the light at the end of the tunnel and be helpful with that and stay close as a group. We’ve had to circle the wagons many times as a band. We did it here virtually.”
Since the departure of founding member and major songwriter Dennis DeYoung in 1999, Styx have released four studio albums, Cyclorama (2005), Big Bang Theory (2009), The Mission (2017) and now Crash Of The Crown. All have been impressive and, for the most part, have shied away from the power ballad territory that brought the band some of their biggest hits in the 80s.
Instead, these latter-day records have highlighted facets of the band that made them a big hit with rock fans before 1979 single Babe hit No.1 on the US Billboard chart and clouded their reputation somewhat.
Across all of them, but perhaps more evident now than ever before, is a strong element of progressive rock. It might come as a surprise to those who see the band and immediately think of Mr. Roboto, but Styx ranked alongside Kansas as early progenitors of prog in the US, although mixed with the band’s FM radio-friendly melodic sheen, ‘pomp rock’ became the given name.
It’s a slightly misleading tag. It’s worth noting that Styx actually covered Copland’s Fanfare For The Common Man on their self-titled debut album – a good five years ahead of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. And Styx’s first four albums are brimming with prog-rock delights.
“I was always drawn to the fact that they were the first band to use progressive rock-leaning in those early records,” enthuses Gowan, who replaced DeYoung in 1999. “Styx were the first one outside of the UK to embrace that notion of progressive rock and be successful with it. A lot of bands, believe it or not, had tried it in the early seventies. A lot tried but they couldn’t quite grasp how to make it palatable to a larger audience other than to a bunch of musicians. But Styx was successful at doing that. And that’s what attracted me to the band.
“And then as their career developed and they got bigger and bigger, the pop side of what they could do began to take hold. So when I joined the band, the mandate was sort of on playing concerts around the world and getting to the audiences we’d missed for a number of years. My push for the band was to bring the progressive side back.
"With the last two albums, I think the prog side of things is very evident without being overly heavy-handed. I think there’s a good balance between good singalong choruses or singalong sections, and lyrics with some musical adventurousness that the band can handle quite easily, especially with Todd [Sucherman, drums] and Ricky [Phillips, bass] as a rhythm section. They can twist things around in all kinds of sections without having you even notice it until you’re well into it.”
“We’ve always loved signature sounds in the band,” Shaw adds. “Even before I was in the band, they were using what was available, like string ensembles and harps and synthesisers and whatever they could get. And there was always that progressive edge to the band. But it was progressive like ‘everyman’s progressive’; it wasn’t so intricate and so hard to count that it turned some people off.
"The one thing that was a major advantage is Todd Sucherman. You can give him a chart with time signatures changing left and change back again, and he will make it sound like just another little blues song. It doesn’t overwhelm you with scary time signatures.”
As Shaw says, Crash Of The Crown is no Tales From Topographic Oceans. What it does, like its three predecessors have done, is play to the band’s many strengths. In their early days they were as happy writing the 13-minute Movement For The Common Man as they were the lilting Lady, a Top-10 US hit in ’75.
By the time Tommy Shaw replaced original guitarist and vocalist John Curulewski for 1976’s Crystal Ball, the music was more radio friendly, although not without progressive inclinations – the same album ended with a seven-minute take on Debussy’s Clair de Lune, after all.
Many cite Styx’s 1977’s epic The Grand Illusion as the perfect blend of prog, pomp and AOR, although the band’s penchant for theatricality and concept albums would result in big 80s hits such as Paradise Theater and even Kilroy Was Here, before the wheels wobbled and Shaw quit for a solo career. Shaw, however, sees 1978’s hard-rocking Pieces Of Eight as the high point of the perceived ‘classic’ styx line-up of himself, DeYoung, guitarist James ‘JY’ Young and brothers Chuck (bass) and John Panozzo (drums).
“I think Pieces Of Eight was the best album of that line-up because we were still working together with each other so much and the sounds that everyone came up with really contributed, and it never got that far left into the ballad-ish things,” he says. “You can only be on a honeymoon period with a band for so long.
"Eventually things get in the way. One person might be making a lot more money than everyone else or have more airplay than somebody else, and it starts to affect the chemistry of the band. You do your best to try and work through it. We went up and down, in and out, and we tried to keep that line-up together, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Wondering whom Shaw might be talking about? Classic Rock was asked specifically not to mention Dennis DeYoung during this interview. The memory of the former Styx frontman, who has his own solo album out which also rejoices in that classic earlier Styx sound, still clearly rankles; DeYoung sued the band in 2000.
In the end we’re spared the icy silences our impending questions might have brought about as Shaw opens up unprompted, when asked how annoying it was to have the band’s many achievements, historical as well as recent, overshadowed by those ‘ballad band’ allegations.
“A lot of it was the way Dennis liked to write,” he says. “He’s brilliant at writing that type of music, but we had gone down more of a rock side.”
As we conclude, Shaw muses on what it is that has kept Styx going through the highs, perilous lows and barren periods for so-called heritage rock bands, to the current creative and popular high they now enjoy.
“It’s like an All-Star team,” he says with a grin. “You get up and play with these guys, and everybody delivers every night. Everybody delivers in the studio. Everybody delivers in just the hang when you’re travelling down the road. It’s miraculous to have all those things pulling in the same direction. We don’t have bad nights.”