Any review of new music from Styx must first deal with the inevitable reality that Dennis DeYoung is gone. He’s left the building. And he’s not coming back.
Now, this is the music business we’re talking about, and for most musicians, the pandemic crushed what was already an ailing means of making a living with music. So to quote the band itself, “Never Say Never.” But unless the current members of Styx feel the extra money to do one last tour with Dennis is worth more than the obvious discomfort that has kept them apart for 20 years, chances are it’s not going to happen. And after two decades, people, it’s time to let it go…
For all practical purposes, Styx is now Tommy Shaw’s band. And that’s a blessing, because the wunderkid that first gave Styx its true identity when he first appeared on 1976’s “Crystal Ball” is still making his mark and steering the ship more in the vein of “The Grand Illusion” and less in the trappings of “Kilroy Was Here.” That’s not to say that Shaw is averse to concept albums. In fact, 2017’s “The Mission,” which came out of nowhere and was unexpectedly strong proved all the necessary evidence to justify Tommy’s role at the helm of Styx. And if you’ve seen them live, you would know without a doubt that they still have it. And they flaunt it every live show with authentic, stunning vocal harmonies, rock solid musicianship and enough swagger to keep them out of the nostalgia tour camp. Playing live is a massive strength for Styx—and thanks to the pandemic, it’s a muscle they were unable to flex for quite a while.
Such is the environment that their 17th studio record, “Crash of the Crown” soon getting released to the world, and it works for one absolutely essential reason: it sounds like Styx. While it can disputed that the ghost of Dennis still haunts the band, a massive amount of kudos must be given to James Young and Tommy Shaw for their ability to retain the essential elements that make up the band’s signature sound—fantastic three part harmonies, widdly, bombastic synths, blue-collar working man electric guitar solos and memorable melodic rock songs that flirt with prog elements just enough to have a little extra edge.
God bless Tommy Shaw. At age 67, he still sings and plays great. I mean great! And he’s still penning songs that are relevant additions to the Styx canon. For that to be true at this stage of their career is pretty remarkable. Also remarkable, is the performance of drummer Todd Sucherman, who has established himself as one of the premiere drummers playing live today. Sucherman infuses a massive amount of detail and energy into Styx live, and propels the live act like a rocket leaving the earth. “Crash of the Crown” affords him multiple opportunities to shine, whether it be a couple blatant drum breaks or more subtle intricacies that are best inspected with headphones. For my money, Tommy and Todd are the secret weapons keeping Styx going strong.
That’s not to diminish the massive impact of Lawrence Gowan, whose voice may still make it hard for some to accept that Dennis is gone, but who absolutely nailed the keyboard tones and runs that make “Crash of the Crown” sound like it could have been the follow up to “Pieces of Eight.” James “JY” Young has historically brought the hard rock guitar edge to the band with a stand out track like “Miss America,” or “Snowblind.” His contribution is perhaps a little less obvious on “Crash of the Crown,” though his vocals are probably as essential to Styx’s harmonies and Michael Anthony were to Van Halen’s. There are a couple really strong moments of guitar work on this record, but it’s unclear whether the praise belongs more to JY or Tommy. The point is, they’re here. This record exudes massive musicianship. Chuck Panozzo and Ricky Phillips deliver solid, unspectacular performances on bass that serve the song more and their reputations less. To put it simple, “Crash of the Crown” is a superb Styx record that belongs on the shelf alongside their other records from “Equinox” forward.
The album opener, “The Fight of Our Lives,” is a short intro with a massive Queen influence, which speaks to both the style and quality of the vocal work on the record. It might not reach the heights of the band’s best entry tracks, but serves as almost a prelude to what’s to come and establishes the hopeful lyrical theme similar to “We Are the Champions.”
“Crash of the Crown” comes out on the tail end of America’s emergence from the pandemic, as well as political transition in power for a polarized population. The songs are a collection of light and shade, either painting a picture of struggle, isolation, repression, or celebrating life, hope and better days to come. Politics and religion are often polarizing content in music, and given the drastic impact of the pandemic on life, “Crash of the Crown” can be interpreted in a more universally relatable way.
Although it boasts 15 tracks, the album clocks in less than 44 minutes, due to a couple tracks being particularly short or transitional.
Highlights of the record include “A Monster,” which features all the aspects of a classic Styx track, including one of the better guitar solos on the record, massive harmonies and intrusive synth lines. Sucherman shines on the track and the song has just enough progressive elements to sweeten the deal.
“Reveries” is a standard Styx-sounding track with Gowan on lead vocals and a big, anthemic chorus that would likely play well in a live setting, and an epic sounding conclusion that reminds me of the Neal Morse Band style conclusions. “Hold Back the Darkness” is a magically melancholic track that nails the lonely vibe of songs like “Crystal Ball” and “Man in the Wilderness.” The guitar and vocal work are tasteful and well serving of the song.
“Save Us From Ourselves” opens with Winston’s Churchill’s rallying cry and features a really strong vocal from Tommy Shaw, and another tasteful, slinky piece of guitar work. “Crash of the Crown” is the title track, but not necessarily the strongest point of the record. While featuring three different singers taking a verse for the first time on a Styx track, JY’s vocals on the low end are kind of rough, and Gowan’s chorus is a bit mousey sounding. The song perhaps suffers from feeling less “Styx-like” than most of the record, and seems like it could have been a Queen throw away to me. Somewhat surprising to be the title track.
“Our Wonderful Lives” is a feel-good, hope-comes-in-the-morning type of acoustic track that sounds like a perfect way to end a live show with everyone playing on bar stools. The bass line bobs up and down like something right out of “Foolin’ Yourself (Angry Young Man)” and a trumpeting fanfare line heralds in the hopeful vibe while staying on the light side of the record.
“Common Ground” has a classic Styx prog opening, and then breaks into an acoustic strum that’s also reminiscent of “Foolin’ Yourself.” The song pales in comparison to that classic track, but holds true to the classic Styx sound and once again, Todd Sucherman is excellent on the drums. The shimmering chorus vocals are solid through and through. At midpoint, the song moves into stronger territory with Gowan’s rallying cry and a sold build to a too-short guitar solo and abrupt ending.
“Sound the Alarm” is another acoustic based call for hope that floats on the strength of Tommy Shaw’s voice and builds nicely in the middle with a classic church organ section. “Long Live the King” is another high point musically that could have benefitted from being a bit longer. It’s catchy, moody and urgent sounding. “Coming Out the Other Side” is a relaxed jaunt that is more yacht rock than hard rock, with a tasteful slidy guitar solo and some pleasant piano work that communicates the hopeful theme of the record in a less classic Styx fashion that most of the record, save the title track.
“To Those” is reminiscent of the song “Superstars” from “The Grand Illusion” and is a showcase for the classic Styx vocals sound. Sucherman sounds like Keith Moon on this track, tumbling and battering the drum fills distinctively. The record wraps with “Stream,” which is a breezy walk on a Sunday afternoon that ends the record on a relaxed, upbeat feel in the classic vibe of “Sweet Mademoiselle.”
Do the songs on “Crash of the Crown” often sound or feel like older Styx songs? Absolutely, and that’s why it works. The band have honed in on the elements that made their best records so strong and in doing so, have made a surprisingly relevant record in the later stages of their career that all involved should be proud of. Props also for the interesting cover artwork, though I sort of question the pre-Tommy-Shaw-version of the logo in the upper left corner. Given its strength overall, I’m hopeful the 17th studio album of Styx won’t be their last.
Released By: Alpha Dog 2T/UMe
Released On: June 18th, 2021
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Tommy Shaw / Acoustic and Electric Guitars, Mandolin, Banjo, and Vocals
- James Young / Electric Guitar and Vocals
- Chuck Panozzo / Bass Guitar
- Todd Sucherman / Drums and Percussion
- Lawrence Gowan / Piano, B3 Organ, Synthesizers, Mellotron, and Vocals
- Ricky Philips / Bass Guitar
“Crash of the Crown” track listing:
- The Fight Of Our Lives
- A Monster
- Hold Back The Darkness
- Save Us From Ourselves
- Crash Of The Crown
- Our Wonderful Lives
- Common Ground
- Sound The Alarm
- Long Live The King
- Lost At Sea
- Coming Out The Other Side
- To Those
- Another Farewell
The road tested warhorse of STYX shows remarkable resilience and capacity to generate energized new music that retains the proven classic elements of the band’s signature sound and straddles the lines of American prog, arena rock and a little bit of acoustic folk.