Styx – (left to right: James “JY” Young, Chuck Panozzo, Lawrence Gowan, Tommy Shaw, Todd Sucherman, Ricky Phillips) – Photo Courtesy of Todd Gallopo and Styx
By Keith Sharp
Chicago’s Styx are famous for their thematic concept albums, so it’s hardly surprising that their latest opus, Crash Of The Crown would reflect the current state of global affairs with the COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest in the United States, global warming and even mental health issues.
And yes, Toronto-based frontman Lawrence Gowan, who has been the band’s co-lead singer and keyboardist for the past 23 years, acknowledges all the above elements are included in the band’s latest release. But, instead of a doom and gloom project, Gowan notes that the album’s concept was taken from a personal perspective and with an optimistic outcome by the end of track 15.
“The key line in the title track, “Crash Of The Crown,’ states, “I know where I’m bound, it won’t weight me down,” explained Gowan calling in from Amarillo, Texas, where Styx is currently on tour. “There’s a personal journey here about an individual who survives personal obstacles. Obviously, the pandemic is a big one, but quite honestly, we had finished writing most of the album before the end of 2019, so most of these songs are pre-pandemic.”
He notes that “Crash Of The Crown” is open to interpretation, but the central message is “renewal is always possible even after a catacalysmic event, no matter what changes occur in the world, human beings will fly, they will find a way to make it through. Whether it’s political upheaval, pandemics or climate change, despite empires rising and falling, we will survive.”
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Styx returned to the spotlight with their 2017 “The Mission” album, which conceptualized a trip to Mars that was well received by their fans. “Our label Universal was so enthused by the response, they got back to us about making a new record and said there was no point going after singles or radio airplay, but let’s make albums like you did previously, albums you can record on vinyl, make it a 45-minute musical experience, make a link between one song to the next that people can either connect to or disconnect to.”
You could ask, `who makes records like this anymore,’ well, if you know anything about Styx, recording conceptual albums like `Equinox,’ `The Grand Illusion,’ `Crystal Ball,’ `Paradise Theatre’ and `Mr Roboto’ has always been the band’s forte. Albums that can be performed in their entirety or tracks that can be woven seamlessly into their existing setlist.”
“That’s what we were doing with The Mission, we were performing the album in its entirety, but we also said, don’t worry, we’ll be playing some of our hits at the end, and the shows were instant sell-outs, and we were set to play a show like that in New York when the lockdown hit us,” Gowan explained. “At first, we were bummed out because we were scheduled to play in New York, and we were thinking about how we could play those cancelled concerts. But then we started to listen to the new songs that July (2020), and the weird thing was that we realized that the songs connected in a profound way with what we were going through so we’d better finish the record. With modern technology,, we could all link up with each other on-screen and complete the project.”
According to Gowan, the brief intro track, “The Fight For Our Lives” perfectly sets up “Crash Of The Crown” with features disturbing songs like “Save Us From Ourselves” with the Winston Churchill inserted warnings, “A Monster Chasing It’s Tail”, “Sound The Alarm” and the aforementioned title track but there’s also a distinct positivity about songs like “Common Ground”, “Coming Out The Other Side” and “To Those”.
“When I heard ‘Fight For Your Lives’ for the first time, it reminded me of the spirit I had in 1982 when I released my first solo album; it set the tone for what this album is all about,” he noted. “And songs like ‘Common Ground’ underlines that despite all the political division, the U.S is a very united country which is linked by the humanity to live happy lives.”
Yes, “Crash Of The Crown” is overtly political. Still, unlike Green Day’s classic “American Idiot” album, Gowan feels this album summarizes the entire period of the last year but does assume a positive outlook, especially in lyrics like “Coming Out The Other Side,” which spins an optimistic forecast.
And the album’s lyrics are not just about the doom and gloom of political upheaval and the pandemic. One powerful track, “Hold Back The Darkness,” deals with mental illness, which is reflected by how recent celebrity cases like U.S Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and even Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Carey Price have brought these problems into mainstream attention.
“Mental illness is no longer a taboo subject. We are now far more understanding about this problem,” Gowan noted. “And I think at this time, the current pandemic has made everyone a little nuts.”
Being the token Canadian in an American band, which comprises of stalwarts; guitarist/vocalists J.Y Young, Tommy Shaw and (sometimes) bassist Chuck Panozzo plus drummer Todd Sucherman, alternative bassist Ricky Phillips, and new member Will Evankovich (guitar/vocals), who produced the last two albums. Gowan has a unique perspective on what is happening south of the border.
“It’s amazing how the media portrays this horrible division that’s going on in America, that people are basically at each other’s throats. You would get the impression that people are lining up for a civil war down here.,” Gowan allowed. “Well, I hate to be the bearer of good news, but from my perspective from the stage, I see people getting along really well.”
And their fans seem to agree with Crash Of The Crown, topping the Album Charts during its first week of release.
Gowan actually feels that live musical performances are creating a healing solution. “I think this album actually acts like a soothing balm. We go out on stage, and we see thousands of people literally exploding with anticipation. There’s real emotional happiness occurring; people really missed what live music meant to their lives, some people are actually in tears.”
He admits that fitting new material into an existing setlist is always a challenge. “When we start the set, it’s like, bang, bang, bang, hit, hit, hit,” Gowan acknowledges. “But then we slip some of the new songs seamlessly in with our classic material, and I can see people asking themselves, “is that song something I don’t know? I do think that audiences do want something new, especially coming out of the pandemic; they want to know where we are at now.”
Of course, Styx would love to perform `Crash Of The Crown’ in its entirety, similar to what they have done with previous thematic releases. And that opportunity may avail itself in late February/Early March when they continue their tour with a five-night residency at the Venetian Theatre in Las Vegas as part of their ongoing U.S tour. Gowan claims Styx will be on the road for much of 2022 promoting the new release, but he may be available with his own four-piece band for some select dates later in the Fall.
Left with two songs which did not fit the new album’s concept, “The Same Stardust” and “Age Of Entropia” have been released separately on vinyl with five live tracks of previous hits like “Mr Roboto,” “Renegade,” “Radio Silence,” “Man In The Wilderness” and Miss America.” Titled `The Same Stardust,’ this vinyl-only EP was released specially for Record Store Day in the States June 12th, literally a week before Crash Of The Crown came out “which as a pretty bold move on behalf of Universal,” noted Gowan but Record Store Day is a big deal in the States.”
Closer to home, Gowan is also featured on The Spoon’s newly released “Echoes” album (which features 14 Spoons tracks sung by featured guest performers) singing a version of “Arias And Symphonies.”
“The Spoons were on the bill when I performed my `Great Dirty World’ album tour, so I got to know them a bit then,” noted Gowan. “I was trying to develop my songwriting style when I heard their `Arias And Symphonies album so, I bought it the next day. They had a lot of those British New Wave elements in their music like early Duran Duran and The Cure; I didn’t even know they were from the Toronto area at first but, the classical musician in me loved the idea, they used the word `Arias’ in a pop song. And when they played that song on-tour, I really liked it.”
“So five years ago, I attended a songwriter’s show at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, and Gord Deppe (Spoons lead vocalist/guitarist) also attended that show. I am in the rehearsal room playing around with the arrangement for “Arias And Symphonies” Gord heard what I was doing and really liked it. So a year ago, when he told me about their latest project, he invited me to record my version of “Arias And Symphonies,” and he said to me, “Don’t be afraid to turn your version into a personal statement, which I think I have done.”
For further information on Styx, visit styxworld.com