In 1958, in what was to be among his last recordings, Buddy Holly performed a song called TrueLove Ways. It was one of the first rock and roll songs to utilize classical string instruments like violins, violas, and harps. While it is unknown where Holly’s music might have gone had he lived, one thing is certain, those recordings have ever since quietly influenced rock and roll musicians the world over. By the late 60’s, that quiet influence had grown into a full-scale movement, and many classically trained musicians began working in a genre which would soon be called progressive rock. Primarily a UK invention, the music of bands like King Crimson, and The Pretty Things crossed the Atlantic Ocean and opened the American door to these new possibilities.
In 1972, in Chicago, a band named Styx signed a recording contract. The first single from their self-titled first album, Best Things, dipped its toe into the hot 100 on the charts, and announced the arrival of a true American prog-rock band. While the album itself failed to find its way onto the charts, it was a clear harbinger of things to come. They had melded UK styled classical rock music with other distinctly American influences, such as the blues, to create a concept album which would sit comfortably on a college student's record shelf between ELP’s debut album, and The Yes Album. Unlike much of contemporary British prog, Styx music came at you with an unpretentious accessibility readily identifiable with US, and Canadian arena sized audiences. Between 1972, and 1983, the band created well integrated concept albums that together, went platinum eighteen times over. Though time, and personality issues brought about several personnel changes along the way, the band has never lost its popularity with audiences, and are once again touring.
This time out, they are introducing their newest album, their first since 2017’s, The Mission, titled Crash Of The Crown. While they’re excited to get back on the road, how did a band like Styx, well known for their complex, orchestration, and distinctive stacked harmonies create an album during the covid19 pandemic? Keyboard player Lawrence Gowan said, “More than half ofthe record was done before the pandemic hit.
That really surprises me because when you look at the lyrics, there’s no way people are going to think all this wasn’t written over this past year. So many of the songs seem to be commenting on the current situation.” He continued, “The songs are about renewal after a great fall, orsome kind of cataclysmic event, so to speak, and the opportunities, and positive things you can take from that, the things that can suddenly arise after such a disaster.” Despite many of the songs having already been completed, Gowan does,in a funny way, see the band as fortunate for having had to work through the pandemic. He says, “I have a studio here that contains all of my vintage keyboards. I’m like oh my God, I can use all of my vintage keyboards that I’m afraid to move ten feet because they might fall apart, but it all works. I love the song Crash Of The Crown because the very last note you hear is the old wheezing mellotron that I thought would never make it onto a record, but it’s all over this record.”
You would think with a record having incubated for nearly three years, and much of that time spent with the musicians socially distanced, it would be noticeably bifurcated, but it really isn’t. Gowan continued, “I think part of the charm of this record is it bridges the two eras, both before and after the pandemic, and it’s nice that it’s coming out now, after we’ve begun to embrace the after.” Along the way, Styx music has drawn influence from many disparate sources, like Bach, and Led Zeppelin, and vocally their melodies, and harmonies compare quite favorably with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, as well as YES. Continuing, He said, “A lot of these songs refer to renewal. There is a sense of renewal that’s almost like a thread that runs all the way through from The Fight Of Our Lives, all the way to Our Wonderful Lives, and To Those. That’s kind of the central thing.”
So what does the album title, Crash Of The Crown mean? He said, “As far as the crown goes, it’s symbolic of a seismic shift. It’s as if, after having reached the top of this mountain, the top had been lopped off, and what you’re left with is more like a volcano that’s spilling forth with all the terror, and potential triumphs that can come along with it.” With a laugh, he said, “I would encourage people not to take a literal interpretation. That’s probably not the best course when you’re listening to these songs.”
One of the more noticeable aspects of this record is how directly the band draws from those who have influenced them in the past. Along the way, you can hear bits and pieces of many great bands who were either their contemporaries, or preceded them. For example, at the end of the song Crash Of The Crown, there is a moment when Gowan sounds eerily similar to Freddie Mercury.
He said, ”Fifty years gone, I think it’s fair game at this point to want to embrace those things and make use of those tools in much the same way as younger bands now sound like they came out in the 70’s.” As for sounding like Freddie, he said, “I was goofing around, and I said I would have loved to have heard Freddy sing this. I tried to do it a little bit in that style, and right away, Tommy (guitarist, and singer Tommy Shaw) said yes, do it exactly like that because it really fits.” As for the band and its audience, he said, “It’s also fun.”
By the time Lawrance Gowan came to Styx in 1999, the band had been together off and on since 1972. Disagreements happen in bands, and sometimes it's for the best for members to move on to other projects. The perfect example is the breakup of The Beatles. Gowan said, “Before I came to Styx, I had a long solo career. I had just finished my greatest hits recording (Healing Waters) when I opened for Styx at the New Montreal Forum. On that tour, their promoter decided he wanted me to do the show in Montreal, and also Quebec City (Gowan livesin Toronto).
The problem was, I had just come back from England where I had toured entirely solo, no band, just me on my piano. I said I don’t even have my band together right now. He said that's how I want you to do it. I want you to do the arena just on piano. So I said OK.” Continuing with this story, Gowan said, “When Styx manager heard this, he decided to come to the show from Atlanta. He thought this is going to be a lamb to the slaughter, one guy on piano?Tommy heard some of my stuff when he’d come to Canada, but the other guys hadn’t.
Then they heard the audience singing along with all these songs they weren’t familiar with, and they thought it had gone over extremely well.” Later, Tommy said, in the whole history of Styx, no opening act had ever had an encore, and he said we’re definitely going to work together again.
That was in 1997. I went back to England and worked there, then I did another tour across Canada, so when they called me early in 1999, I assumed, oh, you guys are coming back out
on tour and you want me to open shows for you. Then he shocked me on the call, he said yeah, I want you to come on tour with us, and (he asked) would you be part of the band? I said yeah, but give me an hour because I want to go listen to your records, so I know I can hit the notes on the songs you want me to sing.”
As for touring with Crash Of The Crown, Gowan said, “I’m always amazed at how optimistic Styx lyrics are, even in the darkest of songs. That’s what saves them from going too far down the rabbit hole of self-indulgence. It keeps it relatable to the every day listener. You can see yourself in the lyrics on Crash Of The Crown. You can see yourself in the narrative that runs through it. I hope people enjoy listening to them as much as we enjoyed making them.”
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