Still, the group decided it was better to not overstay their welcome (although they did find a way to slip a couple of the extra songs from the sessions out to the fans via a special Record Store Day release).
“We never like to go beyond the limits of two sides of a 12 inch vinyl disc,” guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw tells UCR. “Our challenge is to make somebody sit there and not go walk away before you get through side one,” he says. “Not only that, we want them to go, ‘Okay, I want to hear what’s on side two.’”
The group is currently enjoying a flood of creativity which began when they were in the midst of creating their last album, 2017’s The Mission. So much so that they kept writing songs, long after sessions for that album had wrapped up.
Shaw, in particular, watched his writing relationship with Will Evankovich, the multi-instrumentalist who has become a vital cog in the inner workings of Styx, continue to flourish. “In fact, we’ve got stuff that we don’t know what to do with,” he says. “Enough for a solo album — but I’m not ready to do that right now.”
One element which kept their creative process flowing was that they were careful not to get hung up on what was good and what was bad. “Working with Will, we would just go, ‘Let’s write the crap.’ You know, some songs are just crap,” Shaw explains. “They come out that way. And there’s no redeeming qualities. We’ve got a few of those. But there’s other ones that really, we could do something with them.”
When the band finally decided to block out some time to work on the new album, they already had a head start, with a framework of possibilities beginning to congeal. ”Some of the songs were a few years old, at least the origins of the songs. We had been working on some of them. In 2019, we had recorded some of this stuff and were starting to stockpile.”
They had fun during the sessions, pushing each other into new territory — Evankovich had a vision of pulling a David Bowie-esque vocal — think “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” — from veteran guitarist and vocalist James “J.Y.” Young for the epic title track. “Will would sometimes ask me to do up to eight passes on various things, and I never like to do more than two or three,” Young recalled on the band’s website. “But I respect Will as a producer and Tommy’s vision for the album, so we made it work. I gave them plenty of options.”
Listen to ‘Crash of the Crown’
While they were able to complete some of the recording prior to the onset of the pandemic, other pieces of the album had to be completed remotely — which offered some fringe benefits. Working from his home studio, vocalist and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan had access to and was able to use his Minimoog and Mellotron — and had already gotten a chance to utilize Shaw’s Hammond B3 organ. “I got the chance to use some gear I never thought I’d have a chance to use on a Styx record,” he said in advance press materials regarding the new album.
Hearing the gloriously prog rock leanings of songs like the double shot of album opener “The Fight of Our Lives” and “A Monster,” which musically, hearken delightfully back to the group’s ‘70s heyday, why not pull out some of those archaeological sonic treasures and put them back into service?
“Those sounds that people got used to are still very, very relevant sounds. And they still sound great,” Shaw agrees, punctuating his next point with a hearty laugh. “You know, there were some synthesizers back during that time that had a short lifespan, more than you recognized then. But we tried to stay away from those.”
In the case of the B3, which Shaw acquired in recent years, it brings back memories of one that was part of the Styx family in earlier years, that he “used to have to help carry up two flights of stairs in Chicago.”
Thankfully, he could just enjoy its musical potential this time around. “I’ve been crankin’ it up and playing it and it’s got a little bit older Leslie speaker that when you go in there and turn the amp up, it has that sound like Deep Purple and the Allman Brothers,” he says. “It’s a treat and it’s nice to have somebody who can really play it like Lawrence.”
Archival audio makes Winston Churchill the unlikely duet partner for Shaw on the anthemic “Save Us From Ourselves,” with a chorus that will get your feet tapping, “One nation / Indivisible / Heads in the sand / Because we weren’t invisible / Say your prayers / We could all use a miracle now / To save us from ourselves.”
Certain sections of the lyrics for “Sound the Alarm,” on the other hand, feel appropriate for a universe of people navigating their way through a pandemic world, even though they were written prior to the onset of COVID. “There’s no future in the way it was / We may never know just what it was / But if tomorrow brings a better day / Sound the alarm / It’s all clear.”
In truth, it’s easy to detect that thematically, the words of many of the songs on this new album can be tied back to what Shaw and the members of Styx saw developing here at home in the United States politically. “What’s going on around us and how we feel about it and how it’s affecting us, we need to just sort of say it out loud and put music to it,” he says. “Things were starting to get kind of crazy. For a few years, the country was starting to get divided.”
Still, he points out that Styx has never been a group that “takes sides,” politically. “We’ve never been a protest band,” he says in the album’s liner notes. “We’re more like a gospel caravan trying to send out positive messages wherever we go.”
To that end, going back to his Alabama roots, Shaw remembers going to church with his family and finding it difficult to listen to the “preacher droning on about stuff that I didn’t quite understand.” He found more common ground with the gospel music television shows that were waiting for him when he arrived home from services.
In particular, the Gospel Singing Jubilee — and groups like the Happy Goodman family, offered messages that spoke to times both good and bad, embedded with a sense of hope. “There would be songs about things maybe rough right now, but in the end, all of the arms are outstretched and it’s going to be alright,” he says. “It was a simple message, but very powerful.”
“That’s kind of always been a little bit of a measuring stick that kind of comes out naturally for all of us,” he adds. “Because all of us were raised up that way.”
Fans will get a taste of the new material from Crash of the Crown during the group’s current tour with Collective Soul. “We’ll start out easy, because you know, there’s certain songs that we absolutely have to play and we love to play. But we’ll pepper in two, maybe three [songs] during the evening. And they’ll be the ones that are the easiest probably to comprehend, as far as we’re concerned. You know, none of the songs are super long. I think people are going to like them, because they sound like Styx songs.”