Styx, at its best, remains a band caught twixt the best of progressive rock’s unearthly tendencies and those of the firmly grounded pop world. Both are on display via the Chicago-born collective’s first album in more than a decade and first collection of original material since 2003’s Cyclorama. It’s also the most consistent and imaginative to have come from the camp since 1977’s The Grand Illusion. Central to that effort and this is the James “JY” Young/Tommy Shaw guitar partnership. Their point/counterpoint approach remains among the most underrated in the business. It is the push and pull perhaps most responsible for The Mission’s artistic success.

There is some irony in this album being among the group’s best and a concept album. During the unit’s warring years with ex-vocalist Dennis DeYoung, there were complaints lobbed at the soft rocker about his creation of the 1983 robots-gone-wild concept piece Kilroy Was Here. The difference, of course, is that the narrative thread this time out remains more unified. (It’s all about a mission to mars. Dystopic robots and disused theaters need not apply.) There’s a clear aversion to soppy ballads, which helps reaffirm Styx’s longtime support of the right to rock.

Really, this is about the collective playing to its strengths: a heavy emphasis on those one of a kind vocal harmonies, Brit-style keyboard flourishes from indispensable Lawrence Gowan and the swinging, Brit-influenced rhythm section of Todd Sucherman (drums) and Ricky Phillips (bass). Over and between those elements Young and Shaw wail and gnash, cutting through the mix like a couple of teenage shredders who’ve only recently found their voice and want to exploit it to the best of their abilities. It’s a remarkably refreshing approach and indication that there remains an angry young man inside us all. (Original bassist Chuck Panozzo turns up for “Hundred Million Miles from Home.”)

Though Shaw can write a hook-laden pop tune with the best of them, he’s at his best when embracing his weird side, in particular on the crunchy “Locomotive,” easily his most gorgeous and far-reaching piece since “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).” Meanwhile, “Red Storm” reveals that the Alabama-born musician’s sense of the accessible remains intact even while taking us to the outer reaches of space. His voice, the dominant one throughout the record (with Gowan handling duties solo on three tunes and splitting duties with the guitarist on one), has become the definitive one for the band. He’s a vocalist capable of singing about the strange and making it seem as natural and real as if he were singing about learning love in the back of a Chevrolet.

It’s hard to imagine that at this point the band will be able to invest much time in bringing material from this effort to the stage and allowing its hardcore audience to appreciate the wide-ranging moods and deep emotions in the live arena Styx has long excelled at. But The Mission expertly makes the case that even as an aging rock group, the best may be yet to come. Let’s sincerely hope it’s not the last time we hear from this most capable band.

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