Few rock bands hit the touring pavement as often as Styx.

Comprised of singer-guitarist Tommy Shaw, keyboardist-singer Lawrence Gowan, guitarist-singer James "JY" Young, drummer Todd Sucherman and bassists Ricky Phillips and Chuck Panozzo, Styx plays more than 150 concerts a year, and they've done that both as an evening's only performer and as a part of multi-band package tours since Gowan was hired to replace Dennis DeYoung, Styx's original keyboardist-singer, back in the latter half of 1999. 

How the Chicago-born band was able to muster the energy and time to come up with "The Mission," Styx's first studio album since 2003, is a bit of a head-scratcher. For Styx fans, the wait between 2003's "Cyclorama" album and Styx's 15th studio long-player wasn't endured in vain.

The term "concept album" thrills some listeners while it terrifies others into a shelter-seeking retreat. "The Mission," to the delight of Styx's followers, possesses more strengths and charm than weaknesses. "Gone Gone Gone" kicks the proceedings off in a solid, uptempo way, with Gowan's verbal encouragement to "light it up, get this show on the road" riding tall and proud over Sucherman's commanding snare-drum pops and the group's punchy guitar chords.

No doubt listening to the creative voices in their heads — and probably some of the critics who allege Styx plays it safe by touring so much and releasing so few new songs — the members of Styx really do stretch out on "The Mission." Trying new things throughout "The Mission" surely will pay off in the minds of Styx's fan base.

Among these aural excursions away from rock's beaten path are the feisty, lead-guitar-style bass runs (from either Phillips or Pannozo; the CD liner notes don't say) on "Locomotive." Spiky but never thin-sounding, the gliding bass patterns are played high on the bass neck, an area that is near the instrument's pickups. Think of the cool four-string tones laid down before by Chris Squire, Geddy Lee and John Entwistle and you'll get the picture.

"Locomotive" also benefits tremendously by its galloping rhythms and Gowan's simple-yet-immaculate playing on what sounds identical to a Hammond B-3 organ. It's one of the album's numerous shining examples of ensemble playing at its absolute finest.

Not to be outdone but also not succumbing to needless showboating, Shaw and Young turn in some of their most impressive lead-guitar work in ages. The duo isn't afraid to slow down their finger work here and there to let some of the guitar-solo notes breathe without fear of being overcrowded. The sustained notes often last for several seconds and convey more soul and emotion that what often is found inside run-of-the-mill guitar shredding.

Sure, "The Mission" doesn't topple Styx's most popular albums like "The Grand Illusion" and "Pieces of Eight," but most of the new songs aren't completely out of the orbit of Styx's classic-rock staples like "Come Sail Away" and "Renegade." The first spin of "The Mission" is an interesting affair for the listener, but there's a lot to grasp onto, and that's a good thing. By the third spin of "The Mission," well, that is when all of the luring melodies are revealed. It's at that moment when the listener will fully realize just how great the guys in Styx are playing and singing these days.