The title of the new Kansas album—“The Prelude Implicit”—is open to some interpretation, but the intent of the cover art, which features a phoenix, seems clear enough: regeneration and rebirth. The legendary band has long been known for non-stop touring, but the past few years have seen the sort of changes that either mark the end or a new beginning (and that is, I suppose, the likely implicit message of the album’s title). Like many other groups that achieved great commercial success in the 1970s, Kansas has gone through several line-ups, as I cover in some detail in this 2013 review of a John Elefante album.
And there, of course, is the Big Rub, because when bands split and original members leave, fans are often faced with a dilemma: Is Kansas really Kansas without Steve Walsh singing and playing keyboards, or Kerry Livgren playing guitar and keyboards, or Robby Steinhardt on violin and vocals? (Those who like to keep track of such things can find a good chronology here.) Livgren, of course, was key to the band’s distinctive, detailed, and orchestrated sound in the first decade, writing music that was at turns melodic (“Dust in the Wind”), anthemic (“Carry On My Wayward Son”), and esoteric (“Incomudro – Hymn to the Atman”, “Cheyenne Anthem”, etc), with lyrics that were loaded with references to spiritual turmoil, seeking, and wandering. And Walsh, the bad boy of the group, proved to be one of the finest vocalists of the era, with a pure, powerful tenor that was equally muscular and soulful (until the excesses of the oft-cited “rock lifestyle” began to eat away at it). Both facts come through clearly in the excellent documentary “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, which marked the band’s 40th anniversary and, it seems, marked a certain line of demarcation. “In truth,” I wrote in my review of the documentary,
some bands are far more interesting for what they did off the stage than for what they did on the stage. And then there are bands that really are, at the end of the day, all about the music, and it seems quite clear that Kansas is in the latter camp. It is rather striking how ordinary these six musicians appear to be, with only Walsh (who retired last year) giving occasional glimpses into a more prickly, difficult side. Ehart, whose warm humor and casual self-deprecating approach make him the star of the documentary, is keen to praise his bandmates, expressing obvious awe over Walsh’s vocal prowess and Livgren’s songwriting, saying that back in the day he didn’t think of Livgren as a musical genius, but perhaps only because they ate hamburgers together. And even Livgren, who nearly died in 2009 after suffering a stroke, seems genuinely surprised at the astounding run of classic songs he produced in those years, offering up thanks to God in a somewhat “Ah, shucks” sort of way.
Watching “Miracles Out of Nowhere” three times and listening to “The Prelude Implicit” some two dozen times now, I think that while the genius of Livgren and the distinctive abilities of Walsh are essential to the classic Kansas sound (the five first albums especially), we mustn’t overlook the duo that has proven to be the glue for Kansas for so long now: guitarist Richard Williams and drummer (and manager) Phil Ehart. I have long thought that Ehart, in particular, has never received proper recognition for his drumming, which is both virtuosic and musical—just listen, say, to “Song for America” and hear how he carries the entire tune and yet does so without drawing attention to his playing. In a word, his playing is “tasteful”. Ehart is the ultimate team player, and that quality comes through in the new album, on which he co-wrote nine of the 10 cuts. There is a certain Kansas-ish structure to songs—even ballads such as “The Unsung Heroes”—that shines through, and Ehart’s playing is essential to it.
Another distinctive Kansas characteristic is the violin. A few days ago I asked my wife—hardly a prog fan—to listen to part of “The Voyage of Eight Eighteen”, which opens with some beautiful guitar-violin interplay, and to identify the band. After rolling her eyes, she settled in and then said, in less than ten seconds: “Kansas!” Yep. And while one of my favorite Kansas albums is the violin-less “In the Spirit of Things”, there’s no doubt that the violin is essential to the “Kansas sound”, and David Ragsdale, who is on his second long stint with the band, gets a lot of time on the album—and that’s a very good thing.
As most prog fans know, Walsh finally stepped down as vocalist in 2014, replaced by Ronnie Platt (apparently John Elefante nearly took on the role, but eventually declined). While no one would match Walsh in his otherwordly prime, the original lead’s voice has been weathered and torn for many years now, making some live shows more than a little rough on the ears. (Walsh, however, has been performing recently in Germany and other places with a new band.) Platt’s ability to handle the early Kansas material seems evident from various videos of performances. What is most striking about his vocals on the new album is how they sound more like Elefante in many places, as well as Ted Leonard of Enchant and Spock’s Beard. In fact, a couple of songs—notably “Visibility Zero” and “Crowded Isolation”—sound as if they could have easily fit on new Spock’s Beard (which is high praise, as SB’s last two albums are outstanding). Platt certainly doesn’t need to sound like Walsh on the new material; more important is that the vocals have that melancholic keening quality that rides on top of the wall of sound produced by dual guitars, keyboards, and violin. And, in short, they do. One highlight, in particular, is the before-mentioned “The Unsung Heroes”, on which Platt not only hits the ever ascending notes, but does so with a plaintive, strong sincerity that captures the ear and heart.
“The Prelude Implicit” is the first studio album from Kansas since “Somewhere to Elsewhere”, which featured all of the original members as well as songs composed entirely by Livgren. It was a very good album, with some stellar moments—”The Coming Dawn (Thanatopsis)” and “Myriad” are powerful back-to-back cuts. So, where to go with the new album? In short, the band has found a commendable and impressive balance between old and new, with plenty of prog-heavy, classic Kansas-like passages, but with an emphasis on ensemble playing over solos. New guitarist Zak Rizvi (4Front), who has a background in production—he co-produced and co-mixed the album—brings a bigger and heavier guitar sound that is very much up to date (again, think Spock’s Beard, or Mystery). There are plenty of nifty progressions and chord changes, but it’s clear the group spent time working on a cohesive set of songs. This is An Album. Avoiding Livgren’s specific lyrical focus on overtly Christian themes, the songs are a bit more general in nature, touching on inner fights and fears (“With This Heart”, “Rhythm in the Spirit”), social tensions (“Visibility Zero”, “Crowded Isolation”), and spiritual growth (“The Voyage of Eight Eighteen”, “Camouflage”). The final song, “Second 60”, is a lovely, haunting instrumental, which is dedicated to U.S. military personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I’m loathe to say “The Prelude Implicit” is a “return to form” as I don’t believe the members of Kansas would view it in such a way, or would want it seen as such. Yes, there is a lot of musical history under the bridge of time, and there is no escaping it. But Kansas is to be commended for embracing their past while clearly moving forward with a confident and often exceptional collection of songs. Highly recommended for both longtime Kansas fans and for those who like melodic, well-crafted prog that puts the emphasis on memorable songs and musical cohesion over theatrics and solos.
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