For all that Kansas can’t (and shouldn’t) shrug off the legacy of their golden days, especially the double whammy of Leftoverture and Point of Know Return, they’ve built up quite a track record beyond the hits over the decades. The live set that followed the big albums, Two for the Show, is still thrilling; the 1980s version of the band fronted by Steve Walsh and guitarist Steve Morse changed up the sound without diluting the essence on Power and In the Spirit of Things; the original line-up reunited for a triumphant set of new Kerry Livgren compositions on 2000’s Somewhere to Elsewhere. And 2016’s The Prelude Implicit proved a first-class return to sustained action. The new recruits, guitarist/songwriter Zak Rivzi and singer/keyboardist Ronnie Platt, jelled nicely with Kansas’ long-term bedrock (stalwart violinist David Ragsdale, bassist/vocalist Billy Greer) as well as the band’s remaining founders (piratical guitarist Rich Williams and progressive rock’s most criminally underrated drummer, the brilliant Phil Ehart).
The good news is that Kansas’ latest, The Absence of Presence, is another great leap forward; appealing melodies, heady complexity and breathtaking power unite for maximum impact, and the whole album is a joy to hear. Each player has upped his game multiple notches — Ragsdale, Rivzi and Williams peel off one ear-catching riff and solo after another, Platt sings with smooth, soaring power and commitment (evoking Walsh while being utterly himself), and I could listen to Greer and Ehart’s rolling, tumbling thunder all day. New keyboardist Tom Brislin is the perfect match for this line-up, dishing up just the right lick no matter what’s required — pensive piano intros, crushing organ and synth riffs, lush textures, wigged-out solos, you name it.
But it’s how all these ingredients blend that makes The Absence of Presence compulsively listenable; the writing is more collaborative this time around (Rivzi and Brislin on music, Brislin, Pratt and Ehart on lyrics), and the band navigates the twists and turns of the tunes with pin-sharp focus. The multi-sectioned title track, the instrumental “Propulsion 1” and the unexpected up-tempo groove of “The Song the River Sang” (with Brislin on lead vocal) revel in Kansas’ proggier side. “Throwing Mountains” “Jets Overhead” and “Circus of Illusion” prove solid rockers, laced with unpredictable musical curveballs that set up the compelling, aspirational lyrics. And the obligatory power ballads “Memories Down the Line” and “Never” are earworms you may not want to shake, with words and melodies that bring home the heartfelt sentiments without bogging down in sticky sweetness.
In short, The Absence of Presence shows Kansas unlocking a new level of achievement, still going strong and making excellent new music more than 40 years after their initial breakthrough. Recommended without hesitation; this one has already hit my shortlist for this year’s favorites. Listen for yourself below.
— Rick Krueger