Kansas, The Absence of Presence

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.

kansas band shot

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

soundstreamsunday #103: “Every Hungry Woman” by the Allman Brothers Band

Allmans1Southern Rock’s manifesto is like no other rock album.  The Allman Brothers Band, released in November 1969, carries a hard sonic power absent from its closest temporal and spiritual brother, the Band’s Music from Big Pink (1968), and tight, sharp-cornered riffing missing from the work of the Grateful Dead, who the Allmans resembled in their two-drummer, double guitar form and in their tendency to stretch out in live performance.  Mostly, though, the group had the brothers themselves: Duane, a guitar sharpshooter whose session work had honed his chops — including a wicked slide technique — to a razor’s edge; and Gregg, whose organ playing and lyric writing demonstrated a finesse far beyond his 21 years, and whose voice was a soulful, ragged howl coming from a place of honest truth.  In an era when the integrity of white blues bands was, rightfully, beginning to be questioned, along with the plantation politics of the music industry, no one, not even Lester Bangs, argued with the Allman Brothers Band’s authenticity or the singular chords they struck, as they effortlessly crossed over into country and jazz, articulating a maturing musical vision for the American South.  That they were an integrated band was interesting (in 1969 much of Georgia, the Allman’s home base, still segregated its schools), but it was what underpinned that fact that made their music ascend: a fascination with next steps, set against a background of a changing rock vocabulary, so that every member of the band was important.  While Duane and Gregg receive much of the attention as the band’s geniuses (and they were), guitarist Dickey Betts’s influence on the band, particularly his use of the major pentatonic scale, went a long way towards defining the Southern Rock sound, while the rhythm section of Berry Oakley, Jai Johanny Johanson, and Butch Trucks provided a propulsive force but also a lithe one, booty shaking, more akin to what Carlos Santana was putting together on the west coast than anything coming out of the blues or country scenes of the time.

Paraphrasing the Rolling Stone Record Guide‘s review of the Allman’s Live at Fillmore East (1971), even when the band went long form, when they jammed, there weren’t any wasted notes.  At a scant 33 minutes, the Allmans’ first album is similarly lean, a killer hard rock set that proved to be less of a template than an opening salvo (1970’s Idlewild South shows voracious growth, as does 1972’s Eat a Peach, Duane’s death notwithstanding).  While “Dreams” and “Whipping Post” are the album’s jaw-dropping closers, this is a record with no filler whatsoever.  “Every Hungry Woman” is a favorite, metal crunch up against slide guitar sirens, organ moans, and an epic swamp beast of a riff.  The dueling guitars in the solo section say more in their few seconds than many bands say across a career, and Gregg’s roar channels some deep beast that must’ve drunk from the same watering hold as Ray Charles and Charley Patton.  Inimitable.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.