Kansas’ “The Prelude Implicit” is both agreeably familiar and remarkably fresh

The members of Kansas, 2016 (Photo: www.kansasband.com)
The members of Kansas, 2016 (Photo: http://www.kansasband.com)

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.

The members of Kansas, 2016 (Image: www.kansasband.com)
The members of Kansas, 2016 (Image: http://www.kansasband.com)

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. Continue reading “Kansas’ “The Prelude Implicit” is both agreeably familiar and remarkably fresh”

Personal Playlist by Iris (26 August 2016) — Grendel HeadQuarters

My latest playlist was next month, so it’s time for a new one! This playlist also contains some FREE music downloads, yippehyayeeeh! Here are some albums I’m listening to lately…(go click on the link below to see all the albums!)

via Personal Playlist by Iris (26 August 2016) — Grendel HeadQuarters

Kansas to Release First New Album in 16 Years

phoenixWhile there has been talk of a new Kansas album for a few months now, the band made it official this past Tuesday. The new album, entitled The Prelude Implicit, is due out September 23, 2016, and it is their first album since 2000’s Somewhere to Elsewhere, which featured all original members of the band, including Kerry Livgren. Kansas began recording the new album in January of this year, after signing with InsideOut records.

Continue reading “Kansas to Release First New Album in 16 Years”

My Top 10 Albums No One Else Likes or Listens To: Album #10

oldrecords
(us.fotolia.com/peuceta)

Yes, the title is an exaggeration. Perhaps it should be “albums no one admits to listening to or liking”! I’m sure there are plenty of others who like some of these albums. In fact, a few of these albums sold quite well. But reviews tended to be tepid, mixed, or worse. And in certain circles (yes, I’m looking at you, Rolling Stone magazine), most of these albums were either panned or scorned. Or they were simply ignored. (Deep question: “If Chris Cornell makes an album with Timbaland and no one listens to it, does it really exist?”)

The bottom line, I suppose, is that these albums tend to not fit comfortably into the larger body of an artist’s or band’s work. It might be that the album simply isn’t as good as other albums; or, it tended to be dismissed or downplayed because of apparent shortcomings or actual flaws. But, for me, these are often the most interesting albums, even if they are not the best albums. Just as really great people become more human and thus more fascinating when their flaws or failures are revealed or recognized, great artists reveal something in work that is “left field” or somehow not considered to be 10/10 material. (And, yes, I do consider ABBA to be a great band. Really. I’ll explain why soon enough.)

I’ll be posting my Top 10 “albums no one else listens to or likes” over the next few weeks. The first album on my list is: Continue reading “My Top 10 Albums No One Else Likes or Listens To: Album #10”

Bryan’s Best of 2015

2015 turned out to be another fantastic year for prog, as well as metal. Last year, I made a top 10 list, but this year, there has been far too much great music in prog, metal, and rock to narrow it down to 10 albums. Apart from my top 4, there will be no particular order for the rest of my picks. Most of this will be prog, but there is some straight up metal here as well.

The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment

grandexperimentNeal Morse and company have made another outstanding album. “Alive Again” might be one of the top 10 best long progressive songs ever made. It is remarkably beautiful. Mike Portnoy’s drumming is exceptional, as always, and, like last year, this isn’t the last we shall hear of him on this list.

 

 

Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle

cd_top1The Oblivion Particle is my first introduction to Spock’s Beard, and I am heartily impressed. Ted Leonard’s vocals really round out the band. “Bennett Built a Time Machine” is my personal favorite from the record.

 

 

Stryper – Fallen

stryperfallenart1-602x536I’m brand new to Stryper, and after listening to their last two albums, I’m flabbergasted. Their new music is better than their original stuff from the 80s. The drummer has grown incredibly, and Michael Sweet’s vocals soar to the heavens. The best thing – Stryper hasn’t given up on their values. They blast metal to honor God.

 

Lonely Robot – Please Come Home

71R0HHLaiqL._SY355_I was pleasantly surprised by this album. The music has just the right amount of complexity, with a few pop hooks here and there for good measure. The song “Lonely Robot” should be a radio staple, but rock radio sucks.

 

 

LEAH – Kings and Queens

a1021213633_16The reigning queen of prog metal released a masterpiece this year. A long masterpiece. Her combination of metal with celtic influences works amazingly well. She creates a wonderful sound that no one else really tries to duplicate. Originality abounds.

 

 

Dave Kerzner – New World (Deluxe Edition)

david-kerzner-new-world-deluxeThe deluxe edition came out this year, so it counts as 2015. Plus, I overlooked the album last year since it came out in December, and for that I sincerely apologize to Dave. This album brilliantly revives classic elements of Pink Floyd, and Kerzner’s voice is eerily reminiscent of David Gilmour’s. This is an album meant to last.

 

 

The Winery Dogs – Hot Streak

81SPiEsz2HL._SX425_Wow! AC/DC meets Mike Portnoy! Richie Kotzen’s voice has grown on me, as has the “Dog’s” music. From the virtuosity of the first track, “Oblivion,” to the hard rock bombast of “Captain Love,” Hot Streak is a fantastic album. Billy Sheehan’s bass balances Portnoy’s drums and Kotzen’s guitars beautifully. The quiet piece, “Fire,” is a nice change up, as well.

 

Next to None – A Light in the Dark

3655066_origI saw these guys live in concert with Haken this spring, and I was impressed. For teenagers, these guys have serious chops. Max Portnoy stands out though, as he has clearly inherited his father’s raw talent. Check out my review of the album and interview with Max – https://progarchy.com/2015/07/20/metal-mondays-interview-with-max-portnoy-of-next-to-none/

 

Metal Allegiance – Metal Allegiance

safe_image.phpYou could call this a supergroup for thrash, although it seems anything with Mike Portnoy in it could be called a supergroup. His double bass thrash drumming is a nice change for him. The abundant guest performances from bands such as Testament, Anthrax, and many other groups really round out their sound. Normally I don’t like thrash because of the lyrics, but the lyrics here are great. The combination of guests makes this album one of the greatest thrash albums ever made.

Disturbed – Immortalized

81FC381L9HL._SY355_This isn’t prog in any sense of the word, but Disturbed’s first album since 2010 is a return to form for the band. They didn’t want to make an album again unless it was really good, and they delivered on that desire. Immortalized is one of the best album’s they have made, with only one song that I don’t like. Their cover of “The Sound of Silence” is better than the original, in my opinion.

 

Flying Colors: Live at the Z7

CD_FC-2ndNatureLIVE_digi-03-625x567The live Blu-ray is one of the best live shows I have seen. The music is played flawlessly, and the production for sound is excellent. It was filmed in 4K and you can choose from two sound choices – front row or sound board. Well played, FC, well played. Oh ya, more Mike Portnoy, too.

 

Rush – R40 Live 

1035x1511-R40.Tour.Cover7.FNL-copyThis needs no explanation. Long live Rush.

 

 

 

 

Steve Hackett – Wolflight

wolflightFrontCoverAnother great solo effort from one of the greatest guitarists ever. I have such a great respect for Steve Hackett and his dedication to his craft and the genre. Of all the 70s prog giants, Hackett is probably the best ally to the newer prog artists and musicians.

 

 

4. Muse – Drones

MUSE-DRONESAnother fantastic album from Muse, and a dystopic concept album at that. I’m convinced that Matt Bellamy has the best voice in the business, plus he’s a god on the guitar. Chris Wolstenholme’s bass is underrated, as well. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2015/08/11/back-to-basics-muses-drones/

 

3. Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

A year ago, I couldn’t stand Steven Wilson. Now I’m a fan. Go figure. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is simply brilliant. The story telling is at an extremely high level, and this album, while rather depressing, is so addicting to listen to. Wilson is an incredibly important figure in progressive rock.

 

 

2. Vanden Plas – Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld Path 2

81ADonu6jjL._SX355_Combined with part 1, these two albums are a masterpiece. I’m still deciphering what the story is about, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. These guys have been going strong for a long time, and they have only gotten better with age. Check out my review: https://progarchy.com/2015/11/18/vanden-plas-another-stroke-of-genius/

 

1. The Tangent – A Spark in the Aether

tangent1Yeehaw, this is a great album! Holy crap, I don’t know how Andy Tillison does it! He is a master of cultural criticism, and while I don’t agree with him politically, I do respect him immensely. This album is well worth your time.

 

 


 

Like I said, a great year for rock of all kinds. As I promised, Mike Portnoy features prominently in my list, just like last year. He certainly deserves it since he is one of the hardest working men in the business. His “Hello Kitty” drum video for Loudwire was an instant classic.

Cultural RePercussions 2 (1)Best prog book of the year goes to Progarchy’s very own Brad Birzer for his excellent book on Neil Peart, a man of letters. Well worth your time.

Get it at Amazon here.

 

 

kansas_miraclesThe new Kansas documentary, Miracles out of Nowhere, is excellent. While it only goes through Point of Know Return, it is an excellent look at the band, from the band members themselves, as well as Brian May and Garth Brooks. It was great to see that the band members don’t hate each other. In fact, they genuinely seem to like each other. If at all possible, order it from the band because it comes with a bonus disc featuring the band reminiscing and a few other features – http://www.kansasmerch.toursync.com

Check out Carl Olson’s fantastic review of the documentary: https://progarchy.com/2015/08/19/miracles-and-music-out-of-kansas/

915g7JKrT-L._SX385_One final documentary/live concert that is worthy of any “best of” list is Roger Waters’ movie, The Wall. It combines a live concert from his recent tour with short scenes that examine the meaning of the album for him. The concert itself is outstanding – better than his 1990 The Wall concert in Berlin, performed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The music is basically indistinguishable from the album. A worthy look at one of the best and most important albums ever made.

 

Sorry if I have bored you with my list, but I am nothing if not thorough. I’m just amazed by the quality of music that has been released the last few years, and I eagerly look forward to what the coming year has in store. New Dream Theater coming in January. And who knows what Mike Portnoy will release. Such excitement. Merry Christmas everybody, and prog on into 2016.

As “My Wayward Son” approaches 40, it carries on its commercial ways

Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son”, from the 1976 album Leftoverture, was the band’s breakthrough hit, reaching #11 on Billboard and ushering in the Golden Age of Classic Kansas (c. 1976-1980). As Kerry Livgren noted in the excellent documentary “Miracles Out of Nowhere” (see my Progarchy review), the song came to him rather suddenly and it is loaded with hooks, bursting forth like ears of corn in a Kansas cornfield (as, yes, that’s a rather corny but apt metaphor). If, by chance, you’ve never heard the song (yeah, right), here it is performed live circa 1976:

(Is Steve Walsh a madman, or what!?) The original 7″ single of the song was an edited 3:26 version; the entire song is two minutes longer. Thus, the single has more of a classic/hard rock feel, while the album version–especially in the context of the entire, brilliant Leftoverture–is much more proggy. Regardless, what is surprising, nearly four decades later, is how this hard rock/prog song continues to make appearances in somewhat unexpected places. Such as beer commercials (full disclosure: I drink only micro brews):

Apparently the song has been played several times in the drama “Supernatural” (which I’ve never watched), including in some rather striking forms:

Not surprisingly, the song has been covered a number of times. But the Wikipedia (boo! hiss) entry on such covers missed one of the more interesting renditions, performed by the all female Christian rock band Rachel Rachel back in 1991, on the debut album “Way To My Heart”. In the video for the song, Kerry Livgren joins the band to play guitar; however, much of the guitar on the studio album was actually played by producer/guitarist/vocalist Dan Huff–who fronted the group Giant (“Last of the Runaways” is a scorching album), has played guitar on Madonna albums, and produced Megadeth, Keith Urban, Faith Hill, and a bazillion other artists:

Finally, what is perhaps most refreshing about the success of “Carry On…” (as well as “Dust in the Wind”) is the lyrical content. The song isn’t about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but peace, searching, and ultimate rest: “Nothing equals the splendor/Now your life’s no longer empty/Surely heaven waits for you.”

Miracles (and Music) Out of Kansas

kansas_miraclesIn one of my first posts here at Progarchy.com–“A Pilgrim’s Prog-ress”–I wrote about the key role that Kansas (the band, not the state) played in opening the doors to prog for me:

Around 1985 or so, I bought a copy of “The Best of Kansas”. That opened the door to prog. There was something about the mixture of Livgren’s lead guitar, Steinhardt’s violin, and Steve Walsh’s amazing voice, along with lyrics soaked in spiritual longing and Americana, that grabbed me by the scrawny neck. Over the next three or four years, I ended up collecting everything by Kansas, Kerry Livgren (solo and with AD), and Steve Morse (solo, Dixie Dregs, etc.). My favorite Kansas albums are “Song for America” and “In the Spirit of Things”, although they weren’t the chart-toppers that “Point of Know Return” and “Leftoverture” were.

Early on in the documentary, “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, which was released in March, drummer Phil Ehart emphasizes that it was Livgren’s song writing, Steinhardt’s violin, and Walsh’s vocals that made Kansas such a distinctive-sounding band in the 1970s. He is surely correct about that, but he also, in saying so, humbly passes over another key to the band’s steady rise and eventually rather surreal success (or miraculous, a consistent theme in the documentary): he own unassuming, balanced personality and rooted, yet deeply musical, drumming. As Garth Brooks, one of several rather surprising guests, marvels in recalling his first Kansas show: “It was the first time I’d seen a drummer play actual notes!”

Miracles and music: those are the two constant themes throughout the documentary, which begins with childhood memories and concludes with 1977’s “Point of Know Return”, Kansas’ fifth album and the apex of the band’s commercial success (it hit #4 in the U.S. and featured the band’s biggest hit and best-known song, “Dust in the Wind”). That album is, arguably, a fitting conclusion to the documentary as the band would soon learn there really are points of no return; or, in the words a certain young lady, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”. It wasn’t long, in fact, before Walsh departed, then Livgren, and then the band entered into the post-classic-Kansas era (I provide some details here). Continue reading “Miracles (and Music) Out of Kansas”

Happy Birthday to a Hero

kerry
Kerry Livgren

That brooding stare from the record sleeve of Leftoverture (1976) belongs to Kerry Livgren, born this day in 1949.  Despite being an early Boomer, Livgren was (as he wrote in the song “Two Cents Worth”) “born in the wrong century.” At an early age he was rapt in the majesty of Lutheran hymns, Strauss, and Wagner, rising from a Swedish church and a relative’s phonograph into the wide sky above Topeka, Kansas. Although his early gigs included a R&B band, Livgren would carry the classics with him into a career that carved out one of the most distinctive sounds in progressive rock — a fusion of jazz, classical, arena rock, and country. The music of Kansas (the band) was as fierce, dynamic, and restless as the cover art to their eponymous first release, a painting by John Stuart Curry of John Brown astride “bleeding Kansas.”

As a teenager growing up in the southern Piedmont of North Carolina I, too, was listening to Also Sprach Zarathustra, Elektra, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But I was also weaned on the Stanley Brothers and Buck Owens; so when I heard the opening harmonies and heavy bombast of “Carry On Wayward Son” erupting from the FM station my dad managed, I found something musically that harmonized what had seemed distressingly disparate tastes. Livgren proved you can put these diverse elements together and make something glorious and coherent of them.

The greatness of Kansas’ music never rose higher, in my mind, than “The Pinnacle” (Masque, 1975); but majestic moments are found all over of the band’s catalog. Moreover, coupled with the music was Livgren’s deep spiritual search. As a rocker from the Plains he epitomized Jesus’ challenge to, “Seek, and you will find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.” If there was one American who exhausted the religious and philosophical well of thought, it was Kerry Livgren. That search, chronicled on Kansas’ albums, concluded with a return to the faith of his fathers. Livgren wrote of his career and conversion in Seeds of Change (1980, ed. 1991), an autobiography coauthored with Kenneth Boa.

Settling the religious question did not settle Livgren’s music. As a solo artist he wrote — and, in Todd Rundgren fashion, played all the instruments — on a characteristically diverse and fascinating album, One of Several Possible Musiks (1989). Together with Kansas bassist Dave Hope (now an Anglican priest) Livgren formed AD, releasing a string of albums in the ’80s of ’90s. In 2000 he produced one of his best solo efforts, Collector’s Sedition (an album I was privileged to review for PopMatters) that again showcases the sheer breadth of his interests and abilities.

In his bio Livgren introduced the tantalizing subject of the “pre-” Kansas bands — Kansas I and II, featuring Lynn Meredith’s histrionic vocals and John Bolton’s wild, Coltrane-inspired saxophone solos. Doing the prog world an unspeakable service, Livgren re-mixed and released Early Recordings from Kansas, 1971-1973 (2002), which I would say holds up as a prog album worthy of any collection. On the strength of that effort, the aptly named Proto-Kaw became a band again, touring and recording three new albums.

We’ve barely scratched the surface here; but suffice to say that Kerry Livgren is a renaissance man: church elder, husband, father, farmer, pilot, student, promoter of others’ gifts and talents, and yes, a brilliant composer, arranger, and musician.

Happy birthday, Kerry Livgren. Thank you for a tireless witness to honesty, truth, beauty, and order over the past five and a half decades.

What do Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado Have In Common with The Tangent and Big Big Train?

It's hard to tell, but I'm wearing my "Got Peart?" t-shirt.  And, there's a big, big train in the background.  Andy's motorcycle is missing, however.
It’s hard to tell, but I’m wearing my “Got Peart?” t-shirt. And, there’s a big, big train in the background. Andy’s motorcycle is missing, however.

 

Driving across the grass seas of western Nebraska and eastern Colorado this past week, I made sure my listening list was quite specific and quite orderly.  Across the western parts of Nebraska, traversing the mighty and winding Platte several times, I listened to Big Big Train, ENGLISH ELECTRIC PART ONE.  Not FULL POWER, but the original PART ONE.  Back to this in a moment.

Greg Marcus Aurelius Spawton
Greg Marcus Aurelius Spawton

Once the Platte split into north and south, I took the south fork, and I went for The Tangent’s THE MUSIC THAT DIED ALONE.  Andy always inspires me.  But, the combination of Andy and Roine Stolt as my car flew (legally, of course) through such nearly forgotten towns as Julesburg, Ovid, and Sedgwick proved perfect.  Andy never fails to find the beauty in lost hope.

Andy Tillison.  Master of Hope and Keytarism. (Picture - Martin Reijman)
Andy Tillison. Master of Hope and Keytarism.
(Picture – Martin Reijman)

A bit of patriotism hit me after The Tangent finished, so I went for Kansas’s THE POINT OF NO RETURN.  Amazingly enough, the entire album took me from the ending of THE MUSIC THAT DIED ALONE to our brand new house in Colorado.  Truly, as we driving up to the house in Longmont, the final notes of “Hopelessly Human” played.

As promised, back to BBT, ENGLISH ELECTRIC PART ONE (EEP1).  First, its pastoral tone fit the Nebraska countryside beautifully.  The skies, not surprisingly, were as broad as were deeply blue—the kind of blue one finds only in the Great Plains on a summer day.  But, the grasses were a treat as well—variations of greens and golds, generally quite tall and swaying under the pressure of the continental winds.

Second, I’ve not listened to EEP1 for at least a year.  Indeed, once ENGLISH ELECTRIC FULL POWER (EEFP) came out, I considered it the definitive edition, putting away PART ONE.

I won’t in any way, shape, or form suggest I had any thing at all to do with the final ordering of EEFP.  Such a claim would be nothing but hubris.  And, it would be completely false.  This was not, however, for want of trying.  I bugged Greg openly on the internet and privately through emails about this.  I interviewed him about it, and, as a friend, tried to put him in a corner.  Greg, the quintessential English Stoic gentleman, quietly (though not in quiet desperation, I pray) took the suggestions of this overly eager and earnest American (overly eager and earnestness are two of our defining traits as a people) with kindness.  Thank you, Greg.

I know there was some debate among the progarchists whether or not Greg and Co. were messing with a work of art unnecessarily by re-arranging the order of things and filling in the corners with EEFP.  But, from the beginning, I was on Greg’s side.  It’s his creation, and he can do with it as he will (and the rest of the members of the band, of course).

Listening to EEP1 this week only confirmed my thoughts.  It is a stunningly beautiful, calming, and mesmerizing work.  Like all great works of art, it demands full immersion by the participant.  Pastoral, it is also equally humane and cinematic.  It is a part of the English bardic tradition at its very best.  A community of minds and talents produced this album, and we are blessed indeed to exist in a world that allows such works of art to emerge and flourish.

But, for me, especially as a historian, EEP1 is now an incomplete yet intriguing part of a puzzle.  It belongs in the archives now, a glorious blueprint, but not quite the complete thing.

This discussion, I think, is not mere mental wrestling.  BBT is not just another band, and EEP1, EEP2, and EEFP are not just mere new releases.  BBT is a definitive band of prog’s third wave, and EEFP is possibly the finest statement of music over the last two and a half decades.  It is the legitimate successor to Talk Talk’s SPIRIT OF EDEN.

How the album came together, how it evolved, and how it is received is not merely academic.  It’s now a critical part of our history as lovers of music, art, and human genius.  It is now an integral part of the western tradition.  Long may it continue.

***

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