Bryan’s Best of 2021

We’ve come to the end of another year, and what a horrible year it has been. Really the only positive thing I can think of from this year is the music. In addition to all the non-music nonsense that has gone on this year, we lost from legends in the prog world, none hurting more than the tragic and completely unexpected death of David Longdon. That one will hurt for a long time.

I usually write my best of lists in no particular order, with my top pick(s) at the end. So without further ado…

Robby Steinhard Not in Kansas AnymoreRobby Steinhardt – Not In Kansas Anymore

Robby Steinhardt was another prog legend we lost unexpectedly earlier this year. He hadn’t been active in music for quite some time, but that was about to change as he was finishing up his first solo album and had plans for a tour. Sadly the latter was not to be, but we did end up getting his solo album in the fall. It’s a great record, and it shows what a key player he was in Kansas. His vocals are stellar, and his violin playing is second to none. This record has a bit of the magic that I think Kansas lacks without Steinhardt. There are more musical influences at work than just Kansas on this record. It’s not a solid 10/10 throughout, but it is a very good record. Check out my review and my tribute to Robby.

Devin Townsend Galactic QuarantineDevin Townsend – Devolution Series #2 – Galactic Quarantine

Devin Townsend has been a busy bee this year. In addition to working on three new records this year, he released two minor releases of live material. The first is an acoustic album (see my glowing review) from a show he did in Leeds in 2019. It’s a raw and emotional take on his music. The Galactic Quarantine album is one of his live-streamed albums from 2020 with the musicians playing live on green screens across the world. The music is blisteringly great, with a surprising amount of Strapping Young Lad material played. Devin humorously engages with his virtual audience, which makes the music come to life a bit more. This has been one I’ve returned to quite a bit this year. Perhaps an unorthodox release, but it would make a really good entrance point for the uninitiated to the heavier side of Devin’s music. Check out my review.

8250379_e4a1fc34c7Soen – Imperial

It turns out we never reviewed Soen’s latest album, which was released in January. The Swedish prog-metal supergroup can do no wrong. Their songs are catchy, memorable, and thoughtful. They can be both heavy and contemplative, and in my book they rank in the upper echelon of progressive metal. This record has been on repeat all year.

Atravan - The Grey LineAtravan – The Grey Line

Sticking with the progressive metal theme, Atravan was a pleasant surprise at the beginning of the year. This is the first Iranian band we’ve ever reviewed here at Progarchy, and they’re fantastic. I’m so glad the band reached out to us. They make metal in the vein of Riverside – heavy, spacey, wall of sound. Definitely a band that deserves recognition, although I worry what too much recognition could do for them with the repressive Iranian regime. Check out my review.

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A Final Goodbye: Robby Steinhardt’s “Not In Kansas Anymore”

Robby Steinhard Not in Kansas AnymoreRobby Steinhardt, Not In Kansas Anymore, 2021
Tracks: Tempest (1:41), Truth 2 Power (Only Truth Can Change The World) (3:48), Mother Earth (Is Calling You) (4:42), Rise Of The Phoenix (5:22), The Phoenix (4:06), Prelude (1:54), Dust In The Wind (5:43), Pizzacato (A Slice For Baby Boy Flynn) (2:37), Tuck Tuck (6:10), Not In Kansas Anymore (4:40), A Prayer For Peace (Bonus Track) (3:15)

It was only a few months ago that we mourned the loss of Robby Steinhardt, but out of that sadness we found out that his very first solo album was just about finished. The album release was delayed because of his death, but Not In Kansas Anymore was released a week ago. It is far better than I could have imagined. In many ways it sounds more like Kansas than Kansas does these days. The hard rock, the unique touch Robby had on the violin, the beautiful vocal harmonies – Not In Kansas Anymore has it all.

The album was produced by Michael Thomas Franklin, who produced Jon Anderson’s 1000 Hands a few years ago, for which Steinhardt played violin on one song. Franklin pulled together a cast of literal rock stars for this record, including Ian Anderson (flute on Pizzacato), Steve Morse of Deep Purple/Dixie Dregs/Kansas/Flying Colors, Billy Cobham of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Bobby Kimball of Toto, Chuck Leavell of The Rolling Stones, Liberty Devitto (Drummer on Billy Joel’s hits), Jim Gentry, Pat Travers, Billy Ashbaugh (Moody Blues/Pat Benatar), Lisa Fischer (longtime vocalist for The Rolling Stones), and more. 

The record opens with a brief instrumental before pounding into a classic Kansas sound with “Truth 2 Power.” It has a glorious intro of vocal harmonies that screams late 70s Kansas. The lyrics deliver a message of, well, truth about the necessity of speaking truth even when it is derided. The line “only truth can change the world” seems Livgren-esque in a lot of ways, seeing as the world-changing power of truth as personified in Jesus is central to Christianity and the Bible. I don’t know what Steinhardt’s spiritual background was or whether or not he was a Christian, but these lyrics certainly spoke to me in that regard. 

The album features an ode to the earth, which is another theme that ran through Kansas’ lyrics back in the day. Musically and lyrically “Mother Earth” reminds me a little bit of “Cheyenne Anthem.” We get a bit of western imagery in the middle of the album, and there or subtle lyrical nods to the Wizard of Oz, which is most blatant in the beautiful cover art by Tom Lupo. “Rise of the Phoenix” is an instrumental track that is pure Kansas. The guitar, bass, drums, and violin all blend perfectly in a driving track that sets the stage for “The Phoenix,” which is another track reminiscent of Kansas. 

I was surprised to hear something that reminded me of Big Big Train on this record. The sixth track, “Prelude,” is a brief introduction to a beautiful cover of Kansas’ “Dust In The Wind.” The prelude blends aspects of the Kansas sound with distinctly Big Big Train movements, including a brass band towards the end and the way the musical action steps down towards the end before morphing into “Dust In The Wind.” Perhaps it wasn’t intentional, but it sounds great all the same. “Dust In The Wind” is mostly true to the original, with the song building into harder rock territory as it goes along. It also adds more symphonic elements to the track. All along it retains the Kansas sound. 

Ian Anderson’s flute stands out immediately on “Pizzacato (A Slice For Baby Boy Flynn),” which is a folk instrumental rather than a rock piece. Robby’s violin blends well with Anderson’s flute, and it makes you wonder what an entire album of their collaborations could have given us. Both men strike me as being rather similar in a lot of ways, at least when it came to their stage presence back in the 70s. 

“Tuck Tuck” is a rather touching ode to the forgotten people of society – the hookers, beggars, and downtrodden of the cities. Steinhardt reminds us that those who have absolutely nothing matter just as much as anybody else. He reminds us that they all have stories – backgrounds of where they came from. He calls them “a royal family / lords and ladies of the evening.” He tells us of Nancy, a girl who excelled in her youth but had to leave home at 17 because of abuse at home, and sadly now she is on the streets. He tells of a young man who came back home from serving in the military and who couldn’t find any work. Now Joey is living in a cardboard box on the streets. Both are “downtown royalty.” Musically the song is a blend of styles with elements of a laid-back country song mixed with more a more traditional ballad. Lyrically I find the song quite moving. 

The losers and twenty-four hour girls
The street corner boys and the underworld
Holding court in city streets
Everyone’s seen downtown royalty

Steinhardt’s vocals really shine on the album. I wasn’t sure how he would sound after so many years on the road as well as so many years away from the industry and the health issues he dealt with over the last decade. But he sounds just like you would remember, albeit with a bit deeper tone. It’s a warm and comforting voice that I have missed in the milieu of modern prog. 

Robby Steinhardt’s Not In Kansas Anymore is one of the first albums in a little while that made me sit up and take notice. I wasn’t sure which direction this record would go – if it would be more rock, more classical, folk, or what. Robby had been mostly retired for a long time, but that time away clearly didn’t impact his talent as a musician. The most tragic part of this record is how it now represents a new beginning cut short. It was Steinhardt’s first, and sadly last, solo album. He was excited to get on the road and tour starting this past August, but unfortunately he got sick in May and never fully recovered. Thankfully we will have this record by which to remember him, in addition to his years of brilliant work with Kansas. 

This album is definitely one to check out, especially if you’re a Kansas fan. It has the special touches that I think have been missing from the last two Kansas records. 


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All We Are Is Dust in the Wind… Remembering Robby Steinhardt

Robby-SteinhardtBy now I’m sure you’ve heard that Robby Steinhardt passed away a week ago at age 71 after complications from acute pancreatitis and sepsis. I wanted to write something sooner, but it’s been a busy week. Since Robby Steinhardt is a far more important figure in progressive rock than he is given credit for, I thought I’d share a few thoughts. The timing of his death is doubly tragic since he was in the final phases of finishing a new solo album, and he had plans to tour the country in the future. I hope that album still gets released. 

More so than any other band member, Steinhardt is arguably the one person who set Kansas apart from any other rock band in the 1970s. His violin created an entirely new sound. Sure there were other rock and progressive rock bands incorporating violins into their music, but no one else came close to touching Kansas. Pretty much every other rock band that incorporates a violin does it in a way that allows the violin to shine in a more traditional symphonic way. The violin tends to add a folk element to a rock band’s sound. That isn’t a critique against violinists in rock bands who play that way, but Robby didn’t play that way. Even though he was classically trained, he was able to take that background and apply it to a rock sound, creating something entirely new in the process. 

Steinhardt’s violin had this magnificent ability to supplement Steve Walsh’s and Kerry Livgren’s keyboards in some parts of songs while carefully interplaying with Livgren’s and Rich Williams’ electric guitar riffs at other parts. He played a hard a fast violin for those rock moments, but he could play the gentler, smoother sounds when needed too. “Song For America,” one of Kansas’ best tracks, displays both methods. Without the violin, that song just wouldn’t have the power that it has. It’s pure Americana, and it’s pure progressive rock at it’s finest. Arguably a top ten track in the genre. 

https://youtu.be/DYklWF1lqEM

Like many people, I was initially drawn to Kansas’ music by the violin, as was my Dad, who saw the band play at Six Flags in Missouri in the early 1970s before the band released their first album. As a kid, he was struck by a rock band using a violin. I had the same reaction as a kid. I was exposed to Kansas’ music about the same time I first heard Rush’s music, and both bands ended up playing an enormous role in my life, so much so that I wrote an academic essay on Kerry Livgren for one of Dr. Brad Birzer’s (Progarchy’s founding father) classes in college. But it was that violin that first grabbed my attention and pulled me in for a closer listen. 

If being a whiz on the violin wasn’t enough, Steinhardt also had a golden voice that elevated Kansas’ sound. In his prime, Steve Walsh had the finest voice in rock music, but Steinhardt added a grit to their sound. Walsh was capable of that heavier blues singing, which can be heard on their first couple of albums. Steinhardt didn’t add a blues flair, though. His voice had a natural deepness and tone, and the harmonies the two vocalists made were glorious. His voice had a distinctive sound, and it was backed by a lot of power.

Together Walsh and Steinhardt made a sound that was unique. Just listen to “The Devil Game.” When they harmonize, Walsh takes the highs and Steinhardt takes the lows, providing a well-balanced sound that reflects the lyrics. How many bands would have a secondary singer open up their album, as Kansas did with “Down the Road” off Song For America? That shows how vital Steinhardt’s vocals were to the band’s sound.

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