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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Proto-Kaw

Early Recordings from Kansas 1971-1973

Review by Gary Hill

This disc is exactly what the title says, a collection of early demos and two live tracks from the band that would eventually take the rock world by storm under the name of Kansas. Much of the material is far closer to old King Crimson than to the sound that we all know of as that Midwestern group. This is certainly more adventurous than the more arena driven rock they are famous for, wandering into all sorts of freeform jazz and other directions. It at times is a bit over the top for this listener, and some of the recordings, as one might expect, lack a bit in production quality. Still, there is some strong material here, and it definitely is an interesting document that should have interest for Kansas fans, of course, but also for those into all progressive rock. I am glad that Cuneiform saw fit to release this one.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2003 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Hegemonium
Classically oriented keys make up the early segments of this cut. After running in this mode for a time, it breaks loose into a jam that feels a lot like some of the harder edged jams from King Crimson (Can you say, "21st Century Schizoid Man"?) This is a powerful prog rock piece that is full of emotion, even if it does get a bit cacophonous at times. The wailing sax is certainly a contributing force to that element. It drops eventually for a short time to a loose jazz type arrangement, but eventually the Crimsonian fury returns in earnest. After a bit of that, it dissolves into weird wanderings with wailing screams that call to mind Pink Floyd's "Careful With That Axe, Eugene". A flurry of noisy horns ends the piece. 
Reunion in the Mountains of Sarne
If the last piece made one think of "21st Century Schizoid Man", then this one certainly feels a lot like "I Talk To The Wind". Still, there is an overlaid melody that reminds me of the music to the film "Omega Man". Lyrically this is a fantasy adventure. The cut is a lot more cohesive and less dynamic than the album opener, but still quite a strong piece. This one gets more jazzy than the aforementioned KC tune and even includes a crunchy segment.
Nactolos 21
A pretty classically tinged piano begins this but is eventually interrupted by horns in a noisy cacophony of sound, then the cut turns to a jazz jam for a time, until it drops down becoming a very potent piano based ballad. The horns rejoin and the band begins building on these themes. This jam gets quite intense at times, then bursts into another exploratory mode that is again quite firmly in the mode of early King Crimson, reinventing itself throughout the course of the cut. At almost 12 minutes in length, this certainly qualifies as epic. Noisy dissonance serves as the conclusion to this killer song. 
Belexes
This is probably the closest to the sound that would later be associated with Kansas than anything up to this point. It is a hard-edged prog rocker. This high-energy jam really smokes.
Totus Nemesis
At over 13 minutes, this is definitely another extended track. It starts with a dramatic segment that feels both regal and olde worlde in tone. Then a hard-edged jam ensues for a time. It drops to a mellower, sparser arrangement that is quite strong. The best description of this cut would be to take the sound of Kansas that we all know and add horns and adventurous jazzy oriented jamming. After a time it drops to atmospheric spacey weirdness. Then melody starts to re-emerge, lead by saxophone and bass. A Crimsonian jam comes out of that, feeling a lot like the jam segment of "Schizoid", then more chaos takes over for a while before the song returns to the jam it dropped from. Chaos concludes the piece.
Greek Structure Sunbeam
This is a pretty and gentle balladic track. It gets pretty lush and strong as it carries on.
Incomudro
Wow, now this really comes in feeling like Kansas' later incarnation, with it's dramatic building intro. It drops to a rather bluesy mellow jam for the verse. After this crescendos, the opening themes return. Then the song cycles back down to an instrumental segment that builds on the balladic elements. This wanders through, gradually ramping up, then resolves out into a new exploration, slower, then jumping tempo, once and again. An all-new faster paced progression enters to move the composition on. This segment feels just a tiny bit like Peter Banks' post Yes group Flash at times. A percussion solo erupts, then the opening themes return. Next another mellower segment takes the piece, feeling a bit like Pink Floyd. This then explodes into a harder edged fast paced movement that is quite strong and those more modern Kansas sounds return. The same progression, with less crunchy textures serves as the outro to this 11 and a half-minute cut.
Cyclopy
The first live recording of the disc, this starts as sort of an ELP meets Kansas approach, then it drops to a jazzy jam that feels quite a bit like the theme from Peter Gunn. It's too bad this recording isn't better because this instrumental is hot.
Skont
The final track, and second live piece, this starts more in the hard-edged Crimson type of mode. It evolves into a fast paced jam that feels a bit like ELP and King Crimson rolled into one, but the sound quality takes a lot away from this. That problem is especially apparent when it drops down too mellower, slower stylings before jumping back to the crunchier jamming. This also features an extended instrumental break that turns almost funky at times. This is a smoker that really deserves a better recording.
 
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