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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Kerry Livgren

Seeds of Change

Review by Scott Prinzing

The first solo outing by Kansas founder Kerry Livgren is still a rewarding listen three decades after its 1980 release.  The album features a full cast of rock-n-roll characters - some celebrated, some lesser known - but the collection of songs is unified by its lyrics.  After half a dozen studio albums with the same line-up, fans could fairly easily differentiate the songs of Kansas' two primary songwriters: Kerry Livgren's mystical lyrics and classically-influenced prog; and singer/keyboardist Steve Walsh's more straight ahead rockers about love and life on the road.  To those who pay less attention to the lyrics than the music, Livgren's then-recent conversion to Christianity (after a stint as a devotee of The Urantia Book) could pass by unnoticed here, as his Kansas lyrics had always delved into a variety of spiritual issues influenced by his lifelong study of world religions, but avoided “Christianese” and “God language,” making the perspective oblique.  But with this album, it became clear to those who had followed this lyrical thread over the previous decade that Livgren had found the answers to his spiritual questions. 

An obvious opportunity for Livgren and Walsh to give each other a little breathing room, they both recorded solo albums in 1980 and Kansas also released Audio-Visions that same year.  Some might argue that choosing the best three or four songs from each would have made for one mighty strong Kansas.  Instead, each contains a few classics plus some easy-to-forget filler. 

And as it turned out, the craving  to work with outside musicians wasn't the key to re-energize Kansas, either, as Walsh left during the early sessions for 1982's Vinyl Confessions, paving the way for new singer John Elefante, whose pop sensibilities began to lead them even further from their prog roots.  The clash was reported to center on Livgren's more blatant Christian lyrics (several demos exist among collectors of Walsh singing songs later finished off with Elefante).  However, Walsh and Livgren did each make appearances on the other's solo venture and Kansas performed one song from each solo work on the Audio-Visions tour.

 

Seeds of Change has a spectrum of songs that would sit comfortably on a Kansas album to those that would not.  The album’s high points are the two songs sung by Ronnie James Dio, who had then recently replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath (after himself having been replaced in Rainbow by Graham Bonnet).  Distinctive drum work by Jethro Tull’s Barriemore Barlow also reverberates through most of the songs.  A few other members of Kansas; a few wives; a few musical friends from Ambrosia, Atlanta Rhythm Section, LeRoux; and even a few Kansas roadies also get to participate.  Overall, it's an album that any Kansas fan should have in his or her collection; and any Dio fan will find his performances here a lost treasure at the end of the rainbow.  Originally released by Columbia Records on vinyl and cassette in 1980, Seeds of Change was finally remastered for CD a decade later as the two-disc collection Decade, and also included a compilation of Livgren's '80s work with his post-Kansas band AD.  In 1996, Renaissance Records, a Sony Special Music Products label, re-released it on CD with a 20-min. bonus interview with Livgren (same format with a Vinyl Confessions re-issue).  It was later partially re-recorded and re-released on CD-R as, Decade, Vol. 1, on Livgren's own label, Numavox. 

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Just One Way

Kicking off with a very pompous, Kansas-y introduction and followed by a punchy organ-driven riff, Livgren lays down the roadmap for most of this album: he is as much a master of the keyboards and orchestration as he is a killer guitarist.  He is also the main force behind the distinctive American prog sound that Kansas took to the upper reaches of the Billboard charts and the classic rock radio canon.  The sound is familiar enough not to alienate, while exploring some new sounds and voices.  Jeff Pollard, of Kansas touring partners Louisiana's LeRoux, belts out the strong vocal. While he is a fine singer, it is hard to compare him with Walsh, Livgren's usual mouthpiece.  LeRoux’ Bobby Campo provides a horn section as well.  The instrumental break finds Livgren doing trade-off leads that makes one wonder if this was originally written with Kansas in mind.  The call-and-response chorus brings to mind a gospel choir, proclaiming, “There's just one way / From the dark into the light.”

Mask of the Great Deceiver
This song is the masterpiece of the project; worthy of album-closer status, but too awesome to hold off for that long.  One of the “proggiest” pieces here, weighing in at 7:34, with nearly two-minutes of majestic synth and guitar engulfing the listener before the late, great Ronnie James Dio’s unmistakable pipes appear.  This is one of the most impassioned performances that Dio ever laid down on tape, which is unusual, as he didn't write the lyrics. The dynamic range of Dio’s voice is utilized to its full potential in this song.  He starts out mid-register in a ballad voice (“Well, he's the prince of the world / His work is never complete”). When he growls out, “And he's fallen / How he's fallen / From the height of the morning star,” it is simply epic. But then his tender harmonies appear as well (check out the last word of “Cause he's the father of lies”).  In places, he stretches out the full spectrum of his range in one word.  The bass work by Atlanta Rhythm Section's Paul Goddard is more memorable than any ARS song I can recall; and Barriemore Barlow's drumming is full of tasty high hat and double bass play.  It’s an essential Dio track that deserves broader distribution.  It may be a cliché, but this song is worth the price of admission. 
How Can You Live

The most Kansas-like song on the album is appropriately sung by Steve Walsh.  Musically, it sounds like a contender for Audio-Visions.  Lyrically, it’s ironic that it includes the line, “Does the fly in the ointment get under your skin,” as it was Livgren's increasingly “Christianese” lyrics that were getting under Walsh’s skin.  The middle instrumental section opens with a synth woodwinds section before an undeniable Livgren solo.  Livgren plays everything but drums here.

Whiskey Seed
This most uncharacteristically-Livgren song features the only lead vocal of his career.  After he had recorded a guide-vocal for the demo, his engineer, Davey Moire, suggested the songwriter's own voice fit the voice of the skid row drunk from whose perspective the song is sung.  As “Mississippi Willie,” Livgren does sound convincing on this swamp blues; and is nicely set-off by some chain-gang chanting and the strong soulful singing of Mylon LeFevre.  The song’s mid-section ventures into a hypnotic Beatle-esque swirl a la “I Want You (She's So Heavy),” before a trademark solo. 
To Live for the King
Here’s another lost treasure with Dio on vocals; as impassioned and convincing when he sings about Livgren’s Jesus as they are when singing of the Devil (e.g. Rainbow’s “Gates of Babylon”).  According to the excerpt from Livgren’s autobiography, Seeds of Change: The Spiritual Quest of Kerry Livgren, Dio’s adlibs at the end of the song are all his own. Lyrically joyful; musically, it’s a slow burner; with a deeply soulful guitar solo and some nice interplay with the bass player.  It’s in the minority of songs here that doesn’t have the Barlow/Goddard rhythm section; instead, Kerry shares the limelight with two members of the Kansas road crew (bass and drum techs).  How cool is that?  For completists, there’s a version with all new instruments and an alternate vocal take on the Numavox CD, The Best of Kerry Livgren.  One wonders how Dio would have sounded singing all of the leads on the album; he is in such a class of his own.
Down to the Core
The song sounds like it was written with Kansas recording engineer Davey Moiré in mind.  I am unaware of any other vocal he has recorded, but he has a distinct voice that reminds me of a cartoon character (not the Cookie Monster, though!).  I mean no disrespect when I say he could find muppet voiceover work on Sesame Street.  Campo’s horns appear again, adding to the swamp funk.  Another new element to Livgren’s music up to this point is female vocals.  Wife Vicky and fellow Kansas guitarist Rich William’s wife Donna both add lines to the chorus, emphasizing that this project was as much about working with friends and family as it was with top-notch musicians.  Fortunately, they mostly overlap. 
Ground Zero
Half of Kansas perform on this obvious choice for album closer.  Livgren plays most everything; with Ehart on drums and Robbie Steinhart on violins.  At over eight minutes, it approaches classic Kansas more than anything else on this long player.  The majority of the song is symphonically-influenced instrumental prog. Ambrosia’s David Pack takes the lead vocal; Moire and the ladies share the chorus.  Surprisingly, Steinhart provides support rather than an essential role in the sound, which finds Livgren pulling out all the stops.  The full symphony orchestra he creates with synthesizers hints at some of his later instrumental works in the following decade.  Livgren’s ‘Ground Zero’ is the Second Coming of Jesus, but if you think of it as nuclear annihilation or an alien invasion it works just as well.  As stated before, Livgren’s lyrics over the past three decades are all informed by his Christianity, but he rarely uses words like “Christ,“ “God,” “Jesus” or “Lord.”  There are probably as many listeners who wouldn’t pick up on Livgren’s religious perspective here as listeners who thought any number of his ’70s Kansas songs were Christian in origin (e.g. “Carry On Wayward Son,” “Dust in the Wind,” “Portrait (He Knew),” etc.). 
Interview with Kerry Livgren (available on the 1996 version)
The over 20-min. interview was recorded for this edition, and deals with the making of the album and the era it was created in.  We learn that Livgren worked mainly with musical friends, but sought out Barlow and Dio specifically for what they could contribute to the songs.  There’s a bit of insight into Livgren’s beliefs but the interview stays away from proselytizing.
 
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