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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Kansas

Audio-Visions

Review by Scott Prinzing

I remember sitting in the custom speaker-fitted barber chair at my local record mecca as a teenager and listening to the needle drop on the first side of this album on virgin vinyl.  I was immediately satisfied that the Kansas was coming close to edging out Rush in the contest for status as my favorite band.  While a fan of the great European prog bands of the ’70s, there was something special about the Heartland blend of rock ‘n’ roll and classical music in this band with magnum opuses and paradoxes.  I was also attracted to the American Indian themes of several of their songs (“Cheyenne Anthem,” “Dust in the Wind,” “People of the South Wind”).  As much as I really dug this when released, I couldn’t help but notice the growing distinction between the songwriting styles of keyboardist/vocalist Steve Walsh and guitarist/keyboardist Kerry Livgren.  The songs on this album are so ingrained in my consciousness today that it all sounds like Kansas to me today.  It really is the last album with that classic sound until the reunion album of 2000, Somewhere to Elsewhere. 

It’s a pity that Livgren and Walsh couldn’t have collaborated more.  Walsh’s musical contributions are definitely worthy rockers, even if they veer a bit off the prog track; Livgren has always been a more thought provoking lyricist, but his newfound faith tends to lead to more strident statements of surety.  Not that he should be criticized for this, but it obviously started to make it difficult for Walsh to feel comfortable with singing beliefs he didn’t share.  This album was the beginning of the end for the classic Kansas line-up.  Demos exist of Walsh singing a few of Livgren’s songs that were later sung by John Elefante on Drastic Measures, but tasting the freedom of his first solo album, Walsh must’ve decided he’d rather sing his own lyrics (however lackluster they might be).  The Top 40 hit, “Hold On,” helped sales more than the garish cover art. 

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Relentless

Kansas kicks off a new decade with a fresh riff of power chords.  This song has a similar structure to their first hit, “Carry On Wayward Son,” without sounding much like it at all.  The verses are mostly piano-based, with more raucous choruses and a trademark instrumental section.  It’s the first Kansas song since Livgren’s Christian rebirth, but lyrically would sound right at home on any previous Kansas album: “Relentless, unchanging / Though the world is still before me now / I’m seeing forever / I will keep my heart and mind with you / So joyously I’m waiting for the day.”

Anything for You
The great thing about Kansas’ sound is that while they possessed two distinct songwriters, both contributed to the incredible and unique blend of hard rock and classical music.  While Walsh’s songs tend to be more straight ahead rockers, the instrumental sections are always impressive. The lyrics are sometimes a bit less high brow than Livgren’s, though: “I want to take you out but you say no” and “I fell for you ’cause you were nice and tall” are a far cry from Livgren’s “Lo the horn of plenty is bursting at the seam / The harvest of the world will be our prize.”
Hold On
Kansas hit the Top 40 again with a song Livgren wrote for his wife.  When they toured with John Elefante on vocals in 1982, Warren Ham (future member of Livgren’s AD) played a lovely flute solo in it. When I saw them perform on their first tour without Livgren and bassist Dave Hope, Walsh altered the lyrics to: “Outside your door He is waiting” to “Outside your door she is waiting for you.”  On subsequent tours he reverted to the original lyric. 
Loner
After Walsh’s final sustained acappella plea of “Hold On!,” he cries out an almost identical acappella, “Loner!”  I wish they continued to do that pairing in concert – they go together in my mind just like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” do.  The chorus had hit potential, but it was never released as one.  Again, we are faced with lyrics more mundane than the quality of the instrumental support: “Your hair was long and so was mine when we were young I felt that kind of magic / Did you feel that for me?”
Curtain of Iron
The first of the two real progressive rock pieces on the album logs in at just over six minutes.  It is a classic Kansas prog epic and features a few of the only solo vocal lines by violinist Robby Steinhardt, including: “As the power grows, darkness spreading / Hope is still alive, though we’re dreading.” 
Got to Rock On
This sounds like a candidate for Schemer/Dreamer, Walsh’s 1980 solo album, but works as a Kansas song as well.  The lyrics aren’t as high minded as much of the bulk of Kansas’ material: “It’s no fun hanging around winter seems so numbing / Getting fat where I sit down do you suppose it’s old age coming.”
Don’t Open Your Eyes
This song is a real rocker as well.  Steinhardt’s violin adds to the frantic sound, but he is the only member who doesn’t share a writing credit.  It harkens back lyrically to “Mysteries and Mayhem,” but with lyrics that read more like Walsh wrote them: “Who sees you when you’re sleeping / Who knows the thoughts you’re keeping.”
No One Together
Livgren had originally presented this song for consideration for Monolith the previous year, but the majority of the band voted for shorter, more commercially viable offerings.  Livgren relented (pun intended), as long as they would commit to recording it for the next album.  He felt they were getting away from the longer, prog pieces that they were founded on (this one is a few seconds shy of seven minutes.)  Livgren reworked the lyrics a bit to reflect his newfound Christian faith.  Steinhardt got to sing a few more lines here as well: “Strange situation, Nothing is really new” and “New situation, if our direction’s true.”
No Room for a Stranger
It’s difficult to empathize with the suicidal thoughts of an arena rock star, but, apparently, a lot of people related to Kurt Cobain’s sense of depravity.  Since this slow bluesy rocker was co-written by guitarist Rich Williams and Walsh, you can’t be sure who wrote the lyrics: “Have you ever felt like jumping out of a window on account of your pride / Have you ever felt like you were losing your marbles / ’Cause someone hurt you deep inside.”
Back Door
Another slower Walsh song that wouldn’t be out of place on his first solo outing, this song closes out the last set of songs by the original Kansas line-up with bagpipes (or at least a synthesized facsimile): “We’ll know by then the life that we were meant for / But are you leaving / Leaving by my back door.”  It was Walsh who soon found that Kansas had no room for a stranger and left by the back door.  He did return though, in a few years, and has been at the helm, sailing to the Point of Know Return, for the past quarter century.
 
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