Review Summary: Perhaps Kansas' most underrated albums, this marked the entry of America into the realm of progressive rock. Easily a classic.
When people think of "progressive rock", they automatically jump to such groups as Rush, King Crimson, Yes, and such. While all these groups are indeed illustrious in this particular field, they all hail from countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, and what have you. The United States did not have an entry until the early 1970s, with the advent of Kansas.
Straight from the heartland that bears their name, they fused American boogie with progressive influences, replete with a classically trained violinist in Robbie Steinhardt. Although the few Kansas songs you will hear on the radio today are indeed excellent examples of their work, I feel that the first self-titled LP, released in 1974, is a better idea of the complexity of their sound.
Phil Ehart: Drums
Dave Hope: Bass, Vocals
Kerry Livgren: Organ, Guitar, Piano, Keyboards, Synthesizer, Vocals
Robbie Steinhardt: Violin, Vocals
Steve Walsh: Organ, Piano, Keyboard, Percussion, Vocals
Rich Williams: Guitar
1. Can I Tell You (3:32)
The melody is catchy, and the violin is prominent right from the start. The lyrics deal with the concept of freedom, and how it is a right. They are repeated twice, backed by a stellar groove. Around 1:30, the melody dramatically changes, paving the way for the first of many violin solos by Steinhardt; AllMusicGuide postulates that he uses his violin more than Ian Anderson uses his flute on a Jethro Tull album. At the 2:20 mark, there is a brief guitar solo, followed by an organ solo mimicking the violin solo, followed by another guitar solo. Around the 2:50 mark the original hook comes in again, with a final repeat of the lyrics. The shortest track on the album, but a good opener, preparing the listener for the rest album.
2. Bringing It Back (3:33)
Originally a J.J. Cale song. The opening lets us know that this a danceable track. Replete with dueling organ, piano, and congas, the lead singer tells a story about drug trafficking in Mexico. After each verse, Steinhardt gives us a brief mini-solo, showcasing his excellent chops. The first solo begins at 1:29, where Steinhardt creates a collision of classical and folk violin, heightening the mood for the call-and-response section at 2:20. The breakdown at 2:36 leads into the third verse, which gets really soft, and then the final mini-solo hits you. Almost the same length as the previous song, and also as good.
3. Lonely Wind (4:17)
A ballad much in the vein of "Dust in the Wind", replete with some religious overtones. The opening is Steinhardt playing a sad melody over a lone piano, to create a funereal atmosphere. The singing is good, and the harmony in the chorus is beautiful. Guitar comes in at 1:21 for the second verse, and adds small fills every so often. The bridge at 2:20 begins with gradually ascending violin riffs, into what sounds like a choir at 2:40. Almost as soon as it began, it drops out for a restating of the intro, leading into the third verse. The choir returns for the final chorus, and gives it their all. Good song, but not one of my favorites off this album.
4. Belexes (4:24)
For those wondering where the progressive influences came in, this is your song. The opening riff is choppy but starts the song off with a bang. Not a boogie song, but one of Kansas' earlier anthems. The singer sings something about prophets and decision-making, but the lyrics are secondary to the instrumentation. There is an organ solo at 1:19, but it's not too terribly technical. The intro is restated at 1:51, which leads into the second and final verse. At 3:16, the guitar enters for the final solo. While not the most masturbatory solo, it shreds decently enough. There is a final push to the end, and then the drummer does a brief solo, leading into the final hit. Excellent song.
5. Journey From Mariabronn (7:58)
The first of 3 "epics" off this album. Based on the Hermann Hesse book "Narcissus and Goldmund," the opening is mainly synthesizer. Classical influences are apparent here. The first minute and a half are a series of variations on the main theme, one flowing into another. Vocals come in almost exactly at 1:30. After a few verses, a piano driven bridge comes in at 2:30, with a piercing organ and harmonizing vocals. The singer's best singing comes during this part, as he seems to be pouring his heart out to the listeners. A guitar solo begins at 3:26; a simple one, like most of the solos on this album, but fitting for the song. At 4:14, another, more bouncy theme begins. Another violin solo at 4:31, a synthesizer solo at 5:06, and then a reprise of the intro at 5:45. The final verse begins at 6:00, referring to a happy ending to the situation described in the lyrics. Then the outro at 6:49. Another strong vocal performance in the outro, then an instrumental buildup, and then the final chord. This is a very personal song for me, because I sent it to a girlfriend of mine after we broke up...I still cared about her and wanted to get back together in the future, and I hoped that the song would get those feelings across simply enough. But it's still a good song despite the personal overtones.
6. The Pilgrimage (3:43)
The first 30 seconds are instrumental tinkering, and then the main theme suddenly arises out of the tinkering. The guitar riff is instantly catchy, and is joined by violin soon afterwards. The harmony in the vocals is beautiful, although the top voice often drowns the lower voice out. The song is about religious pilgrims, which is a common theme in Kansas' work. There is trading of solos at 1:58, going from violin to guitar to violin to guitar to violin again. All through this the rhythm section is remaining solid, dropping out during the third verse, but picking up where they left off in the chorus. A quick little tune, setting us up for the final two songs.
7. Apercu (9:36)
The second of three epics. The opening has a call-and-response feel, with a distant sound guitar and ballsy synthesizer trading hooks. Steinhardt enters with a beautiful violin melody, which is then echoed by the guitar somewhat. The verse begins at 0:46, with just drums, a low organ, and occasional guitar sounds backing the cryptic lyrics. The chorus is standard Kansas, with the vocal melodies going all out, and the instruments recicprocating. The second verse is much like the first, as is the chorus. A second theme begins at 2:34, with an ascending line of violin and guitar. The bass is solid during this part. Organ comes in at 2:58 with a quick part, and the violin takes the lead. At 3:18, the lead continues, but the piano is the only instrument remaining, and it plays a minor key figure to back the vocals in this bridge. Another violin solo begins at 4:22, leading to a build-up of sorts at 4:44. A few quick notes, and then suddenly a completely different theme begins at 5:11. The tempo changes dramatically, and the guitar and bass create the riff for this part. The key changes at 6:24, and then the intro is restated at 6:35 (a common theme?). The third verse and chorus pass, and a theme is restated at 8:10, followed by a new theme at 8:34. This one is all violin, with cymbal rolls backing it. The finality of this theme is just beautiful...and then the guitars come in at 9:04, acting as a counterpoint to the previous theme. This leads right into...
8. Death of Mother Nature Suite (7:58)
This is the final song on the album. Picking up on the final chord of "Apercu" (which actually comes in the opening seconds of this track), the violin is strangely absent in the beginning. A low guttural guitar riff begins the song proper, leading into a very soft violin line at 0:33. The singer sings about how machines and man have devastated nature, in a soft but passionate voice. The focal point of the verse, "And now she's gonna die!", is accompanied by driving guitars and drums, to mimic his anger towards the "death of mother nature". Another verse follows, and then there is a kind of synthesizer solo in place of another verse. A violin solo at 2:30 over top of the bass echoing the original riff, and then another theme is created at 3:20, with all instruments playing relatively in unison. At 3:44, the hard rock switch is finally turned on, and we have a proto-metal part, with organ solo at 4:02. At 4:30, the main riff kicks in again, and the guitar solos over it. This is probably his best one of the album, in my opinion. The verse music begins again at 4:54, leading into the third and final verse. It's much like the other two, except that the band comes in on the penultimate line. A final scream from the singer, and a guitar solo begins at 5:46, as the tempo gradually gets faster. He is able to keep up with the increase in tempo, but it almost sounds like a runaway train...
Then at 6:30, an acoustic guitar comes out of nowhere and plays a quick chord progression. This is the final push, with every musician staying on top of the beat. At 7:04, the guitar comes in for one final swing, and this is the finale. The final chord sounds almost orchestral.
The only reason this doesn't get 5 stars is because of "Lonely Wind". Try as I might, I can't bring myself to *like* it. I can tolerate it, but it's just not my thing.
"Bringing It Back"
"Apercu/Death Of Mother Nature Suite"