[21 May 2001]
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Born in the Wrong Century
To commemorate the silver anniversary of the quadruple-platinum Leftoverture, Sony has released a digital remastering with additional tracks in this summer’s crop of ‘70s re-issues. When Kansas’ drummer and boss Phil Ehart caught wind of the proposal, he insisted, in consideration of numerous fan requests, that Masque (1975) also be included in the remix. Diehard Kansas fans are especially devoted to this peculiar album, which was recorded as the band faced imminent dismissal from their label. The cover art features a bizarre painting by sixteenth-century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo entitled “Water”. It is a face created out of a myriad of sea creatures merged together. From a distance, the visual effect is disturbing; it looks like the sardonic face of a demon or a Native American shaman’s mask. Given the dark themes associated with the album, the artwork couldn’t be more appropriate.
It would be a stretch to say that Masque is a forgotten masterpiece—it’s not. For one seeking a real hidden gem, look no further than the band’s debut Kansas (1974, featuring John Stuart Curry’s provocative mural of John Brown holding a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other). That recording is raw, hungry, and terrifying in its range of expressions. Its songs were from the days when Kansas played rodeos and state fairs throughout the Great Plains, forging their Prairie Home Companion style of prog-rock. Masque, on the other hand, turns out to be a somewhat disjointed effort, revealing the divided house that Kansas was at that particular time. A diary extract from Kansas’ chief songwriter, Kerry Livgren, describes his personal frustrations leading up to the recording of the album:
“If I write music that is fresh and creative, people don’t want to hear it. But it’s totally adverse to my nature to play the same old rehashed crap that people seem to have an inexhaustible appetite for. I just can’t do it. We [the band] got in another big argument about it last night . . . . I would prefer to play our music no matter what people do, and the rest of the band would rather conform to the situation and play music that they [audiences] would jump around to. I’m so disappointed with that attitude”.
The listener can feel the tension on this album. Masque stumbles out of the starting blocks with lead singer Steve Walsh’s effort to make a radio-friendly hit. “It Takes a Woman’s Love (To Make a Man)”, with its mindless lyrics and saxophones, is so contrived it scarcely belongs on any Kansas album, let alone this one. But Livgren weighs in on the following track, “Two Cents Worth”, a revealing song that sets a starkly different tone:
“I’m not made for the time
I’m born in the wrong century
There’s too much craziness here
In twenty-five years I have used all the tears in my eyes”
The song has a catchy, bluesy melody that hardly prepares the listener for what’s to come. “Icarus—Borne on Wings of Steel”, (whose opening leitmotif is repeated on “Icarus II” from last year’s Somewhere to Elsewhere) became an instant fan favorite with its adventuresome passages and escapist lyrics (”. . . searching for the rainbow’s end, earth so far below me, I’m here alone and I won’t come down no more”). Walsh and violinist Robby Steinhardt collaborated on the hymn-like “All the World”, a utopian relic of the dying peace-and-love era. Livgren counters with “Child of Innocence”, a harrowing embrace of death.
This thematic and philosophical boxing match goes on until Livgren throws a devastating combination at the end. “Mysteries and Mayhem”, a true baroque rocker if ever a song deserved the title, contains imagery “from the depths of a hooded nightmare”. Like a haunted house ride at the county fair, the song rips through an intricate intro and detours through an equally dizzying instrumental break halfway through. Livgren seems to express fear about an imminent and grave judgment (”. . . the Mark of Cain bears hard on me”). The closing theme of “Mysteries and Mayhem” transforms into the (seemingly) heroic fanfare of “The Pinnacle”.
To put it simply, “The Pinnacle” is the greatest song Kansas has ever recorded. In his 35-plus years as a musician and writer, both with Kansas and as a solo artist, Kerry Livgren has not written another song that approaches the level of this piece. Rock purists are sure to dismiss this as “pompous” and “pretentious”, and within a strict rock context they would be correct. But “The Pinnacle is not a rock song. It’s not even a prog-rock song. This is the expression of a heart with eighteenth-century sensibilities, struggling to come to terms with the madness of modern culture. When I first inspected the lyrics to this song, I felt certain that it was an oblique study of the sufferings of Jesus:
“Trapped in life’s parade, a king without a crown
In this joy of madness my smile might seem a frown
With talons wrought of steel I tore the heart of doom
And in one gleaming moment I saw beyond the tomb”
But Livgren was still a few years away from his actual conversion to Christianity. “The Pinnacle” is the lament of a heart that can no longer find its relevance in society. In the early seventies, many youngsters found themselves caught between the vacuous drivel of the Doobie Brothers and the cool arrogance of Steely Dan. The kid in suburbia found little to anchor his deepest desires to.
“In all that I endure, of one thing I am sure
Knowledge and reason change like the season
A Jester’s Promenade”
Although this theme has been explored by many of today’s musical prophets of doom, what distinguishes “The Pinnacle” is the dignity, majesty, and eloquence with which it conveys its message. No cursing, no threats. It reaches a triumphant resolution, building on the opening theme as Livgren exorcises his demons, determined to hold on to his heroic ideas. It was a message that many readily tapped into, and the song became synonymous with Masque itself.
What many are not aware of, however, is that Kansas’ first major hit, “Carry on Wayward Son”, was actually the sequel to “The Pinnacle”. Featuring Walsh and Steinhardt’s country-smoked harmonies and Rich Williams’ powerful guitar riffs, the song caught America by surprise and carried Kansas safely from the precipice. It is still a mainstay on many AOR and classic rock radio stations. Leftoverture became one of the biggest selling prog albums of all time, and Kansas was transformed from a bar band to an arena act over night. But the success of the album was ironic. When the band went into the studio to make Leftoverture, Walsh had dried up as a writer. Livgren, determined as ever to press his own musical agenda, was given free rein to explore his personal and philosophical questions.
“The Wall” (written well before the Pink Floyd album of the same title) contained Livgren’s hope that his search for ultimate truth would soon reach its consummation: “the promised land is waiting like a maiden that is soon to be a bride”.
On “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, Livgren combined more of his baroque styling with some of his most vivid imagery:
“On a crystal morning I can see the dewdrops falling
Down from gleaming heaven I can hear the voices call
When you comin’ home now, son, the world is not for you”
These thoughts of spiritual pursuit are repeated on the exhilarating “Opus Insert”, considered one of the most underrated songs in Kansas’ repertoire. Walsh even seemed to get caught up in the spirit of things, adding his “Questions of My Childhood”, charged with spirited piano work and lyrical content comparable to Livgren’s. “Cheyenne Anthem” is a plaintive but exquisitely orchestrated tribute to the Plains Indians. Steinhardt sings the final verse, which expresses the Native Americans’ desire to remain on their homeland:
“Soon these days shall pass away
For our freedom we must pay
All our words and deeds are carried on the wind
In the ground our bodies lay, here we’ll stay. . . .”
Over these words, Cheryl Norman adds a weeping child’s vocal. In more than one sense something beautiful was coming to an end with this song. “Magnum Opus”, the final track on Leftoverture, figured to be a showstopper. It has the appearance of a prominent piece of prog; in actuality, the mostly instrumental track is a compost heap of discarded song fragments fused together, bearing nonsensical subtitles (“Father Padilla Meets the Perfect Gnat”, “Release the Beavers”,etc.). In a very literal sense it is the “leftoverture”. And while it contains some exciting Wagnerian moments, “Magnum Opus” is an overstated monstrosity, a harbinger of nearly irreparable mistakes to come.
The unexpected commercial success of Leftoverture probably accounts for why Kansas went completely overboard with 1977’s Point of Know Return. Like Evel Knievel plunging into the Snake River Gorge, the band spent itself artistically on an album where the complexity of the music became its own pernicious god. It wasn’t long after these excesses that Livgren converted to Christianity and subordinated his musical genius to focus on the message of the gospel. Kansas was once again divided against itself. It would not be until last summer’s marvelous reunion album that the band would regain its former glory, with Livgren at last bringing the power of his music up to his passion for God.
Kansas is one of those bands whose music polarizes listeners. It is either reverentially appreciated and analyzed, or despised and discarded. Kansas created a brand of prog-rock with a distinctly American flavor. With it they won a loyal cult following in Japan, as well as the admiration and support of musicians of stature like Steve Hackett (Genesis), Barriemore Barlow (Jethro Tull), and Paul Goddard (Atlanta Rhythm Section). In leaner days, their records have appeared in the cutout bin at barrel-bottom prices. They have never enjoyed much critical recognition. Regardless, Kansas remained true to their disciplined style of music, even “with glory and passion no longer in fashion” (“The Pinnacle”). Simone Weil wrote that only two things pierce the heart: beauty and affliction. Between Masque and Leftoverture, the listener will find plenty of both.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/kansas-leftoverture/