Thanks to increasingly narrow classic rock playlists, people will soon only know Kansas from on-the-hour-every-hour playings of "Dust in the Wind" and "Carry on Wayward Son". Even the sprightly "Point of Know Return" has fallen from the Clear Channel radar, leaving the casual radio listener's knowledge of this long-running band limited to a sappy ballad immortalized by Will Ferrell and the most bombastic arena rock epic this side of Styx. In celebration of Kansas's 30th anniversary, Legacy is attempting to halt this trend by reissuing some of the group's earlier albums, portraying Kansas as one of the more adventurous, if not most consistent, American rock bands of the time.
Their self-titled debut, impeccably remastered, shows the band unsure of its direction. Of its eight tracks, four are straightforward rock songs, albeit with violin solos, while the other four are complex prog rock epics filled with quasi-spiritual lyrics and keyboard solos between every other verse. Only on the opening "Can I Tell You" does the band find a way to merge these styles, as they would on their more successful albums. Driven by Phil Ehart's drums and the band's Yes-like harmony, "Can I Tell You" delivers a manifesto on free will that also doubles as an effective arena rocker. By, the next number, the album highlight "Bringing It Back", about a drug run turned sour, all aspirations to wisdom and knowledge disappear in a tale sung from a jail cell. Robbie Steinhardt's distinctive violin playing is the only "artsy" touch on this Allman Brothers-esque blues rocker, and even he manages to play like the violin was created for the explicit purpose of playing down-and-dirty rock and roll.
With the exception of the beautiful mid-tempo "The Pilgrimage", the rest of the album does not live up to the promise of the opening numbers. "Lonely Wind" is a dry run for "Dust in the Wind", a melancholy ballad that mostly acts to ease the transition from the boogie of "Bringing It Back" to the full-on prog rock epics "Belexis" and "Journey from Mariabronn". "Belexis" is only about four minutes long, but is stuffed with so much extraneous soloing that it seems at least eight. The longer "Journey from Mariabronn" works better, but Kansas's egregious overuse of falsettos and symphonic keyboard flourishes make it painfully obvious that the band's earliest goal was to become the American equivalent to Yes.
Of course, these tracks are almost salvaged by the band's formidable dexterity. While much of what passed for soloing during the golden age of prog was nothing more than wankery for wankery's sake, nearly all the solos on Kansas work in service of their respective songs. The problem, unfortunately, is that the songs themselves are not worthy of the soloing. In the absent of memorable hooks or originality, the band has to work overtime to keep the audience's interest. The nine-minute "Apercu" is the epitome of this problem: the improvisations are terrific, the song proper is immediately forgettable.
Even the band's talent cannot save the original album's closer, the dreadful period piece "Death of Mother Nature Suite". The track is just as dated as the title suggests: the opening begins with an indictment of mankind's treatment of nature which ends with a bloodcurdling shriek of "AND NOW SHE'S GOING TO DIE!" that would put Spinal Tap to shame. The "suite's" plodding rhythms and hopelessly banal lyrics could have been a hint that Kansas was willing to go the insufferable art-rock route, as they did on their next album Song for America, and eschew the more interesting arena-prog approach of "Can I Tell You". Thankfully the reissue appends an astounding nine-minute live version of "Bringing It Back" that shows the band using the tricks they learned about musicianship from art rock and applying them to basic nitty gritty rock and roll. Kansas gained fame not from their uneven early studio albums, but their live shows, and this song are such an improvement over the already impressive studio take that it makes me wish Legacy had included a few live takes of one of the album's many quasi-majestic epics. Perhaps "Death of Mother Nature Suite" or "Belexis" lost something without the support of a live audience. As it is, Kansas is a fascinating, and frustrating, look at an underrated band's baby steps, notable for a few minor gems that the radio will never play.