Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Kansas - More Than Just Arena Rock

 In 1974, a little-known band from the Topeka, Kansas area signed with Kirshner Records and recorded their debut, self-titled album, Kansas. Thanks to good marketing by the Kirshner label and a fair amount of airtime on new album-oriented rock FM radio stations, Kansas quickly became quite popular. Sadly, when most people think of Kansas, they think of little more than Dust in the Wind or Carry On, Wayward Son, the group's two most popular tunes. This is a grave mistake, as the music of Kansas has much more to offer than just the catchy tunes of those two songs. In fact, both those songs were added to their respective albums almost as afterthoughts. For example, Dust in the Wind was originally just a chord-progression guitar exercise that Kerry Livgren, a band member, used to practice! Nonetheless, the first three Kansas albums, Kansas, Song for America, and Masque, demonstrated a great deal of rich musical talent that many people do not hear.

 This is due, in part, to the backgrounds and influences of the band members. Robby Steinhardt (violin, vocals) was trained from an early age in classical music. Kerry Livgren, the band's principal songwriter, was schooled in classical and jazz music. The band as a whole was influenced by early 70s prog-rock groups such as Genesis and ELP (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer). All these factors contributed to the style of Kansas, though the unique instrumentation of the band also played a role. The first album, Kansas, contained one of the band's more well-known pieces, Journey from Mariabronn. Youtube a live version of it (link at bottom) . This song, from the very beginning, is prog-rock through and through. The introduction is a synthesizer/violin-heavy segment in an irregular meter with, really, no discernible time signature which segues into the introduction of another theme through a violin solo. By virtue of being a six-piece band at the time, a large amount of complex layering happens in this song. Much like one would find in an orchestral piece, melodies move smoothly from instrument to instrument and different lines emerge from beneath other "flighting," repeating lines. It's almost like listening to modernized chamber music! What's more, the lyrics to Journey from Mariabronn are intriguing, to say the least. Livgren wrote them, following closely the story of famous German poet/author Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund.
 Kansas' second album Song for America, and specifically the title track of said album, followed closely in the footsteps of Journey from Mariabronn and the first album. It is characterized by a number of signature violin solos from Steinhardt and a lyrical exploration of one of the band's favorite themes, mother nature and man's treatment of the planet. Album three, Masque, contains prog-rock gems such as Mysteries and Mayhem, Icarus, and The Pinnacle, but also shows a turn toward more radio-friendly songs such as Child of Innocence and It Takes a Woman's Love (to Make a Man).
Kansas' next few albums were also splendid in their musicality, but most agree that the early works of Kansas were, musically, the best. They stimulated listeners in many ways through their music and lyrics. So, next time you find yourself bored on a cool evening, dig through your old vinyl and spin up some older Kansas tunes. Listen for the subtle things, and you won't be disappointed.
Tyler Hensley has been a prog-rock fanatic since the early 90s, when he branched into the genre as a learning experience. He plays guitars, keyboards, and drums and enjoys home recording. Read more interesting music and technology blurbs at his website:


James the Giant Leach said...

hey these are some great article almost finished the second but i gotta take off, followed. lates

Alex said...

Thank you my friend!

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