Kirshner, 1974


REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk


Topeka, Kansas in the early ‘70s wasn't exactly fertile ground for innovative music. County and pop cover bands were the norm, and a bunch of progressive-minded guys did not exactly find open arms from most of the community. The story goes that this particular group would play clubs and their local following would sit on the floor digging the music, but no one danced. No dancing means no beer being sold, so they were having trouble keeping gigs. Fortunately, a demo tape found its way to record and TV impresario Don Kirshner, and they were soon signed to a record deal.

Kerry Livgren (guitar and keys), Steve Walsh (keys, vocals), Robbie Steinhardt (violin, vocals), Rich Williams (guitar), Dave Hope (bass), and Phil Ehart (drums) recorded this first release, and the lineup would remain intact for six albums. A statement in the liner notes included this line:"Our music has many faces and many moods, like the land we live in. It's a fusion of energy and serenity..."

Their debut release shows this to be an apt statement, as evidenced by an eclectic set of songs. Its mix of straight up rock and symphonic-influenced progressive rock has been slagged to a degree by a lot of prog rock snobs. By the time Kansas was recorded, bands like King Crimson, ELP, and Genesis had set a bar of more cohesively arty music, generally eschewing more traditional rock forms for complex arrangements and experimentation. The beauty of Kansas was that they rocked. Sometimes they rocked hard. Big power chords and ripping guitar solos had all but been forgotten by most of the English prog luminaries, but Kansas emulated the powerful arena-friendly bombast of the likes of Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin as often as they emulated bands like ELP and Gentle Giant. Fortunately, the public was receptive and the album did well for a debut, and their live shows created a word of mouth buzz that would give them a lot of momentum.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The mix of instruments -- two keyboardists, two guitarists, two lead singers plus the violin -- allow for some unique arrangements and fit Livgren's classically influenced compositions perfectly. One of the best parts of listening to this, or any Kansas album, is the amazing interplay between them all. From soaring orchestral passages to the blazing solos (on guitar, keys, and violin), the raw talent of the individuals is stunning. Steinhardt was classically trained and his contribution gave Kansas a sound like no other band. His interaction with both guitar and keys provides vibrant harmonies, the violin often taking a role where one of those instruments would normally fit.

And his rich tenor voice harmonizes beautifully with Walsh. Walsh's voice, one of the most powerful in rock music, soars effortlessly and with amazing power, and his keyboard skills are as good as anyone in the game.  Personally, I'd put him up against Emerson or Wakeman without reservation; the guy is an overlooked phenomenon, and his Hammond organ work is the heart of many of these songs.  The tandem guitars provide a rich backbone and stunning solo work. The Hope/Ehart rhythm work is impeccable, with special note given to Ehart, one of the most solid drummers in the business and sadly overlooked as the best drummer you never heard of.

The rockers start out the album, beginning with "Can I Tell You," a simple little jam and chorus that provides an opportunity for a tight little solo from each member. A JJ Cale cover "Bringing It Back" is a jumped-up Southern boogie and provides more room for some impressive soloing, especially from Steinhardt. "Lonely Wind" is a Walsh-penned ballad and shows off his amazing voice, but to me it's always dragged the album down a bit.

The second half of the album features more progressive songs, kicking off with a cut that beautifully melds hard rock with some progressive flourishes. "Belexes" rips open the middle section of the disc with a maniacal galloping rhythm and Walsh's voice wailing way up in the rafters. One of the band’s best ever, "Journey From Maribronn," takes them into more exploratory realms. Livgren's lyrical ode to friendship and spirituality starts out with a lively piano/organ duet and features what would become the bands signature sound: tight, syncopated instrumentation, about as close to an orchestra as a rock band had come at that time. Duel keyboard counterpoints ride along over Williams’ dense "wall of guitar" trademark style and Hope's rock-solid bass work. This track showcases Livgren’s ability to create complex yet accessible songs featuring multiple melodic themes, complex time signatures, and interweaving contra melodies. "Death Of Mother Nature Suite" follows in a similar vein, and it is a fitting closer to the album, juxtaposing a pastoral melodic lament with pure raw power, and provides a chance for Steinhardt to show off his own vocal chops.

There's a definite dichotomy to the rockers and the progressive numbers, but that just adds to the unique nature of the band. Eventually, they would find a more harmonious melding of the two and use it to conquer arenas around the world, but that is yet to come. An outstanding debut and a portent of great things yet to come.

Rating: B+

User Rating: A-



© 2008 Bruce Rusk and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Kirshner, and is used for informational purposes only.