The Ultimate Kansas
Unlike many of their American contemporaries of the mid 70s, Kansas had rather lofty ambitions, aiming high into the stratosphere with a potent shot of progressive rock that rivaled that of Jethro Tull, Genesis and Yes. Still, their heartland roots gave the music just the right amount of down home juice to keep the whole thing from floating away. Signing with legendary impresario Don Kirshner, Kansas debuted in 1973 and slowly rose through the ranks. Their ascension was marked by patience, diligence, hard work and ultimately, success. Once the accolades for Leftoverture and Point Of Know Return subsided, the band stammered and stumbled with a series of inconsistent offerings before the whole kit and caboodle hit the wall in the early 80s. Since then, an unnerving admiration for Kansas has yet to fade. Numerous detours later, the original line-up reunited for last year's stunning Somewhere To Elsewhere and a newfound respect resurfaced. So it only seems fitting that a retrospective was in order. Fortunately, The Ultimate Kansas is a sensible 2-CD collection for the curious and well acquainted, alike.
Casual listeners whose idea of Kansas is confined to the Top 40 are in for the shock of their life once they get past the opener "Carry On My Wayward Son." The band sanguinely endowed itself into an aura of pure virtuosity — Robby Steinhardt's violin sang and soared over a thick layer enmeshed by the guitar work of Kerry Livgren and Rich Williams, while drummer Phil Ehart and bassist Dave Hope kept the pace, and Steve Walsh accentuated each song with his wizardly keyboards and operatic vocals. As evidenced by the selection of tracks from the band's first four albums, they were able to rip through just about any arrangement with relative ease. Listening to "Bringing It Back," a J.J. Cale rocker from the first Kansas album, is just one example of the band's ample flexibility. Tracks like "Song For America," "Journey From Mariabron" and "Death Of Mother Nature Suite" are early indicators of how comparable they were to many of Britain's classically influenced art rock bands. Once they got around to Leftoverture, the boys from Topeka learned the subtle art of economy, in terms of making some of their music more accessible. That direction comes to its highest point on the second disc.
Point Of Know Return, itself recently remastered and re-released in recognition of its 25th Anniversary, is well represented here. Aside from the title track, there's "Spark of The Tempest," "Portrait (He Knew)," "Closet Chronicles," and the band's biggest hit of all time, "Dust In The Wind." Each is randomly placed between some of the more dormant efforts — gainfully inspired at times, at other times lackluster divergences in the crosshairs of sheer panic. Even as "Cheyenne Anthem" burns with stimulation, the Walsh-less "Fight Fire With Fire" and "Play The Game Tonight" clearly pander with the hit parade of the day, effectively capping any further progress from what was once considered a prog rock institution. While hints of brilliance pop up in Monolith's "People Of The South Wind" and "A Glimpse Of Home," it's easy to see that Livgren was, at that point, removing himself from the dark and ominous themes once at his foundation. For lack of filler, it might have been interesting to add some of the material that featured Steve Morse from the late 80s, but that period in the band's history has apparently been scrubbed and sealed. In any event, once you push past some minor faults, The Ultimate Kansas captures the essence of the 70s phenomenon about as accurately as you could wish for.
~ Shawn Perry