I have been a huge Kansas fan since 1977, and I still am. That doesn’t mean that I like everything that they have released. However, the seven albums they recorded with the original line up are flawless. The problem for me started when Steve Walsh, the original lead singer, keyboardist and one of the main song writers, left the band after “Audio-Visions” in 1980. He was replaced by John Elefante who was a fine singer and a decent composer, but hardly a new Steve Walsh, who is my all-time favorite singer. No, Elefante didn’t work out for me and the two albums that Kansas released with him only produced one song, “Windows”, that I think could match the quality of the seven first albums. Thankfully Walsh returned to the band a couple of years later but by that time the other prominent writer, Kerry Livgren, had also left as well as violinist and vocalist Robby Steinhardt and bassist Dave Hope. This was an entirely different Kansas which didn’t impress me that much. After this more commercial sounding Kansas failed to match past glory’s the band tried to return to their original sound with a more progressive style featuring violin, now by David Ragsdale, for the first time in many years.
They released “Freaks of Nature” in 1995 and finally “Somewhere to Elsewhere” in 2000, the latter actually featured the original line up as well as long time bassist Billy Greer. These two albums were both very good even though they still couldn’t match the first seven albums. For a long time, it looked like “Somewhere to Elsewhere” would be the final Kansas album, as Steve Walsh showed no interest in recording with Kansas again, which actually was quite odd as he at the same time recorded two solo albums and some other session work. Anyway, in 2014 Steve Walsh finally threw in the towel and left Kansas. Strangely enough this revitalized the band who now consisted of original members Rich Williams on guitar and Phil Ehart on drums as well as Billy Greer on bass since 1985 and David Ragsdale on violin who joined Kansas in 1991 to 1997, and again in 2006 when Robby Steinhardt left for the second time.
This time it took two persons to replace Walsh, singer Ronnie Platt who has a similar enough voice and keyboardist David Manion. After some heavy touring this line up entered the recordings studio for their first new album in 16 years. Soon they realized that producer Zak Rizvi would also be a perfect second guitarist as well as a great composer for Kansas and offered him to join the band, which he thankfully accepted, and Kansas was now a seven-piece band. The album “Prelude Implicit” was released in the fall of 2016 and almost for the first time since the original line up broke up the band sounded like the band that I fell in love with all those years ago. I didn’t love all the songs, but most of them and it was actually my favorite album of that year. This line up also released a live album before Manion was replaced in early 2019 by keyboard wizard and prog icon Tom Brislin, who also is a great composer.
And now, finally, we are going to concentrate on the new 2020 Kansas album “The Absence of Presence” that this review is all about.
The album starts very impressive with three mighty prog songs that should make any old time Kansas fan happy. These songs “The Absence of Presence”, “Throwing Mountains” with an almost Rush like opening riff and “Jets Overhead” with an excellent violin solo by Ragsdale are like a continuation of classic Kansas in true adventures Kerry Livgren style, with one foot in the 1970:ies and the other in the 2020:ies. The music for these three songs is written by Zak Rizvi and the lyrics by Tom Brislin.
“Propulsion 1” is an equally impressive instrumental by Brislin that kind of reminds me of Boston’s “Foreplay”, only more progressive and more Kansas sounding.
Unfortunately, the next track “Memories Down the Line” by Brislin, is in my opinion the albums weakest song. Apart from the great instrumental part in the middle of the song this is a boring ballad that I have to skip over when listening to the album.
With “Circus of Illusion” the band is back on track again with a great song that reminds me of the last album “The Prelude Implicit” but still with some great vintage Kansas moments. I’m not sure who wrote the music for this song but the lyrics are by Platt. The same could almost be said of “Animals on the Roof” with music by Zak and lyrics by Brislin, but this time also with some great new elements in the composition. All in all, two more great songs, almost as good as the first three tracks.
However, “Never” is once again a boring kind of ballad with an excellent instrumental middle part. The vocal melodies partly remind me of something from the last album. I will skip this track as well listening to “The Absence of Presence” but those of you who like ballads will probably like it much more than me. Platt wrote the lyrics but yet again I don’t know who wrote the music.
The last track “The Song the River Sang” by Brislin is another amazing masterpiece that takes Kansas into a new progressive direction, but still sounding like Kansas, a natural progression for this line up. The biggest difference between this song and the others is that Tom Brislin takes care of the lead vocals and that the song is more upbeat with a very suggestive and totally different long ending. I’m especially impressed by Billy Greer’s bass playing here. Actually, all the musicians are doing a fantastic job on this album, on all the tracks.
If I should be a little bit critical of the album, apart from the two “ballads” that I will skip listening to the record, it will have to be the lack of variation of the vocal melodies. Platt do a great job singing the old material live but on the two albums he has so far recorded with Kansas the vocal melodies is a bit samey and lacks the drama and dynamics of Walsh. This is something I hope that Zak, or whoever is going to produce, will think of when it’s time to make a new album. I actually think that Brislins vocal melodies are more interesting and similar to Walsh than Platts, even though the latter’s voice is closer to Walsh. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like Platts vocals, I do, I just think that he can do even better.
I rank “The Absence of Presence” as the by far best Kansas album since the original line up broke up, weird album cover though, and I can’t wait for the next one.
Title: The Absence of Presence
Label: Inside Out
Date of release: July 17, 2020
Stand out tracks: “The Absence of Presence”, “Throwing Mountains” “Jets Overhead” “The Song the River Sang”