Monday, December 21, 2009

Kansas - "A Glimpse of Home" From the Album Monolith

In which we consider the most unfairly maligned album from the most unfairly maligned band . . . .

While I think quite a lot of my taste, I don't think so much of it that I don't realize much of what I listen to might be open to some criticism from those of certain, more sensitive, opinions.

And realizing that Slayer might not be the music of choice for some practicing Christians is only the beginning of it.

There are those, for example, who find that side-long prog song cycles violate an important expectation of immediacy they take from rock and roll. And there are others for whom No-Wave or pigfuck noise bands are rendered incomprehensible simply because of the lack of any standard melody.

And I get it. I don't agree, but I get it. The resultant criticism from these listeners is rendered for me, if not valid, at least understandable and fair.

Unlike that criticism which is often lobbed Kansas' way. Although the internet has over the past ten or twelve years brought together the theretofore underrepresented prog fan, and thereby ameliorated some of this un-fair criticism, you still hear it. And I DEFINITELY heard it during my college years.

Kansas were "formulaic", "least common denominator" "AOR" "70's rawk" "crap."

Though of course they were none of these things. They were a PROG BAND, people! But somehow, there are a number of people still, who--twenty years after I rendered a Gainesville carful of stoned Scratch Acid fans speechless with my screaming defense of the band--continue to confuse Kansas with vastly inferior, and vastly less ambitious, bands like Journey, Styx, and Boston.

But as I've considered things for this post, perhaps I've found that's somehow appropriate. There is a duality for Kansas in what they were, and in what they are perceived to have been. But this state of affairs is only in keeping with much else about the band, which found its mission and its art and nearly everything else in a near constant state of conflict between two opposing visions of itself.

Forget that the band had 2 lead singers, 2 guitarists and 2 keyboardists, though even there, the symbology is nice. Consider instead that the band began as a unit who couldn't decide whether they were a progressive band who could do the Southern rock boogie, or a boogie band who liked to prog out. After some infighting, Kerry Livgren exerted his influence, and the band decided it was the former. And so they entered a phase in which they became the world's rockinest progressive band . . . .

Lark's Tongue- and Red- era Crimson aside, Kansas didn't really even have that much competition. I won't argue that Kansas were a better band than ELP, but I also don't think anyone could argue to me that they weren't heavier. Livgren's fills and leads in the center section of "Icarus: Borne on Wings of Steel" have become iconic not as an expression of prog ideals, but rather as of the rock guitar. I like the fills on "Tarkus," but you're not going to find yourself saying the same thing about Greg Lake's work, you know? The only thing iconic about ELP is the E, and E pounds the keys. Which don't rock as much.

Again to Kansas' duality: at their height, between 1975 and 1980, there was no band anywhere that did the two things they did so very well. They did the Skynyrd things as well as Skynyrd and the Yes things, if not as well as Yes, goddamned well enough. They led a split life, and did so seemingly effortlessly, consolidating their fans with ascents up the Top 40 charts, and live shows with lasers and smoke machines and who knows what else that made prog fans of teenaged kids who would have been all against it had it ever been explained to them explicitly. They wrote and played cult music, but made the top of the charts. They seamlessly functioned as both an American-style rock band, and as a British-influenced prog one.

They weren't the best rock band in the world, but they were the most unique. Even their few imitators, like the Dixie Dregs, were just that.

But even as they had turned their core dualities into a world-class strength, another was working to rip them apart. Livgren, as, umm, glimpsed, through his lyrics had always seemed something of a seeker, as he invoked the deities of Buddhism in "Incomudro," name-dropped Cain from the Book of Genesis at least twice on Masque, and wrote frankly of his wish for spiritual breakthrough in "The Wall."

By the time recording for Monolith commenced, Livgren in his search had become a devotee of The Urantia Book, a massive Gnostic-like text that according to Wikipedia:
[a]mong many other topics . . . expounds on the origin and meaning of life, describes humankind's place in the universe, discusses the relationship between God and people, and presents a detailed biography of Jesus.
Livgren, never the most circumspect, wasn't shy about transmitting his new spiritual precepts through his lyrics, and his joy at having found them, too, as may be safely gathered by giving the words to "Glimpse" a quick scan.

It may also be safely gathered that Steve Walsh, the energetic (sometime) frontman who did half the singing and all the keyboard handstands, was not so impressed. Walsh had already nearly left the band over its direction before the Point of Know Return sessions, and his fight to keep the band secular as the band's main songwriter evolved from a seeker into a born-again Christian would eventually rip the band apart, but not before it had fashioned this Monolith, one of the most brilliantly conflicted records in all of prog, or indeed, in all of rock itself.

What makes it a fascinating listen is that Livgren didn't sing. It was Walsh who, most often anyway, took on the task of making Livgren's cosmic lyrics microphone-ready.

"A Glimpse of Home" begins like the Main Street Electrical Parade, but by 0:53 it's made its dualistic u-turn and has gotten very heavy indeed. The rhythmic breaks (most likely supplied by Rich Williams) are heads down boogie--except that Phil Ehart's drumming behind is typically precise and complex. But most remarkable of all is Walsh's voice, raspy in the effort and strained in his intensity as he poured his soul and gave his all into making the very lyrics he believed were destroying his band as powerful, and as heavy as they could possibly be.

Walsh was of course not a hero or a martyr; he has spoken plainly about the fact that he was something of "primadonna" at this time. And the direction he wanted Kansas to go in was not only more secular than Livgren's, but also more poppy. He liked the ascent up the Billboard charts most of all in the band, and wanted to return, often. Walsh with his road songs and his drug songs WAS a grounding influence on Livgren's Icarian flights of fancy, but we need to keep in mind also that Livgren at his heaviest was heavier than Walsh was at his.

As an atheist, I would find it easy to blame Livgren (and bassist Dave Hope, who also found God) in his proseletyzing ways for the demise of Kansas as an artistic force when they had been so very goddamned special. But my appreciation for prog, and for truth, allows me to realize that what made the band great was probably what doomed it.

Although the barely contained conflict would blow up quickly thereafter, as Livgren and Hope got Born Again, as the band phoned in an album, and Walsh just up and quit, at least for one record, the conflict as worlds collided was a truly remarkable thing to hear.

Kansas - Monolith - 05 - A Glimpse of Home.mp3

This file was removed April 13, 2010 after I received a DMCA takedown letter. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File under: Progressive Rock, American Branch


Anonymous said...

Thanks for everything you post. I really enjoy listening to a lot of the older stuff. Want to let you know that the Kansas link does not work.


rastronomicals said...

Thanks Steve and sorry about the bad link. I've fixed it, so download away . . .

tad said...

R: I'm gonna havta listen 2 this again. I keep MONOLITH mainly 4 "Reason to Be," "People of the South Wind" & sometimes "On the Other Side." U make some good points about why, at their best, they were pretty great. They could go poppy just fine -- but a lotta their louder, simpler, "boogie"-er stuff I can't take, & there R a coupla Xamples of that on this album. But if they coulda kept walkin the line Btween prog weirdness & rockin out, man.... Nice work, as always. -- TAD

TJIC said...

I didn't realize that I was flouting conventional wisdom by liking Kansas - I'm a fan of all prog rock, and Kansas was great.

I'm thrilled that prog seems to be making a bit of a comeback (albeit in mutated, second-generation form). I was quite happy to discover Muse, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and other bands influenced by good old 1970's prog!