Kansas have had a challenging few years. Their decision to regroup and record once again was something that looked decidedly unlikely, following the departure of lead singer Steve Walsh; the voice behind such talismanic gems as ‘Dust In The Wind’ and ‘Carry On Wayward Son’. But carry on they have, with this, their first album in sixteen years.
With such a notable absence, it’s more than surprising to find that with ‘The Prelude Implicit’, Kansas have returned with an album that is not only fit to stand up against their most celebrated works, but one which could prove to be among the finest releases of the year. What makes this phoenix-like rebirth (as referenced on the disc’s sleeve) all the more unlikely, is that they have also lost the writer who gave them their biggest successes; Kerry Livgren, who departed for the final time following 2000’s ‘Somewhere To Elsewhere’ reunion album.
In the face of adversity then, Kansas have pulled off what the band themselves once thought of as unimaginable, and over the course of ten tracks, have reaffirmed their status as one of America’s most vital progressive acts.
It all kicks off with ‘With This Heart’, whose tribal drums and piano motif over which Walsh’s replacement Ronnie Platt belts out in earnest; “I am here to lift you with this voice” offer up a real call to arms, setting the listener up for what is to follow; a joyous ride from start to finish.
With a decidedly AOR vibe opening up the album, the band unleash their progier side for the first time (but not for the last) on the following ‘Visibility Zero’. Moody, but vibrant, each of the players’ choice of melodies, along with their deftness of musicianship lifts the track into heights that lesser bands wouldn’t be capable of reaching.
It’s this type of colouring that prevails throughout, and though it’s difficult picking out a key player, violinist David Ragsdale’s imprint is all over the album, and worthy of particular praise; particularly on the lamenting ‘The Unsung Hero’. The album’s schmaltziest moment, Ragsdale’s tasteful trade-off soloing and harmonising with guitarist Rich Williams is wondrous, taking the track beyond what could have been a saccharine step too far. So too does the violinist shine on the acoustic ‘Refugee’. With finger-picked acoustics singing out beautifully over atmospheric keys, Ragsdale’s ethereal strings add another touch of class.
However it’s the band’s collectively glorious vocal harmonising that is the real star throughout. Examples of this are many; the uplifting ‘Camoflage’, the driving ‘Summer’ - only Toto can come close to sounds so melodious, with these multi-layered vocal passages shining across nine of the albums ten tracks.
There are a few twists and turns along the way – such as on the programmed beats of ‘Rhythm in the Spirit’, and the darker tones of epic centrepiece ‘The Voyage of Eight Eighteen’ – but on the whole, there’s little deviation from the infinitely enjoyable melodic, progressive sound of Kansas 2016.
Kansas are starting over with a new beginning, and ‘The Prelude Implicit’ is a triumphant way to begin their second act. Rich in its aural aesthetic, with depth and feel; it’s simply sublime, and more than worthy of the name. It’s been a long time coming, but well worth the wait. Welcome back, wayward sons.
By Eamon O'Neill on 8th September 2016.
'The Prelude Implicit' is released on 23rd September.