Kansas - Song For America

Year of Release: 1990
Label: Kirshner/Columbia
Catalog Number: ZK33385
Format: CD
Total Time: 45:06:00

Song For America (PZ 33385), Kansas's second release hit the shelves in 1975 and fulfilled the hopes of many American progressive rock fans. We had an act that could stand up against the tide of European progressive bands that had entirely overshadowed the land that had invented rock and roll. Before Kansas, there was nothing you could really call a homegrown progressive rock "scene." Kansas had released their first album the year before, but with the release of Song For America, an American band had actually released two albums of good material, not disbanded, not moved away from the essential elements of the genre, not lost their recording contract, and better yet, showed every sign of flourishing and going on to record yet another release.

Yes, this was indeed a heartening omen for the future of American music. A few other progressive rock bands had come and gone, putting out one album and then promptly disappearing. Most of the bands America produced actually managed to do even worse than that. Most, if they did get tracks on tape, vanished completely before ever having seen the release of any of their material, or at best, produced poorly recorded work, and pressed a limited number of LPs at their own expense. All alone at this point, Kansas had a chance to capture a loyal fan base, and this second album on Kirshner Records was a sign that they would do exactly that. They would have a bit of company soon. Starcastle's first effort was just around the corner, coming in 1976, but for now, Kansas "was" the American progressive scene.

Signed by Don Kirshner to his own label in 1974 and releasing their first, self-titled LP that year, Kansas had a clear shot at the American record buying public. It didn't hurt that their labels owner had a weekly television show that showcased Kansas before millions of people. It also didn't hurt them to be extraordinarily talented musicians and songwriters who had yet another ace in their hand. That was violinist and vocalist Robbie Steinhardt. Just as Jethro Tull gained a good measure of press notice by featuring a singing flutist, Kansas also sported a singer who played an instrument that belonged in an orchestra, not a rock band. Anything out of the ordinary was a plus for an aspiring progressive band in the US, and whenever you saw Kansas mentioned in the papers or magazines, well, one guess what the first few lines would mention. The violin.

The six songs on Song For America are among the best ever recorded by the band. In the beginning, two bands in one, Kansas was either a hard rock influenced progressive group or a boogie band with highbrow aspirations. Both of these aspects are heard to their fullest on this release. Only one, in my opinion, showed signs of bridging the gap. That song, "The Devil Game," contained strong ties to both, and would presage the style that Kansas would expand with their next album, Masque. Two songs on this release, "Down The Road" and "Lonely Street" showed the influence of the guitar led rock bands they often appeared with. The progressive end of the spectrum was heard in cuts like the emotion laden "Lamplight Symphony," the provocative title track "Song For America" and the longest song they had yet recorded, "Incomudro-Hymn To The Atman." At over twelve minutes, it was full of lyrical evidence that the bands primary songwriter and theorist Kerry Livgren took inspiration from more than one book. This, and later recordings would reveal Livgren as not only a sincere Christian, but also a ardent environmentalist and advocate of American Indian civil rights. Not a closed minded ideologue, Kerry's epic "Incomudro" featured a title and some lyrical content drawn from the Herman Hesse classic, Siddhartha.

Obviously, this early release showed Kansas was all over the board. Just looking at the cuts in order on the Kirshner CD reissue is bewildering. The first, "Down The Road" sounds like a collision between the Charlie Daniels Band and the Dixie Dregs. It features a foot stomping beat and sizzling unison licks played by guitar and violin topped by lyrics revealing of the times, telling a story of a dope dealer skipping town on his supplier. Livgren shared the writing with vocalist/organist Steve Walsh. I may be guessing here, but I'm betting that Steve wrote these lyrics, and they collaborated on the music. Regardless of any clash of ideologies, this song cranks out the jams.

To the other extreme now, track two is the highlight of this collection, "Song for America." At their best, Kansas allowed their progressive influences to shine through, and of course, their own vision as well. No other American band at that time could arrange and play such heavily orchestrated music, drawing upon the examples of Gentle Giant and Yes in their counterpoint complexity and intricately layered keyboards, usually featuring Livgren on the synthesizers and piano, leaving Walsh to concentrate on the B-3. Walsh, left to the one instrument, gave us Wakeman-ish arpeggiated chord progressions and as a soloist, his ability was unmatched on this side of the Atlantic. "Song For America" had all of this, plus an outstanding display of Dave Hope's bass playing that called Chris Squire to mind. "Song For America' had the style that demanded respect from progressive rock fans, it was the paradigm of "the Kansas sound." This song, and others that came later, would follow a similar course - a well constructed series of themes with variations gives way to an interlude rich in dynamics, followed by an instrumental section, a song within a song, set to one or more shifts in meter and over that, a series of melodic passages usually featuring a string of different synthesizer voices. This would return them to the initial theme(s) and end with some form of dynamic ascending progression and crescendo before coming to a dramatic conclusion. The track, "Song For America" also contained some of the finest vocals to be heard anywhere. The lead vocal was handled by Steve, and together with Stienhardt's harmony, the two were the American equivalent of Anderson and Squire. One can surely disagree, but I would call Steve Walsh one of the greatest progressive rock vocalists of the 1970s. And, at "only" 9:59, it packed in more excitement than some other, more respected, bands could have managed. Kansas didn't waste their time in pointless jamming. Every second of the music was well planned and executed.

Next comes "Lamplight Symphony." It is heartbreaking lyrically and displays the power Kansas could command musically. The story of a dead spouse's ghostly visit is told to the sound of powerful B-3 colored with Livgren's Mini-Moog. The instrumental interlude builds in tension until the violin and synthesizers erupt in simultaneous ascending and descending pitchs with wild, exaggerated vibrato. The effect is devastating. Rising out of this chaos is a final melody from the moog, the last hopeful verse, and the finale, abrupt and shocking, evoking the sudden disappearance of a spirit.

Emotionally drained, yet exhilarated, we move on to track three. "Lonely Street," reminiscent of Humble Pie's "Walk On Gilded Splinters," is built around Dave Hope's bass line, and it has Kansas displaying their harder side again. A slow menacing tune, it has syncopated guitars and bass, pounding out a deadly riff, for the lyrics protagonist is on a path to death row. All the members, save Livgren, took part in penning this hard rocker.

"The Devil Game" is a Walsh/ Hope collaboration that actually comes close to binding together the two aspects of Kansas. Its lyrics substantially echo Livgren's ethos, and this tune rocks harder than anything else on this CD. Heavy rock in the style of Uriah Heep is set against the arpeggiated progressions and the demanding unison licks of Steve's B-3 and Robbie's violin to provide a glimpse of the union of styles that would be further solidified on their follow up, Masque.

Finally, there is the longest track, "Incomudro-Hymn To The Atman." Beginning with a stately, grand theme we hear Livgren's usual esoteric, introspective lyrics before we are thrust quickly into another lengthy instrumental section displaying the Kansas trademark, the melodic solo cycle. Not seeing Kansas perform live until 1976, I must assume that this LP/CD closing piece was also intended to be a live set closer, as this number throws open a Pandoras box of musical demons. To look at the center instrumental section of this work, we have a synthesizer solo accented with piano, followed by another on the B-3, then a short guitar and violin duet, then, shifting tempo to a waltz, a brief guitar break, then another time change ushering in a more lengthy moog solo featuring multiple changes of wave form and oscillations. Many classic synthesizer textures and voices are called forth, leading to Phil Ehart's drum solo. This solo works nicely, incorporating swirling phase shifted tones from his tom tom's, and ends with a display of Phil's bass drum foot speed, returning us to the initial theme, a beautifully played violin interlude, the final verse, a galloping, distorted guitar solo, and then (whew!) the expected ascension to a crescendo complete with a song ending explosion. Really, with all this going on, an explosion is bound to occur. An altogether fitting finale to an overpowering piece of music, and a very satisfying sophomore release from America's premiere progressive rock band.

Down The Road (3:43) / Song For America (10:03) / Lamplight Symphony (8:17) / Lonely Street (5:43) / The Devil Game (5:04) / Incomudro - Hymn To The Atman (12:11)

Kerry Livgren - guitar, keyboards
Steve Walsh - keyboards, vocals
Phil Ehart - drums
Dave Hope - bass
Robbie Steinhardt - violin, vocals
Rich Williams - guitar

Kansas (1974)
Song For America (1975)
Masque (1975/2001)
Leftoverture (1976/2001)
Point of Know Return (1977/1984/2002)
Two For The Show (1978)
Monolith (1979)
Audio Visions (1980)
Vinyl Confessions (1982)
Drastic Measures (1983)
The Best Of Kansas (1984)
Power (1986)
In The Spirit Of Things (1988)
Carry On (1990)
Live At The Whisky (1992)
Box Set (1994)
Freaks of Nature (1995)
Always Never The Same (1998)
King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Kansas (1998)
Definitive Collection (1999)
Best Of Kansas (altered re-release) (1999)
Somewhere To Elsewhere (2000)
Live! Extended Versions (2000)
The Ultimate Kansas (2002)
Device-Voice-Drum (2002)
In Concert (2003)
Sail On: The 30th Anniversary Collection 1974-2004 (2004)
On The Other Side (2005)
Kansas: Extended Versions (2005)
Works In Progress (2006)
Super Hits (2007)
Discover Kansas (2007)
There's Know Place Like Home (2010)

Best Of Kansas Live (VHS) (1982)
Live At The Whisky (VHS) (1995)
Device Voice Drum (DVD) (2002)

Genre: Progressive Rock

Origin US

Added: March 7th 2004
Reviewer: Tom Karr
Artist website: www.kansasband.com
Hits: 1478
Language: english


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