FACT: American pomp/prog rock stalwarts Kansas never disappoint. Even in the confused, mainstream-obsessed days of the eighties, when the band was accused of surrendering it’s identity totally at the alter of Mammon (or perhaps more presciently, his Radio Station Mammon FM), Kansas delivered four albums of finely crafted, impossible-to-despise-or-discount pop rock. The writing core of Livgren, Walsh, Ehart and Williams may have been temporarily displaced by new members or, worse still, outside writers, but the musical core, the very essence of the band, remained. And thus is it still so with the advent of the band’s sixteenth studio album, The Absence of Presence.
I mention the topic of songwriting because this new album is the first in Kansas’ illustrious history to feature none of those ‘core’ names in it’s writing credits; TAOP is almost entirely the work of newish producer/guitarist Zak Rizvi and recently co-opted keyboard player Tom Brislin, making his recording debut with the band. Two experienced yet essentially ‘journeymen’ sons of New Jersey taking the songwriting helm for a band steeped in the sounds and nuances of the Midwest and the South? What could possibly go wrong?
Very little, actually. Whilst last album The Prelude Implicit (Sentinel Daily‘s first ever album of the year when it was released in 2016) was the sound of a band re-establishing it’s studio credibility after years of torpor and confusion, The Absence of Presence sees the band building on those foundations whilst spreading it’s wings a little in terms of performance. Miraculously, Brislin and Rizvi have enabled the band to retain it’s signature sound (and credit here is also due to violinist David Ragsdale, whose playing is effortlessly on point throughout) whilst giving the musicians enough space to work in newer sounds and moods to create something that is demonstrably Kansas yet also inherently something other, something almost impossible to identify. An absence of presence indeed.
The best example of this is the superb Circus of Illusion, wherein these two musical interlopers (aided and abetted by vocalist Ronnie Platt who contributes his only set of lyrics) manage to create a sound that links the late seventies of Kansas of Monolith and Audio Visions to the mid eighties iteration of Power and In The Spirit of Things. The result is an utterly spellbinding piece of music that succeeds on every level despite it’s seemingly inauspicious musical antecedents. Ragsdale tops everything off with a superb contribution, but it’s Rizvi’s attention to detail as a producer and arranger that is the key to the staggering success of this track; every last drop of ‘essence’ has been wrung out of the performers to create ‘quintessence’, and it’s a marvel to hear.
And what of the veterans? Drummer Phil Ehart and guitarist Rich Williams are all that’s left of the old guard now, but both refuse to be eclipsed by the new blood. Ehart in particular drums with a verve and force that’s surely outside the remit of any seventy year old percussionist; his kick drum work on Animals on the Roof and the short instrumental Propulsion 1 is nothing short of revelatory, and he revels in the huge eighties snare sound afforded him by Rizvi. Williams, always content to take a back seat and keep his meatwall ticking over, contributes some spine tingling lead work. His riffage on Throwing Mountains is pleasingly punishing. The legacy of Kansas remains safe with this pair.
Ronnie Platt, only two albums in to his recording career with the band, sounds like he’s always been there. His delivery of the superb ballad Never is a tour de force, and if his style is now definitevely established as slightly more Elefante than Walsh, he still never lets the side down on more traditional material such as the title track or the album’s other tear-jerking ballad Memories Down The Line.
The only possible weak link here is album closer The Song The River Sang; With vocals handled by Brislin, and despite another evocative contribution from Ragsdale, the song doesn’t quite fit with what’s gone before. Before Brislin came to Kansas he spent some time working with Yes and stylistically this song would appear more suited to that act; vocally Brislin proves himself a competent singer with a soulful voice reminiscent of Toto‘s Joseph Williams. And whilst a Yes/Toto hybrid is never going to be turned away from the door by this reviewer, it’s presence here doesn’t quite sit as comfortably as it should do.
But that is a very minor quibble in the context of what is undeniably another very strong album from Kansas; an album that pays enough deference to the past to keep old fans happy whilst pointing to a vibrant and viable future for this most beloved of acts. Wonderful stuff.
The Absence of Presence releases on July 17th.