Saturday, 15 December 2018

Leftoverture - Kansas

Provenance: I know more about the state of Kansas than I do about the band (who hail from Topeka, KS, a fine city folks), due not in no small part because it's where my partner comes from. We got married in Kansas and, by God, I shall die in Kansas (note: I live in the south-east of England so I haven't quite thought through the logistics of this latter claim).

However, long before I had any kind of association with Kansas the place, I was into Kansas the band. More precisely, I was into Leftoverture, and even then I would say no more than two-thirds of the album. I could never really bring myself to sit through all six 'movements' of 'Magnum Opus'. I bought a Russian import of Leftoverture from a secondhand shop in Bournemouth for about a fiver.

Before I go on, I really want to point out that despite my frequent digs at the place I really do hold a lot of affection for Kansas. From the First Nations peoples of the region and Coronado's 16th century expedition to find the Seven Cities of Gold, to Bleeding Kansas through to the great cattle drives of Wild West mythology, it really is a fascinating place - and that's before you even get to its natural history. You've still got mass graves from the Oregon Trail and innumerable ghost towns, plus some cool places like Lawrence, Manhattan, Abilene and Dodge City. Rather than the usual sun-sodden vacation spots or overhyped cities, why not give Kansas (or the Midwest in general) a go?

Review: Yes! If Kansas got nothing else correct, they damn well knew that frontloading Leftoverture with 'Carry On Wayward Son' was an absolute pro move. A song like 'Carry On Wayward Son' swings for the fences on all kinds of fronts. Even the a capella intro, something I tend to dislike, sounds great. From there it's a real Nantucket Sleighride of a track, pulling you through riff-rock, gentle piano balladry and a warped kind of Midwestern boogie-prog. It should be a hot mess, but it isn't.

One of the textures that distinguished Kansas' brand of pomp-rock from their competitors was the prominent use of violin in the mix. Nowhere is this better exemplified in 'The Wall', soaring and bombastic, underpinned by a lyric describing one man's search for inner tranquility. This becomes more interesting when you replace 'one man' with 'Kerry Livgren', Kansas' guitarist and main songwriter. Listening to many of the other songs - 'Carry On Wayward Son', the hard-driving 'What's On My Mind', the epic 'Miracles Out of Nowhere' (all of which was side one, basically) - and you're left with the impression of a man at a crossroads. Someone who's had his fill of what the world has to offer and is turning inward for succour.

For enlightenment.

For peace.

Yes, my friends, I think we've found yet another hidden Christian rock album.

Three years after Leftoverture was released, Kerry Livgren became an evangelical Christian. It was a move that would eventually lead him to quit Kansas and release actual Christian rock. Betwixt and between, he also flirted with a rather bizarre niche of Judeo-Christianity codified in a gargantuan work called The Urantia Book, all of which mirrors the unsettled mind wrestling with notions of truth and uncertainty during the first half of Leftoverture. The subtlety employed here has to be commended, as each song taken individually doesn't give a clear picture; but taken as a whole, side one is a fairly obvious delineation of introspection and the struggle of a dawning spirituality, one that would lead him to leave Kansas and secular rock music behind (spoiler: he came back).

Unfortunately, past about 'Questions of My Childhood', two-thirds of the way through, Leftoverture runs out of steam a bit. Although Kansas have a keen ear for melody and some chewy, inventive musical ideas they're simply not an out-and-out progressive rock band. They simply lack the nimbleness and light-touch of a band like Yes. As such, 'Magnum Opus', a six part - count 'em! - suite of rockaria tries its best to gather speed but never quite leaves terra firma. There's a couple of cute ideas hidden amongst the weeds that surely could've been developed into fuller compositions. What possibly seemed like a questing and adventurous format actually ends up strangling all the clever bits in the crib.

Nevertheless, Leftoverture can be considered one of the good'uns, and side one is up there as a high-point in the pomp rock annals. Plus, in the fingerpicked guitar in 'Miracles Out of Nowhere', you can hear the blueprint of what would become 'Dust In the Wind', Kansas' most famous composition. As Coronado once concluded, four hundred and fifty years ago, Kansas are well worth exploring.

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