Friday, 28 October 2016

Kansas' 'The Prelude Implicit' - Album Review

This my come as a surprise to those who know me and my music preferences, but Kansas are a band I know relatively little about. I have obviously always know about the band's expansive and hugely influential discography, and were familiar with their most well-known songs, but it was not until fairly recently that I actually got any of their albums. I year or so ago, I got a copy of their 1976 classic album Leftoverture and finally gave the band a proper listen. I have to say, I was not impressed. I am not sure why but I did not, and still do not, connect at all with Leftoverture. Of course Carry on Wayward Son is an absolute classic piece of melodic hard rock, but the rest of the album left me cold. Repeated listens have not really changed my views on this album, so I put Kansas to the back of my mind. Earlier this year however I took a punt on a cheap copy of 1977's Point of Know Return at a record stall at a festival. Something about the band fascinated me, and I really wanted to 'get' the hype. In stark contrast to Leftoverture, Point of Know Return was a hit with me from almost the very first note! The album made quite an impression on me, and I have played it quite a few times since. Around the same time there was lots of talk of the band releasing a new studio album, their first since 2000's Somewhere to Elsewhere and I knew I had to check it out. I pre-ordered the album, which is called The Prelude Implicit, and spun it eagerly. At first I was left a little cold, but repeated listens (especially those with headphones) have revealed the album to be very strong indeed! The band seem really energised on this first album in 16 years, and the new-look seven piece band all pull their weight to create a great modern-sounding melodic hard rock album with more than a hint of their classic 1970s sound. Founding members guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Ehart, along with long-time members bassist Billy Greer and violinist David Ragsdale, are joined on The Prelude Implicit by three new recruits. Many wondered how the band would cope without their longtime singer and key songwriter Steve Walsh, who departed the band in 2014, but the band have bounced back and new singer Ronnie Platt does a fantastic job throughout. Walsh, who also played keyboards, has been effectively replaced by two people. Platt handles the vocals (although does contribute some keyboards live and some piano on this album), and David Manion handles the keyboards. The band have also been joined by guitarist Zak Rizvi, who was originally hired to produce the album and ended up joining the band (and contributing greatly to the songwriting of the album) in the process. This has the sense of a real 'band' album too, with songwriting distributed fairly evenly between all of the seven band members and plenty of chances for each individual to shine.

The album starts in fine melodic fashion with With This Heart, which immediately introduces new keyboard player Manion to the world with some fantastic piano melodies that have a really floaty quality. The song has a strong AOR sheen throughout (as does much of the album), with plenty of acoustic guitars during the verses, and a powerful chorus which is the first chance for Platt to show his strong voice. He is quite similar to Walsh, but has enough of his own characteristics not to be a clone. Platt is an inspired choice to front Kansas, as he brings a certain familiarity in style with him, but also proves himself to be a fine songwriter and performer in his own right. This song in general has a very familiar feel, especially when Ragsdale's violin leads kick in part-way through. His playing is all over this album, and this is the first of many folky prog melodies he provides. Visibility Zero is heavier, and kicks off with a grinding guitar/keyboard riff that has shades of classic Deep Purple and Uriah Heep about it. Manion's organ playing is strong here, and Williams and Rizvi form a formidable guitar duo with plenty of stabbing rhythms and laid-back acoustic passages. In fact, Uriah Heep is a good comparison for this whole song, with lots of strong harmony vocals throughout, and a cracking violin solo which does what no guitar could do in it's place! The Unsung Heroes is mellower, and opens with  a soaring violin melody, before dropping off with a piano-led verse that has a slight waltz feel to it. It is a bit of a crooner really, with soulful vocal display from Platt that fits perfectly with the booming piano chords. Despite the basic power ballad structure the song conforms to, there is a great instrumental section near the end which harks back to the band's prog roots with duelling guitar and violin lines. Rhythm in the Spirit is next, and makes the previous three songs feel like warm-ups in comparison. I would say this is the album's best song, and contains everything that has made Kansas the classic band they are over the years.  Another big guitar/keyboard riff drives the song, with a subtle addition of violin, until a slightly funky verse takes over led by a big Greer bassline and some snaking guitars. It actually sounds a little like Toto, something which carries on into the pre-chorus with some high vocals from Platt and some bouncy guitar melodies. The chorus is pure Kansas however, with a jaunty violin lead behind Platt's soaring, and extremely catchy, vocal melodies. It is easily the best chorus on the album, and helps to elevate the song to new heights. Guitars, keyboards, and violin all have chances to shine throughout with prominent solos or melodies, and the mix of instruments keeps the song exciting. After the bombast, Refugee is a much more serene song, dominated by William's delicate acoustic guitar playing. Ragsdale's mournful violin adds a certain moody drama here and there, but this song is mainly about Williams and Platt, who might have laid down his best vocal display yet on this song. This dark, but calm ballad provides a great mid-album break from all the rock that has come so far, and shows a different side to the band's songwriting.

The epic progressive rock of The Voyage of Eight Eighteen is the album's centrepiece and the longest song here. Platt provides some piano work here, giving the album a two-keyboard attack that helps to fill out the sound nicely. The opening lengthy violin spot is perfect, and really sets the song's nautical theme with melodies that could have come from old sea shanties. The verses rein in the bombast for a more laid back vibe, with subtle piano over some rhythmic drumming from Ehart. The song does not have a chorus as such and eschews traditional structure as it moves forward. The song is a real journey, which is perfect given it's title! Some of the most progressive moments on the album are contained in this song with synth melodies, retro organ solos, and soaring violin jigs mix together perfectly to create a wall of different sounds. After Rhythm in the Spirit, this is the album's best song, and is a really excellent display of melodic progressive songwriting. Camouflage gets back to the more concise songwriting that dominates the album. Again, there is a grinding guitar/keyboard riff that drives the early part of the song, and again there is a strong Uriah Heep influence. The organ continues to play throughout the song, encompassing everything in a dark glow. The chorus is another melodic delight however, with plenty of harmony vocals to make the melodies stand out, and bring the best out of Platt's voice. Summer stands out on this album as it is the only song not sung by Platt. Greer takes the lead instead, and proves he has a strong voice too, and provides a slightly rougher take on Kansas' sound than Platt, which is nice to hear. It is an upbeat rocker, with loads of great keyboard sounds and plenty of catchy violin leads - especially during the verses. The chorus is pure AOR, and it is seriously catchy. I guarantee anyone who hears it will be singing it and hearing it in their head for a long time after! Crowded Isolation comes along as a bit of a shock after the previous upbeat song, and hits hard with a groove-based guitar riff and plenty of dark keyboards. It is probably the heaviest moment on the album, with the biggest and most prominent guitar parts and the bass is nice and high in the mix which adds to the darker overall sound. There is a great synth solo here too, which shows off Manion's skills, and adds a real old-school vibe to the song. This song leads nicely into the closing number, the instrumental Section 60. The song is inspired by, and dedicated to, US troops who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan and contains all the band's instrumental hallmarks. It is a great way to end the album, and features little bits of what has come before and what makes The Prelude Implicit a resounding success for Kansas. Overall, this album is great, and brings Kansas back to the forefront of the rock world with a bang. It also shows that a band can survive loosing key songwriters, as neither Walsh nor founding member Kerry Livgren have had anything to do with this album. I hope this is not the last we hear from Kansas, and this album kick starts a whole new chapter in the band's already long history.

The album was released on 23rd September 2016 via InsideOut Music. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Visibility Zero.

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