For a long time I considered Kansas to be more like a sidekick act in relation to those truly talented British progressive rock bands. This was probably due, in no small part, to the weak critical reception and tepid coverage that they seem to get from the mainstream rock press, many of whom dismiss them as “corporate rock” or whatever intellectually lazy label they use to dismiss certain acts. But as I listened extensively to Leftoverture while preparing for this review, I came to realize that this band may well equal some of these acts held in higher esteem. While it is i true that they draw heavily from contemporaries like Genesis, Jethro Tull, Yes, Pink Floyd, and Rush, they really have an art for mixing it up in a totally entertaining fashion. Kansas also has a knack for hitting the “sweet spot” when it comes to melody and harmony and they really make their own mark when it comes to true sonic value.
The second epiphany I had concerning the Leftoverture album was actually a question – can this be considered a religious album? There is no doubt that it is definitely philosophical, inspired and spiritual in the new-age lefty kind of way. But is it religious? If so, it may be the best type of religious album; implicit and artful with many subjects left in the form of a very good question, rather than a conclusion or directive.
Which brings us back to the critics of this album, many of which blast it for being a “concept album” without having a true concept. My statement to that is perhaps it is not a concept album at all, just a fine collection of songs with more universal themes than traditional rock and roll. These universal themes may reach beyond the typical conventions of the garden variety rock critic. Others have said the band tries to be too “arty” when they don’t have the talent to do so. To those who say this album doesn’t contain rhythm or composition, I say they simply do not like music.
Leftoverture by Kansas
|Released: October 1976 (Kirshner)
Produced by: Jeff Glixman & Kansas
Recorded: Studio In the Country, Bogalusa, LA, 1975-1976
|Side One||Side Two|
|Carry On Wayward Son
What’s On My Mind
Miracles Out of Nowhere
Questions of My Childhood
|Steve Wash – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards
Kerry Livgren – Guitars, Piano, Keyboards, Clarinet
Rich Williams – Guitars
Robby Steinhardt – Violin, Viola, Vocals
Dave Hope – Bass
Phil Ehart – Drums, Percussion
The first side on the album contains a nice mix of styles, highlighted by “The Wall”. The guitar-led intro is just fantastic and nicely switches to the baroque-inspired verse with harpsichord-like keys that are later accented by strings and thumping rhythms. This song really feels influenced by a mixture of Yes and classic Genesis, but with a more terrestrial feel especially when it comes to Walsh’s lead vocals and Livgren’s poetic lyrics which pre-empted Roger Waters by about three years;
“It rises now before me, a dark and silent barrier between,
All I am, and all that I would ever want be, it’s just a travesty…”
The next song “What’s On My Mind” is almost a straight-forward pop song and therefore probably the weakest song on the album artistically, but not a terrible listen. “Miracles Out of Nowhere” is much stronger, moving through many great instrumental passages with rich instrumentation including acoustic guitars, strings, synths, and piano, while almost folk during verses.
The album’s opener, “Carry On My Wayward Son”, has become the most lasting piece from Leftoverture, receiving heavy airplay through the decades. While this song is definitely pop-oriented, it still feels “epic” in many ways, from the perfect harmonies at the start, to the various passages of musical interlude, and the fine piano backing the verse and very poetic lyric. The song has been called “a sonic monolith” with its meaning still debated, from that of an ongoing theme brought forward from the previous album Masque, to the religious sentiment I touched on earlier in this article.
The album’s second half is where I feel the true genius lies. Although, I can’t quite articulate that genus in words (something that no doubt frustrated those harsh critics). Starting with “Opus Insert” which is an absolutely brilliant song to the ears but quite baffling (due to its title) to the mind. It may be an inside joke or puzzle left to be solved, but I’ll just stick to what I can report. It is extremely entertaining, starting with an odd, interesting organ that breaks into a heavier section, very good with thumping bass by Dave Hope. It is a “carpe diem” song with nicely strummed acoustic during the chorus followed by a majestic riff of violin/viola which morphs even further into a marching sound with drum rolls behind vibraphone and piano before returning again to odd and beautiful beginning and then synth-led ending.
Before you can catch your breath “Questions of My Childhood” kicks in with a wild and upbeat intro led by synth then organ. More philosophical themes are explored around maturing and realizing you never get all the answers. A great violin lead in the outtro by string man Robby Steinhardt sits on top of the intro synths, which nicely migrate into the background. “Cheyenne Anthem” is nearly a straight-forward folk song with a message, but it seems to have a deeper, poetic meaning as the verses go on (again, religious?) –
“All our words and deeds are carried on the wind…”
Musically the song is once again brilliant, never getting bogged down by any predisposed “message”, with nice acoustic guitars and synth overtones and Jethro Tull-like folksy passages which lead to an upbeat section that sounds almost polka (although probably based on Native American tribal dance). This gives way to more Kansas-style riff before the big mid-section breaks back down to simple strummed acoustic guitars and haunting vocals in background.
The album concludes with “Magnum Opus”, an 8½ minute piece which is nearly an instrumental save for a single verse with almost throw-away lyrics about how “rock and roll is only howling at the moon”. The song explores even more exotic sounds, starting with native-type drumming and subtle synths on the top, then moving to heavier guitars and strong rock drumming by Phil Ehart. After the single verse, the song goes into an extended jam, sometimes frenzied, that may have been influenced by Rush’s Caress of Steel, before reaching an abrupt ending to close out Leftoverture.
Kansas would build on the success of this album by cutting Point of Know Return the following year, an even more successful album commercially, which combined with Leftoverture marks the apex of the band’s career.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.
Kudos to R.A. for writing one of the best and most accurate album reviews pertaining to the group Kansas. Of course the typical rock critic, who gets confused if more than 3 or 4 chords are used in a song, have never understood or wanted to understand progressive rock. Nevertheless, R.A. seems to really understand why Kansas fans really like them and why critics hate them.
Although I love progressive rock, even the best prog rock albums often tend to get boring after repeated listens and I usually prefer to listen to them alone so I can concentrate on the elaborate solos and non-standard arrangements. However, Kansas was not a pure progressive rock band. Some of their songs had a bit of southern rock or hard rock thrown into them and they also had a string of successful rock ballads. Fortunately, I can appreciate all of these styles of music and this is one of the reasons why I can listen to a Kansas album without getting bored. Other reasons include excellent songwriting, unique arrangements, and the fact that Kansas rocked harder than any other progressive rock band from the 70’s with the exception of Rush. (Of course, Rush, like Kansas, often wrote great songs and many of these songs are not considered progressive rock either.)
I think this is the main reason why the Yes and Genesis fanatics could never understand or appreciate Kansas. They can’t seem to understand why a progressive rock band would want to play anything else than prog rock. (These are the same fans that love Yes and UK, but hate Asia.) They also like to say that Kansas was a bit lacking on talent.
Maybe Kansas didn’t have a true guitar or piano virtuoso, but they certainly aren’t slouches either. Steve Hackett of Genesis once said that Steve Walsh was the best singer in rock n’ roll and I totally agree with him. IMO, Robbie Steinhardt is a virtuoso on rock n’ roll violin. In fact, he invented “rock n’ roll for the violin”. Dave Hope and Phil Ehart comprised a rhythm section that was as solid as any other rhythm section I can think of. Maybe their playing style wasn’t as busy as “Peart and Lee” or “Squire and Bruford”, but they were just as solid. There are also times (especially in concert) where I’d rather have the guitar combination of Livgren and Williams than either Steve Hackett or Steve Howe by themselves or Mike Rutherford and Daryl Steurmer.
How can someone NOT call Kerry Livgren a virtuoso?
His classical-inspired, arpeggiated piano playing is both musically complex and compositionally gorgeous and imaginative. And just listen to his soaring Lead Guitar work on “Carry On Wayward Son”. The fact that one guy is so accomplished and skilled at both piano and guitar instruments is unprecedented. I cannot think anyone else in all of Rock Music that is as much of a virtuoso on both instruments together simultaneously.
Kerry Livgren is a true musical virtuoso and genius.
[…] impressive artists with original concepts for each of their albums, including a medieval scribe on Leftoverture and Point of Know Return‘s iconic ship sailing off the edge of the […]
This reviewer almost gets it. So, I’m aiming this more at the many other reviewers who don’t seem to know anything about music and merely rate a record like dumb teenagers in an American Bandstand contest… and then think of a reason why they liked it or didn’t.
Here’s why many people don’t like Kansas: Wagner.
Kerry Livgren was a huge Wagnerphile growing up. Carry On Wayward Son is a borrowing (or ripoff depending on how you see art evolving) from The Ring. In fact, many of Livgren’s songs have a similar effect of Wagner’s 2-tone sound. It’s flat and yet sounds a bit active or noisy. Lots of people didn’t like that effect in Liszt and Wagner and they don’t like it in Kansas. In listening to The Wall the creeping change in modulation will either sound a little off-putting and maybe even boring, or you’re going to like the constant false resolutions throughout.
Livgren’s poetry is almost 19th-century. He doesn’t write love songs.
“My charade is the event of the season.”
That sounds like something more from Oscar Wilde than a rock musician. Livgren paints in grand portraits the urge of humankind to find meaning.
“Now the earth gives forth its secrets,
Held in mountain sea and plain.”
It explains why he became a born again Christian, his search. About his religion I have no comment.
But reviewers tend to be pretty lazy. They do zero homework, offer zero context, decide whether they like something or don’t based on their own knee jerk reaction, and then make up a lot of bullshit to make it look like they know.
I’m no reviewer. I like the artists I like and could do a competent job reviewing their work. But I wouldn’t have the time to do it right in reviewing records about which I come in knowing little.
kansas was light years ahead of their contemporaries…
I never took rock critics very seriously. They are hung up on style and don’t care about substance. Although some of them wrote good reviews of prog-rock when it was young (late 60’s/early 70’s), they wanted nothing to do with prog-rock by the mid-70’s. These reviewers also resented the fact that bands like Kansas and Yes made it on the strength of their dedicated fan bases without having to suck-up to the critics or depend upon hit singles. I find it ironic that critics like Rolling Stone’s David Fricke or the Village Voice’s Lester Bangs can say Kansas is lacking in virtuosity. Have you ever read David Fricke’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. He has Kurt Cobain ranked in the 40’s while David Gilmour, Steve Howe, and Eddie Van Halen are ranked much further down in the 80’s. But the real kicker about Fricke’s list was he had 3-chord Johnny Ramone ranked in his top 20 greatest guitarists of all time. I could go on but I think that says it all. When I first started to play guitar, I learned several Ramone’s songs because they were the easiest songs on the planet to play. Johnny Ramone played 2-types of Chords–6th string Root Bar Chords and 5th string Root Bar Chords (often just 5ths). He had one tone and avoided lead guitar solos like the plague. But bands like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones are in the Rock n’ Roll hall of fame because they “needed the critics to invent credibility for them”.
They were also readily accessible to the critics–they usually lived in London or NYC (and later LA) instead of Kansas.
Great comment. I never understood why “Punk Rock” bands that could not play, or even sing are revered and lionized so much. I feel the same about Rap and Hip-Hop, and “chainsaw style” guitar bashers. I guess it is all about just theater and spectacle for some people. But musically and compositionally what Kansas did from 1974-1978 is something we will never encounter again in popular music. They were true muscial geniuses.
What a thoughtful review, and additionally, the comments that follow the review are equally thoughtful and warmly appreciative of a band that is multi-faceted and genuinely original, even as all music, like all art, is to some degree inspired by what came before it. Each band or artist is like a fingerprint or a snowflake, and as such leaves its own, unique musical imprint on the world. Personally, I don’t have the musical knowledge to leave a worthwhile review, but I do have the heart and the musical enthusiasm simply to say that I love Kansas and much of the music that they inspired and which inspired them. I thank God for all of it.