Spirituality and religious beliefs figured significantly in the story of Kansas, one of their number going so far as to become an ordained Anglican minister upon leaving the group. Their style can loosely be described as intelligently orchestrated progressive rock, with added violin, though a hummable chorus is never too far away.
As Kansas 2016 prepare for an unlikely comeback as recording artists – key writers guitarist Kerry Livgren and vocalist/keyboardist Steve Walsh are no longer on board – with The Prelude Implicit, their first new set of songs since Somewhere To Elsewhere 16 years ago, here’s a guide to their ten finest songs.
10. Play The Game Tonight (1982)
The hits were starting to dry up and John Elefante had replaced Steve Walsh at the microphone by the time Kansas recorded this list’s most contemporary selection, but the AOR-infused anthem from their eighth album, Vinyl Confessions, along with the next record’s Fight Fire With Fire, offers glaring reminder that the band still had quality to spare.
9. Magnum Opus (1976)
At eight and a half minutes long, and broken down into six individual suites, Magnum Opus might be too overblown for those seeking a more immediate fix, but the mostly Kerry Livgren-penned epic presents the classic line-up of Kansas at their imperious, unapologetic peak. Long before the idea of prog-metal was even deemed possible the band were mixing moods and tempos with ne’er a care for the stopwatch.
8. Lamplight Symphony (1975)
Kansas’ messages of spirituality were rarely stated directly, though their importance to the group cannot be undervalued. When guitarist Kerry Livgren wrote Lamplight Symphony for the Song For America album he left its meaning open for interpretation, though it’s obviously the tale of an elderly man who misses his wife, only to be visited by her in the night-time, reassuring him that ‘someday they’d be [together again] as one’.
7. Journey From Mariabronn (1974)
Separating the band from so many of their contemporaries, the violin playing of co-founder Robby Steinhardt was a pivotal element of the first eight Kansas albums. Fending off some stiff completion, Steinhardt’s is the lead instrument on this track from their self-titled debut, hammering out its hugely memorable introductory stanza and then underpinning a gorgeous, uplifting melody. The song was based on writer Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus And Goldmund.
6. Icarus - Borne On Wings Of Steel (1975)
Kansas were never a heavy metal band though their music was often founded upon a dark, brooding intensity. However thanks largely to the guitars of Livgren and Rich Williams, this song from the Masque album, inspired by the Greek mythological tale of Icarus, the foolish son of inventor Daedalus, who pays the price for flying too close to the sun, stands among their most strident and powerful tunes.
5. Miracles Out Of Nowhere (1976)
Until the release of a fourth album which finally produced a hit single, Kansas’s future had hung by a thread. Now a staggering four decades old that record, Leftoverture, offered just about the perfect distillation of what had made the group so special and unique. Even now it’s hard to decide which is the most important; the immaculate delivery of Steve Walsh or the interaction between the singer/keyboardist and the rest of the group.
4. Point Of Know Return (1977)
Following a breakthough with Leftoverture, Kansas elected to write shorter though no less intricate songs for the all-important follow-up. At a smidgen over three minutes long and based around Steinhardt’s irresistible dancing violin lick, its potent, purposely misspelled title track made America’s Top 30 but deserved to have been a much bigger hit. Luckily, their next 45 would consolidate a fast growing reputation.
3. Song For America (1975)
Livgren wrote the title track of Song For America, the group’s second album, whilst surveying his homeland from a jet airplane. “I was musing over our relatively young nation,” he explains. Kansas were still wet behind the ears, too, but for all of the song’s immense beauty, how scary accurate was its vision of the future: ‘Ravage, plunder, see no wonder, rape and kill and tear asunder/Chop the forest, plow it under’?
2. Dust In The Wind (1977)
Livgren hadn’t even intended to make a song out of what he called “a basic finger-picking exercise” until his wife spotted its potential. She was quite right. Once aligned to a set of lyrics that pondered the temporary nature of human life, Dust In The Wind became a majestic, winsome piece that would spend 200 weeks on the American singles listings – their biggest chart hit.
1. Carry On Wayward Son (1975)
A career-saving US Top 40 hit became Kansas’ best-loved tune, and now one of the most downloaded tracks of the digital era. Once again, it almost didn’t happen. Kansas had already finalized the make-or-break Leftoverture when Livgren walked in with an additional, autobiographical anthem, complete with acapella intro and a thunderous riff, which articulated the guitarist’s growing spiritualism. As the dollars began to pour in, their lives would never be the same again.