There can be few more unlikely success stories than that of Kansas, and yet 2020 marks 49 years in the business for a band who dressed like farmhands and adopted the violin as a de facto lead instrument. With notable exceptions, the songs of Kerry Livgren were what made Kansas great. Following the guitarist’s third and seemingly final departure in 2000, the Livgren-less configuration took 16 years to construct new music.
Their comeback album, The Prelude Implicit, proved a far better reconstitution of the classic Kansas sound than many had dared to hope. Four years later, they have once again done their own illustrious legacy proud with an imaginative, satisfying slice of pomp rock that could have been made by nobody but themselves.
And yet things start in an uneven manner. An eight-minute-plus title track is a creditable enough piece of music, though perhaps a little low-key for an introductory fanfare. The strident, lighter-waving Throwing Mountains would have constituted a far more emphatic greeting.
Two albums in and it no longer feels strange that it’s the voice of former Shooting Star man Ronnie Platt and not co-founder Steve Walsh that spearheads the band’s sound. Having been discovered singing Kansas songs on YouTube, Platt’s rich tones are perfectly suited to two of the record’s most evocative and rewarding pieces, Memories Down The Line and Never. Where the smooth assurance of the former showcases the AOR-crossover appeal that has long been part of Kansas’ DNA, the latter, along with Jets Overhead and the multi-tempoed album closer The Song The River Sang, serve to solidify a new style, bracketing this remarkable band in both the past and current tense.
Above all, this is a strong team performance. David Ragsdale’s violin dances teasingly and pleasingly throughout, a consummate foil for the taught, punchy guitars of original member Rich Williams and Zak Rizvi, who joined the band for The Prelude Implicit, also writing many of its songs. And right from the start new keyboard player Tom Brislin, whose extensive CV includes spells with Yes, Meat Loaf and Renaissance, proves a canny piece of recruitment.
A couple of cautious spins suggest that The Absence Of Presence represents an improvement upon …Implicit. And come October, Covid-19 allowing, having controversially pulled a spot at 2017’s Ramblin’ Man Fair due “safety and security warnings issued by the US government”, we may even see Kansas perform in the UK again. Like this album, that too will be cause for celebration.