The state fair has become a staple of the American music scene; a succession of faithful old concert names, viewable in safe, 50-something comfort – all the hits and nothing more. Despite a glorious history from the 1970s until the latter part of the following decade when Deep Purple’s Steve Morse became their guitarist, Kansas had become marooned in this most reliable and least demanding of environments. Minus the talents of Kerry Livgren, writer of their biggest hits, they appeared abandoned in the musical equivalent of God’s waiting room, apparently without hope.
In 2014, with the voice of frontman/keyboard player Steve Walsh (another of the band’s key composers) depreciating badly, to borrow the parlance of the ring, Kansas had taken their sucker punch and were now lying prostrate and gumshield-less on the canvas. The referee’s final count loomed.
A set of tunes cut from their signature sound, yet without resorting to imitation.
“There’s always a slight hope [of making new music] but we don’t look much further than today,” co-founding drummer Phil Ehart admitted to your correspondent the same year, adding: “If something pops up tomorrow then fine, but right now those odds look pretty slim.”
What happened next is like something straight out of Rocky. Soon afterwards, 63-year-old Walsh reluctantly took his retirement. Like so many veteran bands of late, Kansas hired a replacement found singing their songs on YouTube. A former mouthpiece of melodic hard rockers Shooting Star, Ronnie Platt has proved to be a fine addition to the line-up.
But things don’t end there. In deciding to find out whether a new album still lurked within them after a silence of some 16 years, the group invited Zak Rizvi, a member of the New Jersey-based instrumental progressive rockers 4Front, to co-produce. Besides being a skilled guitarist, Rizvi, it turned out, was also a gifted writer who brought along several songs he thought would suit the band. So impressed were his clients that, having integrated their own ideas to those basic song skeletons, Kansas used them as the project’s foundation, later going a stage further and inviting Rizvi to become a permanent member of the band (along with keyboard player David Manion, who frees up Platt to act as a specialist lead singer).
Despite all of the above, however, all but the most diehard Kansas fans will have approached this ragtag amalgam of stalwarts, tribute act members, novices and unknowns with trepidation. Well, they were quite, quite wrong.
Ronnie Platt is no Steve Walsh impersonator but his high tenor voice suits Kansas to a T, and with three guitarists, two keyboard players and with the all-important soaring, swooping, sing-song violin of David Ragsdale at their disposal, the new seven-piece line-up is an absolute beast, allowing the band to revisit the so-called ‘wall of sound’ that made their earlier, classic records so varied and compelling.
Without top-quality tunes, of course, it would all mean nothing. Luckily, with almost two decades of back-room association with the band, Zak Rizvi really knows what makes Kansas tick. Based around a juddering rhythm and coloured by a hummable hook and Ragsdale’s fruity violin break, opening track With This Heart is simply stunning. The band could have recorded it in the 1970s.
Equally uplifting, Visibility Zero arrives like an old friend you haven’t heard from in years. And that’s the key – against all the odds, the band have tapped right back into the formula perfected by Kerry Livgren to create a set of tunes cut unmistakably from their signature sound, yet without resorting to mere imitation.
Oddly, The Unsung Heroes sounds like a ballad by the Eagles. Arriving three songs in, it seems rather incongruous and premature, though its successor, Rhythm In The Spirit, is perhaps the record’s high point – a roller coaster distillation of all the hard rock, prog, pop and orchestral elements that made Kansas the most unlikely world‑beaters of the 1970s.
At more than eight minutes long, the album’s prog epic is the stirring The Voyage Of Eight Eighteen. It’s no exaggeration to state that by this point, the baton once held by Livgren and Walsh has been handed to a new incarnation, one that’s clearly fit to restore more pride to the Kansas name than anyone thought possible.