Ben’s Breakdown | “The Absence of Presence” shows the greatness of Kansas
I have written the odd review here and there about music or a recording. I don’t do it very often unless motivated by something that gives me that special, giddy feeling. It’s rare and I never thought it to happen to me again. Well, as I’ve said many times, I love a good surprise and I experienced the most amazing surprise listening to the newest recording by the legendary American prog-rock band, Kansas. That new album of theirs is titled The Absence of Presence.
Kansas had fallen off of some people’s radar quite a few years ago, but when original singer Steve Walsh announced he was going to retire the remaining members of the band went out and found themselves an amazing singer in one Ronnie Platt (formerly of Shooting Star). Admittedly, Ronnie’s keyboard playing wasn’t quite up to the level that Walsh could play at (or former guitarist/keyboardist Kerry Livgren), so they sought out a fulltime keyboard player and found Dave Manion. With this lineup, the band felt it was time to go back into the studio and record what would be the first album in 16 years with The Prelude Implicit. It was a good album that saw the addition of songwriter/guitarist Zak Rizvi during the recording process. After a couple of lengthy tours in support of the new album, as well as touring in celebration of the 40th Anniversary of their breakout album Leftoverture, Manion chose to leave the band leaving the remaining members with the question as to who they would choose to replace him. Shortly before they were to embark on the 40th Anniversary tour of their multi-platinum Point Of Know Return, they hired on Tom Brislin who had more than proven himself with the various gigs and projects that he has been a part of, not the least of which was a brief stint working with Yes. During that tour, they recorded what was to be the follow-up album, The Absence of Presence.
With great anticipation, I loaded the new album into my computer and put the headphones on and listened to it very seriously. I paid close attention to the arrangements of how each instrument was utilized in the song. I carefully listened to the lyrics of the songs, given that Kansas has historically been famous for writing songs that were born out of deep thought and reflection. Before I even reached the end of my first round listening to this I found myself becoming increasingly excited and happy, as if I had rediscovered something that had long been lost. By the time I finished, it became clear that this was an album that I would have to listen to again and again, and with each listening the songs became more complex, taking directions that reminded me of the more adventurous songs that this band released early in their career. However, it never felt like it was retreading on old ground. I could hear callbacks that felt as if these new songs had been influenced by the band’s past, and yet it still felt fresh and new. And not only did the songs bring a refreshing quality, the instrumental work of each member of the band felt exciting and energized as if they had found Juan Ponce de León’s legendary fountain. This was no band that consisted of aged rockers (drummer Phil Ehart and guitarist Rich Williams are the only remaining original members). I was listening to the work of musicians in the prime of their life and playing ability. Williams’ guitar work has always been good. However, his skill and technical prowess have continually gotten better and better, year after year, making him one of the most underrated guitarists in the world. Rizvi’s virtuosic playing contained intricate structure, and when playing with Williams they crafted some dazzling duet work that hasn’t been heard in decades. Greer’s bass work at times sounds as if he’s channeling both Geddy Lee and the late Chris Squire, but still played in a manner that was uniquely Greer. Ragsdale’s classical and pyrotechnic playing on the violin is both lush and lean, making his contributions perfect for a full symphonic sound or when he needs to peel off some serious lead work. As for Ehart, his drum work here is a reminder as to why he’s not just a drummer. The man is a machine and a musician. This is his best and most inspired playing in years. Listening to musicianship like this was so invigorating that it made me feel as if I had taken a drink out of that legendary fountain as well.
The new album has 9 songs and for the sake of brevity, I will not go through each one. What I will do is give a couple of highlights. From a vocal standpoint, the band had Platt handling the bulk of the lead singing with bassist Billy Greer providing backup vocals (Greer has previously provided lead singing here and there with past songs). Now with Tom Brislin they not only have a highly skilled keyboardist but they also have another accomplished vocalist. The result is a collection of songs that have some brilliantly layered harmony work that hasn’t been heard in years. Also, with Brislin at the keys the songs now see a return to that “symphonic” sound that also made Kansas songs popular with fans. While Manion was a strong player, the keyboards felt as if they were sitting in the background. Brislin brings the keyboard sound to the front and center, allowing it to stand side-by-side with the violin, and guitar/bass parts.
The songs are quite varying, but something that can’t be ignored is that this band has been taking their multi-vitamin strength pills because with the song “Throwing Mountains” they go for the progressive metal sound with an opening that could have been played by prog-metal gods Dream Theater. Not bad for a band that supposedly saw their heyday end over 30 years ago.
The songs are also playful with their arrangements by jumping all over the place. “Animals on the Roof” has such moments that made me think of a jigsaw puzzle as well as feeling anthemic. I can’t even begin to imagine how such a song was composed and arranged (Rizvi wrote the music, with Brislin and Ehart providing the lyrics), but the challenge they must have faced trying to put this together in the studio boggles the mind. I can only hope they play this one in concert once the Great Pause is over.
Lastly, in a beautiful example of just how deep this musical bench is, the final song “The Song the River Sang” has lyrics that would make ex-Yes singer Jon Anderson proud. It’s poetry set to some incredible music with glorious lead vocals provided by Brislin. It was at this song that I caught myself (at the embarrassing age 59 no less) jumping up and down and laughing at this amazing song. That is how happy I had become.
Where many bands that are contemporaries to Kansas are happily coasting on their illustrious catalog of songs, Kansas has proven that they still have rocket fuel. This is a band that not only has plenty of life in it but will continue to have plenty of life in the years to come. Kansas had the magic to capture lightning in a bottle once back in 1976 with Leftoverture. The very next year they somehow captured lightning in a bottle a second time with Point Of Know Return. Miraculously, they have done the impossible. They called their shot, swung for the fences, and delivered a grand slam. They captured lightning once again.
I give The Absence of Presence 5 out of 5 Platinum Albums!!!