Grilled by Brian McGowan
Release date: 25 March 2016
It was 1998, and the ever popular Progrock band collaboration with Symphony Orchestra was, for Kansas, another master-stroke on the road back to redemption. Not that they had done anything wrong, you understand. They, like myriad seventies and eighties rock bands, had simply reached their sell-by date circa 1992/3. We know why.
The band’s rather good 1995 studio album, ‘Freaks Of Nature’ – their first since 1988 – was very clearly the sound of an “eighties” band grabbing its second chance with both hands. So, having made one confident step forward, the band took a clear eyed look into the rear-view mirror and cemented their vastly improved position with ‘Always Never The Same’, a compilation of well known Kansas material, arranged with and given greater clarity and scale by the London Symphony Orchestra. There are also 3 new songs, more on them later.
On the surface, opening the album with a cover version was an unusual move, especially a Lennon/McCartney classic, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, and more especially considering that the original Beatles’ recording featured a starkly defined string quartet. Clearly, it was meant as a respectful nod to the album’s place of recording – Abbey Road – and perhaps too as a basis for judgement of the material about to follow. In that respect the album wins more rounds than it loses, and there are many standout moments, probably peaking with the dazzling, heartstopping transition from ‘Preamble’ to ‘Song For America’, strongly anticipatory, pumped up to epic proportions by the LSO, just as it was designed by Livgren when he wrote it back in 1975.
‘Hold On’ and ‘The Wall’ are unpicked then colourfully stitched back together by the orchestra, dispensing with some of the original guitar parts, but giving both pieces a richer texture.
As the songs shift from Livgren’s lyrical spirituality to Walsh’s ruminations on the human condition, ‘The Sky Is Falling’ and ‘In Your Eyes’, you get the uncomfortable feeling that it just isn’t working on this newly written stuff. The brass section arrangements sound unnecessary, obtrusive even. Where the arrangements of the old stuff seem carefully and tightly woven, on the new stuff they sound frayed, already unravelling fast. Yes, you can hear Walsh and the band, originals Phil Ehart, Robby Steinhardt and Rich Williams, plus new boy Billy Greer (he joined in 1985) relishing the challenge of lifting each new song to the same heights as the old, but ultimately it’s “close but no cigar”.
For many diehard fans, ‘Cheyenne Anthem’ and ‘Dust In The Wind’, are untouchables. Classic Kansas songs that should remain as they were when first appearing on the band’s mighty fourth album, ‘Leftoverture’. And there is merit in that position. But the reworking works. The orchestral treatment can overwhelm not just the vapid pop song, as even the most robust of musical structures can collapse under the weight of a 100 piece orchestra (try listening to Yes’s pomp-goes-pompous dalliances with Symphony Orchestras). But, as on these two tracks, an elegantly arranged string section can make a song soar, revitalising, refreshing, making them shine like new.
This Kansas reissue again comes from specialist label, The Store For Music. More like this please.
7 out of 10
- Eleanor Rigby
- Dust In The Wind
- Song For America
- In Your Eyes
- Miracles Out Of Nowhere
- Hold On
- The Sky Is Falling
- Cheyenne Anthem
- The Wall
- Need To Know
- Nobody’s Home