Kansas – Another Fork In The Road – 50 Years Of Kansas (3CD Set)


There are a number of now veteran rock bands whose sole founding member is their drummer. It’s a major turnaround from what went before, and we can only assume that when the likes of Moon and Bonham went onto the great gig in the sky – trying to set up their kits before the original madman, Ginger Baker, arrived to kick them off to adjoining clouds – those lesser mortals behind the kit astutely cut back on the booze and such like, and began considering a lifetime career could mean many years of service.

Phil Ehart has been playing drums with Kansas, some fifty years. He’s the last man standing of the line-up that gave you the big hits, and a hell of a lot more records either side. You want to hear him play? Check out 1975’s Song For America and the final track ‘Incomudro (Hymn to the Atman)’, aside from the solo he potently leads the band through the changes, and, boy, there are a good many of those.

You won’t find that track on this 3CD collection, though you’ll find just as many impressive heavy hitting prog rock numbers, alongside ballads, a certain amount of AOR, the pomp rock that I recall reading attributed to them first as a subgenre, some good stuff you’ve probably missed out on, and possibly others you’ll not care for. But then with half a century of plugging in and letting rip, not everything’s going to be gold dust, irrespective of musical tastes and trends changing externally.

What this collection allows is a career retrospective to soak in those elements, see how the band developed, reconfigured, re-evaluated and rebooted at various times. Then to reflect if there’s a cohesiveness to the band despite many line-up changes and if they can hold their own today.

Having heard Kansas’ more recent albums I can vouch for their current credibility, and I probably loved their early period over their chart peaking era, but here’s the perfect opportunity to dig in and discover what could be considered their lean-period.

Licensing restrictions mean there are minor differences between European & North American releases of Disc 2 in this collection, but you’ll find the track listing for both listed at the end of this feature, for those completists out there. The CDs move backwards in time chronologically, and aren’t necessarily a greatest hits package with the music chosen. This stated, CD1 goes all the way back to their 1974 Kansas debut album, and the song ‘Can I Tell You’, that has been recorded and updated by the current line-up, for inclusion here.

Aside from Ehart and original guitarist Richard Williams, that current line-up features bassist/vocalist Billy Greer, vocalist/keyboardist Ronnie Platt, violinist/guitarist David Ragsdale, and keyboardist/vocalist Tom Brislin. The song embodies the kind of soft rock harmonies espoused by the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Orleans back in the day this was first written, musically you can feel the likes of The Flock and It’s a Beautiful Day as influences, it’s lively, upbeat, draws you in conspiratorially, “Can I tell You Something?” the first line sung, and while not actually clarifying what, because of the times first conceived, presumably it has a peace and love, environmental message, and so’s just as relevant (or readily ignored?) today. Keyboards, guitar and violin all take turn to dazzle in solo mode: Ragsdale’s violin one is most notable, there’s a distinct classical feel to it, more European perhaps, than original string player Robby Steinhardt’s US folk heartland approach. The vocals draw you in, the solos excite; this endears the listener to Kanas as they are today, the same but different. It makes said listener give new songs a chance to be heard – While once played through, there are going to be those who’ll only ever pick up Disc 3 and dip into the hits on it no matter what, others can better appreciate what they may have missed out on.

From 2020’s The Absence Of Presence, we get the title track and ‘Throwing Mountains’ – piano and violin leads us in gently on the former before electric guitars to take us on a courtly dance, the song itself one of philosophical questioning, the kind of topic Kansas has long pondered upon lyrically, notably with Christian themes before that became yet another rock subgenre, but also other belief systems. Some seven minutes long, The Absence Of Presence throws prog rock shapes, something of a suite with its various moods, but doesn’t ignore the heavy side of things when guitars solo. ‘Throwing Mountains’ is decidedly more bombastic, throwing shapes here and there with much drama.

2016’s The Prelude Implicit tracks begin with ‘Crowded Isolation’ features some epic movements while being held together by a dandy cut and thrust of a guitar riff, and don’t go make a cup of tea because you’ll miss the bubbling synthesiser that squeaks out into a short burst of solo. Ronnie Platt is main singer on these tracks, and while possibly not as pronounced as the band’s original co-vocalists you’ll not be disappointed. bass player Billy Greer takes lead vocals on a trip down memory lane for the bouncy compelling more AOR sing-along of ‘Summer’. The joyous prog rock procession of ‘Voyage Of Eight Eighteen’ should continue to lift listener’s spirits, the pace slowing as its narrative unfolds, lead instruments embellishing what is lyrically a fraught metaphysical journey of the spirit, becoming all the harder and more florid in a tempest of sound. That a safe harbour is found is intimated as its closing moments echo fragments of ‘A Glimpse Of Home’ from 1979’s Monolith.

Voyage Of Eight Eighteen’ by virtue of its title suggested a plane, if not space rocket, ride, and while it didn’t the following ‘Icarus II’ from 2000’s Somewhere to Elsewhere album, is just that, and here the lyrics are direct, in the first person, specifically concerning a fighter pilot expressing his desire to return safely home. A somewhat mournful blues ballad until halfway through wherein tumultuous barrages of sound enter the frame, evoking the danger present. 1975’s Masque album featured ‘Icarus (Borne On Wings Of Steel)’ wherein the pilot appeared doomed, so this sequel many years later offers hope.

Vocals were by Steve Walsh, and that album began the changing of the guard as they began shifting towards their current line-up. Main songwriter and guitarist Kerry Livgren, among those who bowed out after its release. Certainly, the timbre of Walsh’s was lower than in his youth, though it well suits ‘The Coming Dawn (Thanatopsis)’ from the same album very well – A companion to ‘Dust In The Wind’ to some degree, but more so about nature’s circular life. ‘Distant Vision’ begins to lift what’s veering into a mood of despair, a long keyboard led intro, with some very pretty classical piano and gentler synthesiser touches. As with many a Kansas song, it seems to take John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as starting point, a tale of forgoing worldly riches and seeking reward in more spiritual goals.

Two years previous, Always Never the Same featured old material re-recorded with The London Symphony Orchestra, and from that we get ‘The Wall’ and ‘Dust In The Wind’. The strings work well alongside Rich Williams’ echoed guitar, and surprisingly the whole orchestra in conjunction with Ehart’s drumming as he steers the song through its changes. Die-hard fans may decry ‘Dust In The Wind’ not being the original, but it was never a hit over here in the UK, and it’s really only latterly due to it being featured in film and TV that’s became so renowned. Ironically, the vocals are raw, fragile, and here add to the gravitas of the number, the orchestra takes it to a more ethereal place than the original that was quite literally more rooted in the soil.

1995’s Freaks of Nature offers two tracks, and seems to find them aiming towards Toto-style AOR and a little Celtic rock added to their fiddling-jigs in ‘Desperate Times’, ‘Under The Knife’ similarly plays in an AOR meets cool baggy-suit dance manner, chasing the Phil Collins’ dollar. Alas, Walsh who had a far superior voice to the Genesis singer here is not the singer he was, his voice holds but it’s not special like it used to be. These last two tracks, are pleasing enough, but show a dip in quality. Since we’re moving back in time, it’s likely that Disc 2 is not, initially at least, going to entreat us.

But then, Disc 2 offers award-wining guitarist Steve Morse as a member of the band, between his bouts in Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple, so surely it should prove interesting?

From 1988’s In the Spirit of Things, ‘House On Fire’ opens proceedings revving up like an old Purple number with a more skewered ‘80s rock sound, the vocals going for a similar histrionic squeal, albeit the song’s mostly AOR. Next, ‘Rainmaker’, comes across as narration for a musical and appears to include both children singing and horses neighing, the instrumental section working in a manner similar to the solo work of Steve Hackett, but overall confusing this listener.

Two years prior we get three tracks from the Power album and ‘Silhouettes in Disguise’ rocks out suitably, but frankly it’s treading Sammy Hagar and Bryan Adams territory. There’s more MTV friendly AOR with ‘Secret Service’, and I can picture a Page 3 model wrapped in a dirty mac creeping round dark alleyways for the video, and that semi-thriller theme continues with the more pleasing ‘Three Pretenders’. They’re not bad songs, but there’s nothing special about them, mainly written by Walsh and Morse.

People coming and going in Kansas seems to have been par for the course, even before they took that name. It appears Walsh had taken a leave of absence around 1980, being replaced by John Elefante, with violinist/co-vocalist Steinhardt waving goodbye by 1983’s Drastic Measures – from that one we get ‘End of the Age’ and ‘Incident On A Bridge’, the former could be Foreigner with Genesis’ Tony Banks on board, the latter similar but hearkening back to the Kansas of times gone by too with nice vocal harmonies resounding through. Both tracks were written by Livgren, the lion’s share of Drastic Measures credited to Elefante and none featured here. Apparently, there’d been growing concerns from all parties regarding the increasing affect Christianity was having on the band. Me, I thought it pretty much apparent from day one. Ironically, 1982’s Vinyl Confessions had been when the theological confabulations really began to take hold, and it would yield the band it’s third highest grossing single with ‘Play the Game Tonight’ – there are some nice keyboard melodies on the track, a welcome but brief bit of fiddling from Steinhardt, but generally a mid-paced AOR, the piano, synth and violin again catching our foremost attention on the rockier ‘Crossfire’, again the prog end of things works well on ‘Windows’ as they mix it up with a kind of new wave rock and funk.

At the turn of the decade came Audio-Visions, the last album to feature the classic line-up of Walsh, Livgren, Steinhardt, Williams, Ehart and bass player Dave Hope. If we listen more clearly, it’s from here on where the Christian lyrical ethos began to polarise bands and fans alike, ‘Hold On’ gospel ballad a paean to his wife to convert accordingly, allegedly. ‘Loner’ offers some fine squealing metal between heads-down acoustic rocking, with lovely harmonies. Piano and violin again offer a lively dance on ‘No One Together’, though it doesn’t quite soar the heights one would like overall.

It’s apparent the ‘80s were not a good period for the band. Whereas they had started out as a rocking progressive band who dismantled the classical European aspects of that music form to employ more traditional American folk ones, no doubt with a localised bearing to where they came from, now they were trying to reflect the wider mainstream rock of the times amid internal conflicts.

Somewhat tragic then, that the EU Disco 2 ends with tracks from what I consider Kansas’ most complete album, 1979’s Monolith. The cover artwork, featuring a native American shaman wearing a space helmet, draws you in: what on earth, or outer-space is this all about? Apparently, the artist, Bruce Wolfe, died only this year. A Top 10 album in the USA, with singles to boot, yet critics weren’t into it, and the band stopped playing tracks from it for many a year. Why?

The cover implies a far more science fiction feel than the music itself. Throughout they mix their dextrous musical versatility to incorporate their progressive rock stylisations into a leaner sound, appropriate for the wider US rock audience of the time. An act they would begin to take too far, as previous tracks indicate, but here, for me at least, is a match made in heaven.

As noted, aside from the general belief in Christianity in their lyrics, there was always a broader spirituality to their work. Some of their early numbers hinted at other religions, just as much they praised the land they were brought up on. Monolith, is 2001, A Space Odyssey without the rocket ship gadgetry: If not a concept album, themes certainly run throughout, they praise the American heartland, deal with ecology, and the displacement of the native American and their spiritual path is never far from our thoughts, not only the lyrics expressing this but the music, with tribal chants and rhythms subtly brought to bear. Some great individual songs too, I might have picked a handful to show the broad representation on offer through the album, but then that’s the secondary point of collections such as these; to make you seek out the originals also.

A rising anthemic guitar draws us in with ‘On The Other Side’, the main song is more acoustic led, Walsh and Reinhardt sharing vocals, in harmony come the chorus. It’s only in writing, I realise how similar to America’s ‘A Horse With No Name’ it is with its unhurried spiritual search, though actually much more thoughtful in terms of the actual words applied, and while sung as if at a turning point in life, proves uplifting. There is a prog-like instrumental section, naturally inserted within, and Reinhardt’s violin weaves in with weary romance throughout.

That one was penned by Livgren, the other on offer, ‘How My Soul Cries Out For You’, by Walsh. This one’s upbeat, heavy rock riffed with Ehart’s drums high in the tribal mix, two violins going off at various points, alongside the guitars and keyboards. The chorus cries out in such a way we can well imagine those red Indians of yesteryear’s western movies dancing round a totem pole, but the hooky images aside they’re delivered with deep compassion – however, it’s less a song about indigenous Americans and more your stereotypical break-up, but you can as easily imagine the parted lover having moved onto “The Other Side”. Shifting through various musical passages, it also features a touch of studio trickery with the track seemingly ending, then restarting either side of a drum solo and chorus chants. This ended Side 1 of the vinyl edition, and I seem to recall Side 2 continued the music before going into ‘A Glimpse Of Home’, but I’d have to check that replaying the original album.

My own spirits lifted by those last two tracks, I looked forward to Disc 3 and the glory days of the ‘70s with relish.

They hit the ground running with ‘Carry On Wayward Son’, only it’s a live rendition from 1978’s Two For The Show (a double vinyl release) with organ flourishes imitating Keith Emerson and guitars set to arena-rock stun mode. That the song itself goes through various well-established parts, from gentle piano and Trapeze-influenced funk rock and a great rock riff aside, the pacing varies indecisively in places. It’s good but not as good as the original, but I assume the Leftoverture album remains a strong back catalogue seller, and they’d rather you get the original rendition there.

1977’s Point Of Know Return featured their other big hit, ‘Dust In The Wind’, but, to my mind, the album itself tends to have weaker songs, that rarely stand out so much as those either side of it. The Livgren/Walsh co-wrote ‘Portrait (He Knew)’ mixes roadhouse blues rock with more European classical touches, tending to be off-kilter to their more obvious hard and prog rock stylisations, but you can’t deny they’re on a high in the last minute or so as Walsh lets out a scream and they’re all guns blasting, with a high energy riff that you wished had been featured a little more. The other co-write, ‘Sparks Of The Tempest’, works better; part funk-rock getting heavier in the choruses, it holds cohesively and in hindsight this is a little like Foreigner meets Steely Dan, something that shouldn’t work, but generally does.

From five times platinum Leftoverture, in 1976, we again get two tracks; ‘Miracles Out Of Nowhere’ and ‘Magnum Opus’. The first might be considered an embellished folk number, there’s some lovely mellow synthesiser playing with hummable passages, then changes tact in the last quarter picking up the pace for a heavy prog jig – lyrically, it’s appears to be the ‘Wayward Son’ weighing up the pros and cons of his life thus far. Without even listening, the latter, is progressive rock simply by virtue of its full title, wherein ‘Magnum Opus’ is further subdivided into a suite of differing tunes – ‘Father Padilla Meets The Perfect Gnat’, ‘Howling At The Moon’, ‘Man Overboard’, ‘Industry On Parade’, ‘Release The Beavers’ and ‘Gnat Attack’ – latterly we often found such amalgamations to be a way for musicians to obtain extra publishing royalties or a way of utilising bits of music they couldn’t write whole songs for together, here it appears a mixture of both, all members of the band credited as co-writers, and the way it flows quite naturally as It shifts through various melodies you get the impression that sections were developed through jamming sessions. Whatever the case, it works. There are moments you’ll be reminded of the triple threat of prog at its pinnacle by way of ELP, Genesis and Yes, but there’s even something for Atomic Rooster fans with the darker organ passages and harsher guitar outbreaks.

From what I can decipher, the only lyrics – and there’s only a handful – are for ‘Howling At The Moon’ section, and they’re pretty much flowery-worded metaphors for playing rock ‘n roll. The rest is instrumental, whereas the titles either end mentioning a gnat (of which there are two main types in Kansas, the internet tells me) prove a red herring for those of pre-supposed to presuming this some Uncle Remus take on Foxtrot.

While Kansas would tend to continue with longish numbers, as the preceding tracks reveal, ‘Carry On Wayward Son’ pointed the way for a more commercial direction, as they joined Boston, Styx, Foreigner and Journey into the US mainstream stadium rock scene.

In 1975, the band released two albums, the latter, but first to be featured here was Masque. ‘Icarus – Borne On Wings of Steel’ feels rather Jethro Tull-like, violin replacing any fiddling about and the solo neatly curls into one on guitar. As noted earlier, the doomed fighter pilot storyline would have a second part some years later. Initially, ‘Child of Innocence’ seems to bear the same influences but beefs up into some Heart-doing-Zeppelin riffage with sleeker instrumental lines pointing the way for the direction of ‘Leftoverture’. Unfamiliar with this album, I would have presumed the tracks offered from an earlier album.

From the same year, a much played record in my own collection remains Song for America – Every member of the band is full on, at the peak of their playing, with bass player Dave Hope especially pinning every number; up in the mix, belching out lines like a Fender plucking Chris Squire while never forgetting the importance of being rock solid in the groove. They lead off here with my all-time favourite Kansas number – ‘Down The Road’ is a superior life-on-the-road rock song: Ehart sets the beat in a snazzy jazz manner, Hope’s heavy blues rock bass line’s like a boulder bouncing down a mountain, and that’s often mirrored on keyboards, the guitars blaze away from beginning to end; Williams and Livrgen trading licks in a solo, but it’s Reinhardt who makes it jump from really good to fantastic – rock violin like it needs to be heard, the whole homing in around him as they go into a heavy rocking jig at various points. What’s more the vocals sound great, the guys hollering out lines that are straight on down-the-line, but novel in the expressions used too. That this tends to be one of the band’s shorter songs is more than a testament to what they could achieve when they were on fire. The title track itself tends to be a more epic ballad, Hope’s bass again to the fore, pumping a ballsy prog march over various keyboards taking turns to invert the main theme line. The main song tells the northern continent’s story prior to European invasion, the symphonic instrumental sections that fall in and out of the main song stately, if not at times stunning, Hope’s bass plays an ever more important lead role, while violin, piano and synthesiser stir passionate emotions, and as with the previous number vocals are at a premium here. ‘The Devil Game’ integrates elements of both those songs, it seems to apply motifs from the later but in rocked up manner, keyboards and violin often applying a Native American beat. There’s a lot going on, and the way they scream out: “Satan leave me, leave me lonely!” before raging out in all directions on assorted solos still excites this old codger, and I have to admit it’s a number I tend to forget so powerful are some of the other longer ones from this record.

For 1974 debut Kansas they were already skilled musicians but still wearing their influences on their sleeve, the songs themselves pulled together from the two previous bands they had been but stepping stones that would lead to Song For America. ‘Death Of Mother Nature Suite’ espouses the ecological themes I fear are being used more for personal gain these days even though such concerns are more pressing. Musically it’s full of heavy blues rock bluster, veering into folk and prog rock a little here and there. ‘Belexes’ is Jo Jo Gunne’s ‘Run Run Run’ repurposed with added prog rock bits, in a song that prophetises a future saviour. At just under eight minutes, ‘Journey From Mariabronn’ completes this collection. Symphonic rock, owing thematic debts to Keith Emerson’s work in both The Nice and ELP, alongside some keyboard stylisations, there’s melodrama, wild instrumental excursions and a narrative based on the Hermann Hesse novel Death And The Lover’, wherein a journey in search of the meaning of life takes place. Thus, did Kansas ever ponder such metaphysical conundrums, only really faltering along the way as individuals within the band believed they’d found their own answers.

There’s much that’s good, if not very good in this collection, and a few that are absolutely bloody excellent. It proves, for the most part, that when the band holds to the values and standards of musicianship when first they got together, that they are at their best. Their merging of the heavy and progressive rock genres meant they would ever skirt between two genres that have slipped further apart as the years have passed, and as they came after the progenitors of both forms could never to be revered in quite the same way. As Another Fork In The Road demonstrates, they decided to take the poet Robert Frost’s road less travelled, and it’s proved quite some musical journey.

  • Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
  • Another Fork In The Road – 50 Years Of Kansas is released via InsideOut Music and is available here.
  • Official Website

Track list:

Disc 1:

  1. Can I Tell You (new 2022 version)
  2. The Absence Of Presence (The Absence of Presence, 2020)
  3. Throwing Mountains (The Absence of Presence, 2020)
  4. Crowded Isolation (The Prelude Implicit, 2016)
  5. Summer (The Prelude Implicit, 2016)
  6. The Voyage Of Eight Eighteen (The Prelude Implicit, 2016)
  7. Icarus II (Somewhere to Elsewhere, 2000)
  8. The Coming Dawn (Thanatopsis) (Somewhere To Elsewhere, 2000)
  9. Distant Vision (Somewhere to Elsewhere, 2000)
  10. The Wall (Always Never the Same, 1998)
  11. Dust in the Wind (Always Never the Same, 1998)
  12. Desperate Times (Freaks of Nature, 1995)
  13. Under The Knife (Freaks of Nature, 1995) 

North America Version – Disc 2:

  1. Fight Fire With Fire (Drastic Measures, 1983)
  2. End Of The Age (Drastic Measures, 1983)
  3. Incident On A Bridge (Drastic Measures, 1983)
  4. Play the Game Tonight (Vinyl Confessions, 1982)
  5. Crossfire (Vinyl Confessions, 1982)
  6. Windows (Vinyl Confessions, 1982)
  7. Hold On (Audio-Visions, 1980)
  8. Loner (Audio-Visions, 1980)
  9. Curtain Of Iron (Audio-Visions, 1980)
  10. No One Together (Audio-Visions, 1980)
  11. On The Other Side (Monolith, 1979)
  12. Angels Have Fallen (Monolith, 1979)
  13. How My Soul Cries Out For You (Monolith, 1979)

EU Version – Disc 2:

  1. House On Fire (In the Spirit of Things, 1988)
  2. Rainmaker (In the Spirit of Things, 1988)
  3. Silhouettes In Disguise (Power, 1986)
  4. Secret Service (Power, 1986)
  5. Three Pretenders (Power, 1986)
  6. End Of The Age (Drastic Measures, 1983)
  7. Incident On A Bridge (Drastic Measures, 1983)
  8. Play The Game Tonight (Vinyl Confessions, 1982)
  9. Crossfire (Vinyl Confessions, 1982)
  10. Windows (Vinyl Confessions, 1982)
  11. Hold On (Audio-Visions, 1980)
  12. Loner (Audio-Visions, 1980)
  13. No One Together (Audio-Visions, 1980)
  14. On The Other Side (Monolith, 1979)
  15. How My Soul Cries Out For You (Monolith, 1979)

Disc 3:

  1. Carry On Wayward Son (Two for the Show, 1978)
  2. Portrait (He Knew) (Point of Know Return, 1977)
  3. Sparks of the Tempest (Point of Know Return, 1977)
  4. Miracles Out Of Nowhere (Leftoverture, 1976)
  5. Magnum Opus (Leftoverture, 1976)
  6. Icarus – Borne On Wings of Steel (Masque, 1975)
  7. Child Of Innocence (Masque, 1975)
  8. Down The Road (Song for America, 1975)
  9. Song For America (Song for America, 1975)
  10. The Devil Game (Song for America, 1975)
  11. Death Of Mother Nature Suite (Kansas, 1974)
  12. Belexes (Kansas, 1974)
  13. Journey From Mariabronn (Kansas, 1974)