When I was curating albums for the latest episode of my podcast, I glanced and the Wikipedia entry for this album and saw a 5 star review. I sighed and figured “Fine, Kansas it is.” I looked again later and realized that the ranking came from a site I didn’t put much credence in. But, here I am, having given it three listens, ready to review it, whether I like it or not.
I want to lump Kansas in with a trend in prog in the early to mid 1970s, pop prog. This happens with every style of music basically: the early bands play music that isn’t that accessible to a wider audience and then some other bands come along and add more compelling hooks (or other methods of making music more accessible) and the genre goes mainstream. Kansas was not the first band to do this – hell Yes tried to do it to some extent – and, to their credit, their approach is distinct from those bands who merely sought to make more accessible prog rock, but there’s still something about that project that rubs me the wrong way, perhaps because complexity is supposed to be a defining feature of the genre, and things like “Lonely Wind” don’t really strike me as musically interesting in any way.
To their credit, Kansas do innovate to a certain extent: this is essentially “boogie prog,” combining (pop) boogie rock with ambition and violin, keyboard and guitar solos. (There are guitar solos in boogie rock, of course, but not like this.) This is their innovation. If the record was better, I might get pretty damn excited about it.
But this music pales in sophistication compared to British and European prog, usually made by educated/trained musicians who like interesting music and want to bring it into rock. These guys just want to show off their virtuosity. (The criticism that prog is just about virtuosity strikes me as more apt for a band like Kansas than a band such as King Crimson.)
And the songs are just so typical of American rock of the period – big hooks with clean gang vocals because they’re worried that you’ll lose interest when the musicianship is on display. So many American rock bands of this era embraced the super clean group vocal approach, and it’s a huge pet peeve of mine.
But the musicianship is exceptional, even if the songs aren’t. And the fusion is novel even if I don’t think they do enough with it. So I can’t hate it, even though I really wanted to. Still, this is prog rock for people who don’t like prog rock or who are worried they won’t like it.