Early Recordings From Kansas:1971-1973
Cuneiform Records, 2001
REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/29/2004
Long before "Dust In The Wind" blew across the musical horizon, there was a different Kansas. That Kansas was for all purposes, a completely different band except for the founder, Kerry Livgren. The earlier version of Kansas formed in 1971 and disbanded in 1973. They also left a recorded legacy which was never released until recently. The Kansas you know carried only a passing similarity to its predecessor. The famous version played arenas and went multi-platinum. The other played crappy bars for free beer, and played unbridled, experimental progressive rock.
Recently, the old tapes that early version Kansas recorded were remastered and released under the name Proto-Kaw. The results are a fascinating look at the early work of a composer whose later songs would become fixtures of classic rock radio. Often, these sort of releases are more of the vanity kind, and cater to the sycophantic diehard fans who can't live without every b-side and studio fart. This is definitely not the case, as this disc easily stands on its own as a cohesive collection of original music.
In stark contract to the more mainstream work of Kansas, these recordings delve into long-form prog-rock fantasies, free-form jazz/fusion, psychedelia and epic visions that should make any fan of early ELP, Genesis or King Crimson prick up their ears. The amazing thing about this, is that very few people had ever heard these recordings, and that they went unreleased and virtually unknown for over 30 years. Amazing to me, because of the quality of the music. I was expecting some able players backing up Livgrens' well-known talents, but that was not the case. Musically, these guys are more than able to crank out some stellar progressive jams. I was amazed at the quality of the musicianship. Every man stands on his own here and supports the cohesiveness of the band. Singer Lynne Meredith has an excellent range, transitioning from a soft croon to menacing growl. Liberal use of woodwinds greatly enhances the ensemble sound, and sets this apart from a lot of other music of the genre, and of the time. John Bolton plays sax in an aggressive, some might say brutal style. His powerful chops propel the driving "Nactolos 21," and the live track "Skont," (my favorite track) which also features a killer Hammond organ solo by Dan Wright, that sounds like nothing I've ever heard before.
True to the genre of early progressive rock, the track titles are full of fantastic imagery in themselves. "Reunion In The Mountains of Sarne," "Nactolos 21," "Totus Nemesis " and "Greek Structure Sunbeam" are some examples. The songs stay mostly within expected progressive realms, but often venture into instrumental experimentation. Often compelling, often collapsing into atonal chaos, the juxtaposition of highly structured sections and totally unstructured instrumental jams ultimately add a perfect touch to music that was meant to be extremely experimental and fresh. This is an amazingly strong album, very typical of the prog-rock sensibilities of the early 70s. The influence of ELP and King Crimson will be apparent. What will be less apparent, unless you dabble in some of the more obscure progressive rock from that era, is the even stronger influence of some lesser known bands of the time. Specifically, Touch, Gentle Giant, Van Der Graaf Generator and Soft Machine.
Two songs here would eventually appear on the first two Kansas albums, "Belexes" and "Imcommudro." They appear here in a similar form as their eventual Kansas recordings, but with a more rough and experimental feel. Listening to both gives an interesting view into how those two songs evolved. The remainder of the album flows along similar lines. The highlight for me is the two live tracks that close the disc.
Recently, I was privileged to hear Proto-Kaw play live in Kansas City. All the original members save keyboardist Don Montre, who has passed away, were on hand to celebrate the release of a new CD featuring all new Proto-Kaw material. After 30 plus years, these guys haven't lost one bit of the shine that graces this disc. I got to hear three of the new tracks, and they sounded simply amazing. Hopefully I will be able to review that release as well. In the meantime, this CD would be a welcome addition to any collection, alongside the early progressive giants.