Freaks Of Nature
REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/21/2008
The opening notes of Kansas’ twelfth studio album Freaks Of Nature are an announcement. The message is “The violin is back,” and it’s a wise choice to open the disc with that old familiar sound. The violin indeed had returned in the very capable hands of David Ragsdale. Like his predecessor Robby Steinhardt, Ragsdale is classically trained and a former symphony violinist. His playing is remarkable and fits nicely with the band’s sound. Dave also plays guitar, which flavors his violin playing with a more rock-oriented approach and allowed the band to retain the twin guitars so important to their sound now that Steve Morse had parted ways with the band. Steve Walsh, Rich Williams, Phil Ehart, and Billy Greer were still on board, and new keyboardist Greg Robert made them a six-piece once again.
After a seven year gap in studio releases, one wonders what this new incarnation would sound like. Another keyboard player provides a richer, denser sound. That, plus the return of the violin, could be a opportunity to return to closer to the classic Kansas sound. The songs are much more progressive musically and lyrically than on the band’s previous two albums. The songs are dynamic and powerful, full of energy and hard-driving riffs. Walsh and Ragsdale have lots of room to stretch out instrumentally. The title track, the opening cut “I Can Fly,” and the blazing “Desperate Times” are balls-to-the-wall rockers with a progressive flair. “Black Fathom 4” and “Under The Knife” feature solid musicianship and some excellent solos. Even the ballads, particularity the gentle homespun closing number “Peaceful And Warm,” are more mature and grounded than their similar work from the ‘80s.
It sounds like a recipe for success, but the result is less than their best, largely as a result of the disintegration of Steve Walsh's throat. Walsh, once one of the finest voices in rock, sounds wrecked. His voice is strained and the old high notes are a croak of their former glory. It’s sad, really, and he could have used those high notes to complement Ragsdale’s violin.
The band really put its heart into this one and did a stalwart job of trying to resurrect the more progressive elements of Kansas’ sound. The production is sharp and nicely layered, but that just makes Walsh’s damaged voice all the more glaring and disappointing. A year or so down the road, Walsh would recover his voice and the live performances of these songs would dramatically outshine the studio cuts, but the only legacy is this album, and it can be painful at times to listen to despite the quality of the songwriting.
© 2008 Bruce Rusk and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Intersound, and is used for informational purposes only.