The Absence Of Presence


Inside Out, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


The challenges for vintage bands going through the inevitable personnel changes are mostly common ones: how do you keep the spirit of the music that won you an audience alive even as the people making it are changing? And how do you incorporate new creative voices without disrupting the chemistry that made the group stand out in the first place?

Kansas today includes just two original members—drummer Phil Ehart and guitarist Rich Williams—and neither of the performers responsible for writing most of the band’s “classic”-era material, Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh. Second-wave members Billy Greer (bass and vocals) and David Ragsdale (violin) have by now enjoyed lengthy tenures with the band, but Zak Rizvi (guitar), Ronnie Platt (lead vocals), and especially Tom Brislin (keys and vocals) are relative newcomers.

The latter trio represent the answer to the questions above. The way you continue moving forward is by bringing in players who grew up admiring what the band’s classic lineup achieved, and are eager to build on those achievements in a way that honors and furthers the music’s spirit. This album, mostly written by Rizvi and Brislin with contributions from Platt and Ehart, features all of the elements that distinguished Kansas from its peers back in the day: dynamic interplay among guitar, keys and violin; passages of wide-open beauty interspersed with frenetic jams; a nimble, often seamless melding of AOR and prog elements; and lyrics that focus more on philosophy, nature and history than relationships.

Critical also is the fact that each of the newer players bears a seemingly natural resemblance to the originals whose shoes they are filling. Platt’s soaring, resonant vocals echo Walsh’s tone and style without imitating them, and the superb Brislin—who long since made his prog bones filling Yes’ keyboard chair on their 2001 tour—pays tribute to Walsh’s legacy behind the keyboard stacks while putting his own melodic stamp on the music. For their part, Ragsdale and Greer have long since grown into their respective roles, and Rizvi’s powerful guitar work complements Williams’ in much the same way that Livgren’s once did. For added authenticity, longtime Kansas sound wizard Jeff Glixman, producer of the group’s best-known ’70s albums, is back again to help with mixing and mastering.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

What all this adds up to is an album that sounds and feels more like classic Kansas than just about anything the band operating under that flag has delivered in decades. The Absence Of Presence is undeniably impressive and should serve as a model for other bands of similar vintage and lineup flux faced with similar questions about how to approach making new music that amounts to more than just rehash or nostalgia: this is how you do it.

The album really comes in three parts, with the first five tracks constituting its heart and soul. The expansive opening title track quickly establishes the group’s capabilities and ambitions, introducing atmospheric keys and keening violin—foundational elements of classic Kansas—before moving into a dynamic jam that then gives way to a spare, pretty piano/vocals overture. The eight-minute-plus suite is genuinely proggy in the way its tempos and elements shift moment to moment, but it never loses flow and features both a memorable chorus and fiery instrumental breaks. (As for timeliness, at this particular moment in history who could hear the lines “The absence of presence fills the air / I know you’re here but you’re not really there” without thinking of a Zoom meeting?)

Williams and Rizvi feature prominently in the muscular “Throwing Mountains,” alternately heavy and airy, with a juking, shearing mid-song jam. After a brief piano introduction, “Jets Overhead” soars on similar energy and dynamics—and a terrific Ragsdale solo—leading into the aptly-named instrumental “Propulsion 1.” The opening five close out with “Memories Down The Line” a pensive, philosophical ballad penned by Brislin and built around his supple piano lines.

Things do trail off a bit on the back end. Rizvi gives “Circus Of Illusion” an energetic musical foundation, but Platt’s lyric feels like a rewrite of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Karn Evil 9 Part II” without the bite. Both the lively “Animals On The Roof” and the wistful “Never” also end up feeling a bit generic in their ready embrace of familiar AOR-isms (I’m not saying these tracks sound like Asia with a violin, but if the spandex fits…).

Just when the quality feels like it might be slipping, though, the album finishes strong with the Brislin written-and-sung “The Song The River Sang,” a complex, lively, creative and memorable tune that ends the album on a note both powerful and surprising. Ironically, while showing the new lineup can deliver a quality record, The Absence Of Presence serves equally well as a proof of concept for this lineup to perform Kansas classics like “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Point Of Know Return,” providing abundant evidence of their chops, fire and chemistry.

A vintage band that takes the time and effort to make new music should have parallel goals in mind: to honor the spirit of their past—and loyalty of their longtime fans—while carrying the music forward. The Absence Of Presence is an album that should feel both familiar and fresh to any fan of the classic Kansas sound, an organic evolution that still feels like a visit with old friends.

Rating: B

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© 2020 Jason Warburg 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 Inside Out, and is used for informational purposes only.