When Kansas returned in 2016 with “The Prelude Implicit”, their first new studio album in 16 years, there likely were a number of dubious members of their fan base. After all, how could a band who has seen as many lineup changes as Yes possibly deliver a satisfying, true-to-form comeback album at this late stage in their career? However, the confident album title and cover artwork held promise, and the songs within left no doubt that this was the sound of Kansas through and through. Ironically, much of the credit for the return-to-classic style – while still remaining fresh and relevant – went to newcomer Zak Rizvi. Initially being in the songwriting, production and mixing roles for the band, Rizvi became a full time member as guitarist alongside veteran mainstay Rich Williams. With original powerhouse drummer Phil Ehart still in the picture, and long-standing bassist Billy Greer and violinist David Ragsdale, there was plenty of classic Kansas cred in the lineup. But “Prelude” also boasted new singer Ronnie Platt who could do justice to the back catalog by inhabiting the vocal range of beloved original singer Steve Walsh. This truly was a band reborn as the phoenix on its album cover suggested.
Four years later “The Absence of Presence” surfaces and it comes as no surprise that the previous album was no fluke. The same approach remains largely intact: wield the classic Kansas sound through potent new songwriting which carries on the tradition into a new decade. “Absence” almost seems like a companion piece to “Prelude”, so similar are they in terms of structure, form and success. One key difference – pun intended – is newcomer Tom Brislin (Yes, Meatloaf, The Sea Within) who replaces Dave Manion in the keyboard role. While both players are well-suited for the job, Brislin has the added dynamic of being an active songwriter on the new album and even the lead singer on one track. In fact, nearly the entire album is written by Rizvi and Brislin, aside from some lyrics by Platt and Phil Ehart. Lest veteran fans worry that the new kids have taken over the band, Brislin reassures, “more like Phil and Rich turned us loose ha ha”, signaling that the two original members of the band have given their stamp of approval to all of the songwriting. And damn if much of this doesn’t sound like classic Kansas. Of course, you’ve got a ringer for that sound with the inclusion of violin playing courtesy of Ragsdale, whose parts are prominent in just the right places. But beyond that obvious sonic element, the song structure by and large feels enough like Kansas to be familiar, and yet innovative enough to be modern and creative. Bridging the old members with the new, this formation of Kansas feels like it can respectfully continue the arc of the band for years to come.
Opening with the title track – the longest song on the album – “The Absence of Presence” carries a certain grandeur in its sound and vulnerability in its lyrics. Partly a reflection from Ehart on the absence of genuine human presence as we are fixated on our mobile devices, Brislin then brings in deeper layers to the story in his lyric writing. There’s plenty of musical muscle present with violin leading off the initial musical jam, and later a scorching brief organ solo followed by guitar and – most importantly – a powerful, long swooping theme with Billy Greer’s bass filling in the spaces. Those musical sensibilities carry through the next three songs, making for a whopper of a start to the album. “Throwing Mountains” is perhaps the best thing the band could have hoped to come up with as an initial single, a hard rocking theme which still carries tenderness in its verses. Platt hits the prime sweet spot of his range in this song with impeccable delivery, while Ehart focuses on hitting hard on the drum kit with a choice performance. Amidst the dueling guitar solos between Rivzi and Williams, the violin runs from Ragsdale, the backing organ from Brislin and Ehart’s pummeling on the drums, the band is clearly firing on all cylinders. The song is a triumph for modern-day Kansas, beckoning for “Carry On My Wayward Son” to follow it in concert.
A pastoral piano intro full of flourishes gives Brislin a brief solo spot before the full power of “Jets” kicks in, the main theme being delivered again by the violin. Ragsdale will have more room to stretch out with a fiery solo later in the song, too. With a production that borders on arena rock, Rivzi’s musical songwriting chops keep showing off their skills. It’s another powerful piece that sees the album batting 3 for 3. Brislin takes the songwriting on the next track, a brief driving instrumental called “Propulsion 1” whose only weakness is its running time. It feels like it could easily be an intro for an epic, which will perhaps appear on the next album as “Propulsion 2”? Time for a ballad and “Memories Down the Line”, also written by Brislin, is a fine one featuring memorable melodies and sentiments that stay with the listener long afterwards. Kansas have an ace up their sleeve by being able to hammer the main melodic ideas over and over: once in the vocals and then again in the violin solo. It’s a formidable technique.
As engaging as the bulk of the album is, it starts to lose a little momentum towards the end. The overall approach starts feeling predictable by “Animals on the Roof” and even Platt’s voice, stellar as it is, seems a bit trapped in a repetitive range during this song. Still, the power-ballad “Never” would have been a mega-hit in the 80s and has a lovely brief guitar solo. Happily, the album is determined to go out with a bang thanks to the closing “The Song the River Sang”, another Brislin composition where he also takes a crack at the lead vocals. This alone brings a welcome change of pace, as does the songwriting approach, but it is the song’s crescendoing finale which is one of the album’s peak moments. The repeating motif builds up strength and power over the course of the final two minutes of musical mayhem before it is abruptly cut off with an unapologetic, satisfying hard stop. Honestly though, that finale truly deserves another two or three minutes to achieve “Würm”-like status, a la Yes’ “Starship Trooper”. Still, this is an enigmatic way to end the album on a high note, almost breath-taking in its unexpected fury. At the album’s completion there is little question that Kansas still knows how to rock and when they reach their 50th anniversary in a few years they likely will still be rocking just as hard. Let’s look forward to what they come up with to celebrate that auspicious milestone.
Released by: Inside Out Records
Released on: July 17th, 2020
Genre: Progressive Rock
- Ronnie Platt / Vocals, keyboards
- Richard Williams / Lead guitars
- David Ragsdale / Violin, guitars
- Zak Rizvi / Guitars
- Billy Greer / Bass, vocals
- Tom Brislin / Keyboards, vocals
- Phil Ehart / Drums
“The Absence of Presence” Track-listing
1. The Absence of Presence
2. Throwing Mountains
3. Jets Overhead
4. Propulsion 1
5. Memories Down the Line
6. Circus of Illusion
7. Animals on the Roof
9. The Song the River Sang
Kansas in the year 2020 is a satisfying blend of original members, long-time veterans and new blood who deliver fresh and relevant material while maintaining the classic Kansas sound. “The Absence of Presence” is a worthy followup to 2016’s accomplished comeback album “The Prelude Implicit” and cements the band’s reputation and future longevity