Progressive rock was largely a British phenomenon, but Kansas, a sextet named for its native state, is a prominent exception. On Leftoverture, its fourth album, Kansas took giant steps forward in quality and popularity. The LP, released in October 1976, sold over three million copies and peaked at No. 5 on the album chart, and the single "Carry On Wayward Son" broke the group out of cult status and into mainstream notice the following year, reaching No. 11 on the singles chart. The musical ingredients of Kansas, an interesting mix of art rock sophistication with American energy and emotiveness, are at their peak here.
Steve Walsh, the main vocalist, sings with a full-throated sound and unaffected soulfulness rarely heard from British proggers. He shares keyboard and synthesizer duties with Kerry Livgren, who also plays guitar; the two of them were the main songwriters of the group, but Livgren wrote or co-wrote most of Leftoverture because Walsh, after three albums in the preceding two years, had writer's block.
One of the most distinctive sounds in the band's arsenal comes from Robbie Steinhardt, a classically trained violinist who often functions like a lead guitarist; he sometimes contributes vocals. Phil Ehart, long a leader in the group, is a tasteful yet powerful drummer. Richard Williams on guitar and Dave Hope on bass round out the group with a similar mix of taste and punch.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Kansas is the variety of textures. "Cheyenne Anthem" is the best example; different sections feature a very period synthesizer swooping around (sounds like a mono Moog), chordal strings (probably an ARP), busily chiming acoustic piano, funky organ, and even a spacey vibraphone, with multiple lead vocalists, a children's chorus, a high wordless vocal, several violin timbres, and more. The six-section suite "Magnum Opus," largely instrumental, gives everyone a chance to shine, with Hope taking a memorable fat-toned solo on "Howling at the Moon" (the only segment with words). Elsewhere, harpsichord interacts with violin on the introduction to "The Wall," to excellent Baroque effect. And of course there's no forgetting the a cappella harmonies that open "Carry On Wayward Son." There truly isn't a weak track on the album's original program.
When the album was supersized a few years back, two superfluous bonus tracks were added: concert recordings of "Carry On Wayward Son" and "Cheyenne Anthem." While they do have greater energy, and more spontaneity in Walsh's vocals, those qualities don't sufficiently compensate for their murky mix and loss of instrumental precision as compared to the studio performances they so closely try to copy. It's the contents of the original LP that make this well worth hearing three decades later. - Steve Holtje Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who earlier this year recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.