by Prog Nick
Take a moment to think about the phrase The Absence of Presence. It could easily describe the locked-down state in which the human race has recently found itself. It also happens to be the title of Kansas’ new studio album, their sixteenth, due for release in June 26th, 2020. It should immediately be noted that The Absence of Presence was written and recorded well before the worldwide lockdown that began in March 2020, yet its lyrics and themes seem to be eerily prescient of the crisis. Either Kansas are fortune-tellers, or their timing is just inconceivably coincidental.
It seems as if Kansas’ previous album, 2016’s The Prelude Implicit, was released a lifetime ago, in a different world. That is because it was. Regardless, at any time, whether we are in a state of world crisis or not, the arrival of a new Kansas album is a momentous event for music fans. Kansas is, after all, America’s biggest Prog band. With a long history of personnel changes comparable to those in the White House, the risk of stylistic contamination, or the loss of ‘that’ signature sound, has always been a possibility. But defying this, Kansas have somehow survived, thrived and continued to deliver, for the most part, the top-shelf distinctive melodic Prog albums expected of them, in good order. No mutations necessary.
The Absence of Presence presents yet another line-up change in the form of highly respected keyboardist Tom Brislin, who replaced David Manion in February 2019. The album is the second to feature lead vocalist/keyboardist Ronnie Platt and guitarist/producer Zak Rizvi. Bassist Billy Greer, recruited in 1985, makes his ninth studio appearance. Violinist David Ragsdale, who rejoined for the second time in 1991, makes his third album appearance, and original stalwarts Phil Ehart (drums) and Rich Williams (guitar) remain ever-present.
The opening track and title song introduces Brislin with a tinkling ivory intro followed by the unmistakable sound of Kansas, as we know and love them, in full majestic force. As for the theme, Platt’s chorus resounds with jarring accuracy about humanity’s current state: “The absence of presence fills the air, I know you’re here but you’re not really there.” It is as if they knew. Platt has solidified his place as lead vocalist of America’s premier Prog outfit with a tone that is faithful to his predecessors, without being slavish in any way. Strong on melody and with an arrangement that, while silky smooth, will deceive your ears with its complexity, the title track is unerringly Kansas with a ‘bigger’ sound. It does not take the band long to leap into full stride, and the song culminates in an expansive, majestic instrumental break accented by Ehart’s booming snare and tom sound. The complex instrumental section makes an immediate statement about the band’s ongoing Prog relevance. Sweet on the ears but deceptively complex when analyzed, the title track offers precisely what classic Kansas fans would expect. Kansas are back, and everything is a little better in the world.
Second song “Throwing Mountains” is the heaviest song Kansas have recorded to date. Not heavy for the sake of it, but heavy in its compelling use of Rizvi’s underlying metallic guitar motif. It is weighty indeed, but always counterpointed by Platt’s angelic voice and the band’s harmonies. To those concerned that Kansas might ever rest on their laurels, “Throwing Mountains” will cure them of that misconception with one listen. If ever the band’s fan-base called for song of rejuvenation, this is that song. It is metal with a Kansas twist, and a whole new, more youthful, audience might be infected by this prog-metal outbreak.
Particularly poignant at a time when so many people are separated and unable to travel to visit each-other, third song “Jets Overhead” rings a somber note that is lyrically appropriate: “One last shot at our redemption, will we pass the test?…There’s more than we’ve been shown, the stakes are much higher in ways I can’t understand…” Prophetic indeed. Instrumentally, the song is eminently listenable and becomes all about Ragsdale and Platt, trading violin and vocal passages in true Kansas fashion.
“Propulsion 1” changes the pace entirely. A throbbing, thumping instrumental that features, for the most part, Phil Ehart, this track is an unashamed exposition of the band’s Prog chops. Often so economical, Ehart here provides energetic double-kick rolls and busy tom patterns to remind us that for him, age is just a number. Decades into an already illustrious career, Ehart is playing as well, if not better, than ever. This song will leave audiences gasping for air, when they are once again blessed with live Kansas concerts.
Brislin and Platt provide particularly beautiful, wistful performances in “Memories Down The Line” – a poignant ballad of solitude that is again typical of classic Kansas. A true musician who always provides exactly the right balance of chops and musicality, Brislin is typically restrained and understated in this performance. With his melancholy piano template, the song develops into a powerful ballad with soulful violin solos and a brilliant, longing guitar outro played by Rizvi and Williams in perfect harmony. The melody is somehow distant, yet close – almost like loved ones isolated in separate homes – and the lyrical themes of distance and generational separation are, again, remarkably apposite.
“Circus of Illusion” shows the more powerful, driving side of Kansas once more. A strong Williams/Rizvi guitar line is punctuated by Ehart’s stabbing drum breaks in odd time, ably accompanied by Brislin, Ragsdale and Greer. Tight, solid and pounding, this one sounds the most like the Kansas of Leftoverture days. Welcome home.
The energy continues with “Animals on the Roof”, an up-tempo rocker that will have you head-banging by yourself in the garden (and glancing up to check the roof.) Once again, Brislin’s keyboard foundation is perfect, and Ehart and Greer provide some brilliant scattered punctuations that while innovative, are never overdone – just right for the song. Ragsdale is ablaze and Ehart again shows that he has the energy of a teenager with double-kick attacks as good as any young virtuoso.
The AOR days of the Drastic Measures album are long gone, though following song “Never” is an alluring piano and vocal ballad that any pop band would be proud of. The difference is in the production and the quality of the chorus. Tom Brislin’s humble demeanor translates into tasteful musicality here, and the song again shows that he fully deserves his place in this group of kings of American Prog. Breathtaking in its beauty, “Never” will please listeners on both ends of the spectrum. You should try not to let this one sadden you in isolation, because it may well do so – the second verse, sung with breathtaking melancholy, says it all: “Each moment that has been lost will never come again.” No matter what the circumstances, dear reader, you should live for today – Kansas said so.
Last track “The Song The River Sang,” was composed by Tom Brislin, and offers his first lead vocal performance with Kansas. The song begins up-tempo with a striking Ehart tom/snare pattern that will make you want to get up and point the speakers towards the neighbors. Brislin’s tasteful arpeggios provide a fitting accompaniment to Ehart’s jagged stabs, and Rizvi and Williams are in driving seat. Although the song rocks, the melody is as sweet as riverside air – at least to begin with. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a dark, foreboding passage is introduced, leading to the end of the album. With anguished, strangled guitars and suspense-filled progressions, this is the darkest music I have heard from Kansas. Reminiscent of King Crimson, the passage proves that this version of Kansas is not afraid to deliver angst and a tortured musical contagion even heavier (in a darker way) than “Throwing Mountains.” The anguish is in full groaning flight when it is dramatically cut off by an abrupt ending – as if the engineer literally cut the tape, or the physician cut the respirator.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of this album’s production is its sheer musicality. Prescient lyrics and precise delivery combine with tasteful, roomy production to allow the listener to hear every word and every note. There is a lot going on, and every instrument and voice looms large, yet there is enough delicate separation to hear it all. While remaining true to the classic sound, the album just sounds better, due to its massive, spacious production – more powerful than that of any previous Kansas release. The keyboards are intoxicating as they wash over you in swathes, the drums boom thunderously, the guitars and bass are as piercing as vaccine needles on your skin, and the vocal mix is just heavenly. This is a meticulous production. It may be odious to compare, but it is, certainly to my ears, the best-sounding of all Kansas’ albums – it breathes.
Credit must be given (presumably to Ehart and Williams) for propelling Kansas forward in a manner that is true to the band’s late-70’s legacy while bravely examining new frontiers within the genre. Rizvi is a master guitarist and producer and no doubt also takes much of the credit. Platt’s celestial voice is perfect for his dual role as keeper of the flame and adventurer into new territory. Possibly the best violinist in Rock, Ragsdale plays more solos on this album than ever before, reminding us how important the violin is to ‘that’ Kansas sound, and Williams’ and Greer’s contributions are as crucial as oxygen. Ehart’s signature turquoise Yamaha drum kit has never sounded better, and Brislin makes it all sound so easy (when it clearly is not.)
On The Absence of Presence, Kansas show that they can shred and rock out with the best of them. But, more importantly, they force us to look beyond their technical prowess. It is never just about how many notes and odd time-signatures they are playing – it is always about the beauty that lies beyond them. This band has not sold tens of millions of albums for nothing, and the reasons are clear and apparent in just about every moment on the album.
This is a beautifully-executed and classy album of rare superiority, and it will no doubt bring you much listening comfort in these times of uncertainty. Like many who are in isolation, one can only hope that the only ‘Absence of Presence’ that we will have to endure after the pandemic, is this fine album. It is my earnest hope that Kansas will have the opportunity to tour it. It deserves to be heard.
Released on July 17th, 2020 on InsideOutMusic
Key Tracks: The Absence of Presence, Throwing Mountain, Jets Overhead
“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
– Ronnie Platt / lead vocals, keyboard
– David Ragsdale / violin, guitars
– Tom Brislin / keyboards
– Richard Williams / guitars
– Zak Rizvi / guitars
– Phil Ehart / drums, percussion
– Billy Greer / bass, vocals