REVIEW: KANSAS – “The Absence Of Presence”
Since the mid-1970s, a little band out of Kansas with a fitting name has been dogging the heels of radio, film and television with hits like “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust In The Wind”. However, fans of Kansas know that there is so much more to this ever-changing group of talented musicians, with their recognizable violin riffs and country/blues-infused progressive rock. Nearly half a century since their first release, they have returned with their sixteenth studio album, entitled ‘The Absence of Presence’.
This album is similar to the previous two, straying ever so slightly from Kansas we know and love, primarily through the changes in vocals. While they always keep their gorgeous roots intact and visible, there is no doubt that they’ve mellowed in composition. ‘The Absence of Presence’ contains a good amount of sombre material, typically only picking up during instrumental sections. Admittedly, I miss the beautiful, duelling vocals of Steve Walsh and Robbie Steinhardt, but I can’t deny that Ronnie Platt has the power to carry such aerial melodies – even though I find him mildly whiny at times.
Tracks like “The Absence of Presence” and “Throwing Mountains” initially did nothing for me, but my appreciation grew over time. Both have prevalent soft sections but pick up for a burst of guitar solos and lovely keyboard runs typical of old school Kansas. The latter in particular possess an epic symphony halfway through, contained by a heavy modern country influence.
“Propulsion 1” would easily have been my favourite track on the album, had it been made into more of a full song rather than a fantastic yet short-lived two minutes of funky keys and cymbal work. That being said, I can definitely find value in an instrumental break, although the energy it inspires is immediately silenced by “Memories Down The Line” and its tearful opening. Tom Brislin’s keyboards come through the most in “Animals On The Roof”, kept in line by original drummer Phil Ehart’s continuous hi-hat.
Despite my evident distaste for ballads, “Never” grew on me quite quickly. The chorus is surprisingly catchy and instantly inspired me to sing along as if I were filming a music video atop a mountain. Following that, is the final track, “The Song The River Sang”, which is hands down the most interesting part of ‘The Absence of Presence’. The enrapturing, upbeat 7/8 funk builds into a quarter note-driven groove that perfectly supports a healthy dose of shredding guitars and violin, punctuated by a church bell every three bars. It’s a great ending to the album, one that inspires a full Kansas discography binge.
Let it be said: I love Kansas. Do I prefer, and mainly spin, their 70s and 80s material? Yes. Do I overlook some of the more recent, ballad-like songs? Yes. But regardless of the rather doleful and emotional direction that ‘The Absence of Presence’ often presents, that classic Kansas sound still remains at the heart of their anatomy, through use of intricate instrumental riffs, and soaring vocal anthems. As always, the soul of the band shines through the elaborate keyboard and violin melodies, this time provided by Tom Brislin and David Ragsdale, respectively. Original guitarist Richard Williams also continues to make his mark, along with Zak Rizvi. Long time bassist Billy Greer remains in the background, however, which is usually my complaint with any band. With such talent emerging from Kansas over the years, I’d prefer to hear more of the labyrinthian side of prog prevail over the emotional, but with the extensive collection of music that this band has put out, it’s difficult to fuss over.