After having gone through more roster changes during the 90's than the Pittsburgh Pirates, those old champions of American progressive music - Kansas - have returned with a new CD titled Somewhere to Elsewhere. This version of Kansas contains seven members (Earth, Wind and Fire - call your offices), most notably the distinctive violins of Robby Steinnhardt, Steve Walsh on vox, and hard rockin' Richard Williams on guitar. But the major player in this incarnation of the band is most definitely keyboardist Kerry Livgren, who is back from a 17-year absence, and single handedly writes all of the tracks on the album. If anyone can recapture the classic Kansas sound, Kerry can - unfortunately, his lyrics sometimes sound like they belong more in a church revival (Livgren is a born-again Christian) than on a rock album.
Within the first few seconds of the opening cut, there's no doubt what band it is you're listening to, as the interplay between Livgren's piano and Steinhardt's violins immediately reveal Kansas' classic sound. The track, entitled "Icarus II," is Kansas at its progressive finest encompassing everything from the aforementioned piano and violin interaction to some sudden and totally unexpected "death metal-ish" riffs from Williams. "Icaurus II" is the type of track that will surely make every Kansas fan's Top 10 list - it truly represents everything that is good about the band.
Unfortunately, the first track is the best track - the rest of the CD is filled with slightly above average numbers and mediocre song structure. At times, the band comes off as more of an amateur bar band ("When the World Was Young," "Disappearing Skin Tight Blues," and "Grand Fun Alley" [get it?]) than a world-class progressive rock band. There's nothing wrong with a good ol'-fashioned bar boogie every now and again, but those types of tunes really betray the amount of talent this band possesses. The other embarassing moment on the disc is "The Coming Dawn (Thanatopsis)," which is basically Livgren's attempt at making Kansas a gospel vehicle. If I wanted spiritual music, I'd get a Bebe and Cece Winans album. Finally, Walsh's voice seems to have weakened a bit, and his voice sounds forced on many instances.
Those negatives aside, there are some other bright spots on Somewhere to Elsewhere. In addition to the aforementioned epic "Icarcus II," Livgren has also penned the hauntingly beatiful "Byzantium" - a track that combines Eastern-style music with lovely acoustic guitar passages to create one of the most memorable songs on the CD. Another stand-out is the first half of the 8 minute finale "Not Man Big," which really showcases some great guitar work from Williams. Unfortunately the song winds up spiraling into another "bar band" jam during most of the last 4 minutes, ruining what otherwise would've been a fine ending to the CD.
Despite some of the negatives mentioned above, I'd say that Kansas has done a decent job of coming up with a few gems in Somewhere to Elsewhere (again, "Icarus II" is almost worth the price of the CD alone). However, the CD doesn't wear particularly well after a few listens, and the song structures are just too simplistic to hold the attention of most progressive music listeners.
As a side note, Kansas fans who are planning on seeing Kansas on their current tour supporting Yes may want to pick the CD up, as Kansas (unlike Yes) will actually be playing music of their latest release. More information can be found on Kansas at their official website www.kansasband.com.