Somewhere To Elsewhere
Kansas, the progressive rock band that scored big in the Ď70s and early Ď80s with hits like "Carry On My Wayward Son"and "Dust in the Wind," has had a resurgence of late, releasing a boxed set in 1994 with some new material, reissuing a "Best Of" CD last year and pulling in more of its original members to record new, independently released albums and touring with support from local orchestras. For 2000, the band (which in the late Ď80s and early Ď90s had sidelined its intricate, progressive sound to become an unmemorable guitar rock band) pulled together a true reunion of its classic members when Kerry Livgren, the writer of the lionís share of the bandís catalogue of hits, agreed to write and record a new album with the band in his Kansas home studio. Livgren has been absent from the bandís studio albums since 1983.
Livgren is not touring with the band for the new album, but his songwriting and producing skills have given the band a CD that sounds like it heralds from the midst of Kansasí platinum heydays in the late Ď70s. Itís like an unburied (but actually brand new) treasure.
While there are some clunkers (the weakly funky "Grand Fun Alley" and the uninspiring rocker "Not Man Big"), most of the 10-song disc is solid mystical Kansas fare, utilizing the bandís traditional string accompaniment better than the band has in two decades.
"The Coming Dawn," finds main singer Steve Walsh doing some of his best work here with a lovely piano-based ballad. And "Myriad," a nine-minute opus, is actually a re-written piece the stems from the early days of Kansas which was never previously recorded by the band. It contains the kind of huge chorus moments that brought the band fame with "Point of Know Return."
Another classic Kansas moment is in the opener "Icarus II" which details the story of a World War II pilot who commanded his crew to bail out while he rode the doomed plane to the ground to make sure it didnít crash into any American troops. The song includes themes that originally appeared in "Icarus" from the bandís 1976 Masque album.
"Look At The Time" finds the band pushing its traditional harmony structures to Beatles/Kingís X effect, and "Distant Vision" opens with tightly woven piano and guitar themes that hearken back to the bandís classic work with "Portrait (He Knew)" and later Livgren ballads like "Diamonds and Pearls."
There are plaintive violin themes, contemplative piano passages and grandiose rock anthems. Most of all, there is the classic Kansas progressive rock feel and vocal attack on all of these tracks. This is the album Kansas fans have been waiting for since Steve Walshís five-year departure from the band in 1981, and subsequent loss of the bandís "soul" in guitarist/keyboardist Livgren. Look for it.
Beethoven's Last Night
TSOís third album is its first non-holiday release (the band has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of its Christmas Eve and Other Stories and The Christmas Attic over the past five years). Consequently, this disc has a lot riding on it — can TSOtake its grandiose hard rock/opera/classical covers format outside of the Christmas realm successfully?
The answer, from this listener, is a qualified yes.
The brainchild of Paul OíNeill, producer of hard rock band Savatage and featuring collaboration with the members of Savatage as well as with a number of Broadway talents, TSO was conceived as an ongoing writing project of rock operas that could have performances staged around the country by various touring companies, rather than just as by a single, static "band."
Fans of the groupís two Christmas offerings will recognize plenty of touchstones from the other albums as well as from Savatageís recent output. This discís story revolves around the last night of Beethoven, who is harrangued by Mephistopheles, who seeks to lure the composer into a contract that would eliminate his (fictional) "10th Symphony" from ever being heard by the world.
There are plenty of pounding anthem moments and Olivaís two vocal treatments of the evil angel are deliciously nasty. Patti Russo (currently with Meatloafís band) is gifted with the albumís best material in the anthemic "After the Fall" and the lullabye "A Final Dream."
To ground the disc in the "classical,"the band rocks up Beethovenís "Requiem (The Fifth)" and throughout the disc borrows themes from Mozart and other classic composers (as well as Beethoven) and includes a standard piano run-through of "Fur Elise." "Ode to Joy" and "Flight of the Bumblebee" also turn up within other songs.
Itís a grandiose effort that leaves the listener drained at the end of its 22 tracks. So whatís not to like?
Most of the vocalists presented here are low, growly men, which gives the whole album a dark feel. Also, many of the musical themes and treatments sound too similar to the work that OíNeill and Savatageís Jon Oliva have been doing now for years with both Savatage and TSO. Itís almost a case of "same song, different words" in some instances. Russoís big moment in "After the Fall" is a wonderful slow big rock anthem, but it sounds like a carbon of a handful of other "big moment" songs OíNeill and Oliva have written to close out albums over the years.
But these are minor quibbles; nobody else is even creating rock operas these days, so if OíNeill copies himself...well, at least someone is working with the challenging rock opera format. And his results are generally powerful and inspiring. Beethovenís Last Night is a triumph that once again proves that heavy metal and opera were destined to make beautiful music together.
New on the Shelves
Piano music lovers can now get a CD version of the PBS special piano Grand! A Smithsonian celebration. The show premiered in June to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the piano and featured performances of classic piano songs in the classical, jazz, pop and rock genres. "The Piano Man" himself, Billy Joel, hosted the show and the CD includes him performing his "Baby Grand" and "Piano Man." Jerry Lee Lewis handles the other side of rock piano, performing "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakiní Goiní On." Classical and jazz pieces are performed by Dave Brubeck, Cyrus Chestnut, Eliane Elias, Diana Krall, Robert Levin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and more.