There's a lot in this latest Kansas album to unpack but it seems clear that the band has no interest at all in resting on their laurels or just trading their name for a big money trawl through the hits tour. This isn't just new music, it's carefully constructed new music that sounds good and highlights just how much they're looking forward. In fact, the band has found a strong balance between a solid core of four old faithfuls and a busy duo of newer faces.
Those old faithfuls are Rich Williams and Phil Ehart, the only two founding members left, on guitars and drums respectively; bassist Billy Greer, who's been a consistent face since 1985; and violinist David Ragsdale, who joined in 1991 and rejoined after a decade break. When Steve Walsh, the heart of the band, decided to focus on playing live, those three recorded an album on the side under the name of Native Window. After Walsh left Kansas in 2014, they brought in new blood and started a new era.
New lead vocalist Ronnie Platt and new guitarist Zak Rizvi were in place for The Prelude Implicit in 2016, their first studio album in sixteen years. Its ten songs were written by ten different combinations of the seven members of the band, plus others, so there was little consistent vision. This time out, just four years on, the music for each of nine songs was composed by either Rizvi or new keyboardist Tom Brislin, who joined in 2018 and is now one of three lead singers. Brislin wrote many of the lyrics too, often with Ehart, and Platt contributed as well. It looks like they've found what works.
It's certainly ambitious, if not catchy. I've listened through a few times now and there are no obvious singles, let alone one that might outsell Dust in the Wind. In fact, the only piece of music running under four and a half minutes is an instrumental, albeit a very good one, Propulsion 1. These are often complex compositions, drenched in both guitars and keyboards, and the title track kicks off the album at the uncommercial length of 8:22. I'd say that the catchiest thing here is the closer, The Song the River Sang, which often resembles a funky Yes with a teasing riff and wild drum rhythms, even though it's also the most experimental song on offer.
What that means is that it's an immersive album. I need to throw this onto headphones and listen in the dark because it feels like it would just come alive in that setting. There's plenty going on in The Absence of Presence, though it unpacks well over time to feel less busier. It's full of dynamic play in Yes style, quiet moments with a voice over piano giving way to lush instrumental passages full of complexity and vice versa. And that goes for both the title track and the album it gives its name to.
That opener is certainly one of my favourites here, because there's so much going on within it that it's a sort of gift that keeps on giving. Throwing Mountains has an edge to it; there are guitars here that are both faster and heavier than I expected on a Kansas album, though this firmly remains prog rock and has no interest in flirting too closely with metal. Propulsion 1 is a joy that ends too quickly; the vocals are always enjoyable here, but I ached for more instrumentals. Never is softer but still memorable. Eventually there's The Song the River Sang, which may have been my favourite song on a first listen and certainly grabs me every time through. It's easily the most adventurous piece here and it's a great way to wrap things up.
I enjoyed this a lot and will give it a few more spins before I'm done with it for now. I may well come back to it periodically too. It's not an album to throw on once and move on from. It's an album to explore, leisurely and often. So much great prog nowadays, so little time.