Sound — 8
Kansas' unique blend of progressive rock and mid-'70s American AOR have made them a favourite to many for decades, even if the band has been most fondly remembered for their landmark albums "Point of Know Return" and "Leftoverture." Through the years, the band has undergone many lineup changes (and even including a brief stint on guitar by the legendary Steve Morse), periods of extended hiatus (this album actually comes off of the longest gap in their release history, with their previous album having been released in 2000), and changes in both musical and lyrical style (the less said about the band's brief flirtation with Christian rock in the '80s, the better). The band's current iteration includes founding members Rich Williams on guitar and Phil Ehart on drums, being the only two members who have appeared on all of the band's releases. Joining them is vocalist Ronnie Platt, replacing the recently-retired Steve Walsh, vocalist/violinist David Ragsdale, who has been playing with the band since 2006 and also spent some time in the band during the '90s, Zak Rivzi on rhythm guitar, the band's most recent addition, keyboardist David Manion, and long-time bassist Billy Greer.
While most people will undoubtedly know them for tunes like "Carry on Wayward Son" and "Dust in the Wind" (and to a lesser degree, "The Wall" and "The Pinnacle," the latter being a personal favourite of mine), the fact that the band has a huge progressive rock pedigree goes over a lot of peoples' heads. While the album starts on a typically AOR-influenced track, "With This Heart," some time signature changes hint at the progressiveness of the following track, "Visibility Zero," which has some really interesting riffs and wonderful violin solos. Listening to this track gives the listener an extremely clear idea of where bands like Spock's Beard and Transatlantic (or basically, anything connected to Neal Morse) found their influence, and it's quite a worthy track in the Kansas canon. "The Unsung Heroes" is a bit of a softer AOR waltz, and it's a rather nice track, though perhaps not the band's most overwhelmingly original moment. The interplay between the guitar and violin during the solo section is really nice, though. "Rhythm in the Spirit" has some harder-driving guitar riffs, and is bound to please fans of the band's '70s harder rock sound, interspersing it with some lighter, more modern-sounding verses. The duelling guitar solo features some on-fire playing from both guitarists, though it feels all too brief. Acoustic guitars dominate "Refugee," though in a darker, more progressive tone than something like "Dust in the Wind."
"The Voyage of Eight Eighteen" (which is eight minutes and eighteen seconds long, in case you missed that pun) is the album's grand, epic piece, and definitely one of the most overtly prog-rock moments on the album, with huge classically-influenced chord progressions and dramatic interplay between the guitars, violins, and keyboards. There are some really great solos and instrumental parts in this tune, and it'll hark back to amazing '70s-era tracks by the band like "The Pinnacle" and "Magnum Opus." The track is an epic journey worthy of inclusion among their "classic" tracks. "Camouflage" also continues where "Rhythm in the Spirit" leaves off, with heavier guitar riffs and great melodies, and a great middle section. "Summer," sung by bassist Billy Greer, continues in a very proggy vein, and it almost sounds as if this tune was more directly inspired by the works of Neal Morse than the other way around. It features a more prog-rock shuffle that fans of Kansas' '70s work will no doubt be familiar with.
"Crowded Isolation"'s 12-string guitar intro has a distinctly Steve Howe-esque feel to it, even if the rest of the song with its more electric, hard-hitting sound, doesn't evoke the likes of Yes. Despite this, it still has some really great soloing from David and Rich. "Section 60" is a proggy violin-led instrumental with a much more epic sound than its four-and-a-half minute running time would have you believe, and a great closer to the album. The bonus tracks are also worth mentioning. "Home on the Range" is a prog-infused cover of the classic folk tune, and it's actually a really beautiful rendition, with lovely acoustic guitar and violin and organ playing throughout, though it may come off as a bit kitschy to some. "Oh Shenandoah" is another traditional folk tune performed in Kansas' trademark style.
The production is quite lovely on this, very clean and spacey, though it does seem a tad too sparkly clean for some of the band's heavier moments. The playing is superb, and anyone who passed off Kansas as yet another AOR clone in the '70s might be forgiven if they find themselves digging the playing on this record. There's a lot to love about the sound of this record, and as far as modern American progressive rock goes, this is a really good record.
Lyrics — 7
Kansas' lyrics have always been a little cliched, for prog-rock standards, and there have been some interesting (though perhaps not great) periods in the band's history on a lyrical level, such as their Christian rock flirtations in the 1980s. "With This Heart," the album's opening track, doesn't really have anything special going for it on a lyrical level, being sort of an inspirational/love song, though there's really nothing wrong with the lyrics. But lines like "Don't be afraid/The tears you have will all fade away/What you are/Will always be within your heart" do come off as a little Hallmark-y and cliche. Even when the band writes something a little darker, it does seem a bit like the lyrics are coming from a less inspired place than the music, even if the message in a song like "Visibility Zero" is definitely truthful and relatable: "Crazy how this world of ours is spinning wild/You try to pause, but time it just slips right on by/So many things surround us and we lose our sight/How we fail to see what's right before our eyes." Again, there's nothing implicitly bad about these lyrics, they just don't seem as wildly inspired as the music does.
But to me, this is no matter, since I rarely listen to music for its lyrical depth, and prefer to focus on musicianship and sound, and that's one thing that vocalist Ronnie Platt does exceptionally well at. While he does sound a touch like a Steve Walsh clone, he has enough of a distinctive style to have his own voice in this band, though it's clear that he'd be able to tackle the band's classic material exceptionally well (which is likely the reason they chose him to sing), and he fits right in with the band's sound on the new material as well. I keep comparing this band's work to Neal Morse's output, and some of that also has to do with Platt's vocal style as well, which is very mature and clear. Billy Greer also performs lead vocals on the track "Summer," and he's also quite a capable singer, though I definitely prefer Platt's voice.
Overall Impression — 8
Despite their long absence from putting out new music, and the even longer time since their music has been as incredibly well-received as their classic material, "The Prelude Implicit" doesn't at all sound like a band bereft of musical inspiration, nor do they sound like a band merely "phoning in" a performance. This sounds like a band firing on all cylinders, putting out the music they actually want to make. And it should be noted that, while Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh are no longer in the band, their replacements are carrying on the Kansas name quite well, and this might just be the most inspired thing they've done since their heyday. In fact, a couple of the songs ("The Voyage of Eight Eighteen" in particular) sound like they could have been written in the same sessions that produced tracks like "Song for America" and "Magnum Opus." There's little, if any, filler on this record, and that is really surprising when a classic rock band whose music has bubbled under the radar for decades puts out new music. This is some really good quality American prog-rock, completely steeped in the traditions they helped to start alongside bands like Styx and the Dixie Dregs.