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Kansas - Masque CD (album) cover

MASQUE

Kansas

 

Symphonic Prog

3.66 | 544 ratings

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ClemofNazareth
Special Collaborator
Prog Folk Researcher
4 stars I still find it amazing thirty years later how much this album just grabs me by the throat and shakes me every time I hear it. This band was so far out of the league of most of the other American groups they were associated with at this point in their career that it’s almost incomprehensible. One has to realize that in 1975, Kansas had released three albums, been through two massively extensive tours, and had appeared on national television. They had already recorded the progressive gems “Death of Mother Nature Suite”, “Journey from Mariabronn”, “Song for America”, “Incomudro – Hymn to the Atman”, “Apercu”, and “Lamplight Symphony”, as well as the blistering “Down the Road”, “Can I Tell You”, and “Bringing it Back”, all within the space of two short years since signing a record deal with the icon Don Kirshner.

And NOBODY knew who they were!! None of these albums or singles had charted to this point, and Masque wouldn’t either (at least not at first). It’s important to understand that Kansas, Song for America, and Masque only became gold-selling records after both Leftoverture and Point of Know Return reached platinum status. These guys were largely unknown outside of the mid- western American concert circuit, and to a certain extent by some of the stoners who stayed up late and listened to Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, on which the band had been featured once (they would appear there again after Masque, but by then the band was a household name). Even at home (around Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri), only the most informed progressive and rock music fans had heard of these guys, and almost no one had shelled out their own cash to pick up an album. The band was on a tight allowance of a couple hundred dollars a week from the label, living in shared shacks or in their parent’s homes, and traveling from show to show in a crappy school bus. They had gone through several incarnations and lineups, including the one that would resurface largely intact thirty-five years later as Proto-Kaw. Many former members and musical colleagues had fallen by the wayside, most of them moving on to more conventional careers. The remaining members of Kansas had to be questioning their career choice, judgment, and possibly even sanity at this point.

But the music on this album has the sound and feel of a group of hard-worn, seasoned veteran artists, not a bunch of suburban hicks from Kansas just a few years past high-school. True, the distinctive styles of the two creative leaders (Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh) were already plainly apparent, and clearly almost diametrically opposed. True, the lead guitarist looked like Booger from ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ on steroids, and their violinist looked like a bouncer from Woodstock. The flaxen-haired Livgren looked (and acted) like a Nordic Jesus, and the drummer looked like… well, it was a bit difficult to tell – he looked a bit like that dude that was all covered with hair in the Munsters.

But look at what they did have: two very capable lead singers; one with a solid, soulful voice that was warm and full and completely capable of belting out some mighty fine bluesy chords in between his torrid fiddling, and the other a brilliant keyboardist who seemed to have sold his soul alongside Robert Johnson, only in his case the talent he gained was a voice the likes of which has never been seen in rock music before or since, pure and unadulterated, and boundless. They had two very accomplished guitarists in Livgren and Rich Williams, and a drummer who could have held his ground alongside the best that British (or any other nation’s) music scenes had to offer. Oh yeah, and a bass player who is still cited as an influence by rock and metal musicians today, some twenty years after he abandoned the musical stage for a pulpit. Sure, the lyrics were over-the-top at times. Sure, the Jekyll and Hyde songwriting styles of Livgren and Walsh made for albums that seemed more like samplers than cohesive works. But their precision, sense of purpose, and unabashed sincerity would win them the hearts of millions of rabidly loyal fans over the next few years, most of whom still speak lovingly of the band and flock obediently to their shows today, even though the stages are less dramatic and the venues are more humble.

Masque is a gem of American progressive music from start to finish. “It Takes a Woman’s Love (To Make a Man)” is an obvious attempt at a hit single, but this is more than understandable considering the position the band was in at the time (see above). The fact they had a commercially-minded lyricist in Steve Walsh is just another example of the level of talent this young group possessed.

“Two Cents Worth” is one of the rather rare truly collaborative efforts between Walsh and Livgren. This is probably one of the most forgotten songs ever recorded by the band, and one of the most unusual styles they ever employed. Again though, it is another example of their range and creative bravado. True, this isn’t a progressive tune at all, but most southern rock bands of that day would have happily had this available for their own use. Dave Hope lends an especially inspired hand on bass on this one.

The next track, “Icarus – Borne on Wings of Steel” is just the opposite, as it is one of the most recognizable Kansas recordings in their repertoire. This one has it all – Walsh and Steinhardt’s complimentary vocals (and Walsh’s angelic range with it’s demonic force); Livgren and Williams’ wicked licks that make me feel like I’ve just had a delicious and filling meal; Steinhardt’s distinctive violin with it’s technical precision and ball-busting tempo; Hope’s seductive bass and Ehart’s thundering and machine gun-like beat keeping it all fueled to an intense climax (man, I need a cigarette!). The only downside of this song is that it fades away at the end instead of lumbering along for another ten minutes or so, which I get the feeling the guys in the band could have easily done. And oh, by the way – two keyboardists playing at least three instruments here between them.

“All the World” is one of my favorite Kansa songs, for the exact same reason many progressive purists pan the band – because it is unabashedly and unapologetically positive, hopeful, and pure. These are, after all, six guys who still remembered the more positive traits of the hippy days of the late 60’s (hell, they lived them!):

“All the world's forgiving, the change is all around, And people everywhere have seen the light in what they've found. It's a happy place in the human race, When all our lives are lived forgiving.”

Sappy? Absolutely, and that’s what I love about this song.

Then in comes the wicked side of the band, Steinhardt and Walsh belting out with conviction

“Sweet child of innocence, Living in the present tense; Father Time will take his toll. Rack your body and steal your soul.

And by the way, it "doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor” either. The guitars and drums on this song are among the finest Kansas ever did, and are remarkably similar to the sound they would resurrect with Power and Freaks of Nature more than a decade later.

Walsh penned “It’s You”, and like much of what he has written since, this is a sad song that speaks of lost love and regrets. Although in person he swears vehemently that he doesn’t rethink his past mistakes and has no regrets in life, methinks he doth protest too loudly. He wrote this one thirty years ago, after all.

“Mysteries and Mayhem” is a song I didn’t like the first thirty or so times I heard it. Even though the guitar work is exemplary and Steinhardt’s violin is as good as anything else he’s done (with the notable exception of “Down the Road”, which I consider to be his finest work), I never liked Walsh’s voice on this one, and the lack of violin and overbearing guitars just didn’t sound like Kansas. It was only years later that I came to appreciate that the band was just (once again) trying out new styles and sounds, and for that you have to give them some credit. And the closing leads perfectly into the grand finale -

The best of the album was definitely saved for last – “the Pinnacle” is one of the finest and most complete works the band has ever recorded. This one has every trademark sound in the band’s arsenal, from the lead-in violin and Walsh’s keyboards to some truly wicked guitar licks and the great range of tempos that made the band so exciting in their early years. It’s almost as if they had so many ideas and so much energy that they simply couldn’t segment it enough to create multiple works where that would probably have been the prudent course. Instead we are treated to a real journey of tempos and emotions, all packed into a ten minute epic of sound. “Life is amusing though we are losing, drowned in tears of awe.” Indeed.

I hope others have as fond of memories of this album as I do, and that those who are just discovering the band will find this recording to be a hidden little gem on the progressive landscape.

peace

ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |

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