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Proto-Kaw - Early Recordings from Kansas 1971-1973 CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.75 | 54 ratings

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Sean Trane
Special Collaborator
Prog Folk
3 stars 3.5 stars really!!!

One of the things that amazed us young Ontarians was how a band from the Prairie state came about to playing prog in such a cultural desert the mid-west can be. I am talking art-wise, not agricultural, you wise-arses ;-) Yes, Kansas from Kansas!! How could a sextet of young country boys be crazy enough to start a band that was something else but a country rock or a southern rock group? At the very least a typical AOR group, a C&W or sumthin' along those lines. But a prog band? And yet, Kansas' superb debut album (my fave from them) was just too good to be a fluke or even a first album. Line-up-wise, only Livgren is present in the first Kansas album, but Proto-Kaw presented a double Kb and double wind player, with Don Montre playing both. At the turn of the century, Livgren uncovered the pre-debut album tapes from bands that were called White Clover, Proto-Kaw, Saratoga, Kansas I and Kansas II. The whole genesis of the group is maybe a little confused, so I won't bother with it more in this review. So Livgren brought these tapes to the Cuneiform label and here are the results.

And by the sounds of this "album", that superb Kansas debut album was anything but a fluke: their prog roots already existed long before they recorded, even if they were a much jazzier affair. As a matter of fact, I am close to thinking these tapes are the proggiest things that Kansas has ever done. Don't get me wrong, their first albums where undeniably prog, with many symphonic moments but many songs had a very AOR feel, as Kansas will be very instrumental in setting that typical late 70's AOR sound. These Proto-Kaw sessions/demos are in a very different class altogether, because you'd really have a hard time telling they were an American group at all, for the feeling is incredibly European. Actually if you are a classic prog fan, you're likely to like these tapes much more than the usual Kansas sound. But I must tell you that a lot of these songs have an already-heard somewhere else quality that can make you think that Proto-Kaw was a bit too derivative to have earned a record deal at that particular time. This is something almost certain because once they will really acquire an unmistakably Kansas sound, they will quickly release their debut and an enormous success will ensue.

The demo tapes are not exactly perfect quality, but for some reasons, couldn't have cared less, because somehow, my mind is completely oblivious to the rational part of reasoning when listening to this album. The first demo session was recoded in 71 and holds three tracks, which can be considered really derivative, but I enjoy most. Generally I am furious when someone steals a whole passage from another group, but for some reasons, when Proto-Kaw lifts their whole third track (Nactolos 21) from VdGG (this is especially true for the sax), I yell scandal and get rid of the album. Here, however, I simply and inexplicably accept it. The openingHegemonium track is also greatly influeced by VdGG and Crimson. These early tracks are dark, experimental, but hold a certain kind of breathless beauty to them. Meredith's voice is absolutely superb as well, between Heep's David Byron and Purple's Rod Evans (Wright's Hammond organ parts reinforcing that similarity).

The second recording session dates from a year later with a different drummer and has two tracks that will find their way onto Kansas's first two albums (albeit in fairly different versions), Belexes and Incomudro. All four of these tracks are all excellent, sounding much less derivative, lost the jazzy touch, featuring more what Kaénsas was to become. Some lengths in Nemesis (where you can hear recycled ideas from Nactolos) and a slightly weaker Greek Sunbeam, but overall this session is quite enjoyable. Of course it is hard to escape comparisons on the two common tracks, so here goes: I prefer Meredith's voice to Walsh's, but Ehart's drumming is much superior to Schulz's.

The last two tracks were recorded live, and to me lack a bit the interest of what came before, but are still very valuable. This is particularly true of Cyclopy, which was extracted (a bit thoughtlessly I must say) from a much longer movement, while Skont is a great instrumental slot into a concert with great organs underlined by Jaxonian sax.

Indeed, these posthumous early-Kansas demos hold very much interest for both the fans of Kansas and fans of more European prog. But whether this "album" is essential is whole different ball game, but IMHO, not really. But I would still recommend it.

Sean Trane | 3/5 |


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