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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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4 stars The story of Proto-Kaw is one of the most endearing stories in chronicles of progressive rock. Before there was Kansas, there was a group of hungry men in ragged clothes roughing it in the Midwest and chasing their dream. Decades later, the surviving members wound up together again as Proto-Kaw (a name that comes from the obvious Greek prefix and the Native American word for Kansas). The release of these practically ancient recordings was the firstfruits of a wonderful reunion. Fans of Van der Graaf Generator should without a doubt seek this record out. Kerry Livgren has said that Peter Hammill and company were one of his greatest influences during that fledgling period, and in this respect, it has eased me into appreciating much of Van der Graaf Generator's work. Lynn Meredith even sounds a bit like Hammill. The recording is fairly primitive and rough, but oh well- this is a treasure, like uncovering an archeological cache that was for all intents and purposes lost. One is left to wonder how Kansas would have interpreted these pieces; we know that answer for a couple of them, but that leaves a lingering and greedy curiosity.

"Hegemonium" Easy organ and piano do not prepare the listener for the hate-filled, spite-ridden music to come. Livgren said he based the sullen lyrics on a painting he had seen. There's a squawking saxophone solo over the organ and piano, and the bass during the quiet guitar solo is excellent. The ending incorporates an avant-garde feel, and soon Meredith releases a paralyzing shriek before Bolton launches into an insane saxophone cadenza. Overall, it's a chilling and brilliant piece.

"Reunion in the Mountains of Sarne" Parts of this sound like Tchaikovsky to me. With soaring vocals from Meredith and intelligent musicianship from the rest of the band, this is one of my favorites on the album. Livgren's compositional integrity is well-established, even at such a young age. Hard-core Kansas fans may find part of it familiar: Livgren reused the instrumental section of this phenomenal work in "The Coming Dawn (Thanatopsis)" on Kansas's Somewhere to Elsewhere.

"Nactolos 21" Rough piano churning out chords is followed by wild saxophone- this gives this one a crazy introduction. However, what follows is closer to R&B. There's a gritty little guitar solo that adds variety, and then a fast-paced flute and saxophone section enters to add even more.

"Belexis" Any respectable Kansas fan will know this old favorite- and yet, they won't. It's got the same funky riffs, but the singer paints it a completely different way. None of it, not the keyboard playing nor guitar work, not the drumming nor the singing, is better than the "original," but man it's good to hear a great song performed by a different but just as legitimate group- and the listener gets a rare peak into the formative years of one of America's greatest songwriters.

"Totus Nemesis" The verses sound very much like the writings of Livgren, but this song is amazing in its own way, and it would have been even more amazing had it been done by his main band years later. As it is, it's excellent. The funky rhythm in the middle offers an amazing opportunity for both the pianist and the bassist. What follows is very experimental with strange sounds and odd time signatures, but after that, there's an incredible jazzy segment in 9/4 time. Overall, this is a very exciting and inspired piece of work.

"Greek Structure Sunbeam" This soft tune reminds me viscerally of a certain old commercial I can't put my finger on, but it's a nice contrast to the rest of the album. If he has not already, Meredith demonstrates his vocal abilities and how pleasing he can be at the microphone. This one is very similar to gentle songs from Three Dog Night (I'm thinking of "Pieces of April" here). Everything flows in a smooth and slightly jazzy manner.

"Incomudro" This is the second of the two recognizable Kansas songs (this time curiously lacking the "Hymn to the Atman" subtitle). Unlike "Belexis," this one is not as easy to say the Kansas version is better, since it has a real charm of its own. There's no odd vocal effect on the chorus either, something I never really cared for on the Song for America version. That happy Camel-like part in the middle still exists. The drum solo is a tad heavy-handed and truncated (in other words, nowhere near as great as the Phil Ehart version). This is a fascinating look at a primordial version of a magnificent piece.

"Cyclopy" Two live tracks close the album, and are something of "bonus tracks," probably because the sound quality is even worse than the preceding studio tracks. The first is "Cyclopy," which is in my opinion a great composition. It has a guitar and bass duet in the middle that gives way to a bizarre harpsichord-like solo.

"Skont" This second live song is a raw piece with muffled vocals and gritty guitar. There's plenty of sinister instrumentation and brooding lyrics, not to mention a lengthy organ solo fed through a wah pedal. This somewhat experimental piece should find favor with those who enjoy grainy proto-prog like Deep Purple. Despite the awful sound quality, this is a real treat for any progressive rock lover, and it concludes a mesmerizing glimpse at the origin of the precursor of America's greatest band.

Epignosis | 4/5 |


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