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Kansas - Masque CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.66 | 544 ratings

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3 stars Alongside Starcastle, symphonic rockers Kansas were one of the few genuinely progressive American bands of the early 1970s, starting out with a Genesis-and-Yes- inspired self-tiled debut in 1974 and following it up with the acclaimed 'Song For America' a year later and this ambitious effort in 1975. All three albums featured intricate prog elements attached to big, rousing harmonies, the kind that would make the likes of Journey, Foreigner and Boston millions of dollars throughout the following decade, though, at heart, Kansas were always a thoroughly experimental beast. Unlike Illinois' Starcastle, Kansas would find lasting success beyond their initial years thanks mainly to their canny ability to insert pop hooks into the most adventurous-sounding material, a strength that would lead the band on a thirty-year plus career that is still going strong to this day. 'Masque', with it's frankly rather weird cover art - a strange profile portrait of a rather bizarre face - is a prime example of Kansas' ability to operate between the realms of pop and prog without ever compromising their ambitious style. The album is crisply-produced, featuring complex keyboard patterns and chiming guitars, yet their sound is also eminently accesible; lead vocalists Steve Walsh and Danny Steinhardt - who operates the much-welcome electric violin that graces many of 'Masque's more grandiose moments - own the kind of voices that Lou Gramm and Steve Perry would ape and then popularise during the early-to- mid-1980's with their respective groups Foreigner and Journey. Its all rather far-removed from the likes of Peter Gabriel and Jon Anderson, with Walsh's more muscular approach to singing lending Kansas' sound a powerful dynamic sorely lacking from many of Britain's 1970s progressive groups, yet the combination works well. A fine example is on the album's third, and strongest, track 'Icarus(Born On Wings Of Steel)', in which Walsh really lets rip with some spine-tingling singing before Robbie Steinhardt dazzles the listener even further with some impressive violin work. As an album, 'Masque' isn't Kansas' finest moment, yet is also far from their weakest. Epic finale 'The Pinnacle' adds some genuine prog-rockery to the mix, with Steve Walsh's blazing guitars complimenting batteries of moog drums and synthesizers, whilst the carefully- wrought 'Child Of Innocence' shows the groups softer - and albeit more commercial - aspirations. The lacklustre 'It Takes A Woman's Love(To Make A Man)', which opens the album, also shares the commercial bent of 'Child Of Innocence', but even at their least- refined Kansas operate on a level of startling grace and power, straddling the line between power-pop and proper prog with refreshing confidence. The USA, despite it's top-notch psychedelic-rock past, certainly wasn't prolific in it's unearthing of progressive rock talent - the nation has had more luck recently with the likes of early-nineties pioneers Spock's Beard and the prog-metal behemonths Dream Theatre - and for some Kansas' big choruses, chunky guitar riffs and heart-bleeding vocals tend to have a bit too much in common with mid-eighties commercial rock than some fans would like. Their music is also far removed from the pioneering likes of Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge, groups whose expressive, experimental and hard- rockin' style would open the door to the prog rock era. However, listen carefully to their excellent first five albums and behind the Foreigner-sized chords one can hear the glorious influence of Tony Banks, Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson burning through with careful, calculated musical precision. Like with most groups who you haven't yet investigated, it is almost always best to start at the beginning, and with Kansas the rule still applies. 'Kansas', 'Song For America' and 'Masque' are three highly-recommended progressive rock albums that, like the quintessentially English, boarding-school influenced sounds of Genesis, are very much a product of their surroundings. The USA didn't really do prog - they loved the British groups and lapped up the prog big beasts with relish - but couldn't quite create their own, for whatever reasons. Kansas, and to a lesser-extent, Starcastle, were the exceptions to that strange rule and those listeners out there who don't mind a bit of uplifting power-rock stirred into their prog music should find a treasure-trove of highly-polished, slickly-produced and surprisingly experimental sounds within the early parts of Kansas' impressive discography. 'Masque' may not contain the pure-bread intricacy of 'Close To The Edge', the surreal hyperbole of 'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway' or the complex brilliance of 'Larks Tongues In Aspic' but it does do something that those great albums sometimes struggle to do - to truly and fabulously rock out in a way that only Americans can. STEFAN TURNER, LONDON, 2011
stefro | 3/5 |


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