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Kansas - Somewhere to Elsewhere CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.50 | 281 ratings

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3 stars In American pro football a "Hail Mary" pass is a ploy that involves a frustrated quarterback heaving the game's oblong pigskin orb about half the length of the field as time is about to expire. The hope is that somehow victory can be snatched from the gruesome jaws of defeat if one of the desperate team's outnumbered receivers can miraculously grab and secure the ball in the end zone while surrounded by tall athletes that would rather die than allow such a tragic thing to occur on their watch. Obviously the success rate for such a maneuver is similar to the odds of winning the tri-state lottery but, as Bob Dylan sang, "When you ain't got nothin' you got nothin' to lose."

"Somewhere to Elsewhere" was Kansas' Hail Mary. In the glorious 70s the band had risen from humble beginnings to being acknowledged as the USA's premier progressive rock group. In the 80s, however, key members became distracted by grass that looked a lot greener over yonder and the ensemble lost their credibility after sub-par replacements failed to measure up. The three albums of fresh but questionable material released during the 90s did little to change their sagging fortunes and their stock hit an all-time low as the millennium came to a close. Apparently at some point a peace pipe was brought out to be shared by the original members and, during said smoke-a-thon, it was agreed that the only way to save the franchise from oblivion was to put aside all ill will and return en masse to the euphoric good ol' days when they'd make an LP and it would sell like cheap beer at an outdoor rodeo. But, as they say, the trail to disappointment is paved with admirable intentions and, unfortunately, "Somewhere to Elsewhere" is mediocre more often than not.

When proggers caught wind that Kerry Livgren, Steve Walsh, Robby Steinhardt, Richard Williams, Phil Ehart and Dave Hope (along with latecomer bassist Billy Greer) were together again and able to coexist in the same studio room without fisticuffs erupting optimism ran high. Toss in rumors that principal songwriter Livgren had penned every tune and their fans were ready for a slam dunk. How could it fail? When the CD was released in the middle of 2000 many bought/downloaded it without hearing a note. Walsh's strong piano opening for the 7-minute "Icarus II" was a good omen yet a new reality settled in within minutes. Steve's once-formidable voice was still accurate and confident but his register was noticeably lower as he delivered the verses and choruses (His high, stirring timbre had always provided Kansas with an indelible stamp of uniqueness). The song ain't half bad, though. The punchy metallic turn halfway through gives the track a sharp edge and the ending is suitably and satisfyingly large-scale prog. Had they gotten bolder at this juncture the disc would be a whole 'nother animal to evaluate but the next tune, "When the World Was Young," is a pedestrian rocker that's surprisingly tame. As a specimen of pop rock it's okay but it owns all the earmarks of a product assembled by a codependent band trying too hard to please everyone (an impossible task). A heavy funk feel rumbles along underneath "Grand Fun Alley" and they wisely mix in some potent prog rock intervals to keep things interesting so all is far from lost at this juncture. "The Coming Dawn (Thanatopsis)" is a dramatic ballad presented well but it's a bit too calculated to truly wow. I can't put my finger directly on what it is but there's some essential ingredient missing that keeps the tune from reaching its potential.

"Myriad" possesses a powerful intro that sets the stage for something exciting to happen. Alas, as much as I wanted to be blown away, the meat of the song doesn't exactly thrill me to the marrow. I'll grant them kudos for the ELP-like instrumental section that quickened my pulse briefly yet overall I must relate that it sails wide of the mark. "Look At the Time" is a clear change of pace. It's a Beatle-ish ditty that manages to evolve into a much bigger beast along the way, offering moments of grandeur that are very much appreciated. Even in their heyday Kansas would sometimes succumb to their bluesy rock & roll tendencies and "Disappearing Skin Tight Blues" serves as a prime example. The number doesn't do much for me despite a few proggy excursions that lift the mood slightly. "Distant Vision" is the standout track. Its involved, moving initial sequence effectively captures what made Kansas such a symphonic prog treasure chest in the 1970s. This time the verses and subsequent choruses are exhilarating and the emotional middle instrumental movement does what exceptional prog can do in that it takes you on a journey. No doubt, the guys still had it in them. "Byzantium" is another highlight. The boys-choir-warbling-in-the-cavernous-monastery beginning is greatness and the cellos add an exotic hue to the proceedings. I applaud their willingness to take a risk with this cut because it pays off large. "Not Man Big" signals a return to the safer heavy arena rock format. The tune's palpable Led Zeppelin vibe is commendable and they lock into a comfortable groove during the extended ending but I was really wishing for something remarkable to occur on an epic scale. "Geodesic Dome" is a frivolous tag that probably seemed clever at the time but isn't. It's a very short (thank you so much) outtake that sounds like it was recorded on a Radio Shack Dictaphone in a Motel 6 after a night of hardy partying. Really, fellas? Ensemble-performed fart harmonies would've been funnier and much more entertaining.

One overriding aspect of the sound that bugged me consistently is the odd ambience bouncing around in the record's atmosphere and it's especially noticeable emanating from the drum booth. I don't really understand how that was tolerated since I rank Ehart as one of our nation's better stickmen but stranger things have happened in the studio environ, that's for sure. I can tell that most of the reviewers who chimed in on this album liked it more than me so that's definitely worth taking into account. Since I'm woefully unfamiliar with their output from 79's "Monolith" to 98's "Always Never the Same" the favorable nods the band garnered for this disc may be more reflective of how much better it is than those 8 records were than for its own individual merits. I don't know and I'm not sure I'll ever find out. All I can report is what I deem "Somewhere to Elsewhere" to be and I find it average prog fare. The fact that twelve years later there has yet to be a follow-up speaks volumes. Kansas' Hail Mary fell inconsequentially to the turf out of bounds and the victory parade had to be cancelled. 2.5 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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