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Proto-Kaw - Before Became After CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.89 | 150 ratings

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Prog Folk Researcher
4 stars I picked this CD up while on the road traveling one day. I had stopped into a record store looking for something to occupy my mind while driving down a long stretch of highway on my way to, of all places, Kansas.

I was vaguely aware of the first Proto-Kaw album at the time, a collection of old demo recordings and live tracks from one of the early incarnations of Kansas before the more well-known lineup hit it big with a Kirshner recording contract. I hadn’t bothered to buy it because I figured it was nothing more than a collection of castoff tracks some record executive was trying to make a few bucks on. But since I was headed to Kansas, this new album seemed like a nice diversion to pass the time. I didn’t realize that Before Came After was the work of the reassembled original cast of that pre-Kansas lineup, brought back together in Kerry Livgren’s Berryton Kansas barn/studio to finally lay down some of their earliest compositions on tape, as well as a few new ones Livgren had put together. More than thirty years after this Saratoga cum Kansas II lineup had all gone their separate ways, they were coming back together to see if there was any gas left in the old tanks.

Boy, was I surprised! From the first notes of “Alt. More Worlds than Known”, it is very apparent that these six men have hit on a winning formula. Of course there will be comparisons to Kansas, and some are valid considering the primary architect of that band in its prime was undeniably Kerry Livgren. Sometimes they also sound a bit like Jethro Tull thanks to John Bolton’s flute and Livgren’s Barre-like heavy guitar. And sometimes they even remind me of Salem Hill, who of course is also sometimes compared to Kansas.

But this lineup also has its own style, and one which only rarely evokes the ‘other’ Kansas. Mostly this is just some very good music.

“Alt. More Worlds than Known” is yet another born-again psalm from Livgren, but I have to say that he has finally mastered the art of subtlety. Rather than beating the listener over the head with euphoric giddiness (like he did in Vinyl Confessions and with some of the early AD albums), or trying the ‘Left Behind’ scare tactics like he did with his mid-90s ‘When Things Get Electric’ solo album, Kerry seems to be simply proclaiming the security and contentment he has found in his faith. Kind of hard to take exception with that. Musically this is a very melodic work, with Dan Wright’s Hammond adorning the surprisingly heavy guitar riff laid down by Livgren, and kept in check with a pretty jazzy bass line from Craig Kew (the only non-original band member in the lineup). Lynn Meredith is a very good singer with a decent range, and a timbre that is a quite comfortable listen. These are not young turks by any means, but they still display an impressive amount of energy here, especially during the extended jam passage toward the end of the song. “Worlds” lumbers on for nearly eight minutes, and I hardly realize the time has passed until it finally fades out on the tail of Meredith’s soaring vocals.

“Words of Honor” remind me of Steve Hackett for some reason – not sure why. I guess this is what Livgren sounds like when he writes a ‘give peace a chance’ song –

“Bind the future, in your vow. Set the measure, here and now.

Bravely walking, toward the end, ‘til every enemy can name you friend”.

This is a slow and reflective tune, but Livgren’s weighty guitar gives the message some real meat. Bolton has a real knack for working in his flute in a complementary way, much more subtle than what is heard in other flute bands (ie., Jethro Tull). It’s hard to believe these guys haven’t played together (and some of them haven’t played at all) in more than thirty years.

One other note here – I don’t know if it’s rough-hewn rafters or lower elevation or just the hot sweaty Kansas weather, but Livgren’s studio has something that seems to drape a fine sheen of polished luster over everything that’s recorded there. Both Proto-Kaw albums, as well as Kansas’ own ‘Somewhere to Elsewhere’ were recorded here, and all three of them have a very refined feel to their production. Maybe that’s just Livgren himself.

“Leaven” is the jewel of this album. Livgren not only wrote, arranged, and produced this, but he plays keyboards, guitars, and drums. But this isn’t a solo work – Bolton’s flute and saxophone exquisite, and the tempo is quite seductive. Meredith’s vocals are dead-on in pitch and emotion, and again – very hard to believe these guys are not seasoned road warriors. Livgren’s guitar and Kew’s bass border on fusion at times, while Wright’s and Livgren’s keyboards evoke a 70s psychedelic feel ala Uriah Heep or even the Doors. This is another ‘Got Religion?’ theme, but again Livgren displays both subtlety and symbolism in describing what might actually be a Christian communion service as a representation of life. The extended instrumental passages alone are worth the price of admission.

The next track “Axolotl” sounds like this might be one of those older works that Livgren resurrected for the reformed lineup. This has a more dated feel with simpler keyboard arrangements, more straightforward and heavy guitar, and some strains from the Hammond that are clearly intended to simulate a violin. The vocals are also closer to Livgren’s old ‘still searching’ themes from his pre-conversion days –

“Far way, I don’t care how far away; I know I’ve got to get there or I’ll die.

I think the jokes on me but I will never see, until you’ve had your laugh and it’s too late”.

“Quantum Leapfrog” is another fusion-leaning number, heavy on saxophone and free- form guitar and bass. Brad Schulz finally shows up and takes charge of the tempo on drums with the most pronounced effort there on the album. Wright’s keyboards are also more jazz than rock here. This is the sound the band would develop even more fully in their sophomore effort ‘The Wait of Glory’ in 2006.

The odd track here is “Greenburg, Glickstein, Charles, David, Smith and Jones”, a cover from the rather obscure 60s pop band The Cryan' Shames. This is probably filler, and may be something the band performed live in their early days.

“Gloriana” is the most Kansas-like tune, with pleasant piano, soaring guitars, and an overall mystic feel. This is just a good, long, proggy meandering tune that’s mostly instrumental and would have fit quite well on just about any early 70s progressive album.

“Occasion of Your Honest Dreaming” is also probably a resurrected early work, with a very light but distinct psychedelic feel and melodic multi-vocal arrangement. This kind of reminds me of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Kind of another filler, but a fun song anyway. Old farts do throwback music pretty well.

On “Heavenly Man” Livgren tries to be subtle and abstract, but he doesn’t quite pull it off this time. No matter, this is another strong arrangement and Meredith’s vocals are actually not just okay, they are actually quite growing on me at this point. More harmonizing vocals and heavy guitar here as well – a solid track though not really noteworthy.

The closer is the mini-epic “Theophany”, the alter call at the end of the album. Again, Livgren wears this so well that it’s almost expected. This is a ten-minute plus instrumental arrangement with some highly improvisational passages, a come-to-Jesus message, grandeous keyboards, and overall a pretty majestic feel to it. A very fitting close to the album that leaves one both satisfied, and looking forward to more.

I’m actually very happy for these guys and their feel-good reconstituted career. They will follow this work up with another just as good in ‘The Wait of Glory’, and have become a regular on the Midwest tour circuit the past few years. They’ve even been embraced by most Kansas fans as if they were long-lost cousins. Everybody wins. If you like Kansas, American progressive music in general, or just like the idea of some old guys who can still produce very appealing and creative music, this will make a solid addition to your collection. Four stars.


ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |


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