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Kansas - Leftoverture CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.22 | 1095 ratings

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5 stars When this group appeared on the scene in 1974 they were a conundrum. Even today the words Kansas and progressive rock go together about as well as politicians and honesty. Yet the fact remains that the finest prog band the United States has ever produced didn't hail from the east, west or third coast but sprouted up in the very heart of the country where attention from the established record companies was hardest to attract. Say what you will about hammy Don Kirshner but it was he who boldly took a chance on promoting a homegrown group that played challenging, complex material when most of the industry moguls were busy trying to discover the next Three Dog Night or Doobie Brothers. Kirshner stuck with them while they built their audience via constant touring and three decent LPs over a two year period when I'm sure all his peers were chuckling at his folly. But in October of '76 Kansas released 'Leftoverture' and the snickering stopped immediately. This album was a stunner from top to bottom. Turned out that stateside prog rock could crossover into the mainstream without compromising an iota of its integrity when presented with aplomb, superb fidelity and undeniable class. Streaking past the records of pandering pop stars to barge into the top five on the album charts, the disc demolished many long-held notions about public taste. The average Joe enjoyed this stuff just as much as the proggers did. The snobby critics and nearsighted naysayers were humbled at last because the local underdogs had pulled the upset, triumphed and revealed them to be badly mistaken bozos.

Opening with the striking 'Carry On Wayward Son' was a stroke of genius. The strong, layered three-part harmonies catapulting the song's magnetic hook line hit like a tsunami wave and the song then incessantly floods your senses with great performances. I'll go so far as to pronounce it one of the best, most concise American-made specimens of prog rock ever. It has every ingredient for being recognized as such and is so infectious that it had no difficulty whatsoever in appealing to a broad strata of the populace who pushed the single up to #11. Everything about the track is top notch but you gotta admit that keyboardist Steve Walsh's vocal is still breathtaking in its powerful delivery. To this day very few singers can reach and sustain that final note like he does. 'The Wall' follows with an elegant instrumental intro preceding a beautiful, dramatic symphonic prog tune that includes wonderfully intricate intervals that substantially heighten the overall effect of the number. Guitarist and principal writer Kerry Livgren's lyrics are surprisingly profound for that era. 'And though it's always been with me/I must tear down the wall and let it be/All I am, and all that I was ever meant to be, in harmony/Shining true and smiling back at all who wait to cross/There is no loss,' Walsh sings with touching conviction. It's an emotionally-charged song that gets me every time I hear it. 'What's On Your Mind' is next and it shows that these boys could rock hard without reverting to beat-you-over-the-head tactics. Their instinctive understanding and respect for dynamic tension keeps the tune from becoming pedestrian. Kudos are also in order for the tight, inventive ending.

On 'Miracles Out of Nowhere' their collective imagination and willingness to take an adventurous, progressive approach in their craftsmanship works to the song's advantage in that they allow it to evolve into something both accessible and engaging. It also demonstrates that they were a dedicated group of musicians who had a clear objective in mind about what kind of music they wanted to make. Many of us truth seekers could readily relate to the thought-provoking words of 'Here I am just waiting for a sign/Asking questions, learning all the time/It's always here, it's always there/It's just love, and miracles out of nowhere.' Once again the finale is spectacular, proving that they had a special knack for knowing how to seal the deal. The band's often overlooked vocal acumen really shines through on 'Opus Insert' and there's a delightful Zappa influence in the first instrumental break that always brings a smile to my face. 'Questions of My Childhood' follows and I admire the ensemble's confident, aggressive mien that manifests itself over and over in this number. Again, it's obvious that they knew exactly what they were about when they made this album. It's a totally unified effort in that no one dominates musically but I must mention that when violinist Robby Steinhardt steps up for his solo the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention.

'Cheyenne Autumn' begins as an acoustic guitar-based ballad and there's nothing wrong with that at all when it's done with this kind of tact. Not content to remain predictable, though, they move the focal point to the piano and then the track grows to involve the whole band, taking the tune to places you'd never expect it to go. They eventually revive the track's original vibe but they finish the piece with a gallant flourish. The group-composed 'Magnum Opus' is the cherry on the sundae. Its semi-Egyptian aura is deliciously prog and the vibraphone adds a jazzy tint to the proceedings. The song's energy-filled shifts in mood are exhilarating and unexpected, just the way quality prog rock should be. I'll go out on a limb here and aver that some of the tune's passages would give King Crimson a run for their money. A lot of credit for the album's consistency is due to the outstanding rhythm section of Phil Ehart on drums and Dave Hope on bass as evidenced on this cut. The lyrics sum up their awareness of knowing they weren't reinventing the wheel or curing cancer with their art. 'This foolish game, oh it's still the same/The notes go dancin' off in the air/And don't you believe it's true/the music is all for you/It's really all we've got to share/'Cause rockin' and rollin'/it's only howlin' at the moon/It's only howlin' at the moon,' Steve sings. This is a fantastic epic and a fine way to end an album.

I'm alarmed at how many critics and reviewers still discount the prog content in Kansas' music in general and in 'Leftoverture' in particular. They continue to compare them to Yes, ELP and Genesis but fail to take into serious consideration that the group's constituents didn't grow up in an environment comparable to the British culture that so emphasized and revered the giants of classical music. We Yanks grew up on a thinner diet of pop and rock & roll and the overwhelming majority of our music reflects that upbringing. Kansas didn't deny their heritage but, rather, found a way to incorporate it into a symphonic prog motif and avoided turning it into the incomprehensible psychedelic mess that most did. It took patience, skill and a lot of trial-by-error but they, along with their Canadian counterparts in Rush, made the rest of the planet take note that the old world didn't have exclusivity when it came to making progressive music. We westerners could kick a little tail in that category, too. When I listened to this disc recently it was the first time in a long while and I was struck by what a band can do when they work together in an unobstructed spirit of cooperation. One rarely encounters this kind of consolidated creativity any more in this age of individuality. 'Leftoverture' may not be a masterpiece in everyone's ears but it comes damn close in mine. 4.5 stars.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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