The Pinnacle

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Given that the new Proto-KAW album came out yesterday (even though it hasn't arrived here yet), I've decided to post a Kerry Livgren lyric in eager anticipation. Given the approach of Easter, I figured one of his meditations on the human condition from before his dramatic Christian transformation would be appropriate.

(For the unitiated: 'Kaw' is the preferred term for the Kansa Indians. When the Kansas lineup preceding the one that recorded the albums with the hits reunited, they chose this name, since they were a sort of proto-Kansas. Kerry Livgren, the mastermind behind much of Kansas' music, is at the helm again with this project. I've heard some cuts, and I'm longing for its arrival.)

The Pinnacle by Kerry Livgren (from the 1975 Kansas album Masque)

I've so much to say, and yet I cannot speak
Come and do my bidding now for I have grown too weak
My weary eyes have seen all that life can give
Come to me, O young one, for you I can forgive

I stood where no man goes, and conquered demon foes
With glory and passion no longer in fashion
The hero breaks his blade

Cast this shadow long that I may hide my face
And in this cloak of darkness the world I will embrace
In all that I endure, of one thing I am sure
Knowledge and reason change like the season
A jester's promenade

Lying at my feet I see the offering you bring
The mark of Cain is on our faces, borne of suffering
O, I long to see you say it's not been wrong
I stand before you now, a riddle in my song
The answer is that sweet refrain
Unheard it always will remain
Beyond our reach, beyond our gain

Trapped in life's parade, a king without a crown
In this joy of madness, my smile might seem a frown
With talons wrought of steel, I tore the heart of doom
And in one gleaming moment I saw beyond the tomb
I stood where no man goes, above the din I rose
Life is amusing though we are losing
Drowned in tears of awe.


I've been listening to "Leftoverture" recently. Great stuff. Sometimes I feel like 'progrock' is a guilty pleasure. I feel a bit dorky after listening to Rush or "Brain Salad Surgery." But, damn it, I love King Crimson's "Discipline." Where are the prog-rockers now? The closest contemporary analogues I can think of is Mr. Bungle and Melt Banana, and Bela Fleck, who just refuses to die...

Kansas had a new album in 2000, with Kerry Livgren, and it was back to form. I've heard Yes is working on a new album with Rick Wakeman. The latest few King Crimson albums have been truly innovative. Spock's Beard has been the leader in a new wave of neo-prog bands, including The Flower Kings, Marillion, Dream Theater, and others I haven't heard. Transatlantic and Liquid Tension Experiment are neo-prog members gathering for projects together. Some people consider Radiohead in the tradition of prog, and they do sometimes sound like King Crimson. There actually is a revival going on right now. Inside Out Records and Magna Carta records are carrying a good deal of this stuff. I don't have a link offhand.

I'm unfamiliar with Kansas and the genres you mention here. What would be some good songs to start with?

The Kansas hits were Carry On Wayward Son and Dust in the Wind in 1976 and 1977. Those aren't really indicative of their sound, though. Carry On Wayward Son is basically straightforward classic rock, something like Journey, Styx, or Boston. Dust in the Wind is an acoustic guitar ballad with a violin solo. Kansas' normal style was acting like an orchestra with rock instruments. I think symphonic rock is a better term than progressive rock. They basically did rock music with carefully executed instrumental sections with complex time signatures (not just the standard 4/4 or 3/4 of most popular music), multiple instrumental lines going on at once, and unusual chord progressions. A lot of the songs were longer form, with some bands regularly producing 15-20 minute epics, entire album sides. Kansas generally kept songs under 12 minutes, usually more like 6-10, but that's still fairly long. Some of this was just what was standard practice in classical music, but some of it went way beyond that, and it was certainly progressive to do this in rock. Some of Kansas' tunes were much more of a straightforward blues-rock thing, with the violin more like the classic fiddle of southern rock (which evolved into country).

Kerry Livgren in particular tried to incorporate musical structures from eastern music, at least early on, partly because at the time his themes came from eastern literature at that point in his spiritual quest. The lyrics were often probing, searching spiritual thirst type stuff. Kerry Livgren moved around from one religious perspective to another with each album, eventually becoming a Christian in 1979.

The other bands I mentioned were similar musically and sometimes lyrically. Probably the progressive rock band to become most famous would be Genesis, though by the time they were famous they had moved into much more straightforward pop. Peter Gabriel had been a large part of their weirdness factor, having written over half the lyrics on earlier albums, and once Phil Collins took over the move toward a mainstream sound began, though it took a few albums.

If it sounds interesting to you, I suggest Kansas' 2000 album Somewhere to Elsewhere, written entirely by Kerry Livgren, who doesn't tour with them anymore. Also, Transatlantic is a good example of a current cutting edge sound with some of these features by a mix of musicians from various neo-progressive rock bands, and it's much closer to mainstream rock than some of the others. For something older but a little more accessible, I would say A Trick of the Tail by Genesis or Leftoverturn and Point of Know Return by Kansas. If you just want total weirdness to see the extreme, I suggest the Relayer album by Yes or Thrak by King Crimson (weird in very different ways). Kansas' self-titled debut album has a mix of the more unusual stuff and straight-out jammin' blues-rock.

Thanks for the last comment Jeremy Pierce. That includes some good starting points for me.

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