Song-by-Song, Album-by-Album analysis
SEEDS OF CHANGE(1980) - This album was recorded just a few months after Kerry’s conversion to Christianity, and it’s no secret. The lyrics, while covering a pretty broad range of topics, are all coming from the Christian point of view, and what a point of view it is! Kerry chose to work with (for the most part) different musicians for each song which gives the album a broad musical arena, but the lyrical themes help hold the whole thing together well. In fact, were it not for the lyrics, the record might seem too disjointed, so varied are the styles of the songs (everything from the prog-rock Kansas is known for to blues to ballads to pop). Here is an overview of the songs.
1. Just One Way - Lead vocals on this fine opener are by Jeff Pollard who, as any Kansasphile knows, is the person who led Kerry to Jesus Christ. Pollard’s vocal is very reminiscent of his work with Louisiana’s LeRoux,a great blues/rock hybrid. The lyrics are some of Kerry’s best, describing his life and conversion in a succinct way that most artists never could. The drumming on this track by Barriemore Barlow of Jethro Tull also merits mention. A good start indeed.
2. The Mask of the Great Deceiver Let’s get the obvious out of the way right now: Yes, it’s that Ronnie James Dio, the one that sang with Black Sabbath on lead vocals, and, whatever your thoughts on Black Sabbath are, this is the finest vocal on the record, period. These lyrics are so perfect for Dio. I’ve heard Steve Walsh sing this song from the "Audio-Visions" tour, and I’m sorry, but it’s just not the same. I’m really not sure of Dio’s religious background, but his vocals on the track are inspired none the less. When he sings "In your heart don’t you know that he’ll betray you..." he means it! Once again, Kerry communicates the truth in a subtle way and is all the more effective for it. From the majestic opening to the thunderstorm closing, this song is truly a shining moment in his career.
3. How Can You Live - In his autobiography "Seeds of Change," Kerry states that he was concerned that if Steve Walsh sang one of the songs on "SOC" that it would sound too much like Kansas, but that after hearing it he didn’t think it sounded like Kansas after all. Sorry Kerry, but this track has Kansas written all over it. Just like Boston's Brad Delp and Foreigner's Lou Gramm, Steve is forever going to be "That Kansas guy." I’ve often wondered how, after singing such inspired lyrics with the original Kansas night after night, he could quit the band over it. There are worse jobs than singing some of the greatest words to come out of prog-rock history. I’m digressing, sorry. This is a stellar track, marred only by the middle instrumental section. Sometimes Kerry (for some reason) takes a really great song and inserts a section that sounds like background music for Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny through the woods (see "Cheyenne Anthem"). During the break, I can almost hear "OOOOOH you wascally wabbit!" Steve’s vocals are some of his finest ever, particularly during the last choruses and fadeout. Kerry’s keyboard work really shines during the verses as well. This song about what life can really be would have been an excellent choice for a single, with Steve’s voice and playing up the Kansas connection.
4. Whiskey Seed - The lead vocal debut and finale of the artist himself. Despite his self-deprecating comments in his book, Kerry does a fine job and his voice is great for the theme of the song. When Mylon LeFevre kicks in, it’s really not that much of a change and makes for a great duet, even though the blues isn’t really my thing. The acoustic guitar work is a great touch, and predates the whole "stripped-down" thing by several years.
5. To Live For the King - During the interview at the end of the Renaissance CD version of "SOC" Kerry says that this song was one of the standout moments on the album, but I disagree (he also says that "Audio Visions" is the Kansas album that should have never been made, so what does he know?). While it’s not a bad song really, I wouldn’t consider it a standout cut either. Featuring Dio again (the only vocalist to sing two songs on the record), this ballad just sort of glides along with no real high points or different sections.
6. Down to the Core To paraphrase Kerry, this is the Livgren song that should have never been made. He has used the same theme more effectively in other songs ("Dust in the Wind", etc.), and Davey Moire definitely needs to stay behind the recording console. I thought it odd that Kerry used Phil Ehart on the simplest songs on the record, this being no exception. Oh well, we all make mistakes.
7 Ground Zero - One of the finest Livgren compositions ever committed to tape. Ever. The lead vocals, by Ambrosia's David Pack, are incredible, as are Robby’s violin flourishes. Each thing in this song works for the good of the whole. The only bone I pick here is the flanged, over-processed vocal on the line "Waiting for Ground Zero." This is, however, a very small bone to pick. The music is superb and recalls such orchestral Kansas classics as "Hopelessly Human and "Nobody’s Home." Other than "The Pinnacle" from "Masque" this is the best album closer of Livgren’s career. Grand, but not ridiculously so. Restrained only where it needs to be. Can you tell I kind of like this track? Neck in neck with "Mask of the Great Deceiver" for my favorite from this record.
In closing, it is my humble opinion that "Seeds of Change" is the finest solo album Kerry did. It’s ironic that in an effort to enjoy some freedom outside the confines of Kansas, he made some of the best Kansas songs ever. He would prove later on with other solo releases that he doesn’t function as well when left completely to his own devices as he does in the Kansas format.
TIME LINE (1984) - The story behind the making of "Time Line" is so commonly known that I’ll forgo the history lesson on this one. This album, consisting of rejected songs from Kansas’ "Drastic Measures" along with new material shows Kerry definitely spreading his wings. One interesting thing is that David Pack is given an appearance credit, but it doesn’t specify where. "Time Line" is a very smooth bridge between Kerry’s last efforts with Kansas and what was to come with AD and his solo efforts.
1. Time Line (Livgren) - This song grapples with the concept of time and our efforts to control and understand it. The brief a capella intro recalls “you know what” from “that album,” but the similarity ends right then and there. The sax solo fits nicely into this keyboard-laden track. Mike Gleason’s soaring vocals with John Elefante on the chorus don’t hurt anything, either.
2. Tonight (Livgren) - Probably loosely based on the night Kerry accepted Christ as his savior. In his book, Kerry reveals that he was experiencing some major spiritual upheavals after his extended conversations with Jeff Pollard (Louisiana’s Le Roux) (“I’m living on the edge and feeling so confused”). The rhythmically disjointed bridge is a nice change from the smoothly flowing verse and chorus sections. Warren Ham was definitely the right choice to sing this tune. Nice guitar work in the fadeout, but buried beneath the keys in the mix.
3. Make or Break It (Gleason) - Great lyrics about trying to live as a Christian in today’s world. Kerry’s guitar solo is great, but Mike’s scat singing at 2:11 is a little too light and frankly, a little silly sounding to be right before the growling guitar solo. Still, the rest of the music only compliments this punchy tune.
4. Take Us To the Water - (Livgren) Chop off the silly wavering keyboard intro, and this is a great, rocking tune. Mike’s vocals on the bridge nicely offset Warren’s angry verses. Warren plays some mean harmonica on this one, too. A basic cry for relief from this world by some desperate people. What a killer guitar outro!
5. Beyond the Pale (Gleason and Livgren) - This ballad by Mike and Kerry is awesome! The lyrics and Mike’s vocal give me chills when listened to in the context of Kerry’s departure from Kansas after 13 years. Heartbreaking to think that Kerry’s conversion could have such a negative impact on Kansas. Most Christians have to express this same sentiment to some people after one’s conversion (I look in your eyes, a great gulf between us/I’ll be your friend, but never keep silence).
6. New Age Blues (Livgren and Gleason) - A scathing commentary on the whole new age movement sweeping the nation. These lyrics are so “right on the money!” The only “blues” to the song, though, are the ones the new agers will have eventually. This proggish song is the most (musically) interesting one on the record. Lots of off-beat accents and feel changes. Warren’s bluesy growl has never sounded better.
7, Slow Motion Suicide (Livgren) - This mostly forgettable track is a revisiting of the theme much better presented in “How Can You Live” from "Seeds of Change." Perhaps with a little different production, it would come across better. Just sounds like someone trying out a new keyboard. The muted sax solo doesn’t help matters any.
8. High On A Hill (Livgren) - This song starts out like a train and doesn’t let up. The theme seems to be Kerry’s answer to everyone who said he was nuts for leaving Kansas. His answers are quite eloquent, indeed. Craig Harber does an excellent job on the drumwork for this track. Kerry’s dizzying (albeit brief) guitar solo is masterful.
9. Life Undercover (Livgren) - This song is about Christians who try to “ride the fence” or lead a double life, and urges them to get off the fence. The musical passages don’t really mesh that well, and the vocal just isn’t very interesting. Great concept, but the band just couldn’t see it through.
10. Welcome to the War (Livgren) - The intro and verse are very similar to “The Fury” from Art of the State. When the chorus kicks in, all similarities disappear, though. Thematically it’s essentially “choose this day whom you will serve.” The guitar solo and accompanying music after the 1st bridge are superb. The second bridge, more fitting with the chorus, is a nice break before the chorus. A killer ending brings this great album to a close.
ART OF THE STATE (1985) - Finally free from the restraints of Kansas and having resigned themselves to being limited to the “Christian marketplace,” AD returns with a vengeance with Art of the State. Widely considered to be AD’s finest effort, I would be hard pressed to disagree. Mike Gleason, especially, came into his own in a major way, contributing his two strongest songs (IMO) to this album. Warren Ham also gets a co-write, revealing yet another of his many talents. Kerry seemed truly eager to operate in the band format, not just “Kerry and his sidemen.” The band (Kerry and Dave, in particular) would soon realize that the Christian arena was not as lucrative and professional in it’s standards though, and this would be the last AD album featuring the original lineup as Warren Ham would depart after his last show on New Year’s Eve.
1. All Creation Sings (Livgren) Lead Vocals: Mike and Warren - "AotS" gets off to a great start with this Livgren tune focusing on his desire to be as close to God as possible. It’s a really nice surprise when Warren comes in on the bridge. I’ve always really enjoyed shared vocals on a song. The keyboard interlude is a nice twist instead of the expected guitar solo.
2. We Are the Men (Livgren) Lead Vocals: Warren - Oh, Kerry, whydja do it for? Wrapping lyrics about the beginning of man’s decline in an Egyptian/techno framework? And at the end of this robotic, techno-futuristic sounding piece, a sax solo? Wow. Maybe I’m just missing the boat on this one, but I for one am thankful for the advent of the programmable CD player.
3. Lead Me To Reason (Gleason) Lead Vocals: Warren - An excellent example of AD’s band solidarity. One lead singer writes a song (and an excellent one, at that) and gives it to the other to sing. Check out Kerry’s great compressed guitar sound on his terrific solo. These lyrics get me every time, reminding me that we are hopeless without God’s grace. Really nice flute flourishes at the end cap off this great song.
4. The Only Way To Have A Friend (Livgren) Lead Vocals: Warren - This song has a great groove, and may well be Warren Ham’s showcase song in terms of demonstrating his awesome range and flawless pitch control. I’m not a real harmonica fan, but Warren smokes on this track. The answering guitar is also well played. Lyrically, I really like this tune, the only exception being the title. Just a little too pedestrian for someone of Livgren’s immense talents. I’m still waiting for the follow up songs “A Penny Saved Is a Penny Earned” and “The Early Bird Gets the Worm.”
5. Games of Chance (Gleason) Lead Vocals: Mike - If “The Only Way...” is Warren’s showcase, then this is surely Mike Gleason’s. I could go on for hours about the superb lyrics, the music, the instrumentation, the subject matter, but for me one thing sums up everything about the song. Get some headphones, turn them up, cue the song up to 2:30, and be sure you’re sitting down. Everything from that vocal buildup to the end of the solo at 3:13 is just beyond description. When I first heard this I felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me. I just can’t say enough about this song, probably Mike Gleason’s songwriting pinnacle. Also one of Kerry’s best guitar solos ever.
6. The Fury (Livgren) Lead Vocals: Mike - A very majestic song about the second coming. I wonder if the line “After seven years, no more tears” is in reference to the rumored seven year tribulation between the “first rapture” and the “second rapture/judgement?” Not to split theological hairs, but such a reference would seem out of character for Kerry’s usual philosophies. The only musical bone to pick is the way the pipe organ is really cranked in the mix. Really powerful playing. Thematically, I’ve heard people suggest that the song is an answer to “Games of Chance.”
7. Progress (Livgren) Lead Vocals: Warren - A nice contrast between the futuristic, march-like opening and the very melodic verses without breaking the basic drum patterns. The chorus is one of Kerry’s best lyrics, and a great observation of the human race. Some of the bridges call to mind his work on the music before the vocals begin in “Mask of the Great Deceiver.” The swirling instrumentation during the ending only adds to the theme of “spiraling downward.”
8. Heartland (Gleason) Lead Vocals: Warren - Warren again does an excellent job of interpreting Mike’s material. The musical interludes before the guitar solo and at the end make this song for me. You gotta love those chord changes. A lot of lyrical imagery, but it’s clear what this one is about anyway. I would have loved to have heard this one live, and may get my chance if the rumored AD Live album actually takes shape and appears.
9. Zion (Ham & Livgren) Lead Vocals: Warren - Not the strongest song on the album, but taken away from the other tracks it stands well on it’s own. A pretty funky tune that provides Warren’s only cowrite to date on an AD project.
10. Up From the Wasteland (Livgren & Gleason) - This song has a couple of different interpretations: the second coming, the holy spirit lifting Christians above the everyday world we live in, a man first accepting Christ, and probably numerous others. Take your pick. All I know for sure is that if the vocal chorus at the end doesn’t give you chills, check your pulse. This song is unusual in that there are no solos, just the vocals and the message of the song to carry it along, and it’s more than enough. This is a really powerful, majestic song that ends the album subtly rather than with whistles, bells, and crashes. It’s a great ending to an enduring, thought inspiring album.
To continue the Kerry Livgren/AD saga
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