PRIME MOVER II (1998) - This is a fantastic album!! Kerry mentions in the liner notes that he had always been disappointed with the original Prime Mover from 1988, and he thought that these songs deserved better. The programmed drum machines have been replaced by performed sampled sounds, and many of the tracks have been re-recorded because one of the master tapes had deteriorated beyond useability. There are also five new tracks. Since I have not heard the original version, my impressions are based only on the remake. In overall feel it recalls some of the late-80's albums by singer-songwriter-guitarists associated with the prog-influenced British folk scene (e.g., Richard Thompson's Amnesia, Stephen Fearing's Blue Line), except that Kerry doesn't sing lead and Warren doesn't write the songs.
1. Out of Opus - A new track, this arose as a variation on the synth parts in the middle of "Portrait II." It's a busy classical miniature (0:59) featuring synthesized bassoon and strings, which winds around and around, then stops on a dime, leaving us waiting breathlessly for . . .
2. Portrait II - This is a completely new recording which really rocks; the guitars dominate more than they did in the Kansas song. Although one of my favorite chord progressions in rock, Steve Walsh's original keyboard part opening up the song, has been scrapped, this is a great song no matter how you slice it, and the new chords are still light-years away from three-chord predictability. Warren's vocals sound terrific and make me wonder what could have been had Warren joined Kansas in 1982 instead of the then very young John Elefante. The original "Portrait" was written about Albert Einstein (although some people thought it might be about Jesus Christ); this one is deliberately about the latter ("The truth is all that He told us, He died but He lives again / He will return to be with us, but who will be ready then?").
3. Don't Pass Me By - This is a catchy, upbeat pop-rocker, instrumentally containing hints of boogie-woogie piano, a sax solo, and jazz flute (is that Warren or the synth flute that he used on "One of Several Possible Musiks"?), but chordally owing more to jazz and Kerry's beloved romantic composers than straight blues. The lyrics start from the point of view of a crippled or forlorn person waiting on the sidelines ("I'm a little behind the race, as long as I can place it's alright / Before you walk you've got to stand, just take me by the hand and lead me home") and in succeeding verses advocate showing the same care for others.>
4. Fathers and Sons - The flute (synth?) returns for a track that sounds as if it's dying to be covered by Jethro Tull (since I am a big Tull fan, that's a compliment). It's more nearly modal than most of Kerry's music (like some of Tull's simpler songs, but unlike many of the classical composers Kerry cites as his favorites). The forceful chorus and feedback-laden mixolydian-mode guitar solo would fit right in alongside such Tull songs as "Bungle in the Jungle" and "Fallen on Hard Times." Tull could even use some of the oomph provided by the "big boom" rhythm section here (Kerry and Kerry!). The lyrics are political without being partisan, criticizing the continual human quest for superiority through force ("they cry for rights and titles, still they won't kneel / And so the wound refuses to heal").
5. Incantos - Is he on a Britfolk kick here? This is a new song written quite recently when Kerry and Warren were having dinner in a restaurant, and Kerry wrote the lyrics on a napkin. Synthesized cellos, harps, and bagpipes softly accompany this measured ballad in mixolydian mode. Poetically, it is written in the 8-6-8-6 "common meter" used by many hymns (e.g., "Amazing Grace") and, surprisingly, "In the Court of the Crimson King." Like the last-mentioned piece, this contains beautiful imagery: "Bright image floats above the plain / Whose voice renewing mind / Is building kingdoms long to last / A priceless pearl to find . . . In liquid skies no toil or tear / brought down by crimson stain / In robes of light proceed before / Redemption's golden train." It would have sounded even more Celtic had he done the music in a triple time signature (6/4 instead of 4/4), but there were already a lot of verses, so maybe it would have sounded draggy if he had.
6. I'll Follow You - Another completely new recording of a track that appeared on the original Prime Mover. This is a Michael Gleason song, and although Michael is responsible for the fleetfooted "Make or Break It" on Time Line, this song sounds slightly ponderous to me. Maybe it's just that compared to the preceding few songs this has a more conventional AOR arrangement, similar to many of the songs on "When Things Get Electric" (an album on which, in my opinion, the quality of the songs is muffled by the homogeneity of the arrangements).
7. Fair Exchange - This is a remake of a track from "Vinyl Confessions." "Something's coming . . . something beautiful" is whispered over a brooding synthesized background, and then the guitar riff rips in. What a great song! Blues-rock with a few measures of odd time signature here and there. The lyrics depict a society where financial dealings, knowledge, and safety are controlled by some central organization which wants to substitute itself for any other religion: a supposed "fair exchange" for one's freedom that justifies sacrificing one for all. The last lines, "All for the good of The People / Better one man should die" are a paraphrase of the high priest Caiaphas's lines in John 11:50 (concerning Jesus). The "fair exchange" thus appears as a diabolical inversal of the undeserved "happy exchange" talked about by Christian theologians, in which God sacrifices self for all.
8. New Kind of Love - A mixture of dub, soul, and scat singing somewhat unusual for Kerry. At times it reminded me of King Crimson with Adrian Belew. This could lend itself to improvisation by a jazz group very nicely.
9. Brave Hearts - A new song, but also the track most evoking a 70's art-rock feel. Here the ponderousness works better than on "I'll Follow You," in my opinion. Great guitar-keyboard interplay with occasional winds or wind-like synths.
10. Wandering Spirit - One of my favorites -- a catchy up-tempo song with a haunting chorus, reminding me of Tommy Shaw's best material for Styx. The instrumentation includes acoustic guitar and synthesized harp. The lyrics are a prayer with echoes of psalms 23 ("the table prepared") and 51 ("Scarlet to white, you have given my blind eyes their sight / Lord, make me contrite).
11. One More Song - This track would have stood out more had it not followed "Wandering Spirit," which is similar in instrumentation and feel. It sounds like a less up-tempo aside after its predecessor, although it contains some beautiful lyrics that will warm singers' hearts (e.g., "We never live, until we harmonize").>
12. Item 89 - This song was released for the first time on this album, although Kerry had composed it for the original Prime Mover. It's an up-tempo organ-based blues-rocker with defiant lyrics: "Now, people expect me just to stay the same / But I got a new address and I changed my name . . . I won't be tomorrow what I am today / I'm gonna be different 'cause I'm made of clay."
13. Children of the Shadows - Another track evoking a 70's art-rock feel, but less heavy than "Brave Hearts," with piano and synths. The haunting melody, harmony and lyrics would be at home on an early Kansas album: "Towers stretching to the sun, cities known of old / Many by the sword have fallen, both the weak and the bold / As the ages come and go, so the seasons of man / Holding on to a pale reflection, as it fades again . . ." except that this time "the chosen Son" is offered as the solution.
14. T.G.B. - This stands for "Texas Gospel Blues." Warren growls and soars through his two-octave-plus range. You can almost imagine him and Kerry in some sweaty bar trading piano, harmonica, and guitar solos, stunning the dazed patrons with an altar call: "Don't wait till it's over and you're gone."
In sum, this album highlights Kerry Livgren's maturity and versatility as a Christian songwriter, able to sustain over an hour of musically diverse and spiritually provocative material. Musical purists (be they of the prog-rock, hard-rock, British folk, or blues variety) might not like it because of the mixture of styles and the pop potential of some of the tracks (if only radio played good pop songs!), but the rest of us can just sit back and enjoy a good piece of work.
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