American rock band Kansas had strange beginnings. Initially a merger between two rival bands based in the town of Topeka (in Kansas of course), the group has just celebrated more than 40 years since its debut with a new compilation and documentary.
Miracles Out Of Nowhere may only cover the group’s first five albums, but does give listeners a good overview of Kansas’ contribution to album-oriented rock. Documentary snippets containing anecdotes about Don Kirshner (the man who signed them up), touring, the state of Kansas and recording are interludes between tracks, providing a valuable insight into how they came together.
The importance of the solid songwriting team of keyboardist/guitarist Kerry Livgren and vocalist/keyboardist Steve Walsh (who just retired from the band last year), and violinist Robby Steinhardt in creating Kansas’ sound cannot be overstated. Without them, Kansas’ music would not be as distinctive as it has been.
This compilation starts its epic musical journey with the band’s debut album, starting with the buoyant piano-driven and quirky The Pilgrimage. Afterwards come a frenzied, chaotic yet professionally performed live version of Can I Tell You off Kirshner’s famous TV show and the epic, otherworldly Journey From Mariabronn, which is mind-blowing in its ambition and exploration of spirituality. Listeners will certainly agree that Walsh’s vocals take them straight to the moon.
1975 proves to be fruitful year despite extensive touring, with two albums including Song For America. That album’s title track about the story of America is an ornate, self-indulgent yet tuneful ten-minute epic more akin to a classical music symphony than rock. Down The Road by comparison is more conventional and bluesy, with a surprisingly passionate vocal performance from Steinhardt. Tracks off Masque on this compilation are the thunderous Icarus (Borne On Wings Of Steel) and uplifting closer The Pinnacle, from which listeners can hear where bombastic bands like Muse get their inspiration.
It’s Left overture the following year that proves to be the breakthrough. Carry On Wayward Son, the band’s first US top 20 hit, is MAGIC. It audaciously throws together rhythm changes, gritty guitar and organ solos, spine-tingling harmonies and a tune bestowed on Livgren by the melody gods, into a track barely five minutes long. And that’s even before the heart-tugging verses with Walsh’s earnest vocals and restrained piano send listeners ‘soaring ever higher’ into musical heaven. The final verse is the final blow, as Walsh ad-libs this incredible variation of the melody that should leave listeners gobsmacked. No wonder this track has gained a cult following in popular culture (e.g. appearing in the season finales of ‘Supernatural’).
Follow-up Point Of Know Return provided the finger-picking, timeless masterpiece Dust In The Wind. It’s a poignant, delicate thing of beauty that became an easy US Top Ten hit. Nobody’s Home closes the compilation on a regal note, as its synths make the track march in with the importance of a national anthem.
Kansas’ focus on strong musicianship combined with the audacity of Livgren has allowed its music to soar through the ages. Miracles Out Of Nowhere may only be a brief history of the band’s work, but is nevertheless an effective summary of why its music remains loved today.