|Musical Style: Progressive/Hard Rock||Produced By: Kansas & Ken Scott|
|Record Label: Sony/Rock Candy||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 1982/2011||Artist Website: Kansas|
|Tracks: 10||Rating: 85%|
|Running Time: 42:54|
The early eighties represented a transitional period in the history of Kansas. The group, its seventies heyday having come and gone, a time in which it released three sextuple platinum albums, one platinum album, eight gold albums and a gold single, was confronting change in terms of musical and lyrical direction and personnel.
It started in the late seventies when guitarist/keyboardist Kerry Livgren made a decision of faith, a particular that played a major influential role in his songwriting. On Audio-Visions, Kansas’ seventh studio album from 1980, the artist contributed four songs, one of which “Relentless”, portrayed his “relentless” pursuit of God, and another, “No One Together”, detailing how only when Christ comes to reign on earth will everything “come together”. Livgren released the same year his first solo album, Seeds Of Change, which also found him making several pronounced statements of faith.
It was during the subsequent tour in support of Audio-Visions that bassist Dave Hope came to the faith. With two believing members in its line-up, Kansas began work on its 1982 follow up effort Vinyl Confessions, but all was not well with the group. A rift had started to form between Livgren and Hope and the rest of the band, with the problem coming to a head when Livgren presented his new songs with lyrics reflective of his faith. Vocalist Steve Walsh, refusing to sing them, promptly departed Kansas and took his material with him.
Left with a five song void, Kansas decided to press on and finish the album, but first they needed to find both a new vocalist and songwriter. After listening to several hundred demo tapes and auditioning over twenty vocalists, the one voice that stood out in the crown was John Elefante. Elefante heard about the opening through a friend, guitarist Chuck King (Shout, Idle Cure), and proceeded to send the band a tape that included the songs “Face It” and “Chasing Shadows” along with a piano version of “Point Of Know Return”. Following an audition with producer Ken Scott, Elefante flew to Atlanta to rehearse with the band and was later offered the gig, bringing the number of believing members in the Kansas roster to three.
Musically, Vinyl Confessions represents a contrasting of styles or “best of both worlds” scenario. On one hand, Livgren continued to present with this 70’s style progressive and pomp rock sensibilities; Elefante, on the other, brought a slick and polished AOR friendly sound influenced by the 80’s. The end result is an intriguing merging of the old and new - a band going in two directions at once if you will - but rather than a disjoined effort we end up with the more varied and well rounded album instead.
Livgren composed pieces such as the driving “Fair Exchange” and upbeat numbers “Windows” and “Borderline” reflect his trademark progressive underpinnings while “Diamonds And Pearls” takes the more tempered and mid-paced approach. “Crossfire”, the most over the top progressive number here, is a Kansas classic. Elefante penned several straight on rockers in “Right Away”, “Play On” and “Face It” in addition to the albums lone ballad, “Chasing Shadows”. Three of the group’s members receiving songwriting credits for the radio hit “Play The Game Tonight”.
Originally released on CD by Sony Music in 1996, Vinyl Confessions was re-issued again in 2011 on Rock Candy Records. The Rock Candy version was re-mastered from the original source tapes in addition to featuring a 3000 word essay about making the album and additional photos spread out over a 12 page color booklet. The only complaint is the lack of bonus material. It would have been interesting to hear some live tracks taken from the bands Vinyl Confessions era tour.
The re-mastering proves a significant improvement over the original in allowing for a crystal clear sound in which the highs come across much more even and low end reflecting the greater pronounced feel. Mastering technician Jon Astley ought to trade notes with J Powell of Steinhaus.
Elefante, with his high end touched and classic rock flavored delivery, more than holds his own in comparison to Steve Walsh. “Chasing Shadows” finds him exhibiting the full range to his voice while he highlights a bit more muscle on heavier pieces such as “Crossfire” and “Face It”. In the end, you cannot say he does not align perfectly with the musical environs at hand.
Guitarists Livgren and Rich Williams combine to help make Vinyl Confessions one of the more consistently heavier albums in Kansas’ repertoire. Just check out the heavy duty riffs on “Fair Exchange” or the equal weight bestowed to “Crossfire” and “Windows” to understand my point. Livgren continues to contribute his distinct keyboard work and when joined with Robby Steinhardt’s ever present violin, helps add to the albums progressive - at times orchestral - feel. I appreciate how the two, for instance, bridge the gap between the old and new by adding some classic Kansas elements to Elefante tracks such as “Face It” and “Chasing Shadows”.
Even though its material was written by its Christian members, I would hesitate to label Vinyl Confessions a Christian album. Rather, an album written from a Christian standpoint - or reflecting a Christian world view - might be the better way to describe things.
Track By Track
“Play The Game Tonight” ranks alongside “Dust In The Wind” and “Carry On Wayward Son” as Kansas’ most identifiable hits. The song starts quietly to a piano before turning into a full blown rocker, up-tempo in capacity and put over the top by a catchy chorus upheld by resonant backing vocals. This one deserves the radio play it received. Lyrics deal with how fans place musicians on too high of a pedestal:
You think that something's happening
And its bigger than your life
But it's only what you're hearing
Will you still remember
When the morning light has come
Will the songs be playing over and over
Till you do it all over again
Play, play the game tonight
Can you tell me if it's wrong or right
Is it worth the time, is it worth the price
Do you see yourself in the white spotlight
Then play the game tonight
“Right Away” is the only track here to fall a bit short. Perhaps it is those 80’s style AOR influences making their presence felt to a fault, but the song comes across trite - almost contrived - and often find my attention starting to wander as a result. No, not terrible but the album has its better moments.
Driving hard rock with a bluesy edge, “Fair Exchange” is as heavy as it gets as far as Kansas is concerned. The song hits had during its verse to a forthright rhythm guitar only to smooth out for the more even acoustic lacing that is its chorus. Interspersed you will find occasional traces of harmonica. "Fair Exchange" talks about the totalitarianism of a computerized society and how people would be willing to give up their freedom in exchange for personal security and comfort:
Fair exchange for your freedom
Fair exchange for your life
Hail the new perfect order
Ending trouble and strife
No one can refuse our offer, it's a fair exchange
You're on file, our computer
Knows what's best for you
We will provide the solution, for the rest of you
Safety and peace, the terror will cease
Forget everything the fanatics tell you
Now you can worship the leader
All he wants is your soul
Elefante penned ballad “Chasing Shadows” moves its length to a mingling of piano and acoustic guitar. Steinhardt’s violin plays a role as well, particularly for the songs lush instrumental moments. No, not quite on the same level as “Dust In The Wind” but good nonetheless.
“Diamonds And Pearls” is one of those quirkily infectious songs that only Kansas can make work. You will find a bit of variety here, including a punchy bass line, jazzy piano and well orchestration saxophone solo. Polished backing vocals sustain its luxurious chorus. "Diamonds And Pearls" addresses the issue of materialism:
Diamonds and pearls
Silver and gold
Soon fade away
Empty and cold
Nothing remains of the things that we strive to attain
Only the love that is lasting will not be in vain
They say that pride’s before the fall
The stakes are high, you know who takes it all
To make it through the needle’s eye
You just can’t live a lie
Kansas lends its trademark classical flavorings to upbeat Elefante rocker “Face It”. The song starts to a violin solo prior to picking up impetus, giving rise to an edgy guitar presence while allowing Livgren’s unmistakable keyboards to stand out in the mix. Another saxophone solo can be found as well.
“Windows” proves up-tempo all the way. The song gets off to a raucous start only to settle down to some lightly played guitar for its verses. Regaining the momentum, “Windows” transitions to the guitar driven muscle representative of its chorus. Keyboard and guitar solos carry the instrumental moments here.
“Borderline” maintains the initiative. This one delivers the softer touch, with an acoustic guitar sustaining its exquisite chorus and touches of rhythm guitar its verses. In between you will find accentuating piano and outbursts of hard rocking guitars. "Borderline" portrays people who are trying to stand in a middle ground when in fact there is no such thing:
So much indecision
Leaves you hanging in the air
You cant' remain forever 'cause there's nothing there
With one foot in the ocean
And the other on the shore
You'll be goin' nowhere, 'til you step on through the door
(On the) Borderline, you’re standing on the borderline
You’re waiting for the place and time
And living in between
(On the) Borderline, you’re standing on the borderline
It’s gotta be your world or mine
So which way will you lean
“Play On”, the final Elefante track, also brings an upbeat touch. The song, backing off from some of the guitar driven focus of the previous two, allows for a bit more of a keyboard emphasis, as can be found in its spirited chorus. Hope’s punchy work on bass helps tie everything together.
“Crossfire” rates with the artist’s best. The most progressive of the material here, the song starts quietly in keyboard driven fashion only to abruptly pick up in pace as an imposing chorus backed by rhythm guitar and orchestration is obtained. The albums lengthiest instrumental stretch proves Kansas is still a force to be reckoned with musicianship wise. “Crossfire” makes the albums most pronounced faith based statement:
But it all works out okay, if you give your life away
To the One who's holding fast, it's a promise that will last
And deep within the hardest heart
There is something there that knows
There's a hunger life can never fill
'Til you face the One who rose
Caught in a crossfire
In a world of darkness turn to the light
Vinyl Confessions does a good job showcasing a solid group of songs and the bands still vibrant musicianship. New vocalist John Elefante proves a fine talent who helps ad to what amounts to an album written with a Christian world view in mind. For further reading I would highly recommend Kerry Livgren’s book Seeds Of Change.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: "Play The Game Tonight" (3:26), "Right Away" (4:06), "Fair Exchange" (5:01), "Chasing Shadows" (3:20), "Diamonds And Pearls" (4:50), "Face It" (4:17), "Windows" (3:32), "Borderline" (4:00), "Play On" (3:32), "Crossfire" (6:35)
John Elefante – Lead Vocals & Keyboards
Kerry Livgren – Guitars & Keyboards
Rich Williams – Guitars
Robby Steinhardt – Violins & Vocals
Dave Hope – Bass
Phil Ehart – Drum
Bev Dahlke - Bassoon
Warren Ham – Harmonica
Greg Smith – Baritone Sax
Jim Coile – Tenor Sax
Bill Bergman – Tenor & Alto Sax
John Berry – Trumpet
Lee Thornberg – Trumpet
Brown, Bruce. "Elefantes On Parade." White Throne 13 (1993): 11-13.
Kerry Livgren and Kenneth Boa, Seeds Of Change (Nashville: Sparrow Press, 1991), 165-176.
Van Pelt, Doug. "The Mystery Of Mastedon." Heaven's Metal 21 (1989): 8-10.