Reviews: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Proto-Kaw - Before Became After
Musical Style: Progressive Rock Produced By: Kerry Livgren
Record Label: Inside Out Country Of Origin: USA
Year Released: 2004 Artist Website:
Tracks: 10 Rating: 90%
Running Time: 65:58

Proto-Kaw - Before Became After

The foundation of Proto-Kaw was put in place in 1969 when vocalist Lynn Meredith, pianist Don Montre, organist Dan Wright and guitarist/keyboardist Kerry Livgren played together in a band called The Reason Why.  The four later left the group to start Saratoga which in time merged with another Topeka based band White Clover, the partnership between the two bands leading to the formation of the first version of Kansas.  After Kansas I broke up in 1970, the members of the band from White Clover reverted to their original moniker while those from Saratoga continued on under the name Kansas.  Livgren, Meredith, Montre and Wright proceeded to add three new musicians in saxophone player John Bolton, bassist Rob Mikinski and drummer Brad Schulz (who replaced original drummer Zeke Low) to form Kansas II in 1971.  The second version of Kansas was a very prolific songwriting period for Livgren who composed nearly 60 songs, many which made their way onto the demo tapes the band recorded between 1971-73.  Kansas II generated some label interest as a result of the demos in question, but, frustratingly, it was never able to land that coveted recording contract.  Hence, when Livgren was contacted in 1973 by drummer Phil Ehart asking him to join White Clover, a band with a line on a record deal, he jumped at the opportunity.  Kansas II subsequently folded and, as a result, White Clover adapted the Kansas moniker to become the bands third and most well known incarnation.

The demo tapes Kansas II recorded "sat in a vault" for nearly 30 years until Livgren received a phone call from Cuneiform Records requesting his consent to release them onto CD.  During the spring of 2002 Livgren proceeded to contact his former band mates in Kansas II, many which had not seen or spoken to one another in 30 years, in order to advise them of the planned re-issue of their earlier recordings and to get their permission.  After Livgren re-mastered the original demos, they were released by Cuneiform in September of 2002 and became the first official Proto-Kaw release under the title Early Recordings from Kansas, 1971-1973.  (Please note that "proto" refers to first while "kaw" is the Native American name for Kansas.  Hence, Proto-Kaw.)

When Livgren got together with his former Kansas II band mates for a release party to celebrate the new CD and renew old friendships, a jam session took place in which some of the old magic started to reappear.  As a result, the group discussed the "possibility" of reforming.  Curiosity got the better of Livgren at that point who posed some serious questions:  What would the band be doing had it stayed together?  What would it sound like now?  There was only one way to find out- and that would be to go into the studio.  After staying in touch over the winter, the members of Proto-Kaw met once more in March of 2003 and decided to begin work on a new album to be completed within two years.  The project moved forward to such an extent that the plan was to release it independently in late 2003; however, as the release date approached, the band was contacted by Inside Out Music which convinced it to sign with them.  The second Proto-Kaw release, Before Became After, saw the light of day in April of 2004.

With Livgren being the bands primary songwriter, it is only natural to expect Proto-Kaw to reflect a Kansas-element in its sound.  Consequently, if you enjoy Kansas, particularly its earlier material, then you are going to love Before Became After.  But Proto-Kaw, on the other hand, is very much its own band with its own unique and distinct sound.  Yes, the music here is VERY progressive but that would only be telling part of the story.  The use of a saxophone and flute, for example, helps to give the album a jazz-rock fusion feel while other moments are outright epic and orchestral in their capacity or even lean towards a classic rock direction.  A "jam band" influence can also be found in several sweeping instrumental passages showcasing the abundant confidence Proto-Kaw displays in its instrumental sound.

As things turned out, only five of the original Kansas II members were able to take part in the project.  Drummer Zeke Low and bassist Rob Mikinski were too busy to participate (Mikinski did play bass on the song "Axolotl"), while Don Montre had unexpectedly passed away at age 39.  Livgren is at the literal top of his game on Before Became After, contributing some of the most impressive rhythm and lead guitar work we have heard from him since his 1980 solo effort Seeds Of Change.  Bolton proves quite the talented musician, his work on saxophone and flute adding just the right amount of texture to the bands sound while providing exquisite interplay with Livgren's lead guitar.  Wright displays an equal amount of ability on keyboards in accentuating the instrumentation without coming across overbearing.  Craig Kew (who performed on Livgren's mid-nineties solo project When Things Get Electric) replaces Mikinski on bass and combines with Schulz on drums to form a tight and steady rhythm section.  Meredith rounds out the project with a distinct and pure, clean sounding classic tenor voice bringing to mind the likes of Steve Walsh (Kansas) and Dave Pack (Ambrosia)

Production values are near perfect in highlighting sonics of a consummate and superlative nature.  A crystal clear sounding mix allows all the instrumentation to shine, a compelling combination of lead guitar and bass underscoring just the right amount of rhythm guitar, flute, saxophone and keyboards.

The album opens in a very strong manner with the beautiful guitar driven progressive rock of "Alt. More Worlds Than Known".  The song gives rise to a catchy melody as just the right amount of crisp rhythm guitar backed by keyboards and occasional acoustic guitar conveys it at a mid-tempo pace through its first three verses.  During the three minute jazz-flavored instrumental passage that follows, Livgren's lead guitar perfectly interweaves with Bolton's flute.

Proto-Kaw displays a softer side to its songwriting skills on the stylish "Words Of Honor".  Once an immaculate blend of flute and acoustic guitar takes the song through its first verse, it picks up in pace for a slowly moving acoustic laced chorus projecting an ethereal feel.  Subsequent to Bolton's flute joining with a crisp sounding rhythm guitar, Livgren tops things off with several seconds of bluesy lead guitar.

The brilliant "Leaven" is nothing less than a creative thing of beauty.  A predominantly instrumental track, it starts in an ominous sounding manner as a mix of acoustic guitar and flute underscores narration from Meredith.  The heavy duty bass line that follows opens a two minute instrumental passage driven by a hard rocking combination of rhythm guitar and keyboards.  "Leaven" slows as a piano underlines its first verse before gaining momentum for its acoustically driven second, Meredith adding an element of grit to his vocal delivery when the song abruptly picks up in pace and peaks in a guitar driven manner:

Fires of Heaven, burn through me
Touch of Leaven, make me free

Following more narration, the song ends as catchy vocal harmonies continually repeat the phrase "Fill everyone under the sun".  I find Livgren's lyrics to be nothing less than inspiring:

A compelling reason to follow
In step I've not known
If I fall in battle I'll know it's the war that I own
I will fill my life till nothing remains
Come and break apart this fortress
That keeps me in chains

"Axolotl", a song the band performed back in the 70's, comes across in the form of a progressive orchestral power ballad.  Introduced to a slowly moving blend of acoustic guitar, flute and piano, "Axolotl" tapers off even further at the start of its first verse before the rhythm guitar kicks in as it gains impetus for a chorus advancing at an anthem-like upbeat tempo.  After the song slows to a combination of flute and acoustic guitar, sweeping keyboards enter the mix in time for it to again taper off to more flute and acoustic guitar.

An upbeat blend of bass and piano introduces "Quantum Leapfrog" before soaring vocal harmonies briefly carry it forward:

Rising, falling, so enthralling
surging, racing all embracing

Bolton's saxophone leads the way through the instrumental passage that follows, just the right amount of keyboards underlining the mix until Livgren cuts loose with some spicy blues flavored leads.  The vocal harmonies suddenly return -

Polar, spacing, perfect phrasing
Equal action, balanced fraction

- only to give way to a jazz-rock fusion based combination of saxophone and more bluesy lead guitar work.  "Quantum Leapfrog" abruptly picks up in pace in a hard rocking manner for its first and only verse before more vocal harmonies close it out.  The creativity displayed here is nothing less than jaw dropping.  Livgren's lyrics are once again thought provoking:

Oh so small, and still so great
More than any man could imitate
Magnify it up, find it in the book
All you had to do was take a look

"Greenburg, Glickstein, Charles, David, Smith And Jones", a cover of the old Cryan' Shames hit, brings to mind a law firm with its title.  The song takes off to a heavy duty bass line backed by a bit of lead guitar before it slows for its first verse.  Regaining its momentum, "Greenburg..." arrives at a quirky and almost infectious chorus with one of those hooks that refuses to leave your head.

The epic length (9:07) "Gloriana" is only matched by Kansas' "Song For America" in terms of beauty and ambition.  A blend of flute and piano opens the song before it picks up in pace when Livgren graces the scene with a touch of lead guitar.  Slowing to a piano after a minute and a half upon reaching its first verse, "Gloriana" regains its momentum upon attaining a beautiful acoustic laced chorus bolstered by vocal harmonies.  After Livgren's lead guitar opens a two and a half minute long instrumental passage, "Gloriana" slows to a near standstill before again picking up in pace for a hard rocking amalgamation of rhythm guitar and saxophone.

The commercially accessible classic rock flavored "Occasion Of Your Honest Dreaming" begins to a union of lead guitar and organ.  The lead guitar drops from the mix as the song quickly moves through its first and second verse until it evenly flows to a non-stop hook filled chorus that will have you singing along in no time.  I like how "Occasion..." slows to a mix of flute and bass guitar before picking up in pace to several seconds of lead guitar.

Advancing in an acoustically driven fashion during its first verse, "Heavenly Man" picks up in pace and moves on to a sweeping and epic flavored chorus reinforced by a crisp rhythm guitar.  Livgren's spicy lead guitar work duals with Wright's organ throughout a minute long instrumental passage.  Following its third chorus, a portentous atmosphere is created when the song slows as pounding drums are carried over several seconds of biting lead guitar.  "Heavenly Man", another remake of an old Kansas II song, asks several interesting questions as it presents a psychedelic (is that the correct term?) vision of an extraterrestrial visitor:

Every time I look up to the sky I feel I'm growing very small
Can there be a meaning to it all?
I fear, do we matter much at all?

There is more than I can see
More than I feel, I really couldn't know
Do you see us as we are or as we'll be?
Am I a friend or foe?

The wonderful eleven minute "Theophany" brings to mind the all out progressiveness Kansas displays on its self-titled debut and Song For America.  A militant style drum beat underscoring sweeping keyboards propels the song through its first minute until Livgren takes over with his tastefully done lead guitar work.  Stopping dead in its tracks, "Theophany" slows as an acoustic guitar carries its first and second verse before a crisp rhythm guitar drives it forward.  The acoustic guitar returns as "Theophany" again decelerates for its third verse.  A jazz fusion based combination of keyboards and bass opens an awesome four and a half minute long instrumental passage allowing the band to display its first class level of musicianship.

In closing, Before Became After deserves to rank among the finest progressive rock releases of 2004 (if not the past decade).  Nothing less than a first class work of art, the album proves in no uncertain terms that the "second version of Kansas" possessed more than enough ability to have made it on a much larger scale.  The fact that these guys got together to make music of this high caliber after being apart for several decades attests not only to the amount of talent here but to the level of commitment form each of its members.  I am looking forward to hearing more from Proto-Kaw in the future.

Review by: Andrew Rockwell

Track Listing: "Alt. More Worlds Than Known" (7:28), "Words Of Honor" (4:28), "Leaven" (8:26), "Axolotl" (6:04), "Quantum Leapfrog" (5:42), "Greenburg, Glickstein, Charles, Davis, Smith and Jones" (3:05), "Gloriana" (9:07), "Occasion Of Your Honest Dreaming" (3:38), "Heavenly Man" (5:53, "Theophany" (11:43)

Kerry Livgren – Guitars, Keyboards, Percussion & Drums
Lynn Meredith – Lead Vocals & Narration
John Bolton – Tenor Sax & Flute
Brad Schulz – Drums
Dan Wright – Keyboards & Percussion
Craig Kew – Bass

Additional Musicians
Rod Mikinski – Bass

Also Reviewed: Proto-Kaw - The Wait Of Glory, AD - Time Line, Kansas - Vinyl Confessions, Kansas - Somewhere To Elsewhere, Kerry Livgren - Seeds Of Change, Kerry Livgren - Collector's Sedition (Director's Cut), Kerry Livgren - Prime Mover (Redux)

Also See: A Musical And Lyrical History Of Kansas


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