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 - Forth
Musical Style: Progressive Rock Produced By: Kerry Livgren
Record Label: Numavox Country Of Origin: USA
Year Released: 2011 Artist Website:
Tracks: 11 Rating: 85%
Running Time: 61:31
Proto-Kaw - Forth

Of all the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s glaring omissions, it’s hard to beat the institutions blind eye towards the classic rock band Kansas.  One only needs to consider the group’s accomplishments to understand my point: Three sextuple platinum albums, one platinum album, eight gold albums and a pair of gold singles.  Of course, without the contributions of guitarist and keyboardist Kerry Livgren there would more than likely not be a Kansas- at least not in the form as we know it today.  Livgren, for instance, penned much of the groups most easily identifiable material, including those two gold singles in question, “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust In The Wind”.

Many, however, are not aware of Kansas’ previous two incarnations, with the first occurring in 1970 and encompassing members of two Topeka based groups, Saratoga and White Clover, and second lasting from 1971-73 and including original Kansas members Livgren, vocalist Lynn Meredith, pianist Don Montre and organist Dan Wright in addition to saxophonist John Bolton, bassist Rob Mikinski and drummer Brad Schulz. Kansas II, as it eventually became known, recorded several demo tapes back in the day but disbanded before it could sign a deal.

Said demos, after sitting on the shelf for several decades, were re-issued on Cuneiform Records in 2002 and became the first official Proto-Kaw release, with “proto” being first (as in pre) and “kaw” Native American for Kansas.  A subsequent get together of the original Kansas II line-up to celebrate the CD resulted in an impromptu jam session in which some of the old synergy started to reappear.  The group, at that point, discussed the “possibility” of reforming and posed the following question: What would they sound like now?  The only way to find out would be to enter the studio.  With Livgren, Meredith, Bolton, Schultz & Wright participating, Proto-Kaw proceeded to record and release its second full length album, Before Became After, in 2004.

To say I was blown away by Before Became After would be an understatement.  The album saw Livgren returning to a progressive mode of songwriting we had not often seen from him since his early Kansas days – think in terms of Kansas (1974), Song For America (1975) and Masque (1975) - in which intricate arrangements and lengthy songs abounded.  But Proto-Kaw proved its own band (and by no means a Kansas clone!) with a unique sound that merged elements of progressive rock, jazz fusion rock and classic rock with frequent jam band tendencies.

The 2006 follow up effort The Wait Of Glory found Livgren in prime form songwriting wise, delivering some of his finest material since Leftoverture (1976) and his solo release Seeds Of Change (1980).  The albums first four songs - “Nevermore”, “Relics Of The Tempest”, “When The Rain Comes” and “On The Eve Of The Great Decline” - are brilliant while “At Morning’s Gate”, “Melicus Gladiator”, “The Vigil” and “Picture This” prove every bit as laudable.  In hindsight, the 90% grade I gave The Wait Of Glory does not do it justice (in the words of the old football coach Bill Parcells, “I reserve the right to change my mind”).

Proto-Kaw disbanded in late 2008 while at work on what was to be its fourth album, with Livgren opting to focus his attentions on a new solo project instead.  The artist, sadly, suffered a massive stroke in the summer of 2009, but following months of grueling rehab, he made a near complete and miraculous recovery.  Unduly inspired, Livgren announced the reformation of Proto-Kaw with the intention of completing work on its partially finished CD.  Now, if you have been wondering if the stroke put an end to Livgren’s musical career, Forth, the aptly entitled summer of 2011 fourth full length album from Proto-Kaw, answers the question in no uncertain terms.

So how does Forth compare to past Proto-Kaw releases?  My impression is of a group backing off somewhat in terms of its more overt progressive and heavier guitar driven elements but still staying true to its signature fusion based and jazzy and classic rock influenced sound.  The end result is the more relaxed and laid back effort in Forth.  But in no way take this as a critique but rather an observation in that the music remains of the same high quality.

Specifically, you will not encounter any lengthy progressive based pieces in the 9 to 12 minute range such as "Gloriana" and "Theophany" (both Before Became After) and “Nevermore” and “When The Rain Comes” (from The Wait Of Glory).  Now, by no means does this imply the group is not capable of any over the top progressiveness; rather, the opposite holds true, as demonstrated in two of the albums longer numbers: “On The Air (Again)” plays up some intricate tempo changes and Yes-style vocal melodies and “Utopian Dream” also its share of twists and turns but with the more ominously done sound.

Forth, if anything, finds Livgren still exhibiting his penchant for creating music that is complex but catchy at the same time.  This is best found in “Pollex”, in which Proto-Kaw explores some creative reggae influences, along with the pomp rock keyboard based “Pilgrim’s Wake” and slower and more melodically driven “Lay Down”.

No, Forth might not include anything quite as heavy as "Axolotl" (Before Became After) and “Melicus Gladiator” (The Wait Of Glory), although “Daylight”, “Cold And Clear” and “One To Follow” highlight a heavier rock direction while allowing for catchy hooks in the process.  These three hearken back to Livgren’s post Kansas group AD with their almost radio friendly leanings.

Only four of the original Kansas II members perform on Forth: Livgren, Meredith, Bolton and Wright.  While previous Proto-Kaw releases saw Meredith contributing the majority of the vocals, he splits vocal duties evenly with Jake Livgren (Kerry Livgren’s nephew).  Meredith continues to bring his silky smooth and purse classic tenor vocal style and Jake Livgren, in perfect contrast, a grittier and course mid-ranged approach (he hints somewhat of Kansas vocalist Steve Walsh).

Livgren plays a jack of all trades role on Forth in handling all guitar duties in addition to piano, keyboards and percussion.  It is his lead guitar abilities that continue to stand out, showcasing a bluesy side to his playing on “Daylight” and “Utopian Dream” while cutting loose in more expeditious fashion on “Pollex”.  It also must be noted that former Kansas guitarist Steve Morse makes a very impressive guest soloing appearance on “Pilgrim’s Wake”.  Livgren divides keyboards with the able Dan Wright (who contributes some very well timed organ throughout the album) while Bolton’s ever present flute and saxophone continue to play a defined role. 

Production is up to the high standards of past Proto-Kaw releases.

The lone complaint revolves around the bare bone packaging, which consists of a single page insert with the artwork on the front and band credits the back.  Lyrics, while not included, are available at the artist’s website:

Track By Track

“Daylight” gets things underway in a positive and upbeat manner.  The song smoothly flows its distance, with big backing vocals upholding its catchy chorus and more than ample guitar driven momentum to put things over the top.  Saxophone and keyboard solos carry a tastefully done instrumental section.

“Pilgrim’s Wake” starts tranquilly to flute and piano before moving forward in majestic fashion, slow but moody while exhibiting a passionate melody at the same time (very understated in its catchiness).  The flute returns at the start of an extended instrumental excursion while Steve Morse closes things with an emotional stretch of soloing.  Lyric snippet:

There's a faint glow of red on the horizon
And a roaring of waves on the sea
Will the question that looms ere' before us
Have an answer in my time to be

What's begun in the ages now distant
Will be ended in days now in sight
And the moment you know where you're going
Is the moment you enter the fight

A slight reggae influence is found on “Pollex”.  With more flute making its presence felt, the song melds a defined bass line and touches of guitar with another pleasing melody that will lend itself to repeated play.  A symphonic based instrumental section highlights grandly done keyboards and a blistering lead guitar run.

“Cold And Clear” takes a heavier rock approach.  The song opens its first minute instrumentally before descending into some Kansas-like piano, impetus not picking up until the guitar returns to decisively lead the way to a heartfelt but sublimely done chorus.  Another lengthy instrumental stretch is carried by keyboards and flute.  Lyric snippet:

The sky is falling
Or is it just a new talking point
Empty of meaning
So tired of knowing you'll disappoint

Lined up behind you
They follow you though you cannot lead
I watch and marvel
You push the blade til' you see us bleed

“Lay Down”, a laid back and calmer piece, is lightened by acoustic guitar and lush vocal melodies.  A moving presence dominates throughout, with a pronounced melody upholding the momentous scene and Jake Livgren’s heartfelt vocals adding a defining touch.  Some nice keyboard layers can be found as well.

“Greek Structure Sunbeam” maintains the gentle disposition.  The song gets underway to some jazzy guitar, drifting forward evenly to Meredith’s smooth vocal touches and occasional bluesy elements.  Highlight is the guitar solo, starting slowly but gradually building momentum until things cut loose with some Latin flavorings.  Lyric snippet:

The sky is falling
Or is it just a new talking point
Empty of meaning
So tired of knowing you'll disappoint

Lined up behind you
They follow you though you cannot lead
I watch and marvel
You push the blade til' you see us bleed

The classic Proto-Kaw sound is captured on “On The Air (Again)”.  This one emphasizes the heavier guitar driven edge, maneuvering through some creative twists and turns - plenty of stops and starts here - with occasional traces of organ and pomp sensibilities making their mark.  A symphonic based instrumental allows some jam band elements to stand out as well.

“One To Follow” reflects a classic AD feel.  The song would not sound out of place on Prime Mover with its upbeat focus and understated keyboards emphasis, a brilliant chorus - dignified, regal and stately - standing out along with some interesting saxophone and lead guitar play during its instrumental moments.  Lyric snippet:

One to follow, there to lead when I am done
One will follow, stay the course for everyone

Just hold to what is tried and true, it will always see you through
And keep it all inside you, it's the treasure you must pursue

Do the right, turn back the night
Keep the faith, the goal's in sight
Face it down, and never bend
Bow your pride, and always be a friend

“Sleeping Giant” moves forward to a piano and horn section from the start, flowing quietly its length with big, polished backing vocals sustaining its chorus and some compelling jazzy qualities highlighting the final minute.  What stands out in the process a mirthful melody allowing the song to hold up under repeated play.  Lyric snippet:

Now it’s falling in place again
A pawn in a dangerous game
Just ahead is a winding road
That leads to another day
Carry us away...

Symphony plays for the, Ancient of Days, Counting so many ways
Pilgrims celebrate Him
Songs that resound and the, Words that expound for the, soul who is found
A new nature waking

“Things We Are Breaking” maintains a mid-paced heading, with gritty guitars and organ adding to what amounts a dramatic scene.  The most notable aspect to the song is an extended instrumental breaking that slowly builds impetus until breaking out to some hard rocking guitars (by far the albums heaviest moment).

Seven and a half minutes of creative progressiveness, “Utopian Dream” represents quintessential Proto-Kaw.  The song begins to an ominous opening that hints of “The Fury” or “Up From The Wasteland” (off Art Of The State) prior to moving ahead to an acoustic guitar, both complex and abstruse with its tempo changes and profound orchestral moments certain to have you returning time and again.  The albums finest stretch of bluesy lead guitar rounds out a track that comes across imposing and encompassing.  Lyric snippet:

Wings unfurled, above this earth, Soar beyond their lowly birth
Glorious sight, beneath unfolds, Unending wonder, this future holds

Like a sun, that shines at night, Still sending forth, her misty light
Tears have fallen, and fall no more, Once we have gained, that golden shore

To stand on a ground that is sure
And grasp what is distant and pure

This I know, it's much more than real
This I know, it's more than I feel

One has to commend Kerry Livgren for creating such a quality work after coming back from a near death experience: Forth proves without a doubt he has not lost his touch in terms of songwriting, musicianship and production.  Perhaps it is actually Livgren and not Kansas that deserves the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nod.  I say include them both!

Track Listing: “Daylight” (4:31), “Pilgrim’s Wake” (5:29), “Pollex” (5:19), “Cold And Clear” (5:49), “Lay Down” (5:34), “Greek Structure Sunbeam” (5:33), “On The Air (Again)” (6:40), “One To Follow” (4:21), “Sleeping Giant” (5:24), “Things We Are Breaking” (5:18), “Utopian Dream” (7:28)

Lynn Meredith - Lead Vocals
Jake Livgren - Lead Vocals & Saxophone
Kerry Livgren - Guitars, Piano, Keyboards & Percussion
John Bolton - Flute & Saxophone
Dan Wright - Organ, Keyboards & Percussion
Craig Kew - Bass Guitar
Mike Patrum - Drums & Percussion

Guest Musicians
Steve Morse - Lead Guitar
Daryl Batchelor - Trumpet
Bryan Nelson - Trombone


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