At the end of the day, there really aren't that many American progressive rock bands. Sure, in recent years acts like Dream Theater and Coheed and Cambria have found their respective places in the modern pantheon of progressive music, but these are young bands, comparatively speaking.
From the start, prog was an almost uniquely British phenomenon, with Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and even Jethro Tull all hailing from the United Kingdom. But there were always two glaring exceptions to this rule: The first was Styx, but the degree to which they qualified as progressive rock depended on who you asked (and, often, whether or not you like them in the first place). And then there’s Kansas, one of the most criminally underappreciated bands of the last half century. And if their most recent record is anything to go by, Kansas has done more to earn a place in music history than many of their contemporaries. Their newest record is called “The Absence of Presence,” released after a brief delay on July 17 on Inside Out Music, and it shows that this old outfit still has the musical chops to pen a prog rock extravaganza that can knock an audience flat on its back.
Most casual listeners know Kansas for their perennial hit “Carry on Wayward Son,” and for the appearance of their song “Dust in the Wind” in the Will Ferrell film “Old School,” but this is a band that truly has so much more to offer listeners. “The Absence of Presence” finds Kansas being perhaps the best version of themselves that they could possibly be in 2020, crafting an album of soaring violin pieces, crushing keyboard breaks and blasting drumlines. This all shapes up to what could possibly be the best rock album of the summer and certainly one of the best records Kansas has put out in years, maybe decades.
The album’s title track kicks off the album in a big way. Right from the beginning, it's obvious that Kansas has incorporated some more modern trappings into their music. The guitars crack harder and the band’s various vocalists belt out louder than one might expect from a legacy act like them. Of course, one should not accuse Kansas of cynically trying to keep with the times; the violin parts, courtesy of David Ragsdale, are a callback to the band’s earliest days. Ragsdale’s contributions all over this album are arguably its most outstanding quality, lending the music a uniqueness that is immediately evident. Even the softer tracks like “Memories Down the Line” and “Never” manage to feel like big, expansive musical productions without feeling overblown or tedious.
Other standout tracks include “Jets Overhead” and “Circus of Illusion,” both of which demonstrate the singular musicianship that Kansas has to offer. The whole album is a panorama of tight compositions and superb execution. Hardly a moment is wasted on filler of any kid, which is the ultimate litmus test for the kind of album-oriented rock music that Kansas subscribes to.
“The Absence of Presence” shows that Kansas truly is a force to be reckoned with. They're an all-American hit squad of progressive rock musicians pushing the envelope of what can and should be expected of bands going into the late stages of their careers. If this is the kind of stuff Kansas can put out at this point, then optimism is certainly not wasted thinking about what might come after. I give “The Absence of Presence” 4.5/5 stars.