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Kansas collection sails smoothly

Kansas - Sail On: The 30th Anniversary Collection (CD/DVD)
3 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Jan. 18, 2005

Review by Andy Argyrakis

The story of progressive influenced classic rockers Kansas may have began thirty years ago, but its pulse still beats strong to this day, marked most recently by a two CD/one DVD retrospective box set. That collection traces the band's obscure beginnings through late 70s/early 80s radio fame right up to its current incarnation, complete with an incredibly detailed commentary, exclusive photos and exhaustive information about members' past and present. But aside from comprehensive details, slick graphic design and vibrant packaging, how does the material inside stack up?
Kansas Disc One: Though they wouldn't experience an incredible mainstream breakthrough until years later, Kansas actually began in 1974 with vocalist/keyboardist Steve Walsh, vocalist/violinist Robby Steinhardt, guitarist/keyboardist Kerry Livgren, guitarist Richard Williams, bassist Dave Hope and drummer Phil Ehart. In that original existence, the band had a very unique progressive rock influenced sound that- as unveiled throughout the first half of this installment- may have been musically intricate and astute, but lacked radio accessibility and could be considered pretentious. Epic pieces like "Journey From Mariabronn," "Song For America" and "Lamplight Symphony" all stretch beyond the eight minute mark and are loaded with a series of complicated solos, yet they lack the hook-laden classic rock sensibilities they'd soon discover. After patiently trudging through selections from the group's self-titled debut, 1975's Song For America and the subsequent Masque, listeners will be greeted with the much easier to digest Leftoverture moments. This album would become the group's cornerstone, spawning the mega single "Carry On Wayward Son" (this volume's primary highlight) and fan favorites like "What's On My Mind" and "Miracles Out of Nowhere."
Disc Two: Part two in the package begins with multiple cuts from 1977's commercially strident follow-up Point of No Return, culling together the title track, power ballad "Dust In the Wind" and the memorable "Lightning's Hand." However (as the text in the accompanying book points out) the band faced personal problems and drug abuse, which put the creative juices on hold for a little bit. With those glitches, a live record was in order, traced in this collection with "Paradox" (from the subsequent Two For the Show). Tracks from Monolith and Audio Visions were also scattered attempts at crossing over into pop realms, though a rebound at radio becomes apparent with Vinyl Confessions excerpts. The 1982 album saw the departure of Walsh, who was promptly replaced by John Elefante, the melodic basis behind smashes like "Play That Game Tonight" and "Fight Fire With Fire" (off 1983's Drastic Measures). Though Walsh returned come 1986, the group almost nestled into an adult contemporary safety net ("All I Wanted") while the following decade of material was virtually ignored outside of die-hards.
Disc Three: This is by far the most energetic portion of the project, simply because the music is put to visuals (in either video or concert clip format). Besides just going through earlier live footage like "Can I Tell You" and "The Pinnacle," plus latter pieces like "On the Other Side" and "Reason To Be," there are brand new interviews with members' candid analysis. Thankfully, they point to the foolishness of concept pieces like "Fight Fire With Fire" and "All I Wanted," while performing with precision in more modern footage of "The Preacher" and "Carry On Wayward Son."
The Bottom Line: Kansas completists are likely to deem this three disc set as essential (and they will certainly get their money's worth) though the less serious can certainly get away with one of the many single or double disc collections on the market. Though much of Kansas' music hasn't held up without sounding dated, the band certainly had a successful streak in its tenure that can never be taken away from what faithful would deem as its lauded legacy.

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