(All Album Reviews by Sean)
This is the tale of an album that got left by the wayside. All looked promising when Kansas entered the studio with producer extrodinaire Bob Ezrin in 1987. But soon a change of hands at the band's record label (MCA) right when the album was finished left Kansas dropped in favor of of all people, teen pop star flavor of that moment, Tiffany! Luckily this tale has a happy ending. Time has treated Kansas and this album better than Tiffany.
In the Spirit of Things is a highly underrated album that even the most diehard Kansas fans are divided over. Considerably more ambitioius than the pop laden Power album from 1986, but still a third pop laden itself. This is thanks to the record company pushing hard for another hit along the lines of the previous album's top 40 hit "All I Wanted". They even went so far as to bring in outside writers. Many fans cite these songs from writers outside the band as the weak link and a turn off. Some cannot get past them. But I have noticed that if you program out most of the pop tunes penned by outside writers, you still have a good 40 minutes of music penned by the band. These tracks are what allows Spirit to stand on it's own.
It's fairly well known that Kansas eneterd the studio with Ezrin with the intention of getting back to the more grandiose sound they had in the 70's. When you think of Kansas, dense compositions and arrangements come to mind. While Power lacked songs of that nature, Spirit delivered some. The strongest tracks here are the plaintive "Ghosts", the expansive "One Big Sky" the pompous and intricate "Rainmaker" and the anthemic "The Preacher". Closing the album is a tune that guitarist Rich Williams considers the most like classic Kansas on the whole album, "The Bells of St James".
Steve Walsh is in fine form here. This really is the last album that captured the full intensity of his voice in it's prime. Even the pop tunes on here are elevated to great heights thanks to his passionate delivery, and in many cases made more than tolerable. This may be his best album vocally. Walsh has said repeatedly that this was his very favorite Kansas album of all. He felt working with Ezrin was tough, but looks back on it now as a time when he grew as a writer. Thanks in no small part to Ezrin's inspiration.
Guitar virtuoso Steve Morse is still in tow here, but he has been sidelined to writing intricate middle sections such as the one in "Rainmaker". His influence is not nearly as strong as on the Power album. This is more of a band effort. He does turn in some great solos on this album. The soaring one on "Ghosts" quickly comes to mind or the jerky/crazed one on "House on Fire".
In closing, this album really does not sound much like 70's Kansas even though it is leaning in a more ambitious, progressive direction. The sound the band gets here is sort of fresh. I tip my hat to them for taking the time to do something different. For that reason this album stands alone in the Kansas catalog.
It couldn't have been easy being Steve Walsh in 1987-88. On one shoulder he had a record company (MCA) breathing down his back for "a big hit" to win over new fans. MCA was under new management, and Kansas was not high on their priority list. On the other shoulder, he had the Kansas tradition to uphold, which was to make great melodic progressive rock, for themselves and the hardcore fans.
Add a drug and alcohol problem to the equation. Add a desire to make a concept album. Add producer Bob Ezrin, with a flair for drama and sound effects. Add outside writers (probably at the demand of MCA.) You now have the equation for one heck of an inconsistent album!
But for all the inconsistencies, it seems to fall together nicely to make an album which tried to please everybody in a no-win situation. Set in 1951 Neshoso Falls, KS, "Ghosts" sets the stage about this doomed town. I won't go into the story, but it's a very original idea, and it would have been nice to see the concept permeate throughout the album.
The sparingly used Steve Morse absolutely shreds and shines on this album using Jazz-meets-Van Halen-runs on songs like "Inside Of Me", "The Preacher", and "Bells of St. James". He also has a too-short acoustic number, "T.O. Witcher". Walsh steals the show, however. His voice is in absolute top form on heartbreaking songs like "Rainmaker" and "Once in a Lifetime".
With the right label push, three of these songs could have easily been radio smashes for the band. This could also have been a blessing or a curse...you decide.