Rank Your Records: Rich Williams Rates All 14 Kansas Albums


This story is over 5 years old.


Rank Your Records: Rich Williams Rates All 14 Kansas Albums

In advance of their new album, 'The Prelude Implicit,' we had the band's guitarist look back through over 30 years of recordings.

In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

For those of you who don't know Kansas​ (and I'm assuming a lot of you, because the majority of Noisey readers were born 18 to 34 years ago, and they released their most famous album, Leftoverture, in 1976), the band is a pioneering art-rock band formed in 1970 in, you guessed it, Kansas. They've had as many members as they have albums, and although many fans will jump at the opportunity to explain in detail which albums are canon and which aren't, every single album is, at least in this writer's opinion, worth at least one listen. They're the full embodiment of album-oriented rock, and while many of their songs are great as standalone tunes, you never really get the full experience until you listen to the whole album.


Rich Williams, the guitarist for the band since 1974, kindly spoke with me for over two hours about every single album the band has released, and while it sounds mean, I only had to remind him of what albums he hadn't ranked twice (after 14 albums I think you get a pass for forgetting if Drastic Measures came before or after _Point of Know Return). _

Kansas released their 15th studio album, The Prelude Implicit, last week. It's the band's first album in seven years, the longest the band as ever gone without releasing new music. Now, buckle up and grab some snacks, because we're about to rank these records.

14. Vinyl Confessions (1982)

Noisey: Can you tell me a little bit about why Vinyl Confessions is last?
Rich Williams: It just wasn't a good time in the band. There were just a lot of personal problems going on inside and outside of the band. Dave [Hope] and Kerry [Livgren] left soon after that record; their hearts weren't in it at all. As hard as we were trying, it just wasn't coming naturally at that point. Kerry was such a main writer up until then. He was wanting to do something else, and it was making the album hard to make. He wasn't into it anymore. When the whole team isn't on board, it just becomes a struggle. It should be a fun, exciting experience, and it just stopped being that.

Did Kerry want to make Vinyl Confessions more religious than it was?
He kind of had been wanting to do that for a while. This is just what I feel about it. I think he tried that enough and knew he wasn't going to get anywhere with it. That was his calling. That's what he wanted to do and he knew he wouldn't be doing that through the vehicle of Kansas so it was his time to go.


13. Dramatic Measures (1983)

Why is this one 13?
Kind of the same. On that album, Kerry was still struggling. He wanted Kansas to be a lot more of a Christian band. That's what he felt like he needed to do, but that's never what Kansas wanted to be as a unit, so there was dissatisfaction in that. We were working on the album, writing the songs, and that's when Steve Walsh quit. We had already booked studio time and the album was written, and Steve said he couldn't do it. So then he took the material he'd written and left, so we had an incomplete record. When we started recording that album, we didn't have a singer. While we were recording it, we were also auditioning singers.

What was that like?
It was a scramble. We never had to do that before. We'd been the same unit up until that point; it was tough. We were auditioning people in Atlanta, in Los Angeles, listening to tapes from different people auditioning while we were recording. We had tracks recorded and would have people come in and sing the tracks. It was very unsettling because a lot of money was being spent. Are we going to complete this project? Do we even have a band? So we had a lot going on; very disconcerting.

Did you have a contingency plan if you didn't find a singer?
No. [Laughs] I don't think we ever considered that an option. It was just: keep looking until we find somebody. John Elefante sent in a tape. We'd heard a lot of good singers, but we felt we needed someone who could sing the past songs and John had a similar voice to Steve. He was a tenor and had a powerful voice and that made a lot of sense. Plus, he was a songwriter. We were lacking material because Steve left with the material he'd written and we were in the studio and needed a bit more material. So it was all a scramble. We were in a complete panic. We were in damage-control mode and we just kept moving. We got John involved and we got it done but going through that album, things weren't the same anymore with any of us. When Steve left, that was the first real change we'd gone through. It was a bit like going through the motions because that's all we knew how to do, but I think it was inevitable it was going to fall apart after that.


12. Audio-Visions (1980)

How about number 12?
This is when Kerry really started distancing himself from us in what he wanted to do. So the album is disjointed to me. It was not the best of times again. The end was coming. You could feel it, but it still took three albums to get there.

You said it was disjointed. The band or the music?
The band and the music seemed a bit disjointed; things weren't quite the same. Money changes everything. And songwriters made a lot more money so they had different incentives. They wanted to spend more time enjoying life. I'm really happy for you, but the rest of us aren't in your position yet, so money changes everything within an organization. It took the hunger out of the band. Before, we had something to prove. We'd proven it, and now we were just gathering stuff.

When you say the band lost its hunger, what do you mean?
Well, just before, you had nothing to compare it to, and now everyone's got money in the bank. You're up there, and you don't quite have the same drive to stay there sometimes. The dynamic changed in the band. We were younger men before, all with the same goal, but as people start having families and moving to different areas and going on with their lives—and I'm not saying anything is wrong with that; that's what happens in life—but it starts to be destructive to the unit.

11. Freaks of Nature (1995)

What makes this one number 11?
It's one of our best sounding records. It sounds great and has got some great music on it, but there's nothing memorable about it, either. Lyrically, it didn't stand out; it was a bit dark. We went to Trinidad to kind of recapture the spirit of when we did Leftoverture, but we went to Louisiana in the middle of nowhere to be all together away from town, away from family, and be together and work. We went to Trinidad kind of for the same reason: there were too many distractions. It was a very well-formed and brilliant sounding record, but again, it was lacking anything memorable. As hard as we tried, we couldn't recreate what we were trying to recreate.


What exactly were you trying to recreate?
The music was good but there was nothing special about the songs, melodically. Lyrically, it's hard for me to put into concise words. We were with a smaller label, and there wasn't a big push around it. We were irrelevant to the music scene—at that time, classic rock hadn't been a part of a comeback. We knew it probably wouldn't be heard or well received except for a few dedicated fans. It was a helpless feeling going through it. We wanted to be creative, we wanted to record, but the times had changed. Quite a bit of touring at that time wasn't all that enjoyable—riding around in a bus playing five clubs in a week for months on end for little money; it was a struggle. At the time, we were trying to keep our heads above water, but the time wasn't good for any classic rock bands. So that mood kind of prevailed above all.

10. Somewhere to Elsewhere (2000)

What makes that one number ten as opposed to Freaks of Nature?
It was an odd record to make because Kerry had called Phil [Ehart]—he hadn't been in the band for a time, but we talked all the time—and said, "I got a bunch of material here that I'm not going to put on a solo record, but it might be some good Kansas material." Kerry had moved back to Kansas and had a studio on his farm, so Phil and I went and listened and said, "Let's do that." We'd never recorded in this fashion before. Steve [Walsh] was not into it. He was working on a solo album, doing his parts in Atlanta, mailing them in. Dave Hope came in and played bass on a song and was gone. People would come in and do the parts and leave. Kerry wasn't going to be in the band afterwards, we weren't going to tour this material. I like the album, it had some great material on it, but the way we assembled it and did it in such an uncharacteristic band sense is why I put it down in there. It could've been much better if we'd actually been involved as a unit.


Do you think the experiences with Freaks of Nature fed into those attitudes towards Somewhere to Elsewhere?
Very much so. It was one of those things where touring was a struggle—still  bussing around from club to club, not really making any money. We were one of the few classic rock bands still out there trying. I got in a band simply because I wanted to play in one. I liked the rehearsals and the camaraderie and the traveling. All of that to me is what being in a band is about. And recording the new album, it's all part of the process. It provides a vehicle to continue touring. At some point, you have to be creative or you get extremely stagnant.

9. Always Never the Same (1998)

Why is this nine?
I like what the album did for us. We were trying to reinvent ourselves a bit—we needed to do something different to shake it up—so we went in the studio and recorded a lot of songs and had it scored to record with a symphony orchestra. We did the re-records, then we took it to Abbey Road in London—really what that gave us was a blueprint and charts to where we could start playing symphony shows—and several years after that, we started playing with symphonies.

What was the draw? Why did you guys want to work with a symphony?
We'd always tried to find a way to do something different, especially when we were going through a time when no new music was coming out with us. Kerry was no longer involved, Steve was not wanting to write anymore, we'd been on the road for two years doing the same things. We needed to re-package this, to find a different way to present the same stuff we were doing. We wanted to still feel creative even if we had to be creative with what had already been done, something to create some interest in us. That was a bit of the motivation behind all of that, and our music was always symphonic in nature, so from the very beginning we'd thought, "Wouldn't it be great one day if we could do this with a symphony?" It was that thought coming to fruition.


8. Monolith (1979)

Why is Monolith number eight?
We had back-to-back huge albums, and this was the very first beginning of the end. Up until this point, we were going to destinations to record, but now everyone is married, everyone has a house. This was when we were officially becoming individuals more than a unit—again there's nothing wrong with that. The dynamic changes within a career—money, etc. People just grow up, and we just kind of wanted to stay at home and do things at a different pace. The drive was there. We were just a bit naive in thinking this one would naturally progress in the way it has been—"we've got this down, we'll make another record and it's going to be successful." It was successful a lot more on the merit of what had come before it. It wasn't as good of a record. It didn't sound as good.

Do you think it not sounding as good had to do with the fact that you guys didn't travel to the studio?
Sonically, I don't think it was great. I don't think the material was as strong, and, although we were trying hard, the times were changing, too. We had our moment in the sun, then all of the sudden everyone was wearing a leisure suit and disco was getting hot, so the times were changing. We were getting a lot of odd direction that we weren't following. Radio dictated popularity at that time and radio was changing, and we weren't going to, and I think the first time our relevance had seen its day. At the ripe old age of 30, we were starting to feel like old men.


Were they trying to push Kansas to have more of a disco  sound?
Yeah, something shorter, something more danceable. And, of course, these are your advisors—the record company and management. We wanted to please people, but we didn't want to do that, so it was a bit of a struggle, and for that, it was a hit-or-miss album. There was some great stuff on it and some stuff that was not so great.

7. Power (1986)

Next would probably be Power, the first album with Steve Morse, when we got the band back together after the break with the new lineup. There's a lot of good stuff on it, and it was an interesting time to work with Steve Morse. Again, I like the album, it has some really good stuff on it, there was a good game plan, the album was well received, we were doing some good shows. This was going to be the new band, and the future was looking very bright. I guess what missed was not the album, but in the live shows. Steve was covering a lot of the violin parts—that was a lot of his role with the older material and he did it extremely well—but it wasn't the same to me. I guess I was missing that voice.

6. In the Spirit of Things (1988)

In the Spirit of Thing would be number six?
So now we're with MCI, and we've got some great material. The record company is on fire about this, and we're really taking a lot of time putting this album together. It's well recorded and we were very excited about that. We really felt something great was going to happen out of this record. Towards the end, the record company said, "Guys, we love the record but we're still lacking something that we feel really confident works for the radio." And then right before the album comes out, MCI fired everybody from the president on down. So then the album is almost not released. It sort of gets released, gets no backing, and then just sort of died. And that was very sad because we worked so hard on it and it was a great record and it never got a chance. So that knocked the wind out of our sails. Steve Morse went on to do other things, and we were down for a while. At that point, we were done but we weren't sure it was going to happen. Then things started to turn around and we started to get back on the road some, but from the first album to the fourth was a long time.


5. Masque (1975)

Next would probably be Masque, there are some people where this is their favorite record, so it's hard, but there are some songs on this that I'm just not crazy about. "The Pinnacle" is one of the most quintessential hardcore Kansas fan songs. It's a brilliantly written song, it's very musical, but it's not a rock song either. It's definitely Kansas all the way. "All the World" was a great song by Steve; "Icarus" is probably the favorite of the album is a quintessential Kansas song; "Two Cents Worth," odd song for us. I think Steve captures the mood brilliantly in singing it, I really like the song. "It Takes a Woman's Love" didn't make any sense to me—another song that was left over from the first demo tape that we made. It was like: record an album, tour, record an album, tour. Then, "OK, we have to record an album, but shit, we haven't had a chance to write stuff." So we were going back into the vault, and while the band is starting to lean a little bit more progressively, some of these earlier writings weren't at all.

What do you mean by progressively?
"It Takes a Woman's Love" is just a straightforward rock 'n' roll song, whereas we were starting to lean towards a very much more progressive style of music, getting away from basic predictable lyrics about predictable things. Steve was more in that vein. Kerry was starting to go further into progressive music, and that's where the band was leaning, too. So it was a bit disjointed. We hadn't quite found a comfort zone, and again, the record company put a lot of money into the first and second album. We're getting tour support now from the company so they've got lots of money in us, and they want to hear something get on the radio. Those songs were attempts at that. Also, it doesn't sound real good. It's not a great sounding record. The speakers we were mixing on, they weren't flat. So what we were hearing in the room sounded great, but when it went to vinyl, it was like, "What is this?" So, sonically, we weren't real happy with the album.


4. Kansas (1974)

The first album, that's the album I think we all wish we could re-record. We'd never done anything. We went from living in Kansas, playing in bars to flying to New York. We recorded in a little tiny demo studio before, but never had been in a real studio, and here are the hicks from Kansas. It was all intimidating, I guess. It was exciting, it was fun, but there's a lot of things we didn't know, so we just went along with it. Basically, it was done in two weeks and once it was over, we were like, "What happened?"

So you guys had no idea of what you were doing?
We figured they had more of an idea of what they were doing. We had a lot of questions, so on some songs, it's not like it was executed poorly, it was just put together in a rush, in a lot of panic and confusion.

Was that more on you guys as a band or the people producing the record?
It was the process being moved along. We didn't have our own voice, strong enough to say, "This isn't done, we're not happy with this, we're starting over." We were in awe of it all and didn't know what to say to speak up. There was a lot of great material on it, but I think we all wish we could've re-recorded that one. What it did was capture the essence of us, that's the album that got people to go, "Wow, what is this?" And that's the first time we really heard Steve's voice professionally recorded on tape. It was like, "Holy crap, this is a world-class singer we got here, this is amazing." Suddenly, we were in awe of his talent.


3. Song for America (1975)

What is it about Song For America?
You can really see we were starting to find ourselves. Looking at the tracklist. It starts to make sense. "Down the Road" was a very straightforward rock song. It was a great song to feature Robby [Steinhardt] singing. Then "Song for America," which is probably in our top five, easily, of the best songs Kerry ever wrote. It's an epic piece of music. Overall, this album really sounded good. The engineers were very helpful getting us over the first album experience. It was fun. We had a great time staying on Sunset Blvd. The Kansas boys had been set free. It was fabulous, we were having the times of our lives.

Did any of that energy feed into recording Song for America?
Yeah, we were very cocky. We definitely had something to prove. We were very confident in ourselves and in the band. We knew we had something different that other people weren't doing. We knew that we were unique and kind of cocky about it. "You may not like us, but we're real good and you can kiss our butt," that was kind of our attitude. We didn't have that much of a past, and the future was too far to worry about, and we were young and dumb enough to experience the moment without a care about consequences or anything else. It was an innocent time for us as a band. "Lamplight Symphonies" is one of the most beautiful stories Kerry ever wrote. We haven't played that in years. When we do the tour coming up in October and the next year, we're going to start playing that song again. We've been wanting to play that for decades now.


What is it about that song that gets you?
Once in a blue moon, you can record something and it has something indefinable about it; it has an atmosphere about. It captured a mood, but it's such a pumping story, and the music represents it well and everything about it… perfect package. Some songs do that. "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan—when that song comes on, there's a perfection about it that I can't define, and not too many songs and recordings can do that. That one captures such a unique character and mood to it. "Lonely Street," it's kind of a blues song but it's not typical, lyrically. A little questionable, but the song was a very strong show of a very aggressive side of us. "Devil Game" was a fun song to play live that just got lost in the times. Steve never wanted to play it anymore so we didn't play it for decades. "Incomudro" is a cool song. It had some great parts to it, definitely dabbling into being more progressive; it's got some beautiful music in it.

What was it like creating this album then having to release Masque?
The Masque album was kind of a lateral move, it didn't sound quite as good. We were still hunting and packing a bit. We hadn't quite found where we were going with those two records. You can see where we were headed, looking at the timeline of things. We just hadn't gotten there yet.

2. Point of Know Return (1977)

We went back to rehearsing and Kerry was loaded with a lot of great material. Steve had this instrumental thing—I'd never heard anything like it— it was the introduction to "Portrait," a very strong song by Kerry. We always trying to come up with a twist with on things, and Steve suggested Point of Know Return for an album title, and so he wrote "Point of Know Return," and it was a good single backing our success of "Carry On Wayward Son." "Paradox" is a song we're starting to play again and it's a fun song to do. "Closet Chronicle," we've been playing with the new band. Again, just a great song. So we've got a lot of really strong material. "Sparks of the Tempest," great song for Robby, cool lyrics great piece of music. Once we started working with the symphony—"Nobody's Home" is not a good song to play outside at a bike rally—but once you're in a performance center with all the lights out, the symphony behind you, and the right mood is created… suddenly "Nobody's Home" was epic. It's such a mystical, unusual song. There's nothing about it that would ever be a favorite or a hit on the radio or anything, but for a Kansas fan, it really strikes home.

1. Leftoverture (1976)

We'd been out on the road playing with Queen, and then it was time to start recording again and we're back working on material. Kerry was suddenly on fire. He was showing up with such an incredible variety of music that was just all so spectacular. "Miracles Out of Nowhere" I think was the first one we started working on—that whole beginning section when it comes back in a different key and re-invents itself. It only took us three days to do that, to try and get the feel of it; it was just so awkward. Other stuff was in Kerry's head, so we're deciphering what he's trying to interpret inside of his head, and it took a long time to do it. Then he'd go, "I got another one I wrote last night!" Suddenly, music was pouring through him in such an unprecedented way. Meanwhile, we had all these parts of songs, and it was like, "Wouldn't it be kind of cool to try and assemble a song out of all of these parts?" And so that's when we put together"Leftoverture." It was made out of leftover parts. Then the record company goes, "That's an album title. That's one of the best album titles I've ever heard." So we re-named the song "Magnum Opus."

How would you describe the energy and the mood of band during Leftoverture?
We'd been working on material for a while now, so at the end of this creative spurt by Kerry, we're a day from packing up—last day of rehearsals, and we're just going to run through stuff before we pack up for Louisiana to record songs. Then Kerry goes, "I got one more song." We were tired, we just wanted to go record, and he pulls out "Carry On Wayward Son." We hadn't assembled it yet. We hadn't decided what comes when, but the song was there, and we thought it could be a really good song.

We were in the studio listening back to "Wayward Son," and we thought it could be a game changer. It was us, not like anybody else. You could feel that everywhere, and the whole album had that feeling that there was something incredibly right about this record. You didn't know how it was going to be received, but it was hard to imagine how this wouldn't be received well. We knew this was a great record, the record company knew it was a great record. It had finally happened.

Annalise Domenighini is listening to 'Leftoverture' again. Follow her on Twitter​.​​​