Audio Visions ($5 Blowout Price!)
"Audio-Visions came out on the heels of the Monolith album, which I personally felt was a creative and brilliant progression for the band, but was not particularly well- received by most critics. The growing rift between Steve Walsh and Kerry Livgren was by now well-known to most fans. Both had released solo albums the same year, and rumors of Walsh’s departure had been swirling since the Point of Know Return tour. There were also reports of excessive drug and alcohol use on the part of Walsh (hinted at but never openly confirmed in band interviews throughout the period), which may in fact have been exacerbating the problems in the band. Most fans though believed the primary concern had to do with philosophical differences between Livgren and Walsh, particularly over the heavily spiritual emphasis in Livgren’s writing. In a nutshell, Steve wanted to party and Kerry wanted to pray. Not a productive combination. Walsh was in somewhat of a slump during this period, and in selecting the tracks for the album, the band preferred Livgren’s compositions over the few that Walsh was able to produce. There was pressure from record executives as well, considering the disappointing sales of Monolith after three consecutive multi-platinum albums.
It must have been tremendously uncomfortable in the studio during the recording of Audio-Visions. Kerry had presented the band with a handful of very solid arrangements, but was unbending in the zealousness of his newfound faith to change the lyrical focus away from the Cross. Walsh, and to a lesser extent, Williams and Ehart, were not as inclined to turn the group into a traveling revival show, but an album was due to the record label, and the group as a whole preferred the quality of Livgren’s work over what Walsh was producing at the time. In addition to Walsh’s solo effort, it was well-known he was shopping for another outlet for his musical talents. He had reportedly auditioned with Bad Company (confirmed years later in an interview with Ehart). He did of course leave Kansas following this release, resurfacing less than a year later with Billy Greer and the other members of Streets, a decidedly straight-ahead rock band.
Many fans point to Monolith as the beginning of some sort of downward slide for the band, but I disagree. While sales dropped off after the release of Point of Know Return, I’m not at all convinced it was necessarily because the quality of the band’s work was slumping. If anything their musicianship and technical skill was being well- honed by years of nearly constant touring. I find it somewhat ironic that the same prog critics who point to the declining popularity of the band in the early 1980’s are some of the same people who accuse Kansas of being more vapid and AOR simply because of their brief mass appeal. In my opinion, the quality of the music on Audio- Visions is every bit as good as that on their previous works. What was changing was both the relationship of the band’s members to each other, and the fickle tastes of the listening public.
The songs themselves are an essential part of this band’s history and progression.
If it weren’t for the lyrics, “Relentless” could easily be mistaken for a song written by Steve Walsh. Rich William’s potent guitar licks and Phil Ehart’s machine-gun drumbeat accent Steve Walsh’s powerful voice perfectly. I never understood why this was not released as a featured single for the AOR market. Frankly, it was only the fact that Kansas still had a considerable reputation and ardent following at the time that caused this album to climb to #26 on the Billboard charts and sell the half- million copies required for a gold rating. It’s hard to believe “Relentless” wouldn’t have easily cracked the FM Top-40 list, and would likely have propelled the album to platinum status. The song also introduces a new feature seen throughout the album, namely the plethora of backing vocals, not exactly a Kansas signature sound up to this point in their career. At one point or another, every member of the band got some voice time in on the album, along with Livgren, Ehart, and William’s wives, something called the ‘Four Bassmen’, and Jeff Jelf, a career studio vocalist who also appeared on Livgren’s Seeds of Change solo earlier that year. This song was not penned by Walsh though, but by Livgren. Coming less than a year after Kerry and Dave Hope’s conversions to Christianity, nearly all of the Livgren songs (“Relentless”, “Hold On”, and “Curtain of Iron”) were drenched in gospel-tinted themes. The one exception was “No One Together”, an apparent castoff from the Monolith sessions. I remember very well hearing this song for the first time, about 12 seconds after I left the Musicland record store where I had purchased it the morning it was released. Steve Walsh’s voice was still in prime form, and aside from the near absence of Steinhardt’s trademark violin, this was a promising introduction to what I anticipated would be another album whose grooves I would rapidly wear out. The interplay of keyboards by Walsh and Livgren are quintessential Kansas. Easily four stars.
“Anything for You” is somewhat more subdued, and rather brief for a Kansas song, clocking in at just under four minutes. This is a Walsh tune, and features plaintiff piano chords and a choppy, sometimes awkward beat that is characteristic of much of Walsh’s work. While the song is actually a kind of pleading love song, it came on the heels of “Relentless”, so lyrics like “I could lead an army to victory or win in a race, I could do it if only I knew that you’d save me a place” were understandably mistaken for some fans as another Savior tribute (as in, “that You’d save me a place”). Again, William’s guitar work is fresh and aggressive, and really saves what would be an otherwise average tune (although average for these guys still beats most of whatever else was on the market at the time). The one negative is the fadeout ending, something I find particularly annoying. It strikes me as an admission that the band couldn’t some up with a creative way to bring the song to a cohesive ending. Let’s say 3.5 stars for this one.
“Hold On” was the first of two singles for the album, and it managed to just crack the Billboard Top-40 list for a brief period late in 1980. This is another obvious Livgren psalm, given away by lyrics like “outside your door He is waiting for you, sooner or later you know He’s got to come through”. I’m not sure if the guitar bridge here is Williams or Livgren, but it is clear, clean, and quite beautiful. Steinhardt’s violin riffs are plaintive, and more prevalent here than anywhere else on the album. Walsh ends the song with a trademark sustained vocal that is vintage Kansas. Another four star effort that spent several months alongside the late single release of Monolith’s “Reason To Be” on FM airwaves throughout the American midwest.
“Loner” is the second Walsh song on the album, and one of the shortest the band ever recorded. Williams hits the floor running and doesn’t let up for 2-1/2 minutes with some wicked fret work. Walsh’s soaring vocals are well-grounded by Steinhardt’s backing, and are well-punctuated by rolling drum work by Ehart. Not even remotely prog, but just as much part of the Kansas trademark sound as earlier songs like “Bringing it Back” and “Down the Road”. Let’s say 3.5 stars.
The vinyl version wraps up side one with “Curtain of Iron”, which is very reminiscent of the back side of Monolith, ala “A Glimpse of Home” or “Reason to Be”. Here again Steinhardt delivers strong supporting vocals, although in a few places I’m pretty sure it’s Livgren’s voice drifting in and out. The subject is apparently a Livgren version of a ‘Save the Children’ commercial describing the godless plight of children is Eastern Europe. Not a common theme for the band, but lyrics aside, the overall sound is solid enough. In typical Livgren fashion, there is a bit of cheekiness, in this case the impish children’s choir that pipes in a couple of times (song about children, children helping tell the story, very subtle…). Three stars, mostly for the solid vocals and guitar work.
“Got to Rock On” was the other single from the album. It cracked the Top-100 in early 1981, but disappeared quickly. This is another typical Walsh composition about fighting off age and obsolescence through the magic of jamming. Walsh’s voice seems a bit flat here, and the lyrics are pretty much throwaway, but I suppose this one satisfied some contractual obligation for a radio hit. Three stars.
“Don’t Open Your Eyes” is a joint effort by everyone except Steinhardt. This is apparently a story about the boogyman (“don’t open your eyes too soon ‘cause it might be me”). The last time all the band members collaborated on a song the result was the epic “Magnum Opus”. This time the result is not quite as profound, but the keyboard-heavy arrangement is an interesting change to an album that otherwise features more of Rich Williams and Phil Ehart than any other Kansas recording. Walsh’s voice is a bit contrived and again seems rather strained, apparently a precursor of things to come. I’m not sure if the boys are just trying to be clever, are entertaining themselves, or just needed four minutes of filler, but this one should have been relegated to a single B-side somewhere. 2.5 stars just for the brief violin work toward the end.
“No One Together” is the final Livgren tune on the album, and the most out-of-place on the record. That’s not to say it’s a bad song – it just stands out among the others for a couple of reasons. Unlike his other contributions to Audio-Visions, Livgren penned this song in 1979, and apparently prior to his religious conversion. The Kumbaya theme stands in stark contrast to the gospel message in his other compositions (“we’re all together, harmony will abound”), and the overall feeling lacks the sense of fulfillment and purpose that his other works exude. Also, I can’t really put my finger on why, but this track strikes me as having been recorded apart from the others on the album. The drums seem more muffled and distant, and the keyboard work is much plainer than elsewhere on the record. Overall this one is probably 3.5 stars.
Williams and Walsh paired up to product “No Room for a Stranger”, which is to say it sounds like something they might have written during a late-night drinking session, perhaps even during the recording of Walsh’s solo album that year. The theme is of a hard-drinking he-man who was ‘done wrong’ by his lady. Very somber and intense guitar work by Williams, apparently Walsh with mostly plain piano keyboards, and I suspect very little involvement by Livgren or Hope. Three stars.
The album closes with the introspective “Back Door”, another Walsh tune very much in the vein of his solo album’s more somber tracks. This is another sparse tune, piano and passive drumbeat, wispy violin playing in an out. Here again Walsh and Steinhardt deliver harmonious vocals, with another annoying fade-away ending, this one complete with what sounds like a cavalry march. 2.5 stars to end the album.
All told, this album is far more important for it’s historical significance for the band than for the actual music on it. Walsh would leave shortly after Audio-Visions released, replaced by his vocal clone John Elephante. By the time Walsh returned for the 1986 recording Power, Elephante was gone, but so were Steinhardt, Hope, and Livgren. Only Steinhardt would eventually return, nearly two decades later, and other than the aberration Somewhere to Elsewhere, the six of them would never work in the studio together again.
This album has a special meaning for me since it was released the same year I graduated from high-school and left home for college. In that way it not only symbolized the end of the 70’s, but also the end of childhood, and the end of this incarnation of a band I had pretty much grown up with. I expect the same would have been true for hundreds of thousands of other kids who were turned on to Kansas in their early teen years, and were by 1980 entering adulthood. For that reason I believe Audio-Visions deserves a bit of a bonus, and qualifies as an excellent addition to any serious prog fan’s collection, and therefore a rating of four stars." - ProgArchives