Strange as it may seem in this era of autotune and virtual instruments, there was a time in popular music when adventuresome artists were rewarded, at least occasionally, with something other than puzzled looks. No genre encapsulates this bygone age more than progressive rock, which for a time in the 1970s rode high on the charts with bands such as Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, and Kansas enjoying commercial if not critical success by seeking to interweave classical and avant-garde themes with rock‘n’roll’s rhythmic power.
Fast forward to 1985. Kerry Livgren, de facto leader of Kansas during its mid to late 1970s heyday and author of its two best known songs “Carry On Wayward Son” along with “Dust In The Wind”, was at something of an artistic/career crossroads. The band for which he was known was firmly in his rear view mirror yet alive once more; the following year saw it release Power which featured the top twenty hit “All I Wanted.” Meanwhile, his own band AD, whose lineup was replete with talent to burn, found itself sort-of on the Sparrow label, thus automatically relegated to the Christian rock ghetto, a place even the most fiercely devoted fans from secular days seldom knew existed. And, given how Livgren’s muse was utterly beyond the comprehension of most CCM fans worshipping at the altar of soft pop, he and his band barely registered in the music machine’s playground. Nevertheless, Livgren and company persevered as long as possible, along the way giving us 1985’s Art Of The State.
Art Of The State reminds me of an interview I watched several years ago with Les Claypool, bassist without peer best known for his band Primus. He was talking about the time when he auditioned, believe it or not, for the then-vacant bassist position with Metallica. He didn’t get the job. The interview then cut over to Metallica leader James Hetfield who didn’t even attempt to contain his roaring laughter as he noted about the entire matter, “He was too good for us!” In similar fashion, AD’s sophisticated melodies, arrangements, and lyrics were so far beyond the scope of 99.44% of mid-‘80s CCM it is little wonder why it made no marketplace impact.
The album lacks the standout, forever a mandatory staple hit à la the aforementioned “Carry On Wayward Son” or “Dust In The Wind.” It is filled with meaty inventiveness, be it the positive lilt of “Lead Us To Reason,” which should have been a hit but wasn’t, the apocalyptic grandeur of “The Fury,” and multiple stops in-between. While the overall sound was familiar to Kansas aficionados, Livgren and company declined to recycle his previous band, adding more group vocal punch and rhythm to the hooks. The instrumental excursions during songs were kept brief, sharp, and sweet. Art Of The State is still unmistakably and undeniably prog, but it’s prog purposefully trimmed down.
Livgren is still with us, working on new music. For those looking to find out what they missed while they were loading up on the latest Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith fan fodder, check out Art Of The State. It was, and is, state of the art.
The album is available on Kerry Livgren’s website.