Nearly twenty years ago, Kansas released their album Freaks Of Nature. I’m not here to speculate why the album is not revered as a lost classic. I’m not here to agree with the low sales numbers and throw more shovels of dirt on the effort. The true fact is that I’ve never heard the album. It could be great, yet I am uninspired.
Severed from their MCA Records deal, Kansas was starting over on an indie label called Intersound. The band — with longstanding members Phil Ehart, Steve Walsh, and Rich Williams, and with Power (1986) and In The Spirit Of Things (1988) bassist Billy Greer in the mix — welcomed back Jeff Glixman, the producer on some of the group’s most famous tracks. In for the ride were new keyboardist Greg Robert and guitar/violinist David Ragsdale.
That’s what I know about the album, and most of it came from Wikipedia. Kerry Livgren had already long departed the group, focusing on his Christian faith and his band A.D., and later diving deeper into instrumental music. John Elefante, singer during the Vinyl Confessions (1982) and Drastic Measures (1983) years, also was working in CCM. I assume Robby Steinhardt was doing well enough with whatever was coming back from “Dust In The Wind” and “Carry On Wayward Son” residuals. Steve Morse, formerly of the Dixie Dregs and later of Deep Purple, was done after In The Spirit Of Things. In a sense, while it was clearly a different kind of Kansas behind Freaks Of Nature, it was one making a serious effort to recapture the trappings of the past.
Still, I have never heard the album, and I am a huge Kansas fan. Even in the 1990’s when there was so much musical change in the air, and a new buzz-bin band was emerging every other week, I kept the cassette of the slapdash greatest hits collection Carry On close to the car tape deck. (Remember those grocery store compilations with awful paste-up cover art? This was on that order.) It would not have been such a hardship for me to just go to the Compact Disc And Tape Center and pick up the effort, awful cover art and all, and try it out. But it never crossed my mind, even as it crossed my path.
It’s an odd thing: that moment when you don’t actively choose to walk away from an artist you like. You just do it. It’s not as if you have spurned everything they’ve ever recorded and it’s not a case of “teaching them a lesson” from straying too far from what you think they should be. It is simply that indifference sets in and you move a little to the left or the right.
The mid-’90s were notorious for that, and as previously alluded to, a contributing factor was that there was so damned much to choose from. Kurt Cobain was gone, but the alternative rock machine that found it’s primary energy source with the Nirvana breakthrough was still grinding forward. The Foo Fighters and Ben Folds Five debuts were coming. Alice In Chains and Blind Melon still had the majority of their rosters, although Layne Staley and Shannon Hoon would soon be leaving us. Hip hop was on its way to usurping rock’s reign on the popular music throne, but not before Nu Metal, the metal/funk/hip hop hybrid entered the lexicon. In among all these names and genres, I can imagine each reader picking out a title, a performer, or a moment where they were just — poof — over it. No animus or drama, no hard feelings toward the past. People were giving up on artists daily like it was 365 days of Lent, and life went on regardless.
What I personally didn’t understand was how much of a golden age it was. This was likely the last time when there was a deluge of material coming my way and I could get a handle on most of it. It is indeed showing my age when I say that the digital music revolution has made it hard for me to grasp and appreciate new music. I do, but there is a considerable amount of effort required to sift through oceans of music that “drop” daily (and I have resisted streaming services since I already feel overwhelmed). While no one would accuse the 1990’s of being an era of scarcity, there was a proportionality to it that I could handle. I could also count on the feedback of friends to steer me toward things I might like. Today, they’re as bogged down as I am.
There remain those moments throughout my music-listening life where I knew a band I liked was putting out something new. They’d previously done me no wrong, but on the day of release, I was unmoved to hear it. I was not interested in buying it. I was just…done. It’s so strange.
For the 20th anniversary of Kansas’ Freaks Of Nature, I should probably give it a try. I probably won’t.