Go for it! “Freaks Of Nature” is the steamiest, most vibrant and rocking CD in the Kansas repertoire. This album marked the comeback of the band in 1995 after they had thrown in the towel a few years earlier. Due to lead singer Steve Walsh’s serious drug problems, the then record label (MCA) dropped the band. When master guitarist Steve Morse also left, the band called it quits. With Morse, Kansas had created the surprising symphonic AOR albums “Power” and “In The Spirit Of Things”. However, founding members Phil Ehart, Richard Williams and Steve Walsh got the itch to continue and together with bassist Billy Greer, violinist David Ragsdale and Greg Robert on keyboards, they breathed new life into Kansas. They found a new record label in Intersound and recorded “Freaks Of Nature”, which was extensively promoted through performances with bands like Styx. What stands out on this album is how the departure of Steve Morse was musically compensated for. Guitarist Richard Williams, after 21 years, finally has the chance to step out of the shadows of his predecessors, but he doesn’t take it. He delivers his always recognizable solid riffs and only occasionally does he showcase a flowing melodic line or solo, as in Desperate Times or Hope Once Again. Instead, he often gives his guitar a good workout, as in the robust Black Fathom, which contains just about the only scintillating solo on this album. He’s not really a soloist. He’s used to giving others space and he does just that.
“Freaks Of Nature” is a brilliant return to the typical Kansas violin sound of the 1970s. Responsible for this is the talented David Ragsdale. His playing is somewhat more straightforward than that of former violinist Robbie Steinhardt. Ragsdale uses fewer embellishments, is less flamboyant. His skills were already evident on the 1992 live album, where he performed the Steinhardt parts with verve. Now that he has to rely on his own creativity, he stands tall, primarily due to the tremendous variety he brings to the songs. Energetic and classical in I Can Fly, driving with pizzicato attacks in Desperate Times and lyrical in Hope Once Again. The title track is hypnotic in the middle and Peaceful And Warm is enchanting at the end. Ragsdale is the chameleon on “Freaks Of Nature”. All the songs he co-wrote, often together with Walsh, can be counted among the highlights.
The absolute knockout is the song-oriented Under The Knife, featuring refined violin and broad gospel choirs. It brings Toto to mind a bit, a comparison that can be made quite often. Songs like the lackluster Need and Cold Grey Morning, written by Kerry Livgren, have that sultry feel.
I can fly, I really can wave goodbye to familiar land. It seems as if these words reflect how liberated Steve Walsh feels now. The man who was once called the Tarzan of prog impresses once again with his exuberant voice. His emotions are always genuine. It is the impact his voice has on the music and vice versa that makes “Freaks Of Nature” so vibrant.
Disappointing is the absence of keyboard solos, even though the band has two keyboardists. The supporting roles of Messrs. Walsh and Robert are not overly significant, resulting in a relatively low symphonic level on this album. However, it is undeniably progressive. Other factors contribute to the success of “Freaks Of Nature”.
For example, the rhythm section. Since 1985, Billy Greer has been the perfect bassist within the Kansas ranks. Together with Phil Ehart’s drums, they leave a significant mark on this album. Their playing is tight and dynamic. It blazes, it sparks, it sizzles and when the temperature reaches boiling point, steam rises. The majority of the rocking character of this CD can be attributed to them. Phil Ehart is the king of thunderous breaks. He really goes wild in Desperate Times and the song stands strong. It is characteristic of the entire album.
“Freaks Of Nature” is a strong album, a unique specimen that cannot be compared to any other Kansas album. The band wears the heavy rock sound well. It occupies a special place within the Kansas repertoire. On the other hand, it also features familiar elements such as violin playing, Walsh’s euphoric vocals and the fantastic rhythm section. However, don’t expect the symphonic level of albums like “Masque” and “Left Overture”. Instead, see “Freaks Of Nature” as a complement to those albums. The production is fresh, the sound compact and the sound pressure is excellent. Those who prefer their Kansas to have a more rocking edge will find “Freaks Of Nature” to be a great, one-of-a-kind CD.
© Dick van der Heijde 2023