40 Years Ago: Kansas Keep Trying to Find Their Identity on ‘Masque’
"It amazes me how Masque is a favorite for so many Kansas fans," drummer Phil Ehart told Will Romano in his 2010 book Mountains Come Out of the Sky. "[The album] sounds odd. It has a dark cover. It was a record we came off the road [to record], did in a hurry, went back on the road in a hurry. It has real light and poppy songs like 'Two Cents Worth' and 'It Takes a Woman's Love' and yet also 'The Pinnacle' and 'Mysteries and Mayhem.' To me, Masque is a kind of metamorphosis. We were in a cocoon – a [caterpillar] changing into a butterfly, if you will."
That's an accurate assessment of the band's third studio album – an illuminating, if occasionally awkward, hybrid of blue-collar boogie-rock and ornate prog. Masque, their second album of 1975, found Kansas stumbling upon their identity in real time, building from featherweight rockers to majestic instrumental workouts. The sextet would seamlessly bridge those two paths by 1976's Leftoverture, but Masque laid a crucial foundation.
Kansas recorded the LP with producer Jeff Glixman, relocating from the urban distractions of Los Angeles to the solitude of Louisiana's Studio in the Country. "From a production standpoint that was probably the greatest decision, or event, that happened for the band Kansas," Glixman told Classic Rock Revisited. "It was immensely important for the development of the band, the music and me [...] We were the single most important thing that was happening there. More importantly, it allowed us to maintain our ‘us against the world’ attitude. Everyone was much more focused."
Much of the material was fleshed out during a six-week rehearsal period before hitting the studio (a surprising brevity, given the density of the LP's second half). That between-tour rush even extended to the album's brooding artwork and design, which originated from crunch-time decision-making.
"Kerry [Livgren] came up with the title," Ehart told Goldmine in 2014. "We were so rushed between Song for America and Masque; between making the albums and touring, CBS just got the painting and the pictures on the back and we said, 'Okay, cool, put it on the cover.' It is probably our darkest album cover. The pictures of us on the back are very dark. It was quickly thrown together because we were so busy; we were just working our asses off. What is interesting is that on Masque we didn’t use the logo. We were just so rushed that we didn't think about it."
And the band faced added pressure from label head/publisher Don Kirshner, who'd been on them to churn out a hit. "The first record did 50,000 [sales], the second album 150 and Masque got up to 250," Ehart told Romano. "So he was making money. It wasn't like he was losing money. But Kirshner was all about publishing hit songs."
Kirshner wasn't gifted with a smash single, despite their best efforts by remixing opener "It Takes a Woman's Love (To Make a Man)." An organ-soaked boogie-rock throwaway, that track is redeemed only by a sassy saxophone cameo; meanwhile, "Two Cents Worth," is a pleasant but uncharacteristic aberration of funkiness – with its wah-wah keyboards and congas, the groove wouldn't sound out of place on the first Steely Dan LP.
But Masque builds momentum the longer it plays, with guitarist-keyboardist Livgren dominating several expansive tunes on side two – including the metallic, doomy attack of "Child of Innocence" and the classical-rock barrage of closer "The Pinnacle." The epic centerpiece "Icarus - Borne on Wings of Steel," is defined by the dizzying interplay of Robby Steinhardt's violin, Dave Hope's Chris Squire-esque bass and Livgren's sci-fi synths. For Glixman, the track marked a new chapter in the band's development.
"The prototype for what was to come was on Masque, and that was the song 'Icarus: Borne on Wings of Steel,'" the producer told Classic Rock Revisited. "Kerry took one of his great adventure songs and got the rock element in, too. The song goes through the band filter and comes out with all the ‘rock’ and all the ‘art’ in a concise easily accessible package. That song delivers in five and half, or six, minutes what Kerry had been taking forever to deliver in previous songs."
Kansas finally earned their international breakthrough with the following year's Leftoverture, delighting Kirshner with the FM radio staple "Carry On Wayward Son." Masque is messier, less consistent than that LP. But it remains a fascinating glimpse at a legendary band, mid-bloom.
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