Song Spotlight: Taking In The View, By Kansas

The 1980’s were very difficult years for progressive rock. It’s safe to say that every major progressive rock band was affected by the transition from the 1970’s to the 1980’s. Many bands streamlined their sound while others simply disbanded. American progressive rock band Kansas did both. Thankfully their breakup was short lived.

Kansas opened the 1980’s with a succession of increasingly commercial albums: Audio-Visions (1980), Vinyl Confessions (1982), Drastic Measures (1983) and Power (1986). In that span of time the band had three top forty singles. One could argue that they successfully transitioned and survived the changing climate of the music scene.

Their 1986 album Power is a very interesting one to me. The band disbanded and went their separate ways in 1984. Power is the first album by the reformed band. The album features the return of lead singer Steve Walsh after his departure in 1981. Also returning were the ever reliable Phil Ehart on drums and Rich Williams on guitar. Filling out the lineup were new band members Steve Morse on guitar and Billy Greer on bass. Absent from the reunion were long time members guitarist Kerry Livgren and violinist Robby Steinhardt.

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Power is a very mainstream rock album, but it still carries the essence of the band’s sounds from the 1970’s Overall it is a very guitar driven album. Rich Williams and Steve Morse handle the guitar duties admirably. Steve Walsh’s keyboards are very present, but nothing like the keyboard heavy albums of the 1970s. It should be noted that Power is one of the few Kansas albums not to feature any violin.

I must say that I am a big fan of this album. Steve Walsh is in fine form vocally. The songwriting, band performances and production are exceptional. I do not  have a negative thing to say about this album. This is purely a rock album, but traces of progressive rock do crop up a few times over the course of the album. Power is the sound of a 1970’s progressive rock band successfully navigating the choppy waters of the 1980’s music scene.  The spirit of 1970’s Kansas is ever present, but the music sounds fresh and new.

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I could highlight any of the ten songs on the album. But I will focus on the seventh track, Taking In The View, the album’s quietest song. Of all the songs on the album this one captures the essence of 1970’s Kansas the most. Musically the song features just acoustic guitar and keyboards, leaving plenty of space for Steve Walsh’s vocals. He delivers a typically passionate and powerful vocal performance. A children’s choir, something different for Kansas, appears briefly in the latter half of the song. This track would have fit right in on the classic Kansas album Point Of Know Return (1977).

Taking In The View is just one of ten songs that showcase Steve Walsh’s stellar vocals. The whole band delivers solid performances on the album, but Walsh is clearly the standout. Power is a testament to Kansas and their ability to remain commercially relevant and yet stay true to their musical roots. The album may not be as complex as prior efforts, but to this fan’s ears it still sounds like Kansas.

The Music of Valensia, A Queen Fan’s Dream

Valensia is an ultra talented singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.  Unfortunately he has spent most of his music career in relative obscurity.  Musically he combines the influence of 1970’s Queen, Kate Bush, The Beatles and 1980’s pop music; i.e. Duran Duran, The Police, and Culture Club. Vocally he sounds like an amalgam of Freddie Mercury and Kate Bush with a touch of Michael Jackson. With all of that his biggest influences are clearly Queen and Freddie Mercury. All of these influences meld within Valensia’s lushly produced and intelligent pop/rock compositions.  His influences are displayed loud and proud, but ultimately the musical vision is uniquely Valensia’s.

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He has spent the bulk of his under the radar career paying homage to the great music of Queen. For me his music is the ultimate love letter to Queen and Freddie Mercury. At times Valensia sounds so much like Freddie Mercury it is uncanny. Listening to his music it is quite clear that Valensia is first and foremost a passionate  fan of Queen. His desire to produce music that is heavily influenced by Queen is only natural.

Overall most of his albums are worthwhile listening.  Obviously some are better than others, but there is great music to be found on all of his releases.

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His first album Gaia, released in 1993, established the basic musical template that he has worked with for his career.  Elaborately produced pop/rock music combining the quirky over the top artfulness and huge vocals of Queen, the unique weirdness of Kate Bush with 1980’s pop rock.

On Valensia II – K.O.S.M.O.S. (1996), Valensia refines the formula that he established on his debut album.  The songwriting is more mature and the arrangements are fuller.  I also feel that his vocals are stronger as well. Overall there is a focus on more mid tempo songs and ballads on K.O.S.M.O.S.

His third album, Valensia III – Millennium  (1998), is hampered by record company interference. Apparently he was instructed to write songs similar to a than current popular artist.  The result is an album, apart from three tracks, that sounds nothing like his prior albums.

Next up is Gaia II, released in 2000.  A decent album that is a bit slick and overproduced.  Overall it is a good, solid batch of typical Valensia songs, but the songwriting is somewhat lacking.  Gaia II does contain the mini epic Phantom Of The Opera, which is essentially Valensia’s reworking of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

As great as some of his prior albums were, they were all leading up to his magnum opus.  Valensia’s  absolute masterpiece is The Blue Album, released in 2002. The Blue Album is so over the top, in a good way. Valenaia beats Queen at their own game musically and vocally. There are so many multitracked vocals at times it is dizzying.  Over the course of The Blue Album Valensia takes the listener on a wild musical roller coaster ride. I could go on and on about each track. Instead I will highlight a few songs.

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The Blue Album begins with the epic track Mayte. The song opens with Valensia sounding like Freddie Mercury circa 1974, singing, “Murder I think you are a murder!” The glorious Queen like choral vocals throughout the song are marvelous. The song weaves a tale of friendship and betrayal. It is six minutes and thirty nine seconds of Queen II inspired musical bliss.

Inshallah revisits the  sounds of Queen II as well. Multitracked Valensias abound throughout this track.  This song showcases Valensia utilizing the perfect mix of Freddie Mercury and Kate Bush style vocals.  As strange as that may sound, it works quite well.

Valensia’s vocals on the track Alyssa are absolutely gorgeous. The song sounds like Queen meets old time Disney. Keyboards and piano abound to create an air of mystery and wonder.  There is a nice mix of the sounds of the Queen albums Queen II and A Day At The Races.

Throughout The Flying Dutchfan Valensia sounds so much like Freddie Mercury it is incredible! This is an upbeat rocker with some of the biggest choral vocals on the album. The song also features a killer guitar solo by Valensia.

Valensia tosses so much into The Amatuer.  There are huge Queen II like vocals, Kate Bush like vocals, reggae and rock flavored guitar all mixed into one deliriously over the top song.

The Line features the musical sounds of the 1980’s. Imagine Queen collaborating with  Duran Duran. To top it off Valensia adds in a shred guitar solo.

A Night In Spain has an exotic feel to it.  More Freddie Mercury/ Kate Bush style vocals abound.  Valensia displays a killer falsetto throughout. The music would fit right into  a James Bond movie.

Burying Heather is my least favorite song on the album. It is an enjoyable track, it just is not as well written as the others.  However it is a fascinating track because it sounds like Freddie Mercury fronting the Beatles circa 1966.

The album ends with the absolutely beautiful song Valsenian Jazz where Valensia sings the bulk of the song in falsetto.  Jazzy piano chords, walking bass lines and  orchestral keyboards help to give the song a slow waltz, jazz feel.  This easy going track is a perfect ending to the over the top musical mayhem that ensued prior.

After The Blue Album Valensia recorded Queen Tribute in 2003. Based on the title one can pretty much surmise the album’s content. Much more than a simple tribute album. Valensia opted to mostly record lesser known Queen sings; i.e. You Take My Breath Away, My Fairy King, Dear Friends. He also added in a few hits, putting his own spin on songs like We Will Rock You and Killer Queen. Going much deeper he recorded a song by Smile, the band that was the precursor to Queen.  Only a true Queen fan would record the song Polar Bear. This is a tribute album worth hearing.

After the Queen Tribute album Valensia remained somewhat active with various projects.  One of those projects was Metal Majesty. This was an opportunity for Valensia to try his hand at hard rock/heavy metal. However any hopes of new solo music faded further away with each passing year.  For a long time it seemed as if The Blue Album would be the last solo album of original music by Valensia. That all changed in 2014 when Valensia released the many titled album Valensia VI – Gaia III – Aglaea – Legacy. According to Valensia this was to be his farewell album. This album was a most welcomed surprise.  Overall it is a solid, if slightly inconsistent album.  But as a fan anything new by Valensia was an extreme treat.

As I mentioned earlier there is great music on all of Valensia’s releases. He also released three EPs that are worthwhile listening as well, The White Album (1994), Luna Luna (2001) and Non Plugged (2004).

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There is talk of another Valensia album, but at this point it is just talk.  I would love a new album from Valensia.  But if nothing new is released I will be satisfied. The Blue Album alone is such a treasure trove of music. It is an album that is enough to satisfy for years to come.

Valensia is a true artist with a great passion for music.  I truly believe that his music should be heard by a wider audience. It is my hope that many will read this blog, listen to the included songs and seek out Valensia’s music.

Troy T.

Song Spotlight: I Am, By Michael Sweet

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I can not say enough about the very talented Michael Sweet. The man can seemingly do it all. Over the last few years he has successfully lead Stryper while simultaneously working on his solo career. At 53 years old he seems to have found a new gear. He is a singer extraordinaire, a criminally underrated guitarist, a gifted songwriter and a solid record producer.

Michael Sweet has been a very vocal Christian for a long time. He would be the first to tell you that he is far from perfect and is no saint. But his beliefs have helped him to avoid many of pitfalls of the rock and roll lifestyle that have tripped up and even killed some in the metal scene. His lifestyle choices have helped to not just maintain his vocal abilities , but to refine them. In his early fifties he possesses a voice that would make singers half of age envious.

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The song I Am, from his most recent solo album One Sided War (2016), is a vocal tour de force. I have been a Stryper fan for over twenty years. What he has done vocally over the last several years with Stryper and as a solo artist continues to surprise and amaze me. The man is singing with so much passion and power. Currently far too many veteran hard rock and metal singers are struggling vocally. Michael Sweet is laying down some of the best vocals of his career. And he is still delivering the goods live.

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I Am features a stellar vocal from Michael Sweet. The song begins instrumentally with an 80’s metal style guitar riff. At the 0:29 mark when Sweet bellows “Oooohhhhhhhh!!!!!!”, as a listener you know that you are in for a treat. Musically the song shifts to a heavy, mid tempo guitar riff. Michael Sweet begins to deliver an absolute powerhouse vocal. As the chorus begins he triumphantly sings “I Ammmmmm!!!!!!! The beginning and the end!!!!!!” What an absolutely amazing vocal performance .

The backing band is phenomenal on this track. Playing along with Michael Sweet are Ethan Brosh on guitar, Will Hunt on drums and John O’Bolye on bass. During the guitar solo the tempo picks up and Ethan Brosh lays down a blistering guitar solo. He burns up the fretboard playing a melodic and bluesy shred filled solo. Prior to hearing this album I was unfamiliar with Ethan Brosh. He sure got my attention after hearing his fantastic playing on several songs on One Sided War.

As a big fan of Stryper it is exciting to see Michael Sweet explore heavy metal outside of the band. On his early solo albums he explored guitar driven pop, rock and hard rock. This may have disappointed some Stryper fans, but I feel that all of his solo albums are worth seeking out. Each album showcases different aspects of Michael Sweet’s abilities as a singer, songwriter and guitar player. My personal favorite is his album Truth, released in 2000. This diverse collection includes classic rock, hard rock, heavy metal and one of the best ballads of his career. It’s an album that I highly recommend.

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With One Sided War Michael Sweet, the solo artist, fully embraces heavy metal. I love the music that he has created with Stryper. As the band’s singer, co-guitarist and main songwriter his imprint is all over the band. Hearing him write metal in a different vein and record with different musicians is refreshing. Overall there is a distinction between these songs and his work with Stryper. Of the twelve songs on One Sided War, I Am is definitely my favorite and arguably the best song on the album.

Troy T.