SEED OF CHANGE
After several years of seeking “truth” in any and all possible spiritual, philosophical and ideological ways, Kerry Livgren leader and founder of the famed progressive, classic rock band Kansas came face to face with the creator of the universe. During a tour with 70’s pop superstar group Ambrosia and unheralded Louisiana rockers Le Roux, Kerry met those bands lead singers David Pack and Jeff Pollard, respectively, both devoted Christians. Pack, and Pollard began to minister to, debate with and share the Gospel with Livgren. In High School I dated the niece of David Pack and got to meet and speak with him on several occasions and was able to gather the story from his perspective. Pack’s and Pollard’s impact on Livgren and Livgren’s eventual conversion had a tremendous impact on the quality and validity of the Christian music industry.
This blog is not intended to be biographical sketches of the artists but rather a review of some of the most important albums in CCM history. But when it comes to Kerry Livgren the background has as much of an impact on the albums he created as his actual musicianship. This is especially true of Seeds of Change.
Kerry Livgren was always very spiritual and his search for enlightenment, spiritual connection and divine truth led him down many paths. Those differing paths weaved their way into many of Livgren’s writings with the supergroup Kansas prior to his conversion and it is why many Christians find his earlier works intriguing. They contained a man’s search and struggles and it is very powerful when understood within that context. It is always why there were many spiritual insights in songs like carry On Wayward Son, Dust in the Wind and Portrait (He Knew).
Upon becoming a Christian Livgren’s lyrical content made an immediate shift to include a more blatant Christian message, but one still wrapped in powerful symbolism and imagery. The first Kansas release to contain post-conversion Livgren lyrics was Audio Visions. The album is, in some ways, an intriguing platform of Spiritual Warfare and, for the same reasons, a very disjointed project. The reason being is that the other primary songwriter for Kansas was lead singer Steve Walsh. Walsh was a committed non-Christian and it was obvious to see the difference in content of the lyrics between the Livgren and Walsh penned tunes. A few other members of Kansas, most notably drummer Phil Ehart, also had embraced Christianity and friction within the band was obvious.
In order to find a solace and outlet for his more blatantly Christian material Livgren worked a deal with his record company (CBS) to record a series of solo projects that would not conflict musically or comercially with Kansas. This lead to the release of the project being reviewed here, Seeds of Change.
Recorded between two Kansas projects, Audio Visions and Vinyl Confessions, this project did not stray far thematically or even musically from the Kansas sound, though it hearkens more to the earlier, more progressive and classically influenced music of the earlier Kansas recordings than the more commercially sounding Visions and Confession projects.
Kerry also pulled out all the stops to make a record loaded with a who’s who of classic and hard rock luminaries at the time as well as a collection of friends who had made an impact on his spiritual journey. Those lending their support for the project included the aforementioned Pollard and Pack as well as Barriemore Barlow (Jethro Tull), Ehart and Walsh (Kansas), Mylon LeFevre and the first lead vocals from Livgren himself.
But for anyone familiar with the project the most notable and, by far, most controversial part was the inclusion of Ronnie James Dio. Dio, arguably one of the top two or three greatest hard rock/heavy metal vocalist, was, at that time, the lead vocalist for Black Sabbath. Dio also performed with Richie Blackmore in Rainbow along with having a very successful solo career. His inclusion was considered blasphemous by many evangelicals and many simply could not understand why Livgren would use a singer many believed as a Satanist due to his connection with the previously mentioned bands.
Ironically the two songs Dio sang were “Mask of the Great Deceiver,” a very anti-Satan song and “Live For the King,” possibly the most blatantly Christian song on the record. I recall attending a concert in San Diego with Livgren and Phil Keaggy (yeah, I know, that some serious 6 string credentials in one building) in which there was a Q&A time following the concert. It did not take long before someone asked Kerry about Dio’s inclusion on the project. Livgren responded, “If God can use Balaam’s donkey, He can use Ronnie James Dio!”
But what about the album itself?
Despite only having seven songs the album last nearly 45 minutes. The first track is the Pollard vocal lead “Just One Way.” This may be the most “testimonial” in nature as Livgren penned
All my life I looked for something real
Place to place I wandered restlessly
I just needed something I could feel
And when I found the Truth it set me free
Just one way, just one way, just one way
From the dark to the Light there’s
Just one way…
The track itself is dominated by Barriemore Barlow of Jethro Tull fame’s amazing drumming. It is constant pounding fills that track with creative rhythms that demand attention. Pollards powerful vocals makes one wonder why Le Roux never broke through to the mainstream. It should be noted here that Pollard when on to become a Pastor and published a very interesting, popular and controversial essay on modesty called, “Christian Modesty and the Public Undressing of America.”
The blatant testimony of “Just One Way” is followed by the previously mentioned “Mask of the Great Deceiver.” The reader would be hard pressed to find too many fans of this album that do not think this is by far the best tune on the project and possibly one of Livgren’s greatest works. Clocking in at nearly 8 minutes the song starts with an eerie, atmospheric keyboard and drum work the moves immediately into a rock version of classical music – a Livgren staple. The masterpiece then settles into a bass driven, blues influenced rock anthem. The music perfectly matches the content of the lyrics. It is nearly two minutes before Dio’s vocals take center stage and from there he completely dominates the song. There are not enough adjectives to describe just how amazing his voice is within this genre. This may be one of his best performances as well. He blasts the lyrics…
He will fill up your ears
And he’ll dazzle your eyes
But don’t believe what he’s saying
‘Cause he’s the father of lies
In your heart, don’t you know that he’ll betray you
And in the end he will drag you away
Till all the world is cryin’ for the judgment day
And he’s fallen how he’s fallen
From the height of the morning star
Though his light’s still shining brightly
It’s the mask of the great deceiver
Kansas vocalist Steve Walsh takes lead vocal chores on “How can You Live” and, not surprisingly, this tune may be the most Kansas-like of the entire project. But in it, this devoted non-Christian encourages the listener to “look to the Word…” Walsh would leave Kansas soon after recording this song for Livgren.
Perhaps the oddest song is the very bluesy Whiskey Seed. The musical background is southern, Louisiana blues with steel and slide guitar taking center stage with, of all things, an harmonica. The background chant-like vocals support a duet with Mylon LeFevre and Livgren himself. This warning against the dangers of alcohol fits the bluesy vocal stylings of LeFevre perfectly. In fact, this was the best vocals from Mylon since the late 60’s and much better and more authentic than what he would do performing with his band, Broken Heart, making Christian pop rock during the mid 1980’s.
The second Dio vocal tune follows. “Live for the King” once again shows why Ronnie James Dio is simply a master blues/hard rock master. Starting slow and building with a passion Dio scream for the listener to live for the King! This is the most evangelical tune on the project. The ending to the song is one that builds to a crescendo and is most certainly worth the listeners patience. Dio is joined by a choir of angelic voices singing “Live, Live, Live for the King.” On top of the repeated chorus Dio vamps with powerful voice encouraging the listener to:
“Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice
It’s an easy choice
Time as come to sing
We’re gonna walk, walk with the King
Open your, open your eyes
The writing’s on the wall, don’t you realize”
On “Down to Core” Kansas sound man, Davy Moire, make his debut with some pretty impressive and raspy vocals. Backing Moire are some very eerie, atmospheric female vocals that end up belonging to Livgren’s wife, Victoria. The mid tempo, blue influenced song stops at mid point and turns into a very aggressive and progressive rock tune with blistering guitar work from Livgren. Just as quickly the turn returns to the mid-tempo bluesy feel with amazing horns courtesy of Bobby Campo of Le Roux.
Seeds of Change finishes with the apocalyptic “Ground Zero.” Taking his cue from the popular eschatological view of a soon coming return of Jesus Christ and comparing it to the impact point of a nuclear device, Livgren’s finale is both cautionary and worshipful. David Pack of Ambrosia took the lead vocals and really shines here. This is an epic tune lasting more then 8 minutes. “Ground Zero” is keyboard driven song with several musical interludes containing piano solos and Livgren’s amazing guitar work. The mid-section instrumental slowly builds with classical inflections and angelic choir until Packs vocals return with the closing refrain of…
Across the sea and far away, the eyes of all the world
Await the Passion play
The final act at last has begun, the new is born
The old is bound to pass away
No more turn of the pages
And now the hope of the ages
For all the bondage is broken, all who see
The day is coming when men will look to the skies
The consummation of all who realize
(We are) Waiting for Ground Zero
The song then closes with hymn-like fanfare resembling Kansas’ Magnum Opus. This is the most classical sounding tune on the entire project and, in some sense, Livgren says more about the majesty and power of the Lord by remaining silent lyrically and letting his music speak for itself. The final two minutes contains such a powerful instrumental refrain of majesty and glory that even words would not be able to convey the same truth.
No one who has any appreciate for classic or progressive rock should be without this project. With “Seeds of Change” Livgren had just begun to shape and influence the Christian music scene. This impact will be discussed more in later posts.