by Joe Wallace
Kerry Livgren is best known for his guitar mania in Kansas. Classically influenced, sort of residing in the same musical zip code as Yes, but without the capes, the frilly raised pinky finger playing, and near-falsetto whine vocals.
Livrgren’s solo record, Seeds Of Change, has a trippy backstory. Livgren had experienced a lot of existential crises while on the rise in Kansas. He was well into something called The Urantia Book, which was one of those dusty old tomes supposedly dictated by “celestial beings” and full of revelations about life, the universe, and everything.
Livgren went evangelical after his conversations with a member of his support band, Le Roux. “I began to get more agitated and emotionally upset than ever. It was as though a thousand pounds was weighing down on my shoulders. I knew I was heading toward a significant conclusion, but I didn’t know what it would be.”
He had one of those quintessentially late 70s/early 80s born-again experiences and decided to chuck the Urantia book and dive into Jesus instead.
Livgren is probably one of the least tiresome “true believers” who kept going with music. Smart enough to know when to save it for Sunday and skilled enough in the music biz to let his views influence his work but not completely devour it, it turned out to still be possible to listen to an 80s-era Kansas record without feeling like you were being dragged in front of a Jimmy Swaggart revival meeting.
So when Livgren came out with this solo album, Seeds of Change, it could have gone one of two ways–the grim, humorless fist of churchy preach-a-tization, or a more complex, multi-layered artistic endeavor.
He chose the latter, even if the record is overwhelmingly evangelical in content. Some of which you have to be savvy enough to read between the lines to get (Ground Zero) plus some decidedly blatantly in-your-face-for-God material (Mask of the Great Deceiver).
The thing that makes this record truly wonderful? A must-buy? Two things, actually. It is a stunning artifact of 70s cheese–the prog-a-licious synths of the futuristic Ground Zero are too fun to pass up, and ditto for the Broadway-style musical intro to Mask of the Great Deceiver. Listening to that, you can just picture some kind of demented chorus line forming.
Secondly, the guest vocals on this album are a complete shock. Livgren may have converted to evangelical Christianity, but he did NOT lose his sense of humor for this album–Mask of the Great Deceiver features lead vocals by none other than old hook-em-horns himself, Ronnie James Dio.
Who, I might add, did NOT phone it in. AND, oddly enough, performed without a shred of irony while singing lyrics in praise of God and warning about the DEVILLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL.
Livgren put Dio on two tracks, saying he wanted to give Dio a chance to do something “diametrically opposed” to the Black Sabbath and solo stuff. But you can’t help but think it was also a tweak at the stuffy, uptight brethren he surely found himself dealing with once his conversion story got out.
All that said, there are some completely insufferable moments on this album. The first cut, “Just One Way” is a shameless Christian tract basically saying what the title implies. Livgren may be one of the most creative forces in Christendom, but he was still infected with that religious elitism that plagues all the monotheists–“Our god is NUMBER ONE! YEAH!”
But the good stuff on this album is worth repeated listens, even the instrumental break on the gag-tacular “Just One Way” is pretty great. Try to ignore the naivete at work on the moments where “God Is Great, God Is Good, And He’s The Only Thing That Will Make You Happy” noises are happening, cuz Seeds of Change by Kerry Livgren is a lot of fun otherwise.
(Transparency alert: at the time of this writing I have a copy of Seeds of Change for sale at Discogs.com. If you click on the links and find it’s not there anymore, you can always check out the other rare, strange, and under-appreciated vinyl I have for sale there.)