Steve Walsh is one of America’s consummate vocal treasures; that status is assured. But he is also a man that is a true creator, an artist, a shaper of sounds and an almost literary, cinematic portrayer of life’s terrains. Walsh has seen many of these terrains, from vantage points above, below and perceptively within, and his ability to bring them to life for his listeners is a gift of sensory completeness. “Glossolalia”, the man’s first solo album in two decades, focuses years of hard-fought rock ‘n’ roll wisdom, creating a canvas that mirrors this ability to look at all strata and indeed all time, and make sense out of a life that can often be seen as surreal and meaningless.
Steve Walsh’s primary gallery has of course been that enigmatic progressive rock collective known as Kansas. As lead vocalist and keyboardist for all but three years of the band’s twenty-year existence, Walsh is the expression behind such hits as ‘Carry On My Wayward Son’, ‘Dust In The Wind’ (recently recast with the London Symphony Orchestra), and ‘Point Of Know Return’, taking records like Song For America, Masque, Leftoverture, and Monolith to stadiums all over the world, gold and platinum accolades flowing despite the cerebral quality of the band’s ouevre. Add to this two records with tough rock act Streets, a well-regarded solo album called Schemer Dreamer, as well as a Kansas reunion album later this year, and Walsh emerges behind Kerry Livgren’s shadow as an equal in both the creation of the Kansas sound, and in extra-curricular artistic accomplishment.
Flash forward to the year 2000 and Walsh has created an intimate theatre, its spot-lit stage the platform for confessions and reflections and impressions of both his own hard life in and out of Kansas (Walsh had come to terms with his own demons and addictions in 1998), and those around him, some very real, some character sketches from a mind that has always been a student of film and a “bit of a frustrated actor.”
On that theme comes an album with a title that essentially means “speaking in tongues”, a reflection of these vital sketches, and a reflection of the album’s gravity-defying twists, turns, leaps and dives. This idea of the cinematic keeps revolving in concentric circles through each track on the album. The effect is oddly panoramic, yet intimate and integral to Steve as a solo artist, as a storyteller. The effect is like crossing Roger Waters’ fierce intellect with Don Henley’s wry observations at his nation and Lou Gramm's rock star magnetism. All the while, Walsh’s voice soars with a dramatic expression that is breathtaking.
“Well, thank you,” offers Steve on that characterization. “I always try to imagine what things look like while I’m saying them. And that’s really to get me out of the verbalization of it and into some sort of mindset where maybe the lyrics and even the notes take on more of an expressive form rather than a performance. I mean, you can sit there and do doremifasolatido, and hit every one of them perfectly, but if you don’t sing with any emotion, or if you don’t feel what you’re talking about, much like an actor, it doesn’t work. I mean, I’ve had a little acting experience, and the first thing the director told me is ‘you’re acting!’ And I said, ‘well yeah.’ And he said, ‘don’t act! Just quit acting and just let it be, let it happen, let it be a part of you.’ Well hell, I never got the hang of it (laughs). I really never did. So I suppose, yeah, maybe I am a little bit of a frustrated actor. But I think I’ve taken that idea into my singing.”
Lyrically, the central theme of the album is a reawakening of sense for this most connective of American vocalists. Steve explains. “More than anything, it’s a baptism for me. More than anything, “Glossolalia” is the product of my life that has changed dramatically in the last two years. I completely quit doing things to myself that I have been doing for 30 years. I was forced to. And it made a lot of stuff appear literally from out of nowhere. I never really saw the world as some place that didn’t need embellishment. I always thought to watch a movie I had to be high, to be in public I had to be drunk, all these things. I find now after these past two years that I don’t need any of it, that life is unbelievable and that it needs no augmentation.”
And the music on the record is itself a celebration of life. Rife with dynamics, Steve has put the kind of work into this album rarely seen since the elaborate progressive cathedrals of the ‘70s. But the sound is decidedly modern, Walsh educating himself in digital techniques, Protools, mp3s, you name it, working up the whole record on hard disk, emailing files back and forth with king of the new progressive, Trent Gardner, and then assembling a crack band of old friends and new ones to breath life into these mature works. Billy Greer and Mike Slamer are back from Steve’s vastly under-rated Streets project, and one of rock’s scariest new drum technicians, Australian Virgil Donati, last seen rewriting the percussive texts with Derek Sherinian and Planet X, is heard replacing and/or cooking alongside Steve’s adeptly applied electronic rhythms.
As a foundation to the record however, expect Walsh to keep his steely gaze on rockability. On his pervasive love of hard rock (Steve’s a fan of Tool and Rage Against The Machine, as well as Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel), Walsh offers that “well, I suppose it’s the simplest way I can communicate. The most basic way I can say something forcefully I suppose, is to dwell on a certain chord and try to interpret it vocally.” But progressive rock is still a term that perplexes him just a little bit. “Yeah, I mean I guess that’s what it is (laughs). I hope some part of that history is still flowing through me. Gee, I’m just too stupid to do jazz (laughs).”
The wide scope that Walsh encompasses on “Glossolalia” could indeed, almost be seen as a form of literary jazz. The man’s glimpses into the lives of others form impressions in the reader and listener that are hard to shake. ‘Smackin’ The Clowns’ is the longest, most elaborate tour de force on the record. Steve sums up the lyrics this way. “That’s lost innocence. That’s the story of a kid coming to terms with the magical, wonderful world of entertainment having another side to it, a human side to it. Clowns don’t walk around in makeup all day long. Comedians aren’t funny all the time. I’m not walking around the house singing all the time. People are people and what they do in life, on stage, or in the center ring, doesn’t always mirror who or what they really are.”
The second most ambitious track is simply called ‘Kansas’, which Steve reveals is "probably about five years old. I think we were in our bus traveling across the state actually, and I was just kind of in a strange state of mind, and wondering what it was like in the early days of the Civil War, back 130, 140 years ago. And it just so happened that our t-shirt guy’s girlfriend who is now his wife told me a couple of stories about the Indian rituals with which she was involved. One of them is depicted visually in the movie A Man Called Horse, where they actually puncture your chest in two places and hoist you up. She had had this done to her. So I found that out and thought that was pretty over the top. So I started thinking a lot about that and paid a little more attention to some movies that were about that." The title track of the album is a companion piece to 'Kansas'. "It's an extension," explains Steve. "The song 'Kansas' is sort of an overview. I’m trying to depict the scenario of a time. Well, in '“Glossolalia”', I’m trying to depict the mindset of a person within that time.
The world of film crops up (at least) three more times on “Glossolalia”, once within the lyric for 'Nothing', Steve offering that, "'Nothing' was pretty much inspired by the Orson Welles movie, Citizen Kane. I mean, you can have everything, everything in the whole world, but if you don’t have the happiness that someone else might be able to bring, then you have absolutely nothing."
'Rebecca', which showcases the versatility and passion within Walsh's vocals, takes inspiration from the cinema as well. "That’s an Alfred Hitchcock movie by the same name. Back in and around 1939, there was a whole plethora of great movies, and Rebecca is one of them, my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie. That one was also co-written by the same guy who I worked with on the song 'Heart Attack', Marty Bolin. And again, Trent and I reworked it. About ten years ago, Marty and myself got together in Los Angeles and he said ‘I have these two songs with music but no lyrics and no idea for melody.’ So I took them and 'Rebecca' reminded me of the movie so I really paid attention to it and tried to get inside the character." And finally, 'That's What Love's All About' is another track where Steve seems to play roles in his own song-shaped version of a movie. You never would guess it was Walsh singing this textured and sensuous composition, but Steve assures that, "yes, that's all me. I tried to kind of ape Iggy Pop for the verses of that one, because I think he's incredible. He does some stuff that really moves me. I was thinking about mysterious highway-type movies for that one, maybe Wild At Heart and possibly also a little bit of a Fargo."
Scenes shifting, direction, production, title roles, supporting actors, panning shots and close-ups . . . “Glossolalia” really is the visual and sonic panorama of film brought to a rock record, albeit a highly unconventional one. And there really is no better persona to pull it off than this progressive rock icon who has seen the top and seen the bottom, and has lived to tell the story in his uniquely charming manner. “Glossolalia” is ultimately a synthesis, a synergistic hybrid, a mature and steady work from a man who combines the best qualities of a fearless, unlimited prog rocker, with those found most frequently within the great singer/songwriters of the '70s and the '80s. The result: a rockbed of philosophical yet grounded songs zapped with just enough instrumentality to keep both sides of the brain jumping along with Steve as he makes his journey back to the lush creative realms in which we all know he belongs.