The opposable-thumbs guide to Rush, Part III

I don’t usually apologize for lack of posting — people here generally realize I come home from a long day of work and chase two kids around, so I can’t always dash something out, particularly if it involves some … um … what do you call it? … oh … thought.

(I know — what thought?)

But I should apologize to Ed here for taking so long to get to what he calls “the meat of it.” That’s one way of describing the next four Rush albums. The other — this is Rush’s Golden Age.

A Farewell to Kings (1977)

If you viewed Rush as a metal band, this one might have been a little bit of a shock. Grab the album — hey, the cover’s mix of medieval and modern industrial themes looks like something Ozzy and the boys might do — and plop it on the turntable. Then you hear a classical guitar intro with a synthesizer counterpoint. Not just a bunch of synthesizer effects like you heard on 2112. Geddy Lee has put down the bass to play keyboards.

Not permanently, of course. For the next 15 years or so, Lee would hop back and forth between instruments like Elaine hopping back and forth between Puddy and the rest of New York. He would be recognized as rock’s best bassist and best keyboardist, the latter by default unless you really dug the dorky intro to Bon Jovi’s Runaway.

Lee wasn’t alone in adding new sounds. Check Wikipedia’s list of the instrumentation, taken straight from the liner notes. Alex Lifeson isn’t just “guitar” anymore; he’s “electric, acoustic and classical guitars, bass pedal synthesizer.” Lee gets credit for an occasional 12-string strum, plus Mini-Moog AND bass pedal synthesizers. Oh yeah, plus vocals. Neil Peart: “drums, cowbells, orchestra bells, wind chimes, triangle, bell tree, vibra-slap, tubular bells, temple blocks.”

(Cowbell AND temple blocks? Can you tell the difference?)

Peart plays most of that in the intro to Xanadu, one of two 10/11-minute songs here and a certifiable Rush classic. It’s an ethereal intro, with a low synthesizer drone and a few quiet guitar notes as Peart drifts between instruments with unusual subtlety. Then Lifeson slowly cranks up a circular riff playing in and against the rhythm — a riff that Ed Robertson has been known to toss into a Barenaked Ladies medley — and boom! We’re in classic rock nirvana.

While Rush was extending its sound palette in this album, the literary references also were broader. The Wikipedia entry notes a few of them — Xanadu from Coleridge, the titletrack loosely derived from Hemingway, Cinderella Man (one of Lee’s last lyrical contributions) from Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Omitted from Wikipedia — the nod to Don Quixote in Cygnus X-1, with the La Mancha man’s horse sharing a name with the protagonist’s ship as he steers into a black hole.

The other songs aspired to poetry. Madrigal — the only song on this album not to feature on any live release — was the sort of sonnet any Renaissance Faire fan would love to sing to a loved one. Closer to the Heart, like Xanadu, emerged as a Rush standard, a singalong favorite at live shows for the next 25 years or so.

Though 2112 is the megaseller, Wikipedia claims A Farewell to Kings was Rush’s first gold album. That seems slightly fishy, though who knows how the RIAA arrived at its numbers pre-Soundscan.

The AllMusic review sums it up well: “A Farewell to Kings successfully built on the promise of their breakthrough 2112, and helped broaden their audience.” Overall, this album was their strongest to this point — two classics of diverse styles and amiable songs throughout. Perhaps the titletrack and the Cinderella Man/Madrigal duo were a little subdued for some tastes, and Cygnus X-1 could strike you as awfully silly if you’re not in the mood, particularly when Geddy Lee hits the highest note/screech you’ve ever heard.

But that was just part one …

Hemispheres (1978)

Strange cover, isn’t it? Frankly, that may have held back this album. 2112‘s cover may have made some parents squeamish if they’d been exposed to some of Bible Belt propaganda about satanic influences, but most parents were too smart to buy into it. This one would make your parents and your schoolmates wonder what the heck you were buying.

The other thing holding back this album is the lack of a killer hook. You can blast into the power chords of The Temples of Syrinx, and a lot of rock fans know it’s 2112. There are several memorable guitar licks on Xanadu and a singalong melody on Closer to the Heart. The next two albums were textbook classic rock hooks — The Spirit of Radio, Freewill, Tom Sawyer, YYZ, Limelight. On this album, you might get a glimmer of recognition from a fellow Rush fan if you pick out the main theme from La Villa Strangiato on your guitar. That’s about it.

And that’s a shame, because on a sheer artistic level, Rush never topped this one. It’s a masterpiece.

Start with the end — La Villa Strangiato, one of the strangest songs you’ll ever love. It’s the first full-fledged Rush instrumental, and it’s almost 10 minutes long. (That helped me when I ran cross-country in high school — to take my mind off various aches and nausea, I would try to play the whole song in my head as I ran. Get through it twice, and I should be finished with a 5K run.)

This is Rush at its most playful, with all three guys showing off their dexterity with a bunch of crazy riffs and fills that somehow worked in combination. The subtitle is “An exercise in Self-Indulgence,” but most prog-rock bands were far worse when it came to showing off. This is a fun listen, not some excruciating exercise conceived to impress a guitar geek.

Working backwards — the middle song on Side 2 is The Trees, a neat allegory on overpursuing equality. (See the lyrics.) Perhaps that’s the Ayn Rand influence, but it’s more restrained than Anthem. After a classical guitar intro (extended live, as we’ll see later), Geddy Lee chimes in about “unrest in the forest.” It seems the maples are upset because the oaks are too tall, blocking all the sunlight. After an abrupt shift to 12/8 time, our third time signature in a relatively short song, we learn that the creatures have fled. We get a brief musical interlude and then the punch line: “the trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe and saw.”

You can find a bit of debate in various corners of the Web about the interpretation, but to me it’s pretty simple: Equality shouldn’t mean that the most exceptional among us are cut down.

Still working backwards to finish off the three-song Side 2: Circumstances is the least substantial song here but still an interesting power-rock listen. Wikipedia says it has made a stirring comeback in Rush’s live show after a 28-year absence.

That leaves Rush’s second and final 20-minute, full-side epic: the titletrack, or Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres. It’s largely forgotten, not appearing in any form on any Rush live album or compilation until a few bars popped into the R30 Overture on the 30th anniversary DVD.

And yet, I’d argue that it’s a better piece of music than 2112. There’s much more to it, lyrically and musically.

The “hemispheres” are the left brain and right brain. They’re represented here, as in Greek mythology, by Apollo and Dionysus. They struggle for supremacy until the guy who fell into the black hole shows up in some of Peart’s best imagery — “I have memory and awareness, but I have no shape or form. As a disembodied spirit, I am dead and yet unborn. I have passed into Olympus as was told in tales of old. To the city of immortals, marble white and purest gold.”

From his outsiders’ point of view, he’s able to convince the gods that they need both reason and emotion. They call him Cygnus, the god of balance, and Geddy sings an acoustic-guitar final movement to reminds us what we’ve learned.

More Rand? Well, maybe and maybe not, as Wikipedia notes. Though Rand also argued for the union of heart and mind, she may have been paying lip service to the “heart” part. From the Wikis: “Peart is quoted in his view of the events of Woodstock and Apollo II as being mutually beneficial (notably, against the opinion of Rand, who was not a fan of Woodstock.)”

Take that, frat-boy libertarians.

AllMusic’s Greg Prado argues that Hemispheres deserves mention along with Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures as one of Rush’s best albums. Perhaps, although this one didn’t have the impact of the next two. After working through four albums of prog-rock experimentation, the last three quite successful artistically, Rush was ready to pare it down a little and put its grand ideas in more digestible chunks. And that would make them megastars, at least for a few years.

We’ll talk about that in Part IV.

One thought on “The opposable-thumbs guide to Rush, Part III

  1. Whew, for a second there I thought you were gonna leave us hanging. All in all, I must say you’ve provided an astute analysis of AFTK and Hemispheres. I am not sure about your interpretation of “The Trees”, I think Neil was making more of a socialist/communist statement with that one, but that’s the beauty of lyrics…the meaning can shift according to who’s listening. In any case, I am looking forward to part IV. Cheers!

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