This is the second installment of an ongoing series on the Rush catalog; read Part One here.
This is where briefly, mercifully, the popular narrative of a group coincides comfortably with a critical evaluation of their work. Rush had just performed their longest tour to date in support of 2112, which finally saw them breaking into previously inaccessible markets and provided a sound and promising financial backing to build a future for them. Sensing that they were onto something, they hit the studio nearly immediately after touring to write a followup right away. They briefly pondered adding a fourth player on keyboards to compensate for the increasingly complex arrangements; this apparently was a serious consideration during the development and recording of the pieces that would become their fifth album and dawn of their second era A Farewell to Kings, concerned as the band were about the playability of the compositions in a live setting. Eventually, it was famously decided that they would preserve the well-balanced temperament of the band and saddle the load on themselves, making arrangements for orchestral and melodic percussion in Neil Peart’s drum kit as well as Geddy Lee adding synthesizers on top of his bass and vocal roles, with Alex Lifeson picking up a bit of the slack on the synth end when it came specifically to Moog Taurus foot pedals on occasion.
A Farewell to Kings
A Farewell to Kings is undoubtedly a stronger album than 2112, its focus more on internally complex arrangements than sprawling epics. Despite two 10-plus minute epics on this record, their combined time only just comes up to the length of previous side-length epics of the group. Likewise, despite the suite-like compositional forms being maintained explicitly on album closer “Cygnus X-1: Book One – The Voyage” (henceforth simply “Cygnus X-1″) and implicitly on mid-album track “Xanadu,” Rush clearly spent a great deal of time tightening up their transitions and segues. Longer form tracks flow with a cleanliness more closely approaching their initial masterclass prog epic “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” or perhaps the more knotty and obscure but still excellent “The Necromancer” rather than incredible jaggedness of “The Fountain of Lamneth” or even “2112″.
“Xanadu” in particular has a placid and measured unfurling to it, spending three minutes building a gradual complexity in subtle synthesized textures and orchestral percussion before cutting to its first rock-oriented instrumental segment, comprising multiple small segments of only a few bars in length. The entirety of A Farewell To Kings, released in 1977 during the rise of punk, reads as an ode to early ’70s prog, of which “Xanadu” becomes Rush’s loving ode to Yes. The synth melodies and patterns are evocative of Rick Wakeman and it’s hard not to hear Steve Howe and Chris Squire in the strings, though the influence of Squire on the bass and Bill Bruford on the drum arrangements holds true generally. Its only real weakness is in its repetition of lyrics and moods near the end; at times it can feel as though you’ve inadvertently hit the rewind button and jumped a few minutes back. This is a minor quibble; “Xanadu” is nonetheless rightly considered one of the greats of’ 70s prog epics, more concretely executed than any of Rush’s prior efforts save perhaps the earlier “By-Tor”. I have to admit a personal fondness for the strangeness and quirk of “The Necromancer” over this cut, but it’s hard to justify that given the sublime fluidity of “Xanadu.” Startlingly, the performance caught on the record is a single unbroken take with little to no overdubs, offering tremendous credence to their reputation among musicians while also being a jaw-dropping enough factoid that even non-musicians will walk away impressed after hearing it.
“Cygnus X-1,” the album’s other epic, contains perhaps the most quoted of the deeper cuts of Rush’s catalog. It’s common for players cutting their teeth to learn chunks of “YYZ” or “Tom Sawyer,” and the opening segments of “2112″ have an iconic flair that drive a lot of players to get them down. But the opening stabbing, angular bass part of “Cygnus X-1″ just after the atmospheric synth and sound-effect intro is a hallmark of the quote-unquote true Rush fans, an instantly iconic heavy metal bass part of nearly unending impact. The pattern itself is derived from heavy blues rock and bears an amount of similarity to earlier basslines by groups such as Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest or Deep Purple. But the sharpness and tautness of the timbre plus the jagged shifting time signature underneath moving in a skittering 6+7+6+8 pattern feels overbearingly like you are witnessing the birth of both heavy metal and, later, prog metal. There is a clip circulating of Katy Perry’s live band performing this iconic riff at the playout of one of her songs during a live performance at a German festival, a lovely moment of the backing band of one great contemporary pop artist giving a loving nod to an all-time great prog rock band, as well as offering testament to the lasting power of one of the greatest riffs of all time.
The remainder of the song structurally and symbolically is a retread of “2112,” repurposing its loose multi-part structure and sci-fi approach to prog metal, now distilled and tightened. “Cygnus X-1″ isn’t merely a superior song because the individual riffs, lyrics, and passages are better (they are) but also because there is much less dead air and wasted space. “2112,” despite its 20-plus minute run-time, only really showed a sense of flab in its middle passages, which lost itself somewhere in sound effects and diagetic sound. “Cygnus X-1″ is ruthless by comparison, carving away extraneous notes and sonic ideas with a scalpel, rendering it incapable of producing extracted prog metal singles like the famous “Overture/The Temples of Syrinx” two-fer of “2112″ but compensates by producing the greatest epic-length track the band has produced before or since. Other tracks of the album seem to gesture broadly to other progressive rock bands, deliberately evoking their sonic palettes for a song so the group could learn and internalize their moves and motives; “Cygnus X-1″ meanwhile feels less an homage compared to the other tracks and more an inexplicable anachronism, a track emerging impossible backward in time from the ’80s and beyond.
Which ironically creates a similar problem to 2112. The shorter tracks of A Farewell To Kings pale when compared one-to-one with that concluding epic, a single song powerful enough to justify the entire classic prog period of the band, but just as on 2112 provide more than enough meat to sink one’s teeth into. The opening title track’s intro sits somewhere between Genesis and Jethro Tull, emulating the former’s pastoral, acoustic sensibilities, as well as the latter’s rockier edge to those ideas before transitioning to a prancing rock strut that still feels quite British albeit less like a band-oriented homage than a national one. It also features a number of musical and lyrical nods that presage future patterns in the record: at one moment, the bass pattern under the guitar solo midway through loosely emulates the later jagged prog metal bass riffing of the concluding epic; another, the lyrics reference deposing kings and autarchs to create a world “closer to the heart,” directly referencing a later song title.
Predecessor 2112 and to a lesser extent A Caress of Steel were referred to by some as “concept albums,” an idea that works only by privileging their side-long epics that in one case provided a title for the album but otherwise have little musically, lyrically or thematically to link them. A Farewell to Kings is the first instance where it fits, somewhat controversially. The typical model of a Rush concept album applied through the ’80s and on to the end of their career was one more of a thematic center to their songs lyrical concepts rather than an explicit narrative through-line; here, that thread is a more specific form of their early-years grievances of individualism versus collectivism focused to the dichotomy of the average versus the kingly man. The theme is stated generally in the opening track “A Farewell to Kings” before the kingly are explored in “Xanadu” and the common in the very Zeppelin-esque “Cinderella Man.” Oddly, the concluding statement seems to occur in the middle, with “Closer to the Heart” reconciling itself to the broader order of the world from kings to ploughmen to the middle-class. Intellectually speaking, it’s a bit thin, and there’s noticeable discomfort when Rush performed “Closer to the Heart” later in their career as well as a drastic shortage of tracks from this album in general on later tours, perhaps caused by that rub.
“Closer to the Heart” was the first Rush song I ever heard. I can’t recall how old I was, but I was young; Nirvana and Soundgarden were still actively making music, and Radiohead were an up-and-coming group, so it had to have been the early-mid ’90s. This tracks with Rush’s career as well; they would have been recording and touring Counterparts at the time, kicking up bigger interest on radio. Plus the number of groups who suddenly found it acceptable to cite Rush as an influence spiked in the ’90s for the first time in years and years, as Rage Against the Machine, Primus, a veritable battalion of metal bands as well as a young Dream Theater (plus attendant prog metal groups) all lavished praise on the previously-maligned group.
Despite this, I absolutely hated the song. I found the lyrics cheesy and groan-inducing even as a small child and the melody felt a bit too snappy, sharp, and on-the-nose, feeling almost like a nursery rhyme. The song left a bad taste in my mouth and I evaded the group for years and years after; even when I first seriously dipped my toes into proggy waters with Pink Floyd and Radiohead and Opeth, I was trepidatious to explore them. The result was, in retrospect, years of missing incredible music. But even on returning, the song feels thin. It is richly composed and executed and as a high-production prog-pop number a la Supertramp or Sparks it certainly shows a lot of craft behind it, but the lyrics were still at times a bit too on-the-nose, this song being one of the worst offenders, and the nursery rhythm melodies and rhythms, while fitting for the overall British pastoral prog aesthetic, land here less successfully than Genesis or Jethro Tull before them.
The two remaining tracks, “Cinderella Man” and “Madrigal,” are suspiciously strong and perennially overlooked. The first reads like a hybrid of The Who’s sophisticated lite-prog elements into a strummy hard rock context with elements of groups like Captain Beyond. It’s not a song one builds a legendary career off of, but is the type of song that appeals to fans of obscure but well-crafted smart hard rock; it’s not hard to list off the number of bands before them, such as Atomic Rooster and Captain Beyond, who build solid careers as underground rock favorites off of the back of such sounds. “Madrigal” is quietly one of the best songs on the album. It is rich and atmospheric, blending gently strummed pastoral acoustic guitar chords with a melodic and sweet Moog. It’s the kind of song that, done wrong, can go treacly and messy, turning an otherwise heady and placid record into candy. But Rush pull it off splendidly here, offering a brief and narrow window into a world where they developed more fully into a purely classic-style symphonic progressive rock band.
The theme of this era of Rush’s career is that every album is the best they’d made up to that point. The first four served almost more as widely-distributed demos, featuring songs that for other groups would have been relegated to obscure early bands before the real deal came together, changed their name and got a record label. It’s not unfair to take Rush’s word for it that, in many ways, 2112 was a second debut album, concentrating everything they had attempted before into a strong, stable base that they could capably build from and improve with each passing record. Hemispheres, the second album of their second era, continues in the same tradition of its predecessor, being pound-for-pound a better album and more complete, if only by a hair. The concept is looser than the already-shaggy thread on A Farewell to Kings, focusing on complementary halves and synchronous wholes, a theme they’d revisit in the ’90s more pointedly on Counterparts. Only two songs on the whole record relate to a central concept in any meaningful way; however those two songs include Side A’s side-long epic and four minutes of Side B on an album that only has four songs to begin with. This looseness winds up being a blessing, the group’s aspirations both lyrically and musically still just a bit beyond their reach, per the group’s own recollections of the writing and recording of this material rather than a critical evaluation.
It opens with “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres” (“Hemispheres”), with all the components in it to best that previous mighty tune. Section by section, it is better music, a more elaborate and thorough reconstruction of ideas present in “The Fountain of Lamneth” and “2112″ than the previous part. This isn’t just because its length reaches the same monumental proportions. It features an opening overture in the epic itself as opposed to the case of A Farewell to Kings where the functional overture of the album was the opening track rather than a movement within an epic. Further, the broader pacing is kept up with those earlier side-long epics, opening with the iconic wide-voiced “Rush chord,” that ringing and crystalline F#b7add4 which creates a sound on a guitar that even those uneducated in the deeper contours of music theory could immediately pluck out as feeling quintessentially Rush. (Odd that for a band that has such a widely- and rightly-beloved bassist and drummer, it is their often-overlooked and underrated guitarist that has perhaps the most keenly defining sonic element of the group.)
Those same lush sonic voicings persist, forming a dappled backing that fills the sound field and gives Geddy and Neil a lot to work against with stabbing basslines, luxurious synths and intense, acrobatic drum work that feels like tightly-constructed orchestral percussion accompaniment rather than roaring rock drumming. The music structurally even dies down to a quieter and more contemplative section at roughly the same part as “2112,” here swapping the “Discovery” and “Presentation” segments for electronic burbling and a quick fade-in of a riff from “Book I” of the epic. The closing segments “Cygnus (Bringer of Balance)” and “The Sphere (A Kind of Dream)” are the strongest closing to an epic they ever pieced together, like the thesis statement of this phase of their career—a combination of Yes and Led Zeppelin cloaked in royal thunder. Why then does it feel like it rates just below the first part considering each section is pound-for-pound better on both the proggy end and the more evocative and rich rock end of things? It has to do largely with the repetition of the second and third sections, like an uncomfortable replication of one of the bigger reasons that the previous epic “The Fountain of Lamneth” felt so disjointed and uncomfortable.
Previous epic “Book I” featured an unnamed space voyager gallivanting about the cosmos in his spaceship before being sucked up into the titular black hole Cygnus X-1; “Book II” is the chronicle of what he found there in the singularity, a culture torn in two over their appellations to the philosophies of either Apollo or Dionysus, with the previously-unnamed voyager now taking on the name of Cygnus and bringing them to harmonious balance after their apocalyptic struggle, uniting the previously broken hemi-spheres into a unified perfect sphere, hence the title of the final movement being “The Sphere”. A further factoid: The conflict of Apollonian and Dionysian modes of thought, in brief, is a concept plucked from Nietzsche, a philosopher as widely-cited as he is widely-misunderstood, who framed them as mythic-psychological frameworks privileging either cold rationality and reason or passion and revelry as embodied by the gods of wisdom and wine/poetry, respectively. This framing later inspired Freud to a minor degree, then Carl Jung to a greater degree, finally flourishing in Joseph Campbell as the foundation of his entire functional mechanic for comparative mythology as he understood it. The argument then is that the music repeats exactly save for minor changes in lyrics because we are supposed to view this conflict as silly and meaningless, the two obviously being broken halves of a single complete whole, and so necessarily mirroring that thought without undermining it by having literally the exact same duplicated tracks play. This is all well and good on paper, but having this level of abstraction and book-chewing to justify a musical choice that ultimately sounds bad isn’t a benefit; it’s a drawback. It’s especially frustrating to run into this problem, which seems to outline a general criticism of how the overblown nature of some progressive rock can cause some very iffy or outright bad musical choices. It doesn’t tank the song or the album, but it does cause the song to plant itself ever-so-slightly behind its predecessor.
The lyrics at least show a shift of Rush’s politics away from Randian Objectivist thinking. She called for the adoration of arts alongside sciences, so it’s not the mere fact that the song broadly calls for a New Age-y and naive sense of unmarked and nuanceless “balance” of these two modes of thought. It’s more the invocation of Nietzsche, and the way it signals Peart reaching back to the influence of Rand and finding that the thoughts she built from don’t quite line up to the thing she made in their wake, discarding her framework to pick up this one instead. Without derailing this for an intensive on conflicts in philosophical schools of thought, the invocation of the necessity to find synthesis between Apollonian and Dionysian approaches to life in those specific terms signals at least the development of ways of thinking about the world we live in and how we live and navigate within it that are less naive and simple and more dialectically engaged.
This lyrical and philosophical shift is complicated “The Trees.” The band says it has no political or philosophical parallel, based on a cartoon Peart saw while working on a different set of lyrics. This doesn’t pass the sniff test; the song’s seeming deriding of unions and how they are used to punish the well-off fits a bit too snugly with their previously-expressed admiration for Ayn Rand. There is the more troubling possibility that Peart was telling the truth and that it was something closer to his subconscious, tapping into perceptions of what class struggle looks like, placed somewhere deep inside by right-wing libertarian figures. The song’s record of anti-union sentiment, featuring all trees “kept equal by hatchet, axe, and saw” (a line impossible to read as flattering) is well-documented and hard to dispute. There is a complication; the oaks, the taller trees which represent the well-to-do and successful, are not presented flatteringly either, aloof and out of touch with the concerns of the shorter maples, ike Marie Antoinette in the days before the French Revolution. The oaks are described as “ignoring their pleas” regarding the frustration the maples feel at the monopolization of sunlight carried out by the oaks, which is not precisely the kind of phraseology one would deploy if they were seeking to abnegate any criticism of figures of wealth and power.
Hang-ups about the lyrics and their complicated dialectical politics aside, the music of “The Trees” is absolutely cracking. It’s no wonder why it becamethe biggest single for the band at the time. The playing is strident, bold, and energetic, full of youthful verve. They marry an acoustic intro with effected bass accompaniment that would not be out of place for Yes before bursting into spritely and prim rock music, somewhere between the snap of Britishisms in art rock and the more swirling and hoary psychedelia of American bands or the British wing of space rock. The placid instrumental interlude, with its synth leads and deliberately plucked effected guitar and tuned orchestral percussion, feels like a Genesis pastiche from the Hackett years. The song develops this placid section into a smore up-tempo approach with growling bass that erupts into a guitar solo not unlike what Andy Latimer would play for Camel before cutting into the same iconic, bright and strummy guitar rock Rush had claimed for themselves before returning to a brief verse to wrap things up. The structure feels like precisely the same kind of prescient editing that would have thrust “Xanadu” up to the upper echelons of the group’s prog epics, containing just as many ideas and just as knotted and demanding of playing but within only about a third the time. Every change feels charged with energy and purpose, and the entire song maximizes its impact impeccably. It’s easy to squint away the lyrics into nonsense and get lost in the remarkable playing, presenting a hard rock hybridization of older British prog greats in an era where those types of records were getting startlingly hard to find.
“Circumstances” is in the same vein as “The Trees,” a hard rock tune that is pepped up with proggy chops. Time signatures slip and slide, grooves expanding and contracting, all three playing at their most acrobatic but also most explicitly forceful. Geddy’s vocals are way up in the stratosphere, the highest notes he would force himself to hit in his career, which produced such a tense atmosphere during recording that it is almost the singular song responsible for the gradually lowering vocal register Geddy would write for himself in the years that followed. “Circumstances,” much like the side-two songs of 2112, tends to get overshadowed on this record, containing three other behemoths of the catalog as it does, yet of all the pieces it is the most prescient of the future direction the band. It was the final song written for the album. The three preceding it were marked by Rush and long-time producer/functional fourth member Terry Brown as the most difficult they’d ever endured, with concluding instrumental “La Villa Strangiato” taking more time to record than their debut album in its entirety and the effort poured into “Hemispheres” being immensely frustrating and almost formulaic. They tend to speak fondly of “Circumstances” and the creative process around it, however, and it’s hard not to see why. After three of the most difficult songs of their lives to write and record, they rewarded themselves with a song that simply drips with pure rock joy, their deeply internalized art rock and prog chops and harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas coming out more in a show of pure playfulness than any pretentious diegetic narrativization. It sounds fun and that’s because it was.
Despite the immensity of the tracks that preceded it, album closer “La Villa Strangiato” is widely and correctly considered the masterwork of the record and perhaps even the entire band’s discography. It takes the same sense of raw joy that bursts off of “Circumstances” and amplifies it ten-fold, ditching lyrics altogether in order to expand their typically well-paced and structured instrumental interludes into a full-scale epic of its own. The nominal structure is that of a stitched-together series of vignettes based on guitarist Alex Lifeson’s nightmares, but they clarified later that this was more of a launchpad for ideas rather than the basis for a clear storyline. The surrealitsm of dream offered Rush, like so many before them, a platform to indulge their wildest impulses, each of its 12-named sections lasting on average less than a minute. This results in a rapid-fire barrage of ideas, one bleeding into the next, grindcore record pacing for prog rock instrumentals.
The ideas form a coherent whole not by standard structural elements of repetition and development, though there is one recapitulation at the very end, but instead by sheer bravado and pace. You simply don’t have enough time to stop and consider one brilliant idea before another is thrust in front of you, and another, and another, until what began as bright synthesizer-adjoined guitar-driven hard rock becomes a spacy prog sojourn before breaking into a bit of music most commonly recognized from Looney Tunes cartoons. A full description of its 12 movements is pointless, not to mention profoundly difficult; what matters is the raw and unchecked expression of profound creative joy and compositional prowess. Rush famously wanted to record it as a single unbroken perfect take performed live on the floor with little to no overdubs, an idea that is stomach-churning on hearing the final piece. That they managed to stitch it together from a mere four live takes with a couple guitar overdubs added for measure is still enormously impressive, especially given the compositional density of the piece and virtuosity necessary to perform any section of it, let alone the full thing. It’s also considered by many drummers to be perhaps the greatest single performance Neil Peart would write in his life.
Given the strength of all the material that followed, it can be sometimes quite tedious to run into rockist Rush fans who decry the day the group picked up synthesizers and wrote pop songs. It feels absurd on its face to write off the intensely mature, musically rich music from Rush in the ’80s and onward as inferior because it used four or so minutes to do what previously took the band ten. Even the members themselves agreed; they cite Hemispheres more as an end rather than a peak, at least in their recollections, being so overwhelmed and frustrated by the process of making the record that, for the most part, they never made another one like it again. The process of constructing longform epics had become formulaic, all overtures and slow deployment of themes to be developed and teased out later, no longer feeling progressive for a band that had several pieces of the style to their name.
Combine this with an appearance on a festival bill with The Police, who had just released their debut and were riding high on the success of “Roxanne,” and it was inevitable that Rush would walk away from this approach to making records. It’s difficult to grasp now, looking back, how important The Police were to rock bands, critics and listeners. Prog produced a plethora of all-time great records and bands, but it’s hard to deny that there was something rotten lurking there too; punk revealed that rot by returning rock to the hands of anyone who dared pick up a guitar but gradually revealed itself to be just as formally restrictive as prog if not moreso, becoming punishing to bands who wanted to push themselves. This produced an identity disorder within rock as fans, critics and bands attempted to parse out how to resolve this frustrating contradiction. Along came The Police, a trio of prog pedigree making music that merged the approachable figures and gusto and verve of punk with the chops and compositional attention to detail of prog, with dashes of reggae and other less white forms of music to boot, and the path forward suddenly seemed clear. New Wave, a particular approach to post-punk that The Police were slotted into, produced a number of bands that were immensely important to the reconciliation of opposites the rock world so desperately sought. It wasn’t just The Police, of course; Talking Heads, Blondie, The Pretenders, Oingo Boingo and more produced records that reached as many prog fans as punks, and the two members of The Buggles would even go on to join Yes and have their legacies fully intertwine. But Rush playing next to The Police on the Pinkpop stage in 1979 made a profound impact on the band, one that would immediately bear fruit on their next record, 1980′s Permanent Waves.
Despite this frustration, it’s easy to hear why many consider Hemispheres both the peak of the most outre prog period of Rush’s discography and one of the top records of their career as a whole. When you release the broader attenuating details of the frustrated process of creation, the historical angst surrounding it, as well as the still-yearning ambitions of a group that felt that they’d proved all they’d ever need to in the style, you have not just a great record but one of the very best prog rock records of all time, even now. “La Villa Strangiato” is proof enough. If anything, this proves that the band was right to move on; how could they ever top this?
The band seemingly agreed. While Permanent Waves did feature two longer programmatic prog pieces, each still under 10 minutes apiece, closer comparisons to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “Cygnus X-1″ than to the longer epics that had so frustrated the band. Their album structure also featured a return to the shape demonstrated on A Farewell to Kings, featuring the longer prog pieces closing out each side rather than either backloading as in A Caress of Steel, frontloading as in 2112 or bookending as in Hemispheres. The group gave no easy way for the lazier listener to get right to those larger, more structural pieces, forcing the standard album-oriented listener to plow through a couple standard-length pieces before the more grandiose statements no matter which side they picked.
To compensate, the band produced the best standard song-length pieces they’d written thus far in their career. Side A and Side B have two completely different tenors when it comes to these pieces, Side A a bit more brashy and rocking while Side B is tender, cerebral, and ballad-oriented. Side A opens with “The Spirit of Radio,” one of the all-time greatest rock songs period, not just by Rush but in the entire canon. Its strength is built off of the same verve and spunk that made Fly By Night such a compelling record, jamming tautly composed and springily played virtuosic rock licks into an otherwise standard songform. On one hand, it’s hard to describe “The Spirit of Radio” as a prog rock song; it featured an easily-telegraphed verse-chorus-verse structure, spiced up with intros and pre-choruses and the like, and even with its stark genre shift to reggae-rock in a very Rush-does-The Police moment for the closing section, the idea of a sharply contrasting B section to a song isn’t wildly atypical in pop. The big exciting change was in how it felt like it smartly incorporated the growing insights of New Wave bands, with Rush keenly taking notes of other young bands with similar ambitions but different touchstones, veering toward the rougher and more nervy approaches to virtuosity of Television and Talking Heads. It’s important to remember in all of this that by 1979 when this album was written and recorded, the members of Rush were still in their twenties, still more or less peers to the New Wave bands who would later go on to become legends in their own right.
“Free Will” follows in the same mold as “The Spirit of Radio,” an especially spunky and matured redo of earlier tracks such as “Anthem” and “The Trees.” The textures of the guitars and the subtly controlled moods of the verses and pre-chorus are masterful demonstrations of the power this trio possessed in a purely rock context, mixing the stabbing and slashing guitars of New Wave with the bigger chordal shapes Alex Lifeson pinched from Pete Townsend, matched with an Entwistle/Moon rhythm section approach. It’s not mentioned often enough that it is not Yes nor Genesis nor even Led Zeppelin that are their biggest overall influence but The Who, a group that themselves dabbled with the cerebral and virtuosity components of progressive rock in its heyday but sought to alloy them to hard rock forms. “Free Will” feels sometimes more like a song cut from the Who’s Next sessions, an illusion only shattered when Geddy’s distinctive voice comes careening in with banshee wail in the bridge. It’s worth noting that both “The Spirit of Radio” and “Free Will” remark implicitly on the vocal difficulties Lee had given himself most obviously on Hemispheres as well as the sharper and shriekier tracks of their earlier career. They both feature a more subdued register, sitting closer to the middle to upper-middle of his range with room to go up or down rather than a sharp falsetto from the jump. The increased vocal comfort likewise directly correlates to an increased vocal power, even if at the expense of the sheer metallic fury they once conjured. Suddenly, the first two tracks of a Rush record feel starkly disconnected from the heavy metal world in a way that they never had been earlier in their career; most confoundingly, the tracks are better for it.
“Jacob’s Ladder” is the first of the two programmatic pieces of the record, closing out Side A. Musically, it feels like a retread of “Cygnus X-1,” having lengthy instrumental sections with odd-time heavy metal chug and eerie prog rock synths sawtoothing away in sine wave menace. The concept here is a bit muddled. Is it based on the Biblical story of Jacob’s heavenly vision? Is it about weather? It doesn’t matter much; by this point in their career they’d become so adept at telling the story more purely in the music, a trait they first seemed to grasp by the balls on “Cygnus X-1″ but elaborated on masterfully in both “Hemispheres” and “La Villa Strangiato,” such that the emotional and imagistic logic is intact here even if the narrative isn’t. The imprecise narrative brings actually a secondary benefit to the track. Rush’s music on their epics had always been sharp and compelling, even if they faltered early on with making each section smoothly connect to the previous, whereas the narrative writing was often clunky and didactic. “Jacob’s Ladder” feels at times like a direct inspiration of some of the more paced heavy metal epics notoriously tinged with prog, feeling at times like it wants to link up with the legacy left by things such as Rainbow’s impeccable epics on the flawless Rising album or as a direct prefiguring of the some of the melodic and harmonic ideas Iron Maiden would begin using around the Somewhere In Time era forward, especially their current reunion era. It is less a rejection of the “excesses” of earlier epics—a great deal of the music on those side-long pieces was quite good!—as much as it was proof that they could distill the same amount of motion and soundimage painting they into a more compact span of time.
Side B opens with two duo of songs “Entre Nous” and “Different Strings,” a set that have read to me almost more as two halves of a single long-form piece of about eight minutes rather than two separate four-minute tracks. The first is perhaps the smartest and sharpest stab at a love song Rush has in their career, blending both Peart’s penchant for brainy poetry and cerebral turns of phrase with a deep personal insight. This is married against a deeply moving and sentimental set of chords on guitar played against a surprisingly smart bassline, offering more harmonic contour than your typical pop-rock song. “Entre Nous” feels informed by the types of ideas living in the world of groups like Supertramp and Saga, not to mention late ’70s Yes records Going for the One and Tormato, all of which were defined by taking the complex approaches and cerebralism of prog rock and applying them directly to pop-rock. This transitions seamless into “Different Strings,” which picks up the thread from “Entre Nous” focusing on the challenges of facing differences and alienation and isolation within romantic relationships but tilting to a more sentimental, wounded and aggrieved position. It’s a sullen and melancholy number, though it is also structured around a reconciliatory note, all played against the most plaintive and soulful singing Geddy Lee had deployed in the band’s history thus far. This is because it is one of the few songs written by his hand, the very last of their career in fact, allowing him greater ease to slip into the emotional core of things. It closes out the implied Genesis-esque two-part epic disguised as two artsy pop-rock songs on Side B with tremendously more emotional heft and gravitas than we typically associate with Rush. It’s also the only song of the group’s history recorded as a four-piece, with piano played by graphic designer Hugh Syme, hinting briefly at the potential a four-piece Rush lineup contained.
The album closes with “Natural Science,” a three-movement piece born from the ashes of a failed sidelong effort about Gawain and the Green Knight that fell apart during production. The band sometimes cites the process of making Hemispheres for their rejection of the sidelong epic format and sometimes cites the frustrations making this song, implying the truth sits somewhere in between, giving them a natural distaste heading into production for Permanent Waves that was affirmed when the failed Gawain epic begin to fall apart in their hands. The fruit of that failure however is one of Rush’s best songs of the era, an epic that stands comfortably toe-to-toe with pieces such as “The Necromancer” and “Cygnus X-1.” The second section of the song, starting at about two minutes in, features a steady pulsing riff delivered with an amount of King Crimson angularity and heavy metal toughness that feels again like a major touchstone for heavy metal and prog metal to follow. While the next record would feature a song clocking in at over 10 minutes in length and other more obscured song suites would occur later, “Natural Science” was to be their last proper prog rock epic until their final studio album, which featured two. You couldn’t ask for a better send-off. It closes out Permanent Waves on a high note both musical and epochal, rendering its parent record both the final record of the outre prog era in one sense and the first of the band they would become in the ’80s forward in another. Hemispheres may feel more intuitively like the better album to the singular-minded prog rock fan, but Permanent Waves is undoubtedly the better album overall.
It’s no wonder then that in the wake of Permanent Waves, which not only was their strongest album thus far but also their highest charting by a significant margin, landing in the top 5 in the US, UK and Canada, that Moving Pictures was more a refinement and expansion of the ideas there than anywhere else. One can’t help but imagine that the tour for Permanent Waves didn’t help things either; the band was playing, depending on the gig, either the entirety of “2112″ or the entirety of “Hemispheres” every night, plus “By-Tor”, “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1″ on top of the longer form songs on Permanent Waves every night, spending nearly an hour on a handful of very demanding songs, most of which disappeared by the tour for Moving Pictures, which featured a greater number of more compact numbers. The band is slightly wrong in citing Moving Pictures as a third debut after their self-titled and the reinvigoration the group got on 2112; it is more like a sophomore record of this phase, shedding some elements from Permanent Waves that were holdovers while radically reinforcing and expanding the newer ideas and reconfigurations that earlier album featured.
The songs on Moving Pictures are, mercifully for me, the best-known of the entire Rush canon. “Tom Sawyer” is rightly regarded as the thesis statement of the band, cramming prog rock pyrotechnics, intense hard rock, a set of lyrics that put on a good affect of cerebralism even if they aren’t in the end all that intelligent, and a set of hooks that will stick in your gut for a lifetime. It’s a perfectly composed song, the best example not just of Rush’s discography but of prog rock as a whole that the genre can easily survive in shorter time constraints and not be any worse for wear. “Limelight” is functionally a recapitulation of “The Spirit of Radio,” choosing wisely not to fix what’s not broken, delivering a simple and straightforward hard rock pop tune buffeted by prog rock sensitivity. “YYZ” is one of the greatest instrumentals ever cut to tape in the rock canon; I’m certain it will surprise no one to know that as a young drummer this was the first Rush song I demanded myself learn and, off of its back, was suddenly capable of beginning to tackle the trickier pieces of their discography. It evokes in many ways a tighter and less overtly demanding redo at “La Villa Strangiato,” trading some of the jaw-dropping virtuosic complexity of that longer instrumental for something a little looser and more hook-driven. “Red Barchetta,” the standard multi-part prog epic for Rush, was here condensed to a tight six minutes and, as a result, is pure electricity from front to back. Many bands have produced longform material sometimes spanning over an hour and had it be riveting the whole way through but six to seven minutes seems to be in many ways the sweet spot for knotty linearly-composed Rush prog tunes, forcing them into a whirlwind of quickly evolving and disappearing riffs all of which feel like they are snatching your throat before the next one descends. In a nightmarish show of their prowess, “Red Barchetta” was even recorded in one take. Side A of Moving Pictures found Rush using their compositional, arrangement and technical abilities as means to punch-up hook-driven hard rock and give it a satisfying musical complexity while maintaining a remarkable transparency and immediacy.
Side B is where Moving Pictures slots its experiments meant as additive elements to their sonic pool. “The Camera Eye” reads like a longform epic but plays out as a single five-minute sequence repeated with minor variation, and between its synths and driving hard rock feels more like the long cuts off of Who’s Next mixed with the bright, sparkling sonic timbre of New Wave. Its approach to prog feels, fittingly, more like an expansion of the modernist mode the group deployed on “Tom Sawyer” than their previous longform tracks, the usage of synths feeling less like Rick Wakeman and more like a synth-pop group jamming alongside the more adventurous cuts from groups like Frankie Goes To Hollywood. “Witch Hunt,” the third movement of an initially outlined three-movement suite later expanded to four themed around fear, is an interesting project, fusing prog rock sensibilities regarding synth pads and arrangement, a programmatic sensibility regarding sound effects and orchestrating the percussion part, cut up by a New Wave approach to the guitar. Many people look at “Tom Sawyer” or perhaps “Red Barchetta” as the pivotal song on this record, but quietly its this one, which in so many ways is an exact prefiguring of the unique and deeply progressive blend of sonic ideas they would explore in the coming decade, proving the value of adventurousness in progressive music as opposed to staying in one’s comfort zone, even if that comfort zone is monolith suite-form songwriting. Album closer “Vital Signs” meanwhile is, on paper, mere Police pastiche, a spot-on interpretation of that group’s fusion of reggae and New Wave with prog rock chops, but delivered with fire and conviction. In many ways, it becomes a complement to “Witch Hunt” in terms of future directions, a model of the more direct songs that were to come compared to “Witch Hunt” prefiguring what the more complex and theatrical numbers would sound like.
It is a mercy to me that Moving Pictures is both so widely acclaimed and that this acclaim is absolutely justified. There’s merit in pointing to the abnormally strong second side of the record which routinely gets overshadowed by its more well-known first side, but it’s an album where weakest cut “The Camera Eye” would be a highlight of nearly every other album. The historical factoid that Rush cut short a two-year long planned spate of touring to record these songs as soon as possible because of how excited they were about them feels palpable on the record, the performances as vibrant and enthralled as the songwriting itself. The grandiose and extended-form Rush many had fallen in love with in the mid ’70s was totally dead, having proven to themselves both their ability in that previous style with landmark records like A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres as much as proving the immense untapped potentiality for the future of progressive music in the new sounds captured on Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures.
On a personal level, this second phase of the group’s career is a deeply fascinating one largely because we would never see the band alter itself so radically in so short a span of time again; from here on out, their sonic and aesthetic explorations take place over decade-spans, not a handful of years. As with many other people, Moving Pictures was the first Rush album I bought after being convinced, through the mercy of heaven, by a dear high school friend that I was dead wrong in writing them off. By his insistence, I went backward first, making these four in reverse chronological order the first Rush I ever gave a serious listen; the profound and indelible shape they imprinted in me as a musician and a listener can’t be overstated. Yet as much as I loved massive-scale progressive rock and jazz music and orchestral and experimental soundscapes and more, all compositional shapes that tend to take up time in the order of double-digit minute counts rather than fewer, it’s hard for me not to agree with the band in terms of where they would go following this. Even on return to these records, it tends to be the shorter tracks on the records sporting longform tracks that intrigue me the most, with songs like “Madrigal” from A Farewell to Kings and “Circumstances” from Hemispheres getting more play than the bigger and more obvious cuts from those albums. (Ignoring “Cygnus X-1″ and “La Villa Strangiato”, of course.) The band sometimes feels a bit forced on those longer tracks, producing beautiful, compelling music but feeling like they are desperately trying to sound like their heroes, while on Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures they finally sound fully and singularly like themselves. I’m fond of Permanent Waves the most of this period, perhaps because aside from its two big singles the album was spared from being overplayed and overexposed like Moving Pictures was, albeit that only happened because every song on that album is enthralling. Still, it’s what came after this point following the band’s revelation of self-identity that would enthrall me the most.
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