Between 1974’s debut and 1978’s Hemispheres each new Rush record climbed to a greater level of complexity, intricacy and intellectualism. Yet, at some point, it becomes impossible to climb any higher. Hemispheres is the apex for Rush’s progressive rock era. It’s predecessor, 1980’s Permanent Waves is a major pivot point in Rush’s discography, a merger of their progressive sound with elements of new wave and synth rock.
Permanent Waves introduces a variety of new approaches. The lyrics veer from fantastical allegories of the previous records to more direct and accessible philosophical reflections. Geddy Lee drops the balls-out wails and opts for a melodious and approachable tone. At times, the songwriting is much more streamlined and conventional (though some songs have quite twisted structures). On the surface, Permanent Waves sounds like a “safe” record, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is a deceptively daring record that offers a plethora of original ideas.
The subtle genius of Permanent Waves is best captured by opening track, “The Spirit of the Radio.” Somehow, Rush manage to consolidate all the dimensions that make their progressive epics so impressive into a five minute radio-friendly song. “The Spirit of the Radio” laments the over-commercialization of the music industry and the devaluation of true artistry. Ironically, this critique of commercial radio was itself a commercial hit. It’s not hard to see why. Lee’s vocals are warm and sincere and the guitar lines are absurdly catchy. Yet, what on first listen seems like a direct pop-rock hit is actually quite the compositional achievement. The song doesn’t even have a true chorus. It offers four distinct but related progressions—ranging from a heartfelt and fiery anthem to slow, groovy reggae—that are weaved together through a series of sharp shifts in time-signature. It’s really one of the most intelligent and compelling pieces of pop-rock one will ever come across.
“Freewill” and “Entre Nous” are both excellent, straight-forward rock songs. Both songs have very conventional song structures that put the emphasis on Peart’s profound lyrics and Lee’s earnest vocal delivery. “Freewill” is a simple and direct anthem that challenges to take responsibility for our own destiny while “Entre Nous” is an eloquent reflection on the finitude of all human relationships. There’s also a rather weak ballad, “Different Strings”. The moment Lee croons “Who’s come to slay the dragon?” you know you’re in for a heavy dose of cheese. While “Different Strings” is stronger than previous ballads such as “Madrigal” and “Rivendell,” it is still plodding and saccharine. Still, even here, Lifeson offers a lush, jazzy guitar solo that goes a long way toward redeeming the song.
In contrast, “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Natural Science” are progressive goliaths. The former is a sonic depiction of a thunderstorm, a sort of prog-rock response to the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. It starts with a soft yet devious melody and a military drum beat. The soft pitter-patter melody is occasionally slashed by heavy riffs that cut through the composition like lightning bolts. The composition slowly builds up to evermore intense passages of doomy progressive metal, before fading into a soft and reflective synth passage that slowly swells into a final burst of prog-metal. In contrast to the fluidity of “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Natural Science” is a little disjointed, both musically and lyrically. It opens with a dreamy acoustic passage that contains a brilliant analogy between human societies and sea-life in tide pools. “All the busy little creatures/ Chasing out their destinies/ Living in their pools/ They soon forget about the sea.” From there it shoots off in several disparate directions: there’s some scatter-brained synth-rock and some Queen-inspired anthem rock. It’s all quite captivating, but it doesn’t really flow as a unified composition.
Permanent Waves is not the most cohesive or consistent of Rush’s works. There’s an undeniable dissymmetry between the giant prog rock tracks and the clean, straight forward pop-rock songs. Then there’s the sheer brilliance of “The Spirit of the Radio,” which fuses the best of both worlds. Still, any lack of overall cohesion is overshadowed by the sheer quality of the songs in and of themselves. Just as A Farewell of Kings offered an onslaught of new ideas that were then unified on Hemispheres, Permanent Waves is the breeding ground for countless new ideas that will be perfected on Moving Pictures.
From the moment Neil Peart joined Rush, the group constantly pushed itself to ever greater levels of musical and conceptual complexity. This ascent reaches its apex with 1978′s Hemispheres. Hemispheres builds upon the already absurdly intricate showcase of A Farewell to Kings by delivering even more complex compositions within a more cohesive and unified framework.
Hemispheres is not a concept album per se, but it is highly thematic. Each song deals with the struggle to find balance between seemingly irreconcilable dichotomies: emotion and reason, change and stability, individualism and egalitarianism. The theme is fodder for some of Neil Peart’s most creative, imaginative and stylistically diversified lyrics. Musically, Hemispheres maintains the pastoral aesthetic of A Farewell to Kings, (like its predecessor, Hemispheres was recorded in Rockfield Studios, in the Welch countryside) but eschews the distinctly British sensibilities of the former album for a more Mediterranean feel. The complexity of the compositions and the precision of the performance are extreme. According to the members of Rush, “La Villa Strangiato” alone took three times as long to record as the entire Fly by Night record. Despite the severe intricacy of the record, Hemispheres is loaded with excellent hooks and melodies. The harmony between intellectual and sensual stimulation makes Hemispheres not only one of the peaks of Rush’s prestigious discography, but also one of the highlights of the progressive rock genre as a whole.
The album opens with the 18 minute sidelong track, “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres,” which stands as Peart’s most daring lyrical effort. “Hemispheres” combines the structure and themes of a Grecian tragedy (minus the tragic ending) with elements of sci-fi writing. Peart follows the Grecian model carefully, offering a prelude, several central plot-driven chapters (which contain both monologues and choruses) and an epilogue. “Hemispheres” tells the story of a world in which humanity is trapped in a battle between Apollo, the god of reason, and Dionysus, god of love. Humanity is first drawn to Apollo; under his watch they create brilliant cities and indulge in intellectual contemplation. Yet, this intellectual life leaves the people feeling emotionally unfulfilled; thus Dionysus seduces humanity away from Apollo and convinces them to return to the wild and live off the bountiful land. The people revel in joy and pleasure until they are struck by a harsh winter and are left naked and exposed to an unforgiving environment. With both gods having left humanity dissatisfied, the people split into opposing sects of rationalists and romantics who engage in a futile battle for supremacy. In a strange twist, the protagonist from “Cygnus X-1 Book I,” the captain of the Rocinante spaceship, brings balance to the world. Apparently, when he sent his ship through a black hole at the end of Book I, he ended up in this alternate universe. The gods are so impressed by his appeal for balance that they offer him a seat in Olympus, and he becomes Cyngus, the god of balance. Harmony between emotion and reason is brought to humanity and everyone lives happily ever after. Thus, the moral of The Cygnus Series is that if you take a chance on the unknown, you might destroy yourself, but you also might become divine.
Unlike Rush’s other sidelong tracks, “The Fountain of Lamneth” and “2112,” which simply flow from one distinct passage to another, “Hemispheres” actually interweaves numerous progressions, hooks and themes throughout its eighteen minutes, resulting in a surprisingly unified composition. Numerous motifs are scattered throughout (i.e. the hammering noise that introduces each god or the spacy theme borrowed from Book I to reintroduce Cyngus). Other progressions are only used once to accentuate a specific dimension of the lyrics. Lee sings with a lot of different intonations throughout the song. He presents Apollo and Dionysus as cool and detached, and Cyngus as heartfelt and impassioned. Both the vocals and the music mime the numerous shifts within the story. “Hemispheres” is certainly a tough song to break into, but is well worth the time. The interweaving of the various feelings and themes brilliantly reflects the harmony and balance the composition praises.
After the massive title-track, Rush offer “Circumstances” as a palate-cleanser. It’s a short, direct and energetic rocker; but don’t mistake it for filler. The riffs are sharp and heavy and Lee offers some killer high-pitched wails. Even on this more “conventional” track, Rush still offer a quirky duet between synth and xylophone during the bridge. “The Trees” is a sardonic folk song about a political battle between maple and oak trees, which stand as caricatures of socialist and capitalist ideologues. The maples argue that the oaks are greedily taking all the light while the oaks argue that they shouldn’t be punished for being born in the sunlight—“and they wonder why the maples/ can’t be happy in their shade.” The maples respond by creating a union, which passes a “noble” law that all trees should have their branches cut so that everyone receives the same amount of light. There has been a lot of debate about whether or not the ending of the song is meant in jest or earnestness, but considering Peart’s affinity Ayn Rand and Objectivism, it’s likely that the ending is meant in jest. The song is grounded in a dainty little folk melody that by the second verse is beefed up with distortion but nonetheless maintains the playful spirit any that good fairytale should possess.
The album closes with the instrumental “La Villa Strangiato,” Rush’s most complex composition. Rush were obsessed with recording the track in a single take, but eventually accepted that the song had to recorded it in three parts. As a result of recording so many takes, the recording has a bit of hiss, which is especially evident during the quieter passages. It’s a somewhat endearing remnant of Rush’s drive for perfection. Despite the fact that this song is an instrumental, it still loosely retells a dream guitarist Alex Lifeson had. The song is split into twelve parts, each with its own subheading. From there, the listener can let their imagination and Rush’s stunning musicianship fill in the blanks. Like “Hemispheres,” “La Villa Strangiato” achieves a brilliant balance of complexity and accessibility. The melodies are highly emotive while the endless array of changes in tempo, timbre and rhythm is totally dizzying. The full-throttle final four minutes are especially staggering. Just as impressive—though for totally different reasons—is Lifeson’s beautiful and soulful guitar solo during the calm middle passage of the song.
Hemispheres displays the perfect balance of precision and passion. Every note, every lyric has a purpose and each musician is pushed to his limit. Yet, their strife is not endured in the pursuit of some austere sound but rather in the aim of creating a work of art that is emotive, visceral and compelling. Intellectual precision leads to emotional clarity and visa versa. The title track ends by lauding the ideal of “the Heart and Mind united in a single, perfect, sphere.” To hear what that perfect union sounds like, look no further than the record itself.
10. Moonface with Sinaii—Heartbreaking Bravery
Heartbreaking Bravery is collaboration between Moonface, aka Spencer Krug (of Wolf Parade fame) and Swedish kraut rock band Sinaii. Krug delivers a series of sardonic tales of failed romance in a tone that is simultaneously earnest and self-mocking. His quivering voice is capable of sounding genuinely devastated at one moment and defiantly sarcastic the next. Sinaii keep pace with Krug’s capricious mood-swings, offering textured compositions that capture the varied dimensions of Krug’s lyrics, resulting in a cinematic fusion of word and sound. Heartbreaking Bravery is diverse, ranging from moody ballads to zealous rockers. Moonface and Sinaii excel in the entire gauntlet, delivering great vocal hooks and inspired melodies throughout.
9. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros—Here
Topping 2009’s debut Up From Below was an impossible task for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. That album is like that first day of joy after a long, seemingly endless depression—that day when you’re just so drunk on joy that absolutely nothing can diminish the beauty of everything you come across. Well how often are we lucky enough to experience, let alone express that kind of joy? On its sophomore release, the Magnetic Zeros opt to simplify the formula. The songs are less boisterous and the arrangements less grandiose. Here is as simple as its name. This is just a set of heartfelt folk-rock songs, with touches of country and reggae, driven by excellent vocal hooks and earnest lyrics. This time out, Edward Sharpe is less dominate, letting the other members provide lead vocals on a number of tracks. Consequently, Here really feels like a group of friends joyfully playing together, unaware that an audience even exists. It’s a simple album, but a genuine album and that simplicity offers a happiness all its own—not quite as staggering as that of their last album, but moving in its own right.
8. Dead Can Dance—Anastasis
It’s been sixteen years since Dead Can Dance last released a studio album. In that time, Lisa Gerrard and Brendon Perry have had up-and-down solo careers, both of which have been more down than up as of late. Fortunately, time apart has not diminished Gerrard and Perry’s divine chemistry. “Ανάστασις” is a Greek term for “resurrection,” and that spirit certainly reflected in the music. Though Dead Can Dance maintain the solemn, esoteric aura they are known for, a streak of bright liveliness spreads throughout the recording like early spring sunrays bringing an end to a long winter. Dead Can Dance integrate a foundation of dense electronic tones with layers of traditional percussive and string instruments from around the world. Perry’s voice is warm, deep and low—a powerful vessel for his wise and timely lyrics. Gerrard’s voice is, as always, nothing short of transcendent. The compositions are diverse and draw inspiration from Ireland, Arabia and everywhere in between. Reunion albums are always precarious, both for artist and audience, but Anastasis qualifies as a resounding success, a true continuation and development of the Dead Can Dance aesthetic.
7. Ash Borer—Cold of Ages
Ash Borer is quickly establishing itself as one of the most powerful black metal acts in the contemporary scene. While the group employs most of the signature Cascadian black metal tropes (ethereal female vocals, extended ambient passages and nonlinear songs that last an eternity), the overall aesthetic is closer to Norwegian black metal. Ash Borer is sonically frigid and emotionally unforgiving—haunting, yet majestic. The razor thin riffs soar across the soundscape like icy gusts of wind swirling across winter tundra. Be it harsh shrieks or ethereal wails, the vocals convey ravenous catharsis, like onlookers hypnotized by a blizzard’s terrifying splendor. The interspersing of ambient and clean passages serve not as respites from the frostbitten riffs, but rather as centrifugal moments that accentuate the album’s core emotional foundation—fear, wonder and enthrallment. Cold of Ages is an ode to the dark, mysterious forces that dwells within us and within nature; horrifying, nameless and ancient.
6. Rush—Clockwork Angels
Rush is one of those bands is always trying something new. Clockwork Angels, the group’s 19th full-length, is no exception. It is one of Rush’s heaviest records to date, consisting of mostly of powerful and groovy cuts of progressive metal. The album is peppered with a number of truly gorgeous ballads, most of which employ a string section, yet another new frontier for Rush. The performance is Rush’s most tight and technical since reuniting in 2003. The trio is back in form and the interweaving of drums, bass and guitar is daring and intricate. The catchy hooks will pull you in, but it’s the wonderful dynamics between the musicians that will draw you back time and time again. Clockwork Angels is concept album; the narrative is not totally transparent from the lyrics, but don’t worry, Neil Peart collaborated with sci-fi novelist Kevin J. Anderson, who wrote an entire damn novel based off the story. (I have not had a chance to read the novel yet, but promise to do so before writing my full-length review of the album!) At the surface level, the lyrics explore two parallel themes: the numerous ways in which humans deceive themselves and the ways we overcome our folly. Peart is sensitive to show not only our unforgiving tenancy to buy into illusions but also just how compelling those illusions can be.
Azam Ali is best known for her work as the vocalist for the world drone group Vas. While, Niyaz, her Arabian pop group, is quite a different flavor, it is no less captivating. On Sumud Ali merges the sensual and soulful with grace and allure. Her delivery is simply hypnotizing; her vocal patterns—a delicious interplay of lines delivered at quick-fire pace followed by a few dragged-out syllables—are perfectly crafted to draw the listener into a trance. Niyaz offer the ideal accompaniment for Ali’s magnetic vocals through an excellent blend of modern and traditional sounds. Deep, pulsating trip-hop beats are interwoven with hand percussion, hammer dulcimer and saz to create a dynamic, multifaceted soundscape, loaded with layers of differing but complimentary rhythms. The sensual and spiritual merge in one sound that enraptures the entire person. These songs are immediately seductive, but like a good lover, they will only consume you at deeper levels with each new encounter.
Over the past five years Panopticon, the one man band of Austin Lunn, has been refining its highly unusual yet effective blend of black metal, post rock and bluegrass. With its fourth full length, Kentucky, Panopticon has made its most poignant statement yet. Kentucky is a concept album that explores the corrupt history of the coal mining industry in Kentucky, which has exploited the state’s people and land for generations. Yet, Kentucky is not a lament, it is a call to resistance; it emphasizes the linage of labor unions, protesters and environmentalists who have stood up to the coal mining industry over the generations. The album contains several short bluegrass pieces embedded between massive pieces of post-black metal. The shifts pull the listener back and forth between visceral engagement and critical reflection. The interplay of these distinct elements delivers the perfect balance of pain, fury,adoration and resilience. Kentucky tells the story of the struggles of a specific place and time while touching on the broader theme of the horrors of capitalism.
3. Fiona Apple—The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple’s music has always been open and authentic, but even by her standards The Idler Wheel… is a candid record. While Apple’s previous records have been heavy on the arrangements, The Idler Wheel… is quite stripped down. There’s a touch of bass and strings here and there, but for the most part the record sticks to piano, vocals and neurotic percussion. The lyrics predominately explore the various stages of romance—everything from the honeymoon stage to rejection to disillusionment. As always, Apple’s lyrics are intelligent, verbose and creative, and her delivery is pitch-perfect. Apple knows when to roar, when to moan and when to belt it out. Her range is vast, and her intonations are precise and imaginative. With her voice in perfect form, Apple is able to pull the listener up and down through the feral and uneven emotional landscape of these songs. Verse and chorus often offer vastly different moods and energies; even the most direct tracks are wrought with undertones that threaten to knock the song off course. Just like real life, these songs are unpredictable, unstable and little messy… and that’s exactly what makes these songs so relatable. Apple conveys her true human experiences in all of their complexity and inconsistency and that honesty is beautiful and inspiring.
2. Mariee Sioux—Gift for the End
This is the best folk album to come out in a long, long time. Sioux’s high, glassy voice strikes the listener like cold, fresh water on a hot summer day. Her tone is comforting and calming, a safe haven against the world’s darkness; but, it also has a childish brightness to it. Plucked acoustic progressions are surrounded with a brilliant array of organs, electric guitars, pianos and percussion to create a lush and vivacious environment. The lyrics rely on images from nature, but eschew grandiose imagery to dwell on the small things: pine leaves, snake skin, salmon eggs and so on. A phrase repeated throughout Gift for the End is “higher heaven,” yet what Sioux means by this phrase is actually quite close at hand. “And I wanna make the run with the coho/ up a dying river going home/ to a higher heaven.” Reaching a higher heaven is simply seeing oneself as part of the lifecycle of nature; Sioux communicates that simple divinity through this stunning collection of peaceful reflections on beauty of humanity as part of nature.
1. Swans—The Seer
“I see it all” is one of Michael Gira’s many mantras on The Seer. Indeed, Gira and co. are determined to prove that they see it all, even if it takes 120 minutes and three LPs to do so. During that time Swans traverse an insanely wide range of styles and sounds: jazz, psych rock, doom metal, prog-rock, folk ballads, drone, goth, and employ instruments ranging from bagpipes to Jews Harp to hammer dulcimer to steel cello. Thematically, The Seer explores the unsettling similarities between divine revelation and complete and utter psychosis. Swans might be articulating the origin of the universe; it’s also possible they have collectively descended into complete and utter madness. Usually it feels like both are happening at once. Primal energies burst forth, meld together and bloom into massive, multifaceted compositions. And whenever you think you’ve figured this album out, something new is thrown at you: terrifying atonal jazz, a beautiful country ballad, and some of the heaviest riffs the earth has ever seen. Despite the broad scope of The Seer, Swans maintain a clear vision from start to finish and all these dissonant fragments come together in one maddening, glorious kaleidoscope. When Swans reunited in 2010 Gira promised that the second-coming of Swans was not a reunion but rather a progression. Every reunited band says that, but few mean it. Gira meant it. Thirty years in and Swans are still one of the most avant-grade bands on the planet.
After the commercial success of 2112, Mercury Records finally gave Rush total artistic liberty. In truth, Rush were often doing what they liked prior to receiving their record label’s blessing, but doing so meant they were constantly at risk to be dropped from the label. Now, having established themselves as a commercial juggernaut, the members of Rush were able to let their imaginations run wild, resulting in one of the group’s most experimental and progressive albums, 1977’s A Farewell to Kings (only its successor, Hemispheres rivals it in terms of complexity and progressiveness).
After recording its previous three albums at Toronto Sound Studios, Rush traveled to Wales to record their next two albums at the secluded Rockfield Studios. The lush, bucolic surroundings are reflected throughout A Farewell to Kings. Save the final track, A Farewell to Kings maintains an idyllic sensibility. Many of the instrumental passages conjure images of rich, vernal landscapes while the lyrics often employ pastoral themes and imagery. Birdsongs from outside the studio are even integrated into the first two tracks of the album.
While A Farewell to Kings might be inspired by the simplicity of the country landscape, it is anything but a simple album; it is loaded with absurdly complex and elaborate compositions. Within a given song Neil Peart will employ any number of bells, chimes and xylophones in addition to his already massive drum kit. Similarly, Alex Lifeson will use up to three different guitars on a single song, including quite a bit of classical guitar. Geddy Lee is much more liberal in his use of synthesizers, resulting in a more textured soundscape. Compositionally, Rush raise the bar from 2112 with even more complex time signatures and razor sharp transitions. At times it is almost overwhelming following all the twists and turns that occur in a single song.
Rush throw out a lot of ideas on this album, and while most of them are successful, A Farewell to Kings is not the group’s most consistent album. That said, Side A nothing short of perfect. The title track is kinetic, building from a soft acoustic intro into spirited, fast-paced verses and choruses before peaking in a throbbing, throttling bridge that climaxes into an elegant mid-paced guitar solo.
“Xanadu” achieves a similar genesis on an even grander scale. The eleven minute epic tells the story of a man who travels to the mystical, icy mountaintops of Xanadu in search of immortality. The protagonist gains immortality, but at the cost of his freedom. He is remains trapped in the “Pleasure Dome” where he goes insane from loneliness and isolation. The moral of the story: It’s better to die free then be enslaved for eternity. The opening five minute instrumental passage is one of Rush’s greatest moments. It traverses a gauntlet of melodies, tempos and time signatures while employing just about every instrument in the band’s vast arsenal.
“Closer to the Heart” is equally impressive, though on a much smaller scale. Peart offers heartfelt, utopian lyrics that Lee delivers with energy and earnestness. The song also contains a joyous, ecstatic guitar solo that stands as one of Lifeson’s best.
Side B struggles to match the brilliance of Side A. “Cinderella Man” is the closest Rush ever got to writing a song in the style of Lennon and McCartney and is sufficiently catchy, but “Madrigal” is melodramatic love ballad with synthetic flute solos and references to dragons. “Cygnus X-1: Book 1” is the album’s outlier. It abandons the pastoral spirit and returns to the deep-space aesthetic of “2112”: blubbery bass, heavy riffs and lots of echo. The song is one of the few instances where Rush sacrifice musical coherence for the sake of the song’s concept. “Cygnus X-1” is the first-person narrative of the captain of the Rocinante deep space shuttle. The captain becomes obsessed with discovering what’s on the other side of the black hole Cygnus X-1, so much so that he drives his ship directly into the black hole. The music is excellent throughout, with tons of groovy riffs, quirky synths and ballsy screams from Lee. However, everything moves a little too quickly and some excellent passages are cut too short: the group chases the lyrical narrative while leaving excellent riffs in the dust. If Rush had taken a little longer to flush out all the ideas contained within this song, it could have been a classic, but as it stands it’s a bit of tease.
A Farewell to Kings is certainly less consistent than either its predecessor or its successor, but Side A is as strong as anything else within Rush’s illustrious discography. While Side B has its bumps, it still contains a more than its share of interesting moments. Evaluated as a whole, A Farewell to Kings is creative, exciting and unpredictable—progressive in the truest sense of the word.
Over its first three albums Rush had covered a lot of musical ground. They had explored hard rock, prog rock, folk and heavy metal. They had played around with everything from radio-friendly rockers (i.e. “Fly by Night”) to sidelong epics (i.e. “The Fountain of Lamenth”). Rush’s third album, Caress of Steel documents a band who is starting to congeal this plethora of sounds and styles into one cohesive aesthetic. However, Rush was not quite there yet; while often genius,Caress of Steel still suffers its share of growing pains.
Unfortunately for Rush, Mercury Records, who signed the group based on the success of the Zeppelinesque hit “Working Man,” had no interest in Rush’s artistic development. The label wanted hits and sales, not “pretentious” conceptual songs. As one might expect from a dark, experimental album that contains two songs over twelve minutes in length, Caress of Steel didn’t produce many hits or sales. The correlating tour (sarcastically titled the “Down the Tubes Tour”) was also a bust. Rush were in hot water with the label and needed a successful record to keep their career afloat.
Fortunately, everything clicked just in the nick of time. 2112 is the album where all the various pieces that make up Rush’s sound come together into a cohesive whole. The first thing that stands out about 2112 is just how huge it sounds; it’s on par with other mammoth prog albums like Yes’s Close to the Edge, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King and Pink Floyd’s Wish you Were Here. What distinguishes 2112 is that it creates such a giant sound with not much more than guitar, bass, drums and vocals. While there is some doubling of guitar (mostly during solos or when acoustic guitar is added) and a few keyboard passages, the vast majority of 2112 is the product of just three instruments.
But what titanic instrumental performances they are! The tone of the bass and guitar is dense and heavy, and the riffs roar throughout. Peart plays with a combination of power, precision and technicality that makes the drums into both the pace-setter and at times, a lead instrument. The music is composed in such a way to allow Peart’s brilliant fills stand out (i.e. the varied fills that come at the end of each line of the verse of “The Temples of Syrinx”). Most prog rock bands have two “lead” instruments: guitar plus one less conventional instrument, ranging from keys to flutes to violins. On 2112, Peart’s fills are so distinguished and forthright that they essentially fill the role of the “second lead instrument.” As for the vocals, Lee does an excellent job of shifting between soft, warm singing in a relatively lower register to unfathomably high wails. Lee uses these two disparate styles to create thrilling dynamics throughout 2112 (i.e. on “Presentation”, where the protagonist makes gentle requests to the priests who harshly turn him down). All of these sounds are accentuated by Terry Brown’s phenomenal production job. There’s lots of echo and reverb, which helps each instrument fill as much sonic space as possible and also brings life to the spacey lyrical themes.
All of these musical elements are quite a marvel to experience, but what makes 2112 a masterpiece is the way the sounds weave in and out of one another, creating compositions that morph like living organisms. Nowhere is this more evident than on the epic, seven-part, sidelong title track. The opening suite begins with the trio playing choppy, stop-start riffs in absolute harmony before traveling in unison through a glorious, galloping hard rock passage. When the music slows down again, there’s a brilliant moment of inversion: the guitar is the only instrument holding a steady rhythm, while Lee and Peart take turns dropping blubbery bass lines and thunderous fills. The entire twenty-minute epic is full of these sorts of staggering shifts and transitions that are only possible when truly great musicianship and great band chemistry occur simultaneously.
In brief, “2112” tells the story of a futuristic society run by a priestly intelligentsia that brainwash the masses into believing they are happy. One day a boy finds a guitar and begins expressing himself through music. The boy wants to share his music with others, which infuriates and terrifies the priests. (There’s a lot more to the story than this, but considering this is Rush’s most talked about song, those who are curious will have little problem finding out the details of the story). “2112” is a story of the struggle to maintain authenticity and creativity in the face of the homogeneity of group-thought. Appropriately, the song is filled to the brim with inspired, impassioned riffs and vocal hooks. The song is so hard rocking and catchy that most listeners probably won’t even pick up on the more technical happenings until the fourth or fifth listen, at least. While each part of the song is worthy of discussion, one part that is especially interesting is part III, “The Discovery,” which describes the boy finding guitar and learning to play it. Lifeson communicates this process by gradually progressing from bare, unharmonious open chords to increasingly complex and beautiful chord progressions. Lifeson’s heartfelt and excited performance brilliantly captures the thrill of discovery.
While “2112” rightfully gets a ton of attention, Side B is praiseworthy in its own right. Rush was never a pure prog rock band and always had a more direct hard rock aspect to its sound (at least, through Moving Pictures). In the same way that Rush perfected their prog rock element on Side A, Side B is the perfection of the group’s more direct hard rock dimension. On Side B, Rush finally move out of the shadow of Led Zeppelin and create cuts of fiery, upbeat hard rock that truly have a distinct sound that could only belong to Rush. These songs either tell vivid stories or describe intense emotional experiences; in each case, Rush finds excellent melodies and hooks to convey those stories and feelings. “Passage to Bangkok” captures the energy and exoticism of traveling in far off lands while “Twilight Zone” creates a spooky and trippy ambiance. Even the ballad (which Rush almost always strikes out on), “Tears” is quite impressive, with Lee delivering a beautiful vocal performance, while guest mellotronist Hugh Syme provides excellent atmospheric backing melodies.
2112 was a commercial success and consequently, gave the group the artistic freedom to do as they pleased on future releases. It’s not difficult to see why 2112 has become such beloved album: it is a rare instance of a mainstream album that actualizes the ideology it expresses. Individualism, taking responsibility for one’s own actions and pursuing one’s dreams are the themes of 2112: Rush did exactly that by making 2112 the album they wanted it to be, rather than the one the label was begging for. Many lesser bands have not been brave enough to maintain their artistic integrity in that situation. While that might have resulted in a few more hits in the 70s, Rush managed to lay the groundwork for multiple genres of music with 2112. Neither progressive metal nor alternative rock would be what they are today without 2112. In the end, 2112 is a rare story of artistic integrity winning out over commercial greed, and honestly, who cannot find hope and inspiration in that?
5. Thee Silver Mount Zion- The West Will Rise Again
The West Will Rise Again makes for an interesting follow-up to 2010′s phenomenal Kollaps Tradixionales. The production is very lo-fi –even more so than prior releases—and goes straight to the heart like a strong liquor. The only effects are on Efrim’s vocals, which are dubbed and looped, creating echoing choruses that pump up the epic spirit of the music. Per usual, the other band members provide delicious backing vocals throughout. The highlight is the eleven minute “What we Loved Was not Enough,” one of the most beautiful and inspiring tracks Silver Mount Zion has ever recorded. Is life dragging you down? Do you feel like nothing good will ever happen again? This song will pick you up by the bootstraps. Lyrics of loss and failure are contrasted with sweeping gusts of inspired violin and guitars. Efrim’s cries of loss are more accepting then they are lamenting. The song dances its way over two sides of the record, twisting through some nice guitar solos before shifting into to the angelic ending. As Efrim chants “pick yourself up and start again” Jessica and Sophie provide a heavenly lullaby, soothingly repeating “and the day will come when we no longer feel.”
4. Chelsea Wolfe- Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs
Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs is a compilation of acoustic pieces that Wolfe has stockpiled over the past few years. Like her masterful Ἀποκάλυψις, Unknown Rooms displays a wide range of sounds, styles and emotions. “Flatlands” is a gentle, melancholic folk piece for guitar and strings that swells with Wolfe’s pained but relenting voice. “The Way We Used to” is a smoky waltz performed on standup bass, drums and strings. Wolfe displays her excellence in the high range during the icy chorus, where her voice flutters upward like a ginkgo leaf in a gentle breeze. “Boyfriend” is gloomy yet heartfelt; Wolfe’s muted, frail vocals sound as if they belong to a ghost spilling its heart out to an empty room. “Sunstorm” is arguably the highlight of the EP, a nostalgic ditty whose glassy piano tone and jittery progressions recall darkwave icons Black Tape for a Blue Girl. Start to finish, Wolfe delivers captivating melodies, interesting arrangements and chilling vocals.
3. Laster- Wijsgeer ende Narreman
Wijsgeer & Narreman consists of three rich and emotional pieces of melodic black metal. The most obvious inspiration here is early Drudkh. The guitars have the same dense and fuzzy tone while the drums are played in a similarly loose and sprightly style. The melodies waver between depressive and cathartic moods, at times managing to express both sensations at once. The vocals are high pitched shrieks a la early Burzum. There is a subtle post rock/metal influence here as well, though it’s seamlessly integrated into the blackened soundscape. The production is excellent; all the instruments sound rich and full and everything is well balanced. It’s hard to think of Wijsgeer & Narreman as a demo. Between the excellent performance, stellar production and the holistic flow of the recording, it feels more like an EP released by an established band than a debut recording.
2. Agalloch- Faustian Echoes
Faustian Echoes is a sprawling twenty-one minute epic of emotionally charged black metal. The song is structured like a valley, with massive opening and closing passages embedding a soft and gentle middle section. The opening and closing passages vacillate between harsh, bleak riffs and glorious, vibrant riffs, both of which are littered with Don Anderson’s imperious solos. The EP is packed to the brim with fluttering leads that will send your spirit soaring. The highlight is the closing solo, which is full of piercingly bright notes that tear apart the album’s dark atmosphere like sunlight cutting through clouds. The production is perfect. The sound is stripped down but yet every instrument is perfectly audible. This is an exquisite piece of epic black metal from a band that is in top form.
1. Deathspell Omega- Drought
Deathspell Omega perfected its smoldering brand of progressive technical black metal on its previous two full lengths FAS – Ite, Maledicti, in ignem Aeternum and Paracletus. On Drought, Deathspell Omega further explores the possibilities of its highly developed sound. This EP is a highly cohesive work that flows more like a single composition than as a set of songs. The composition creates a sense of constriction, similar to what one would feel while dying of thirst. Deathspell Omega annihilates your eardrums with a battery of contorted atonal riffs that never sit still, accompanied by some of the most monstrous vocals in all of extreme metal. The dizzying percussion is a brilliant hybrid of jazz and extreme metal techniques. Speaking of jazz, Drought is splattered with softer moments of demented avant-garde jazz (i.e. the opener “Swallow Vision”) that work as moments of agonized reflection between overwhelming stretches of torture. Staggering, as always.
Caress of Steel is the album that almost killed Rush. Upon its release it was lambasted by critics, ignored by most fans and drew the ire of record executives. There are some legitimate reasons why Caress of Steel received such a negative response. It is musically inconsistent, has an awkward flow and lacks an overarching vision. It starts with three straight-forward rock songs and ends with two massive prog rock epics. The first three songs tackle pragmatic and worldly subjects, while the later two tracks delve into fantastical and allegorical stories. The short songs are musically direct and emotionally simple while the latter two tracks are demanding in every sense of the word.
Thus, Caress of Steel is an album that simply cannot be looked at as a whole, because it’s two elements are so disparate. This is somewhat true of Rush’s next album, 2112, whose Side A consists of one 20 minute epic and Side B contains five short, catchy rockers. However, on 2112 there is at least stylistic consistency between the two sides (similar style of riffs, lyrical themes etc.), even if the song structures are worlds apart. In contrast, Caress of Steel is all over the place, both musically and thematically. This is especially true of the short songs, which sound totally different from one another. “Bastille Day” is a fast-paced, fiery cut of hard rock that has an inspired sing-along chorus. Geddy Lee’s elaborate bass-lines are prominent, though Alex Lifeson’s regal guitar melodies are also unforgettable. “I Think I’m Going Bald” is arguably the worst song Rush released prior to 1987. The song is a tongue-in-cheek blues-rock piece that throws the finger up at aging. The music is stale and the witless lyrics are some of Neil Peart’s worst. “Lakeside Park” is a mellow, groovy piece that creates a nostalgic atmosphere through a series gentle guitar melodies and dreamy rhythms. While tracks 1 and 3 are actually very strong, they feel totally out of place standing next to the leviathan tracks that follow them. In all likelihood these songs were tossed on the album for the sake appeasing record company execs with some radio-friendly material.
Caress of Steel is defined by the two epics that make up almost three-fourths of the album. These songs are revolutionary for their interweaving of soft and heavy sounds, and dark and light moods to create labyrinthine emotional journeys. Both the song structures and the individual arrangements are very complex. These are difficult pieces to break into. They are not loaded the glorious hooks of other Rush epics such as “2112” and “Hemispheres.” Nonetheless, these songs will reward the listener who takes the time to become familiar with their intricate terrains.
“The Necromancer” is a twelve-minute, three part suite. It tells the story of a land where people have lost their freedom and will power under the reign of the evil Necromancer. In Part I, three travelers hunt for the Necromancer in his forest, hoping to defeat him and regain their freedom. The music is gentle but dreary and spooky, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of a dark, foreboding forest. Lee’s vocals are full of a fatalistic sorrow and Lifeson’s bluesy solo provides a palpable sense of impending doom. In Part II, the travelers are captured by the Necromancer and taken to his torture chamber. This section is exceptionally dark and heavy for 1975, rivaling Black Sabbath’s most evil moments. The bass and drums provide a low, doomy foundation over which Lifeson delivers a series wicked, menacing leads that bite at the listener like the various whips and chains of the torture chamber. Lee’s vocals are harsh and grating; at times he flirts with abandoning himself to sheer screams. Part II begins at the pace of a funeral procession, but eventually reaches a blistering tempo with all three musicians executing slashing, technical progressions with riveting precision. Part II is ground breaking: the harsh vocals, evil atmosphere and combination of speed and technicality provide the blueprint for much of the metal that emerged during the following decades. In Part III, By-Tor, the antagonist from Fly by Night’s “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” returns, this time as the hero and expels the Necromancer from the land, allowing the citizens regain their freedom and will power. The music is pure psych-folk bliss, full of sweet and joyous vocals and guitar solos.
“The Fountain of Lamneth” is even longer and more structurally complex. It is a six part, twenty minute suite that tells the story of a man’s lifelong journey to the fountain of youth. The song is heavily allegorical and explores humanity’s insatiable desire for immortality and the ultimate isolation of the individual in the journey through life, especially in the face of death. In his pursuit of immortality, the protagonist must endure social ostracism, abandonment by friends, the loss of love and the exhaustion that comes with old age. The hand of death looms large throughout the composition, sprinkling even the most upbeat moments of the composition with a sense of morbidity.
Though “The Fountain of Lamneth” is an engrossing journey, it is not as consistent as “The Necromancer”. Part II, which is essentially a drum solo accompanied by a few harsh screams and heavy riffs is kind of cool when taken in isolation, but is disruptive to the overall flow of the composition. Part IV explores themes of love, sensuality and romance. As usual, things get ugly when Rush touch on the subject of women. The music is overly saccharine and Lee’s vocals sound like a sorry excuse for a medieval madrigal. Still, the brilliant moments heavily outweigh the weaker ones. Part III weaves back and forth between dark, jazzy, prog rock and crunching heavy metal (a section that Opeth has replicated ad infinitum). Part V creates a wonderful tension by accompanying joyous psychedelic rock with exhausted and depressing lyrics, creating the aura of a final Bacchic celebration before death. The opening and closing acoustic passages contain some of Lee’s most moving vocals, combing a sense of awe and wonder with profound pain. Overall, “The Fountain of Lamneth” might not be as accessible as Rush’s other sidelong tracks but once you break through, it’s theme of mortality will resonate deeply.
It’s impossible to call Caress of Steel a great album because the songs are so distant from each other, both musically and conceptually. However, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth” are groundbreaking compositions that set the bar for countless progressive rock and metal bands. Beyond influence, they are intrinsically powerful works of art that might have been too experimental for the majority in 1975, but sound surprisingly fresh today. Even if you ignore tracks 1-3, the final two tracks are essential listening for fans of progressive rock and metal.