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.