Rush- 2112 (1976)
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?