Rush- A Farewell to Kings (1977)
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.