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.