Before Rush developed one of the most innovative and influential sounds in modern rock, the group was not much more than a Led Zeppelin-worship act. On the self-titled debut, Rush fails to even create top shelf Zeppelin-worship. The songwriting is overly derivative, the lyrics do not fit Geddy Lee’s vocal persona and the drumming is far too vanilla. On its sophomore release, Fly by Night, Rush predominately produce cuts Zeppelin-inspired hard rock, but this time they do a damn good job of mimicking the masters.
From the opening notes of Fly by Night it’s clear that Rush have improved their sound in numerous areas.
Most importantly, the pedestrian drumming of John Rutsey is replaced by astonishing percussion of Neil Peart. Peart treats drumming like a master painter treats landscape painting. In the same way that the painter is careful to give each tree, mountain and stream its own personality through the small details, Peart constantly provides subtle variation, seemingly within each bar. His fills are varied and elaborate and add tons of color to every song. Peart plays with power and precision, which in turn allows Lee and Lifeson to play more technical progressions and employ a greater variety of time signatures. As a result, the compositions have way more detail and depth than those found on the debut.
Another major upgrade is in the production department. In contrast to the flat sound of the debut, Fly by Night is a robust recording, with each instrument filling a ton of sonic space. Echo and reverb are used effectively to create a rich textures, especially on the icy “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”. The improved sound is partially due to equipment upgrades at Toronto Sound Studios and partially due to the superior sensibilities of Terry Brown (who would produce the next seven Rush albums).
Peart’s impact as a lyricist is also evident. Gone are the clichéd rock n’ roll lyrics of the debut (save the Lee penned “Best I Can”) and in their place are Peart’s poetic and fantastical lyrics. In addition to simply delivering some beautiful lines (the chorus of “Beneath, Below and Behind” is Pulitzer-worthy), Peart’s lyrics fit Lee’s vocal style very well. Lee’s soaring falsetto is the perfect medium with which to express the dramatic stories and big feelings found in Peart’s lyrics.
While Fly by Night still stands the shadow of Led Zeppelin, Rush are at least resting beneath the right branches. Instead of trying to replicate the raunchy and sensual dimension of Zeppelin’s sound (which just doesn’t fit Rush’s personality), Rush replicates the bright, upbeat sound of Zeppelin’s mythological tracks such as “Battle of Evermore” and “Over the Hills and Far Away”. Even “Anthem,” which structurally resembles the visceral, erotic “Black Dog,” attunes the format with philosophical lyrics and bright, spirited vocals. As a result, Rush sound less like out-of-place wannabes and more like Zeppelin’s little brother who can’t help copying his cooler older brother’s style, but at the same time is at the cusp of developing his own identity.
That unique identity manifests on the eight and a half minute epic “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”. Over the years, Rush have become known for allowing the instrumental segments of their compositions to express portions the song’s narrative, and that is achieved brilliantly here. The first two verses set the stage, describing the a mystical world in which By-Tor and the Snow Dog prepare to battle over the fate of its land and people. The battle is expressed through screeching guitar and bellowing bass which shout at each other over a racing rhythm before culminating in a series of heavy stop-start riffs that are executed with razor sharp precision. At first, the riffs are bridged by jaw-dropping drum fills, but after a while Rush just leave bars of silence between the crunching riffs. Eventually the composition falls into the dead space and enters the “Aftermath,” a minimal and atmospheric passage that creates an icy atmosphere through chimes and atonal guitar work. The song concludes with a soulful, bluesy guitar solo that leads back to the third verse, in which Lee celebrates the victory of the Snow Dog.
While “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” is the only true masterpiece on the album, tracks like “Anthem” and “Fly by Night” are beautiful and catchy pieces of 70’s rock that are full of spirit and energy. On the downside, Fly by Night does contain some filler at the end. “Rivendell” is a dull and melodramatic acoustic ballad that drags on for five torturous minutes. “In the End” is nowhere near as boring, but it does lack a memorable hook and is bloated at almost seven minutes. Even if this album loses steam down the stretch, there is enough quality material here that it is essential listening for Rush fans. On Fly by Night Rush begin to piece together their identity and establish the excellent chemistry that would drive them onward through the next two decades. Even if everything isn’t in its right place, Rush have clearly taken flight.
Some bands come out of the gate swinging, while others gradually build momentum. Canadian prog rock legends Rush falls squarely in the latter category. Rush slowly cultivated both their progressive and hard rock elements over their first three albums before finally perfecting both on their 1976 classic, 2112. Just two years earlier Rush was simply one amongst hundreds of Led Zeppelin-worship bands—and save one song, they fail to distinguish themselves from the pack. Generic songwriting, underwhelming drumming and clichéd lyrics make Rush a weak link within Rush’s otherwise stellar early discography.
At this infantile stage of Rush’s career the band is little more than a Led Zeppelin worship act. Most of the elements of Rush are lifted from Led Zeppelin (though the influences of Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath are also apparent). Overall, Lee does a good job of filling the role of Robert Plant. He delivers high falsetto with some cutting screams and possibly even more “oohs”, “yeahs” and “babys” than you’ll find on any Led Zeppelin album. However, Lee falls comically short of Plant in sex appeal department. The lyrics replicate the sexual and amorous themes that pervade Led Zeppelin’s discography, but the delivery is just awkward. Lee’s voice can capture a lot of different moods and feelings, but “sexy” isn’t one of them.
Lee’s bass work and Alex Lifeson’s guitar work do a better job of emulating the Zeppelin sound. Lifeson provides numerous big, roaring, bluesy hooks and several ear-grabbing solos while Lee provides bouncy, bluesy bass-lines. Nothing on this album hints at just how talented these two musicians are, but for the type of music they are playing, the performance is solid. Where the debut really falls short is the drumming. It’s hard to pull off the Zeppelin sound without someone to fill the role of John Bonham. Rush would actually one-up their icons when Neil Peart—arguably the greatest drummer in the history of rock—joined the group on their sophomore release, Fly by Night. However, John Rutsey’s performance on the debut is way too safe and pedestrian. There’s a scarcity of interesting fills and the execution lacks power. Part of this is due to the mediocre production (all the instruments have a fairly flat sound to them) but Rutsey’s musical limitations are part of the problem as well.
The song structures are predictable and the hooks and choruses are unoriginal. The lyrics are pretty shallow and generic, dwelling mostly on romance and sexual desire without articulating those feelings in a seductive or visceral manner. Still, there are enough catchy moments to make Rush a listenable album. “In the Mood,” “Take a Friend” and “Need Some Love” have memorable choruses and Lifeson’s solos are strong throughout.
The one truly standout moment is the hit single “Working Man.” For one song everything comes together: Rutsey steps it up on drums, Lee provides quality lyrics and the trio finds excellent chemistry. “Working Man” laments the banality and redundancy of the blue collar lifestyle and the unrelenting desire for something more fulfilling. Lee wails dissatisfaction over his thankless 9-5 job while Lifeson’s guitar roars big, ravenous riffs that allude to the working man’s yearning for thrill, excitement and meaning. During the extended bridge Lifeson delivers some killer soloing before the trio enters a tight-knit, fast-paced passage where they finally shows off their chops.
Fans of Rush should give this album a listen, specifically to hear the fiery “Working Man,” but make no mistake about it, this album is significantly inferior to the group’s next ten albums.
Overall: 5.5/ 10