Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 3: The High Progressive Period

The success of 2112 brought Rush, in their own words, their “freedom,”so on the albums that followed, they fully committed to the progressive rock paradigm. While there are not any side-long suites on A Farewell to Kings, Rush’s prog-rock identity was evident in the expanded palate of sounds that pervade the album. Geddy Lee’s synth interests began to take a more significant role, with melodies being prominently featured on cutting edge Moog and Taurus technology. Peart’s drumset also expanded to include chimes, mark tree, glockenspiel, temple blocks, and a variety of orchestral percussion, turning him into a one-man percussion section.

A Farewell to Kings seems noticeably confident and clear of vision, and contains Rush’s first real success as a songwriting outfit. There have always been short-form works in Rush’s catalog, but Closer to the Heart is particularly accessible in both message and form, which has kept the song in their playlist for decades.

My memories of Rush’s early catalog generally converge on 1987 and revolve around high school events and friends from that year. For example, I went skiing for the first and only time in my life that year with a group of friends I met in band. I have not thought about this experience for many years, but I’m quite sure that I had A Farewell to Kings on a Walkman tape deck during this trip because listening back to it brought back a vivid flash of the cabin in which we were staying.

Back then, I did not fully understand the unique genius of Alex Lifeson and his role in Rush.  Lifeson accessed impressive technique in his dynamic and often blistering solos, but he always provided enough space for the rest of the bandmates to engage in their characteristic flash and bang. There is no better example of his intense, tasteful expressiveness than on the album’s centerpiece, the epic Xanadu.

My memory episode with Hemispheres is different, but no less vivid. An upper classman friend of mine, who happened to be the drum major, was very nice, cute, smart, and totally out of reach, and she would carpool some of us under classmen home. She had a jeep, and she liked to use the country roads on the outskirts of south Austin to avoid downtown traffic. I remember discussing the complex philosophical and technical virtues of Hemispheres as we rode through the countryside with the top off.

The Hemispheres suite (or more properly, Cygnus X-1 Book II, as a conceptual continuation from the last track of A Farewell to Kings) represents the pinnacle of Rush's early experimental work. Combining the science fiction and fantasy imagery from their past with the overt philosophical overtones of their future, it tells the tale of ancient Greek archetypes that fight for dominance in the fate of man. Compositionally, it is one of Rush’s most complex works, as well, and as a result it is perhaps a bit more impenetrable than 2112.

Their instrumental voice, however, which began to show its potential on the 2112 Overture, blossomed on Hemispheres, and is featured throughout the album. One of the finest instrumental moments in Rush’s entire oeuvre is the ten-minute thrill ride La Villa Strangiato. This tune got me through ear training, because I used its main riff as an internal reference for I, IV, and V throughout my first year.

The two short-form songs on Hemispheres are also important because they predict the general format that would pervade their output for years to come. Both songs are roughly four to five minutes long, with verses written around an instrumental exploration. Although The Trees is the usual representative Rush classic from Hemispheres, in recent years, I have become a strong proponent of the rhythmic power that propels Circumstances.

Hemispheres serves as the endpoint in an exploration that began on Caress of Steel. To date, they have not revisited the long-form suite as a compositional format. In fact, the majority of their output hangs in the four to five-minute range, which seems incongruous, considering their reputation for writing long songs (just ask Steven Colbert). Regardless, Hemispheres effectively ended Rush’s "high progressive" period, but also subtly predicted the band’s next arc, as they refined and streamlined their sound for the advent of the 80s.

The previous post in this series is here.
The next post in this series is here.

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