Rush: A Farewell to Kings (1977)
" When they turn the pages of history
When these days have past long ago
Will they read of us with sadness
For the seeds that we let grow
We turned our gaze
From the castles in the distance
Eyes cast down
On the path of least resistance…."
-A Farewell to Kings-
It's 1977. Progressive rock is growing overbloated and stagnant. Most of the great bands of from earlier in the decade have either disbanded, gone completely commercial, or are producing such huge concerts, that they appear to have lost contact with their core audience. In the vacuum left behind, a new sound is emerging.Balancing the classic progressive sounds of yesterday with a new, harder-edged arena rock , Canada's quirky trio of musical misfits are coming into their own. Riding high on the underground buzz created by their 1976 masterpiece 2112, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart returned with a vengeance on A Farewell To Kings. Along with Hemispheres (1978) this album marks the heart of the "Golden Age " of Rush; that brief period of 1977-1978 where they seemed to perfectly blend the elements of the classic progressive sound of predecessors like Genesis (Alex Lifeson sounding extremely Hackettesque on his acoustic guitar) with their own unique brand of hard progressive rock. In this , my first review for "Past Present Classics" I wish to bring you along on a musical journey into my past. As a young teenager growing up in Rush's hometown of Toronto, Canada; I have always placed this band on a pedestal which few others have been able attain. I hope my blatant bias for this group does not taint my objectivity.
We begin our study of this album with the sleeve itself. Hugh Syme has always been one of the most original album cover designers of any era. This one is no exception. Instead of going for spaced-out drawings as was the norm for progressive album covers of the past, Hugh uses photography to create his images. As the title implies, we are saying a farewell to the feudal system. We see a puppet king sitting on his thrown in the remains of his castle. His crown lies at his feet. His eyes are open and he is smiling, but his grin is idiotic. In the background, we see a smoke stack from a nearby factory and a huge condominium high-rise. The message here being that we've abandoned the ideals of the feudal system but is the system we've created to replace it any better…But enough with the intros, let's get to the music.
The album opens with the title track, "A Farewell To Kings". Alex starts it off with a beautiful classical guitar intro harking us back to the days of Camelot. The track then kicks into gear with a crunchy power chord and gathers momentum when Geddy Lee starts belting out the opening lyric. His unique , screeching vocals, let you know exactly which band you're listening to. As implied earlier, the track deals with a world which has abolished a system where the common man did not have any rights and replaced with one where, although there is an illusion of freedom, we're really all still prisoners of our own fate. The track shows us the level of maturity the band has developed from earlier discs. Geddy's vocal pitch is slightly lower making him much more agreeable to the eardrum. The song is a straight-forward rocker , featuring the classic elements of a power trio.
It is then followed by one of the all-time Rush classics. "Xanadu " is a full blown progressive anthem which makes no excuses. Here Rush pulls out all of the tricks in their prog bag and offers us a slice of heaven. The track begins inauspiciously with Geddy experimenting on a Moog while Neil supplies us with some wind chimes from his mighty arsenal of percussive instruments. It then builds to a symphonic crescendo , to be replaced with a patented Geddy Lee Rickenbacker bass line. The lyrics are a fable relating ones man's search for the elusive paradise on Earth: Xanadu. Although the track , when taken literally, recounts an Indiana Jones like serial, any true Rush fan knows that Neil lyrics must always be read allegorically. This track warns us to be careful of what we wish for. The man who seeks paradise can easily become trapped in a prison of his own design.
Track number 3 on this disc is a bit of an anomaly. Thrown in at the last minute to "round out" the album (Rush always believed that the optimum album should be 18 min per side) "Closer To The Heart" became Rush's biggest hit of all time. It's their " Dust In The Wind". Probably more responsible for this band's success than any other track. Canadian radio stations must play a certain amount of Canadian content . It's our way of making sure we're not culturally invaded by our "evil" neighbors to the south. In the '70's , the Canadian music scene was nearly non-existent, therefore tracks like "Closer To The Heart" got tremendous airplay. There is not much to say about the song on the musical side, except maybe to show us that you can be progressive yet still be accessible and keep your tracks under the 3:00 bar ( a must for AM radio stations everywhere).
Track 4 has always been ,for me, a sleeper track. "Cinderella Man" contains beautiful accoustic guitar accompanied by Geddy's new, more mature sounding voice. It relates the tale of an idealist young man who is ridiculed and persecuted in the world for having morals (how shameful!). A complex bass line reminds us that even the greats were influenced by the greats. Geddy's playing is highly reminiscent of fellow Rickenbacker enthusiast Chris Squire (Yes). The central instrumental break showcases the trio's complexity and love for odd time signatures, as well as Alex's inimitable guitar style.
The 5th track does not do much for me. "Madrigal" is a beautiful little ballad about seeking shelter from the storm, but is lost on this disc of classics. I view it as a sorbet to cleanse the pallet before the show-stopping final track.
"Cygnus X-1 Book I- The Voyage" has to rank up there with the greatest Rush tracks of all-time. It's a straight up "Flash Gordon" sci-fi thriller . A narrator describes a black hole in the constellation of Cygnus over a repetetive beat. The track then builds up momentum in a stellar musical interlude driven by a droning bass line and fantastic Moog interlude. We then follow the adventures of one brave astronaut who has decided to explore this infamous black hole, urged by the rumors that it is merely a gateway to another dimension. His ship is sucked in and he disappears from our portion of the galaxy. Musically, the track blends in all elements of previous Rush releases. It's edgy, hard, and intelligent. Geddy revvs up his vocals to a fevered pitch in the chaotic, closing segment of the song. It's about as dissonant and aggressive as the band as ever sounded. Neil pounds ferociously on the skins as Alex wrings his guitar for every ounce of musical juice it contains. Like a true '40's serial, we are left to hang as our protagonist is sucked into the black hole. A repeated guitar chord slowly fades out and we re-emerge from a superlative musical experience.
We take solace in the fact that at the end of the track it is written " to be continued". And so in fact the musical journey will be continued just as our review will be continued . I am just getting started here. If you care to join me, I will bring you the rest of the way with my second review for "Past Present Classics" by examining the sequel to this disc, the far superior Hemispheres.