ONCE described in passing by Stephen Davis as “the dreaded band”, Rush have managed, inexplicably, to carve out a niche as a hard-rocking trio with overwhelming progressive tendencies on top of Randian lyrics, 80s synth and bassist/singer Geddy Lee’s glorious mullet/falsetto combo. Rush’s riffs and compositions have been among the most inventive, out-there and wilfully insane in the rock world, and the three musicians are widely praised for their virtuosity in the field. If 1976’s 2112, its first side taken up entirely by the six-part, 22 minute-long title track, announced Rush to the baffled world at large, then its immediate follow-up consolidated that position.
1977’s A Farewell to Kings, recorded in Wales, is Rush in the ascendancy. Compared with the monumental, if unfocused 2112, Kings is the step into the pantheon, bristling with creative energy, thrown from the fingertips of a band at the peak of their powers. Removed from the more stumbling grandiosity of 1979’s Hemispheres but packing more punch than 2112, it’s an album of restless brio that knows exactly when to chuck the decibels out the window and when to gently pluck acoustic guitars.
There’s light, shade and mood to the guitar heroics here, supplemented by synth and spoken word that drips with pulp menace. ‘Cygnus X-1’, a ten-minute space epic, charts the descent of an errant spaceship (the Rocinante, in true quixotic fashion) into the heart of the titular black hole. It’s a brooding, sometimes terrifying aural hellscape, its darkness interrupted only by a cavalier couple of minutes halfway through. The denouement sounds like the Four Horsemen dying, with Lee’s piercing screams (Bb5, no less) and guitarist Alex Lifeson’s frantic, merciless power chording hurling the track into the abyss from whence it came.
The opening title track could not be more different. Introduced on a subdued, fingerpicked guitar with a medieval vibe, the song erupts into a triumphant roar of assertive power, its central riff shifting like tectonic plates between time signatures. The interplay between Lee, Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart is at is strongest here, each musician feeding off the other’s rhythms and complementing each other magnificently.
‘Cinderella Man’ is much the same, its middle section dominated by a shape-shifting riff from Lee and some ferocious stick-twirling from Peart. Lyrically, “a modest man from Mandrake” doesn’t inspire much confidence, but Lee (always) delivers his lines with such endearing sincerity it’s impossible to take umbrage with them. Besides, the musicianship on display is of such peerless quality that the sheer verbiage is rendered moot.
‘Xanadu’ (not to be confused with Olivia Newton-John), the second track, is the peak of the band’s talent and capitalises on the power of contrast. A two-minute intro is buoyed on ominous synths and jungle noises, the air of fascinating mystery all about (not unlike Led Zeppelin’s ‘In the Light’). When the band enters properly, it’s still not at full pelt; there is restraint to their playing, a restraint that informs the track’s progression and ensures the explosion that is – inevitably – coming will blow your fucking face off.
That’s exactly what happens when Lifeson’s power chords blast out, Lee’s intricate, lead-style bass fills in the gaps and Peart’s exquisite drumming provides the depth. The trio are in total command of this 12-minute epic’s lulls and eruptions, especially given they’re essentially writing fan-fiction based on Samuel Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. The dreamlike soundscape mirrors the poem’s own atmosphere almost perfectly, with a heady Canadian filter thrown on top. It’s earnest, powerful and full of ingenious variety – it’s one of their masterpieces among a litany of the same.
‘Closer to the Heart’ has a tough act to follow, so it’s a good thing it’s the Rush-est of Rush songs. A three minute beauty that features many of Lifeson’s finest moments, this track only confirms the eternal joy of listening to Rush: It’s all about how “the blacksmith and the artist / each must know his part / to mould a new reality / closer to the heart”. Isn’t that just wonderful? And isn’t that just so Rush?
It goes without saying that A Farewell to Kings is a work of brilliance from a trio of musicians at their very best, but it also builds on everything that had come before. There’s none of the tentative noodling from their debut, or the uncertain foundering on Fly By Night – this is RUSH, in all caps, storming out of the gates and taking the keep. It’s an ecstatic blast of raw, concentrated rock n’ roll joy that never, ever gets old, boring or stale. Pure joy.