It’s 1975 and Rush are in trouble. There was an initial feeling of pride permeating within the trio when they first listened back to their ambitious third studio album Caress of Steel. It was certainly a development from the straightforward rock imbued Fly By Night, as the band began experimenting with longer song forms, complex arrangements and darker themes – ‘The Fountain of Lamneth’ is a prime example. Unfortunately, such drastic changes in sound alienated their fan base, who struggled to understand what Rush were trying to communicate both musically and lyrically. The album ultimately flopped, the tour that followed was nicknamed the ‘Down The Tube’ tour and the Mercury record company were losing faith in the band. With one more album left on the contract before they could be dropped from the label, it was a make or break situation – thank god it wasn’t the latter! Deciding that they wanted to go out in flames, Rush defied the label’s desire for a commercial record and instead created an album that, not only saved their career, but has stood the test of time as a masterpiece deserving of a place in the canon of progressive rock – the victorious album in question is 2112!
Released in 1976, 2112 cemented the Rush sound that was evidently confused and ambiguous on Caress of Steel. It shared the same ambitious nature as Caress of Steel, boasting the epic 20 minute title track that entirely dominates side A of the record, but the difference is in the execution – 2112 is the opposite of confused. The title track is the obvious centrepiece of the album, split into seven sections that tell a story of a protagonist living on a planet devoid of creativity (a scary thought) and ruled by priests who reside in the Temple of Syrinx. The protagonist finds a neglected guitar in a cave and discovers music for the first time; unfortunately the priests are not as impressed with his discovery and destroy this precious source of individualism and creativity. Depressed that he will never be able to relish in the glory of creativity, he takes his own life and the song ends with a planetary war! Ayn Rand’s Anthem was the inspiration behind this powerful story – she is credited by lyrical genius Neil Peart in the albums liner notes. However, this did get them into a spot of bother with NME who pointed out Rand’s right wing views and tried to label Rush as fascists; a hinderance that Rush obviously resented, but not enough of a hinderance to prevent fans from indulging in Rush’s eventful fiction.
How I envy those listeners hearing that eerie synthesised opening for the very first time, unaware of the journey they are about to embark upon – so long, but yet so memorable. It is effortless to recall each concise movement of the epic, neatly fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle with the blistering overture being the central piece that holds together the rest of the puzzle. Only after the overture does the story begin to unravel, the music perfectly communicating the action of the story. ‘III Discovery’ and ‘IV Presentation’ are perfect examples of this; the former tells of the significant moment in which the protagonist uncovers the creative secrets of the guitar, mirrored beautifully in Lifeson’s improvised guitar part that develops from out of tune open strings to fully formed chords and ideas – if only I had learnt to play the guitar so quickly! The fragility and sparseness of this movement completely contrasts the anger and grit of the next movement ‘IV Presentation’. Lee, singing gently as the protagonist in the previous movement, transforms into the ruthless priests, singing in a much higher range with an angry snarl in his voice and accompanied by Lifeson’s roaring, hearty guitar chords and Peart’s uncompromising drumming. The stark change of mood here is just one example of the rollercoaster ride ‘2112’ takes you on, and exemplifies the mature craftsmanship here that a song such as ‘The Fountain of Lamneth’ lacked.
And then we have side B which features the more commercial tracks but nevertheless they are just as important as the epic title track. The tracks on side B show that Rush are more than just a one-trick pony; as well as creating long, complex and challenging epics that appeal to prog rockers alike, they have the versatility to craft concise yet excellent rock songs. Whether it be the marijuana related ‘A Passage to Bangkok’ that outlines the places that grow the best weed, the album’s sombre ballad ‘Tears’ that is drenched in mellotron, or ‘The Twilight Zone’ influenced by – you guessed it – the stories of the 60s sci-fi programme The Twilight Zone, side B offers a different listening experience to the one on side A. ‘2112’ is much more serious and dramatic, requiring patience and concentration, whereas the songs on side B are purposefully light-hearted and fun.
It is this fusion that made 2112 so successful, offering something that would appeal to everyone whether they preferred prog rock or straightforward classic rock. Fortunately for Rush and for the fans, 2112 saved their musical career and set them up to create more masterpieces such as Hemispheres, Moving Pictures and many more. Thankfully, 2112 did not signal ‘a farewell to Rush’ but rather a farewell to the anxieties of the past that could finally be put behind them as they began to propel forward!
Written by Dominic Sanderson