Is that not the most prog album art ever conceived? I mean, you got a naked guy pointing longingly at another guy in a suit and cane, both standing on a brain. Deserts, brains, and an Eastern-style logo. What else could you ask for from prog pioneers, Rush?
Okay! Now, as I stayed up last night thinking of which Rush album deserved first place, I came to a crossroads between my two picks. Not spoiling the top selection — you’ve probably already guessed it, anyways — I threw out standards because, let’s face it, reviews aren’t about standards. Reviews are about how much you like the damn thing! So, to be the most unprofessional as I possibly can, Rush’s 1978 LP, Hemispheres, ranks above Permanent Waves because I just like it more as a cohesive whole. The album is a progressive masterwork, hinting towards future projects, but, overall, reflecting the peak of Rush’s ambition. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart kick off on all cylinders from the get go, and conclude with one of the best instrumentals ever recorded. Yes, I went there. Let’s go!
“Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres” explodes with guitar chords before entering a complex march. Lee’s bass dominates this track, complementing Neil Peart’s accents nicely. This, behind 2112, is the album that defined the prog epic, where we get not one, but two tracks surpassing the 8 minute mark. If I had one complaint for the progressive genre, I’d bang my head over the never ending noodlery. I’d say wankery, but that’s been overused on RFTOS. Many bands, especially modern prog bands, suffer from too much freedom. Instead of composing songs, they craft dueling solos and nonsensical, extended passages, sacrificing direction for vanity. A little guidance would help, along with a little “hey, we need to get this moving” attitude, but that’s not the case with Hemispheres. The band members utilized their ambition, but never deviated from the songwriting process in favor of glorified jam sessions. “Cygnus” is the culmination of this process. And it’s a hell of a track, displaying the band at its best, with spacey keyboards, complex guitar chords, and adventurous lyrics.
The next two tracks, “Circumstances,” and “The Trees” add accessibility to the album. I’ve always thought “Circumstances” as under-appreciated. I don’t blame the fans and critics. It’s easy to forget a hard rocker when said track is surrounded by three musical juggernauts. Fans of Geddy’s higher, mouse-like voice should jump for joy during the track’s chorus, with its stand-up-and-shout chorus. It’s just a catchy song, a breath of fresh air from the complexity of the previous number. Meanwhile, “The Trees” bends genres, adding folk elements to the band’s repertoire. Now, I’ll admit, I cringe every time at “The Trees” lyrics, which is a commentary on social status, all told through a grand metaphor of oaks and maples. Maybe it’s Geddy’s delivery; maybe it’s the metaphor. Either way, the vocals walk the line of ridiculousness. It’s so Canadian, it makes me want to cry maple syrup and apologize for the mess. The music, however, is absolutely outstanding. Peart smashes his drums on this song and shows he’s not only precise, but powerful. During the midsection, he even explores more percussive avenues. I’ll admit it, when I heard those wood blocks, I smiled like an idiot. You can tell he’s really passionate about those poor maples.
The band reached its absolute peak, songwriting-wise, with the album’s closer, “La Villa Strangiato.” A micro and macro instrumental accomplishment, the track challenges each member’s creativity. This is Alex Lifeson’s song. Opening with Spanish-style guitar, the guitarist throws down some of his most thoughtful licks and riffs. “La Villa” then descends into a moody section, and it is here where Rush’s guitar reaches its absolute peak. Lifeson builds from a Gilmour-esque moan to a bombastic, heart wrenching climax. This is, without a doubt, the guitarist’s greatest achievement. Subtle, expressive, but technical all the same. What a sneaky bastard, you are! The track moves quickly, transitioning between sections flawlessly, and never feels nine minutes long.
Hemispheres explores all of the musical avenues and lyrics from Rush’s previous albums. On the album, you’ll hear 2112, you’ll hear A Farewell To Kings, you’ll even hear some Fly By Night, but what separates this album is the band’s disregard for its own standards. Peart, Lee, and Lifeson weren’t quite at their most mature, but they were definitely at their most ambitious. And that solidifies Hemispheres spot at number 2 on 5 Days of Rush.
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