For this installment of Classics, we take you back into the realm of "prog" rock, short for progressive. For the most part, prog is remembered for pompous, overblown, and overlong forays into a style of rock heavy on classical influences, reliant upon the virtuosity of the musicians, and lyrically based on the idea that all or most of the songs should share the same theme or concept, hence the term "concept album". The main artists in this genre were the likes of Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and the subject of this record review. What makes this particular album deserving of its status as a bona fide classic is the same thing that distances Rush from the aforementioned groups, unlike the other prog superstars, Rush actually rocked. Singer/bassist Geddy Lee and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart to this day consistently make the Top 10 best lists of all the serious musician geek magazines for their respective instruments, and while guitarist Alex Lifeson is not as universally renowned (I personally consider him the most underrated axe man ever), he certainly proves himself worthy of being in the same band as such a supremely talented rhythm section.
2112 came about at a crucial time for the then virtually unknown outside of their native Canada band. Their third album Caress Of Steel, which was actually their first stab at a concept album, was a major critical and commercial failure, and the pressure was certainly on the members to deliver a quality record this time out or face being dropped by their label. They responded with their masterpiece. (Yes, I realize Moving Pictures was the record that truly made Rush huge for a time, but it was mostly due to the massive singles "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight". In this reviewer's humble opinion [and we all know what those are like], 2112 is the stronger album as a whole, while the second side of Pictures marked the beginning of Rush's eventual artistic decline, but I digress.) This album is a true headphones classic. Get yourself a good set of cans, your beverage of choice and/or favorite herbal supplement and just kick back and enjoy this one.
The title track is the "concept album" portion of the disc, clocking in at 20:33. It took up the entire first side of the vinyl album (does anyone else besides me and Eddie Vedder miss vinyl?). Loosely based on the book Anthem by Ayn Rand, it tells the tale of a society some time in the future (quite possibly in the year 2112) in which our current race of mankind has apparently disappeared, and the new race now lives on a Federation of Planets ruled by the totalitarian hand of the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx. The song consists of seven distinct parts, and Peart's lyrics alternate between the first-person point-of-view of a citizen living under this future regime, or as one of the iron-fisted rulers.
The track kicks off with a cool spacey-sounding synthesizer noise, apparently to convey the sense of the future. Then the band kicks in with a heavy yet precise stop-and-go chord progression. This part is called "Overture", and like the one on the Who's "Tommy", the band introduces and develops musical themes that are later reintroduced as sections of the entire piece, resulting in a musically diverse and interesting piece of music. When Peart comes in with his first real drum fills, you realize that this is the guy players like Mike Portnoy and Danny Carey must have listened to in their formative years. Lifeson's guitar parts and solos are very inventive, and Lee drops some killer bass lines into the mix. The section ends with the sound of an explosion, possibly to signify the end of the elder race of man, at this point Lee makes his first appearance as vocalist, singing "and the meek shall inherit the Earth". (A cautionary note: many people say that Geddy's voice is somewhat of an acquired taste, but some popular vocalists at that time were Jon Anderson and Robert Plant. If you can tolerate those jokers, Geddy will go down nice and easy.)
This leads into the next section of "2112", titled "The Temples Of Syrinx". A nice hard rocker of a tune, the lyrics paint a picture of the world under the rule of the Priests, and how they basically control all facets of daily life. Killer drumming, heavy tune (remember, this is 1976), though they throw a nice curve at the listener by ending with a lone acoustic guitar.
The next section ("Discovery") starts with a synthesizer making a waterfall sound and a guy tuning a guitar. (Don't worry, in the CD booklet there are little story passages before each of the lyrics that explain what is going on.) The guitar tuning turns into a very appealing chord progression, and Geddy comes in with lyrics that describe the situation. In the story, the main character finds a guitar and teaches himself to play it, which the waterfall and tuning are meant to represent. The words convey the character's wonder at discovering such a beautiful and evocative instrument, and he begins to imagine how his music can be used as a form of expression quite unlike what is allowed by the all-controlling Priests.
This leads to "Presentation", where our protagonist goes before the Priests to show them his new wonder. A nice acoustic song at first with killer bass fills, it changes into one of the harder-rocking themes from the Overture and in a harder voice, Lee sings as the Priests, who basically send our hero out on his ass and smash his guitar. No need for self-expression in a fascist regime, eh?
The last three segments of "2112" take the remaining themes of the Overture and depict the main character having a dream vision from an oracle showing him how our race of Man is still living in freedom on other planets, his suicide over his depression (with a slow yet blistering lead from Alex), and the eventual return of our race to smash the Priests' regime and return freedom to the peoples of the Federation. Yeah, it sounds pretty wack, but Rush deliver it convincingly. That ends the track "2112".
The remaining tracks (Side Two of the vinyl) are separate songs with no united concept. The stoner anthem "A Passage To Bangkok" is a standout, with Eastern-themed guitar, a nice solo that only Lifeson can deliver, and lyrics about the band traveling the world and sampling only the finest native green. "The Twilight Zone" is a slow song evidently based on the old TV show with a good melody but not the best of lyrics and a particularly screechy vocal delivery by Lee. "Lessons" (lyrics by Lifeson) seems like a throwaway, but the bass and lead guitars are quite good and a Rush throwaway is still better than a lot of bands' best efforts. "Tears" (lyrics by Lee) is either the album's one true clunker (my opinion, enough sap to give a Vermont syrup farmer a woody) or a poignant heartfelt ballad glistening with synthetic strings a la John Paul Jones. The last cut "Something For Nothing" is a gem, with inspirational lyrics about getting up off your ass and getting your s*** together, and it jumps between some nice acoustic jams to all out hard rocking.
All in all, this is a great record to get
for those of you who may be interested in hearing some good rock from back
in the day before Eddie Van Halen and AC/DC got big, before Kurt brought
the "grunge" juggernaut to the masses, or anyone who is just plain sick
of the s*** that pollutes mainstream rock radio at the moment.
"We've taken care of everything
So sings Geddy Lee on Rush's 4th release, 2112, as they take us on an epic journey with their now classic combination of progressive and hard rock. While the band has never really been a favorite of critics, they have some of the most dedicated fans of any band - their 30 year career and long list of gold and platinum records are certainly a testament to that.
2112 is considered by most to be the first truly great Rush album. It proved to be a major turning point for the band commercially as well, and it served to set the tone musically for the next several releases. Their previous two albums contained roughly the same elements evident here: epic compositions with intertwined melodies and classical structures, bombastic over-the-top drumming with multiple time signatures and tempos, Geddy Lee's shrieking falsetto, lyrical themes touching on science fiction and social politics. 2112, however, took them to a new level. While the band had been holding on to the vestiges of Led Zeppelin and The Who that dominate their self-titled debut, here they wholly give themselves over to the progressive side and the results are a truly landmark album.
Neal Peart's lyrics on the title track draw heavily from Ayn Rand's Anthem, an Objectivist manifesto of sorts that previously served as inspiration for the Rush song of the same name. Here it is expanded into a full-blown epic revolving around a dystopian society that is controlled by the priests of the temples of Syrinx. The hero of the story stumbles upon an old guitar and upon learning how to use it, decides to present what he sees as a wondrous gift to the priests. They reject him and the whole notion of self-expression and smash the guitar to bits. He is dejected and wanders the streets in a daze and eventually falls asleep and dreams of the guitar's creators, a race of elders that left behind the totalitarianism of the current society and traveled to the stars. In the dream he comes to see how much self-expression enriches the lives of everyone and this fills him with even more despair. Our hero decides to hide away in the cave where he discovered the guitar and ultimately he commits suicide to avoid living under the tyranny of such a repressive society.
Pretty bleak stuff, really, but this opus is complemented by the band's unquestionable musical abilities and, in the end, the listener is left feeling optimistic about it all. In many ways 2112 was meant as a commentary on the state of the music industry, which attempts to control every aspect of music for commercial gain, but it stands as a fair commentary on any group that seeks to control others by taking away the freedom to choose. Of course, it should be noted that such heady thoughts are not usually the subject of rock lyrics, and depending on your acceptance of such things, 2112 may come off as being way over the top. Rush has always seemed to polarize listeners: you either love them or hate them - there doesn't seem to be much middle ground.
The rest of the CD consists of several tracks with more traditional arrangements, although lyrically and musically they still push boundaries. "A Passage To Bangkok" describes a marijuana lover's ultimate journey and "The Twilight Zone" recounts various scenarios seemingly inspired by the show of the same name. Up next is a track penned by Alex Lifeson, the light and jaunty "Lessons" that sounds like a leftover from one of their earlier albums, and then Geddy Lee's somewhat sappy "Tears" which almost ends up making me cry but not for the right reasons. (Sorry Geddy...) The CD ends with one of my favorite Rush songs "Something For Nothing" which reaffirms the power of each individual in a simple but direct way: in essence, we make our own fortunes and should not look to (or blame) anyone else.
Rush certainly made a powerful statement with 2112 that continues to echo even today. While it might not stand up as strongly against the classics being created now, it was certainly a cornerstone for both the band and fans of progressive rock.
Standout tracks: 2112, Something
Rush - 2112