In 1976, Canadian rock band Rush was on a dangerous precipice. The band had broken into the U.S. market thanks to the minor hit “Working Man” from its 1974 self-titled debut, and then spent long stretches of time playing every major and minor circuit it could muster. Come late 1975, things weren’t going well. The group’s third effort, Caress of Steel, had alienated a number of the fans that Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart had picked up with their sophomore release Fly by Night. Circumstances were dire enough that a road trek in support of the album was dubbed the Down the Tubes Tour. There was real danger of the Toronto outfit losing its contract and finding its way back to the bars.
Rather than bowing to pressure and coming up with a commercially minded, singles-driven collection, the group hunkered down and wrote a side-long dystopian concept piece inspired by the writings of Ayn Rand involving an intergalactic war and a malevolent federation dedicated to controlling every movement of its subjects. It has come to be seen as the true launching pad for Rush’s career and one of the most beloved platters in the collective’s oeuvre. To celebrate 40 years since its initial unveiling, the band has returned with a deluxe package, including a vinyl set, detailed liner notes and covers from some stalwarts that speak to the true genius of the material.
Key to the collection is a 2015 Abbey Road remaster that breathes new life into the material: Lifeson’s brilliant guitar work has new dimension, his acoustic figures sounding more vibrant and vital than ever before. Lee and Peart get their due as well while their parts pop from the vinyl and sing on CD as well.
None of that would be as meaningful, though, without the songs that comprise the whole of 2112. The 20-minute opener wastes not one second of the listener’s time as the three lads from Willowdale weave the complex narrative together with a precision that eluded even some of their most gifted progressive progenitors. The guitar tuning in “Discovery” sounds as spontaneous and miraculous as it ever has and the guitar leads squeal with the urgency and aplomb you’d expect from someone playing as though their life depended upon it. Lee’s singing, an early target of critics’ derision, is far from the wild shrieking some were quick to paint it as. It is an important emotional focal point in the story and remains as integral to the artistic success of the material as his Jack Bruce/John Paul Jones-influenced bass lines.
2112 is ultimately about more than its title piece, as the second half of the record proves. The trio reveals its eclectic nature across the dope-smoker’s guide to killer bud (“Passage to Bangkok”) and its ode to classic television (“The Twilight Zone”) as well as the celebration of individual liberty that brightly echoes the themes heard on the first side (“Something for Nothing”). Juxtaposed with reflective pieces such as “Tears” and “Lessons”, the five tracks reveal that there would be no pigeonhole for Rush. The band’s reach was as at least as wide as the English bands the members had cut their teeth emulating.
The sheer inventiveness of the music and the avoidance of rock lyric clichés elevate the ambitious collection above pretentious and to the level of profound, accounting at least in part for 2112’s continued popularity and importance. There were plenty of progressive rock epics to go around during the era but few of them hold the melodic intensity and infectiousness as this piece’s most memorable moments.
One can easily hear that in the smattering of covers paired with the original. Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters are joined by latter-day Rush collaborator Nick Raskulinecz on a blistering reading of the title piece’s “Overture” while Billy Talent delivers an up-to-the-minute “Bangkok” that would have been all over radio in a different time. Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson gives listeners a rendition of “The Twilight Zone” that intersects with the original in key ways while he adds original flourishes that enhance the unexpected emotional qualities of the song. Alice in Chains, meanwhile, manages to remind us that “Tears” should have been covered by far more people than have had at it to this point. (Jacob Moon adds “Something for Nothing” to the list.)
Vintage live performances, including visual evidence of a 1976 gig with classics such as “Bastille Day”, “Anthem” and “2112”, among others, remind us that Rush was and always has been a formidable live entity. A bonus Q&A between Lifeson and producer Terry Brown (he helmed all Rush releases between 1975’s Fly by Night and 1982’s Signals) suggests that we’ve caught the two collaborators at the right time, the moment before their memories of the important 2112 fade deeper into history.
A boxed set with three vinyl slabs, a download card and the CD/DVD package is recommended for collectors and serious fans as those, along with some added goodies, provide an experience that one imagines is akin to holding the original release in hand for the first time.
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