Music

Blood and Thunder: Didacts, Narpets, and Epic Rush

It's not as if Rush's classic '70s output needed reassessment, but their new vinyl reissues are still revelatory.

I’ve never been the biggest Yes fan. But strangely, it was at last week’s Rush concert in Calgary, Alberta where early Yes, which has always been a weird sticking point for yours truly, started to click. I was sitting in my aisle seat on stage right, 13 rows up from the floor, watching the crew make the final preparations to the stage and back line behind the big curtain when “Roundabout”, one of only a small handful of early Yes songs I could identify, came on through the PA. I don’t know if it was the excitement of anticipation or the several pints of cheap beer I’d had with friends in a pub before, but the delightfully convoluted 4/4-14/4-7/4 track from 1971’s Fragile album made a whole ton of sense: Jon Anderson’s quixotic musings about taking the train to Montreux, Steve Howe’s snappy little riff, RickWakeman’s wicked organ solos, Bill Bruford’s masterful beats, and especially Chris Squire’s nimble, roaring bassline.

It was Squire’s death earlier this month that had me focusing on early Yes more and more lately. Admittedly not an expert on the band save for the Trevor Horn years – 90125 was my introduction to the band in 1984 – the tributes to Squire and testaments to his innovative use of bass in early progressive rock compelled me to ask people for recommendations, and the more I dug into old Yes, the more I could hear a similarity between Squire and Rush’s Geddy Lee, in which the bass was no longer quietly in the background anchoring the rhythm section but a very prominent part of the music, often the focal point. Both musicians brought a combination of power, rhythm, and especially melody to rock bass in the 1970s, and when I heard the roaring middle section of “Roundabout”, the “go closer, hold the land, feel partly no more than grains of sand” bit, I was floored by the similarity in the two geniuses. It was perfect timing, too, because after a first hour of material that went back from 2012 to 1982, the last two-thirds of Rush’s concert was a celebration of all things prog. A glorious prog nerd-fest that went from 1981 to 1974.

While there remains a vocal number of curmudgeons who still claim epic, gatefold sleeve, Ayn Rand-referencing, kimono-wearing, 1970s power trio Rush is the definitive era of the band, an entirely different generation were introduced to and grew up with Rush’s leaner, more concise 1980s material. Like Yes’s 90125, the first Rush song I ever heard was “Distant Early Warning” in 1984, and to this day it’s the period of Rush’s 40-year career I’m most sentimental about. And admittedly, it took ages for me to get into 1970s Rush, as I preferred the minimalism, the precision, the restraint, and the undeniable pop sensibility the band displayed the following decade.

With “Roundabout” getting the wheels spinning in my head – the crew played it a second time during the first intermission of the nearly three-hour show – and Rush kicking into the masterful 11-minute Moving Pictures deep cut “The Camera Eye” an hour and a half later, I started contemplating Epic Rush even more. My mind drifted to the stack of newly-reissued Rush albums that were sitting back at home waiting to be written about. Between 1975 and 1981, Rush had written ten songs that ran past the eight-minute mark, so why not write about that? In keeping with that notion of 1970s Rush, I figured I’d stick to the years 1975 through 1978, that marvelous, prolific four-year period of innovation and genuine progression in Rush’s music. I’d simply blast the new 200-gram audiophile vinyl records and hopefully experience those epic tracks with a new perspective.

Skipping last year’s phenomenal reissue of the 1974 debut album – and let’s face it, that record is more Cream worship than anything else – it makes a lot more sense for this piece to start with 1975’s Fly By Night. The first album to feature Neil Peart on drums, it still found the band working out the kinks, but aside from the raucous, metallic “Anthem” the real revelation remains the mighty “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”. An early example of Rush’s irreverence, the track isn’t so much a sword-and-sorcery fantasy but a fun poke at two dogs owned by manager Ray Danniels, but it’s presented with a straight face, Lee selling Peart’s dryly funny lyrics while the trio tears through a playful arrangement highlighted by its third section. ‘The Battle’ section is a marvel, a sign of greater things to come, a four-part suite within a suite highlighted by Peart’s incredible drum fills and Lifeson’s expressive solos. The 2015 remaster sounds glorious: clean to the point of practically crystalline, zero noise, a much broader tone than the louder, more condensed Sector CD remasters from several years ago. A treat for obsessive fans is the extended ending on the digital download. All that means is you get an extra 34 seconds of tinkling bells, but for those used to the shorter version, it’s a surreal change.

I’ve always had trouble finding redeeming qualities in 1975’s Caress of Steel, which saw the threesome trying some truly ambitious things but winding up with a bizarrely muddled album. The 12 and a half-minute “The Necromancer” is a complete mess of half-baked ideas linked by Peart’s hugely pretentious and overbearing narration in an annoying, pitch-shifted voice. Ironically, its best part is the latter third, ‘Return of the Prince’, but only because it completely, unforgivably rips off the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”.

The 20-minute “The Fountain of Lamneth”, however, somehow managed to connect in my head while driving on the highway towards Calgary, the Sector remaster blasting in the CD player. This suite is more cohesive, bolstered by Lifeson’s jaunty little recurring riff and highlighted by the monstrous, manic ‘Didacts and Narpets’ section, one of the most overtly “metal” moments in the Rush discography. Listening to the vinyl remaster back at home, its visceral impact is the biggest of all the LP re-releases thus far. The quieter mastering gives the music much more dynamic range, which forces you to crank the volume much higher on a big stereo system, and those peaks pack a monstrous wallop. And it indeed makes a huge difference; my introduction to this album was on the original vinyl, and it doesn’t sound as immaculate at this. Consequently for the first time in 30 years of being a Rush fan I’ve actually warmed up to side two of Caress of Steel. That alone is no small feat.

And of course there’s the immortal “2112”, from the classic 1976 album of the same name. Here’s a track the same length as “The Fountain of Lamneth”, structured the same way – a suite featuring a colossal opening riff, dynamic movements, and a reprise of that riff pattern – that works on every conceivable level. The scope of the track is cinematic, Peart’s story arc simple yet engaging and poignant. It’s been remastered so many times: in the early-2000s, the Sector box, the 40th anniversary re-release, iTunes, and now this special vinyl release. Every recent remastering job serves its purpose – iTunes is louder so it can sound better on, say, portable Bluetooth speakers – but this new vinyl remaster is the definitive version for audiophiles, easily. For now, anyway.

Personally I see Rush’s 1977 album A Farewell to Kings the same way as Iron Maiden’s Powerslave, in that while not a career-defining “classic” that’s been canonized by the classic rock Illuminati (like 2112 and The Number of the Beast) actually boasts higher highs than said album’s own highlights. Case in point: the 11-minute “Xanadu”, Rush’s epic masterpiece that saw the trio exploring program music in daring and exciting ways before launching into a scorching, propulsive prog metal hybrid that’s both intense and thoughtful. On the new vinyl reissue, when you crank that volume and that flourish happens just past the two-minute mark, it’s as close to the sound of ecstasy you will ever hear in progressive rock as you hear that warm cymbal crash, synth chord, and guitar power chord charge through you.

Over on side two, closing track “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage” might be a little shorter at ten and a half minutes, but is a lot harder to get into, as the complexity of the composition and the arch storyline keeps listeners at more of an arm’s length than ever before. Admittedly it took many listens over the decades to finally warm up to this track, but when it does, certain moments hit you, like the ominous opening and the tension/release of the shattering ‘Part Three’ section. If it feels strangely incomplete as it eerily fades out, it’s because the story’s only just begun.

1978’s Hemispheres is often referred to by the band as the album where they lost their way, where they were so full of themselves and their meandering arrangements that they lost touch of what made their music so enjoyable. All of a sudden things became too difficult, certain melodies were nearly impossible for Lee to sing. Looking back, though, from a listener’s perspective this is one of the most disciplined, controlled, tightest progressive rock albums ever made. How can it be called excessive when it’s only 36 minutes long?

“How can it not be excessivewhen it opens with an 18-minute song?” many might ask incredulously. Immerse yourself in “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres”, though, and you’ll hear a band in full command of its craft. In this case, it’s a literal craft – the music – and a metaphorical craft, that being the spaceship Rocinante, which continues its quirky adventure across the cosmos, this time to witness a battle for the future of mankind between Apollo and Dionysus. But musically the track is a marvel, full of repeated motifs and hooky melodies that marvelously wriggle their way into listeners’ heads. It’s such a rich track, and no matter what Dirk, Lerxst, and the Professor say, it’s so magnificently restrained, and much simpler to listen to than people make it out to be.

Of all the first six Rush vinyl reissues – including the excellent All the World’s a Stage live album – Hemispheres is the best sounding record of the lot. It was already a very pleasing album to the ear, beautifully arranged by the band and lavishly produced by Terry Brown, but the vinyl sounds glorious, the lows so full and warm, the highs crisp and light. That tone is hammered home in joyful fashion in its last track, the one that got me into Epic Rush in the first place, “La Villa Strangiato”. A more flat-out fun instrumental you will never hear, with Lee, Lifeson and Peart playfully moving through 12 separate movements. The variation of the track showcases the dynamic range of this new vinyl beautifully, and for the Rush fan it is breathtaking to hear.

**

The further back in their career Rush goes at the Calgary concert, the more thrilling it gets. In a clever move the band’s red coverall-clad crew is gradually disassembling the stage set as the show goes on. As they play Permanent Waves favorite “Jacob’s Ladder” Lee’s gigantic bank of keyboards is replaced by a simple Moog synth, while Peart is now behind a replica kit complete with all the old percussion instruments he used back in the day: tubular bells, chimes, cowbells, temple blocks. My eyes are on Peart the whole time the band plays, and the same goes for many others in the audience as a huge cheer erupts whenever Peart stands up and whacks a bell with a hammer. We are all nerds, including that lovable Canadian band, and are all in our glory.

The band plays a stunning “Cygnus X-1” medley, starting with the ‘Prelude’ section of “Hemispheres”, segueing into the prologue of “The Voyage”, featuring the usual awe-inspiring solo by Peart, and then bringing it all to a climax in ‘Part 3’. Then “Xanadu”, complete with double-necked guitars, then into two thirds of “2112”, and it’s as though I’m fine with dying right there. Lee is in terrific voice, the band is ridiculously tight, and as the set-up is made more and more minimal, eventually recreating a school gym, they let loose a barrage of early selections: “Anthem”, “Lakeside Park”, “What You’re Doing”, “Working Man”, and to cap it all off, a little jam on the unreleased gem “Garden Road”.

Breathless and beaming, by dumb luck I bump into my pals again, and we euphorically recount the show in detail. A couple days later I’m back on the road, now moving on through Rush’s 1982 to 1993 material, but not without listening to “Roundabout” a few times at top volume for good measure. As I make a mental note to order Yes’s Studio Albums 1969-1987 box set, another thought pops in my head.

I think I have an idea for next week’s column.

Albums Out This Week

Immortal Bird, Empress/Abscess (Broken Limbs): You could tell the Chicago grindcore band was on to something pretty special upon hearing their 2013 debut Akrasia, and they’ve taken another significant step on this follow-up. The skronky, gnarly, anything-goes approach is reminiscent of the dearly-missed Mares of Thrace, and this record is an example of how the further the band thinks outside the box, the more interesting their music gets. A fine example is “The Sycophant”, which heads in a decidedly more noise-oriented direction, while the ten and a half-minute “And Send Fire” is a ferocious display of progressive extreme metal that rivals anything the mighty Fuck the Facts have done. It’s hateful, violent, and at times strikingly beautiful.

Indesinence, III (Profound Lore): Vessels of Light and Decay was a highlight of 2012, and the British death/doom band have returned with an appropriately titled third album that continues comfortably where the last record left off. For this style of music a great deal of patience is required. It’s not standing music, but rather sitting music, as you have to let each lengthy track gracefully unfold, let the music slowly envelop you. As strong as this album is – “Embryo Limbo” puts dynamics to great use and the 15-minute “Mountains of Mind/Five Years Ahead” is spellbinding – there’s not quite enough here that can stand up well alongside the last record, and the lack of consistency makes it a draining70 minutes for even the most patient listener.

Lamb Of God, VII: Sturm und Drang (Epic): After ten years of underachieving, to the point where few if any thought the band would ever put out a record that lived up to the 2004 breakthrough Ashes of the Wake, Lamb of God have finally gotten their act together. Did it take the incarceration of Randy Blythe in the Czech Republic to force this band to pull up their bootstraps and put in more concerted effort into making music after so many years of stasis? Only they know, but the end result here is an impassioned return to form, with more ideas, less self-plagiarization, and best of all, songs that remind one and all why these guys are one of the biggest metal bands in America. It's not fashionable to give Lamb of God some critical love, but this is a splendid effort. "Still Echoes" and "Delusion Pandemic" scorch away, "Embers" is effectively melodic, and "Overlord" features a splendid vocal performance by Blythe.

Locrian, Infinite Dissolution (Relapse): The only thing you can expect from a new Locrian album is to be surprised somehow. Interestingly enough, this great experimental band finds liberation on their latest work by heading in a more concrete direction. The songs, while still awash in gorgeous, haunting atmospherics, are far less abstract this time around, rooted more in black metal and post-rock. By setting those limitations for themselves it forces the music to much more concise than ever, and there are melodies that compel you to stop whatever it is your doing and just contemplate the beauty of it all. Conversely, there are darker moments that rival and of the grimmest black metal that’s come out this year. Only with Locrian, it’s less a shtick than a means to a strange new destination. Even the handful of ambient pieces are striking in their simplicity, best exemplified by the quietly majestic “Heavy Water”, which has more in common with Disco Inferno than Watain.

One Master, Reclusive Blasphemy (Eternal Death): Now there's a cute black metal album title. As is the New York band's shtick as well, which pushes all the proper black metal buttons appropriately. It's raw, it's malevolent, it has a guy gargling lead vocals trying to sound as evil as possible. Go beyond the gimmicky, though, and you'll discover a black metal band with some intriguing ideas. When they slow the hell down like Darkthrone on Panzerfaust, things get really good, as you quickly discover these guys have a lot more to offer than the usual boring blastbeats.

Orchid, Sign Of The Witch (Nuclear Blast): The San Francisco band doesn’t hide the fact that they worship Black Sabbath devoutly, but the imitation on this four-song EP is borderline overkill. I’d say that they’re a better band when they look beyond Sabbath rip-offs, but even when they do that they just steal from other bands (their best song is outright theft from Buffalo Springfield). Admittedly the jazz/blues swing of “Join the Tiger” is pleasing for anyone who loves early Sabbath, but these guys don’t have an original fiber in their being.

Powerwolf, Blessed & Possessed (Napalm): It’s the same old stuff from the German power metal band, but like Sabaton, Powerwolf know what they do best, they stick to it, and they do it well. True, it’s getting harder and harder to tell all these albums apart, but this sixth album has more than its share of rousing, galloping, sing-along tunes, like “Army of the Night” and “Armata Strigoi”.

Symphony X, Underworld (Nuclear Blast): It’d be great to see Symphony X tone things down a touch and put out a 40-minute record, but once again it’s another bloated piece of work that ventures past the one hour mark. To their credit they remain one of the classiest prog/power metal bands around, and songs like “Without You” and “Charon” show that they have plenty of good moments in them yet. Still, someone get these guys an editor.

Head Above Ground

Huge congratulations go out this week to Between the Buried in Me, whose efforts on the excellent return to form Coma Ecliptic have been rewarded with the band’s strongest first-week sales in America to date, its 18,525 sold catapulting the band to the number 12 spot on the album chart.

On the other side of the coin, although Nuclear Blast might want to paint a rosy picture by saying Cradle of Filth’s Hammer of the Witches is the UK band’s highest-charting album in America (#65), its 3,575 sold continues the band’s huge decline. To think 11 years ago Nymphetamine debuted with 14,000 sold in its first week. The more albums Cradle of Filth put out, the fewer people seem to care.

Track of the Week

Grave Pleasures, the band formerly known as Beastmilk, return with the first single from their forthcoming second album. It’s more of the same post-punk that they specialize in: think of it as a slightly more metallic Interpol with zero subtlety. But they do it very, very well – 2013’s Climax has slowly turned into a real favorite of yours truly – and this churning, brooding track bodes well for this revamped and renamed band.

Blabbermouth Headline of the Week

Horns Up: Justin Lowe (RIP), Myrkur, Chips & Beer #9.

Horns Down: Mayhem fest, Slaves, every single metal blog that posted Justin Lowe’s desperate cry for help as “entertainment”.

Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy

Follow Blood & Thunder’s rolling 2015 metal tracks playlist on Spotify

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