Rarely are bands capable of cultivating a fanbase so loyal that it’s almost as though no other music in the world matters. But that surely seems to be the attitude of Rush’s faithful followers. Nearing 50 years of existence, Rush have gone from Zeppelin/Sabbath-biting proto-metal to new wave-inspired English prog and just about everywhere in between. And at every juncture, their virtuosity has amazed new and old listeners alike.
Despite their unmatched tightness as a trio and excellence in their individual crafts, Rush has plenty of dissenters either claiming the music is inaccessible, Geddy’s high octane vocals are unlistenable, or that Neil Peart’s lyrics are too nerdy. However, their influence and presence in the music scene continues and is especially important as a rejection of the stereotypical “rock star” persona.
Though they haven’t released new material since 2012’s Clockwork Angels, Rush have been celebrating a series of anniversaries in recent years, the most recent of which is the release of a 40th anniversary edition of A Farewell to Kings, a turning point in Rush’s career and a ’70s rock essential which still informs our world today.
The box set has been released on four LPs or three CDs, featuring new artwork from original creative director Hugh Syme and an in-depth liner notes essay by Grammy-winner Rob Bowman. Included on the disks are the 2015 remastered edition of the album, a full recording of Rush’s 1978 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in London (formerly partially released on 1998’s Different Stages), cover versions of Kings tracks by Rush enthusiasts like Dream Theater and Big Wreck, and an outtake from the sessions called “Cygnus X-2 Eh”.
A Farewell to Kings is an important album in the trajectory of Rush’s career. Having just released the ambitious 2112 a year earlier, the trio didn’t settle with their power guitar-bass-drum hard rock formula, but decided to get even more experimental. Peart started playing with new types of percussion: tubular bells, orchestral bells, temple blocks, etc. At the same time, Lee delved into the Mini Moog and the signature bass pedal synthesizer, while Alex Lifeson experimented with different guitars and effects, most notably the wide, encompassing chorus effects that would fill out Rush’s sound for many albums to come. In many ways, the sound and instrumental experimentation on Kings set the tone and expectations for everything that would come after it.
But the album stands the test of time not only as a point of innovation; the lyrical themes and execution are just as important today as they were in 1977. The leadoff title track begins with a medieval guitar intro setting the song in the broad scheme of history and indicating the timeless relevance of Peart’s lyrics as Lee begins: “When they turn the pages of history / When these days have passed long ago / Will they read of us with sadness / For the seeds that we let grow?” After a year marked by frustration, division, and “cities full of hatred, fear, and lies,” these words hit a little too close to home and ask the essential questions: “Can’t we raise our eyes and make a start? / Can’t we find the minds to lead us closer to the heart?”
Rush’s answer for that question would be soon to come. But first, the trio embarks on the 11-minute search for immortality on the sweeping epic “Xanadu”. The group’s five-part, five-minute intro is one of the best in their discography as they seamlessly weave through time signatures and modes. But the song takes a late turn as the cautionary tale warns that death-defying pleasures can easily become a prison. Geddy’s emotive scream to close the song asks, “Is it paradise?” and again draws parallels to our present state, as Lorde echoed the question to close Melodrama, “All the nights spent off our faces / Trying to find these perfect places / What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”
Now returning to answer their question asked on the title track, Rush offers their first major radio hit on the three-minute “Closer to the Heart”. Though one of the simpler songs of the band’s career, it’s nonetheless memorable, marked by the opening downward-arpeggiated 12-string intro (actually written by Geddy, not Alex) and a triumphant solo as Rush offers that “The men who hold high places must be the ones who start / To mold a new reality / Closer to the heart.” But they also call on both “the blacksmith and the artist” and “philosophers and ploughmen.” Both intellectuals and the workingmen must be a part of creating change in our world.
The follow-up “Cinderella Man”, based on Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, shows off Rush’s knack for strong instrumental interludes, featuring a break Peart once shuddered to call “funky.” If there’s a low point in this album, it comes on the two-and-a-half-minute ballad “Madrigal”. It’s an odd inclusion in the tracklist that has never been played live by the band. However, the medieval fantasy lyrics do hold a bit of charm.
And at last, Rush closes Kings with what was probably their most experimental piece to date. Running ten and a half minutes long, “Cygnus X-1” told the story of a space traveler headed for the star Cygnus, before getting sucked terrifyingly into a black hole. The story ends with a cliffhanger, one of the few instances of the literary device I can think of in a musical setting, as Geddy Lee shrieks “Sound and fury drown my heart / Every nerve is torn apart” over an expertly constructed chord structure that creates a downward spiraling feeling for the listener.
This 40th anniversary edition of A Farewell to Kings is a perfect excuse to revisit an album so important to Rush’s musical journey. And luckily, we have the benefit of hindsight to appreciate this masterpiece, unlike a certain critic who at the time called Rush “the most obnoxious band.” Kings reveals just the opposite – one of the most instrumentally-proficient bands of all time in their prime offering philosophies that still ring true 40 years later.