In part 2 of this series covering my favourite rock and metal concept albums, I’ll cover the Canadian prog rock legends Rush. Technically, Rush has released only on concept album in its entire career, which is Clockwork Angels in 2012, their last studio album…and it’s not particularly good. But they are well known for having included concept-based suites in the 7 albums they released from 1975 to 1981.
Album: Fly By Night (1975);
- Concept Suite: By-Tor and the Snow Dog (8 min, 37 sec); Favourite segment: Of the Battle (guitar instrumental)
It’s in this album that we hear the virtuoso playing and sudden time signature changes that came to be such a distinctive part of Rush’s music. This concept suite has elements of fantasy and describes a battle between By-Tor, the “knight of darkness” and Snow Dog, his nemesis. The instrumental middle section called Of the Battle, features an awesome guitar war between Geddy Lee on bass (who is credited as By-Tor in the album notes) and Alex Lifeson on guitar (credited as Snow Dog). Incidentally the characters are named after the two dogs, named Biter and Snow Dog, owned by Rush’s manager.
Album: Caress of Steel (1975)
- Concept Suite: The Necromancer (12 min, 34 sec); Favourite segments: Under the Shadow and Return of the Prince;
- Concept Suite: The Fountain of Lamneth (19 min, 57 sec); Favourite segments: In the Valley, Didacts and Narpets (drum solo), Panacea and Bacchus Plateau
I really love this album, although it’s considered the least successful release of the first half of Rush’s career. Listeners found the lyrics in the two concept suites to be too obscure to follow, and of course, they were too long to play on rock radio stations. The first suite, which is on Side one of the album is heavily influenced by Tolkien’s works. The second, The Fountain of Lamneth doesn’t really make much sense from a lyrical standpoint, but I love the drum solo in Didacts and Narpets, the poignancy of Panacea (“Panacea, liquid grace, Oh let me touch your fragile face”) and the easy-going sound of Bacchus Plateau.
Album: 2112 (1976);
- Concept Suite: 2112 (20 min, 34 sec); Favourite segment: The Temples of Syrinx
This is the album that really made Rush famous. The entire Side one is the self-titled concept suite, a blend of science-fiction and metaphysics, influenced by the works of Ayn Rand, particularly her 1937 novel Anthem. I love the song The Temples of Syrinx, which is actually the first ever example of hard rock/heavy metal that I remember hearing in my life; the screaming vocals disturbed me and thrilled me in equal measure and I had a vision of a satan-worshipping rock band when I heard the song play on the radio in the late 70s. It was only when I listened to the full album in the late 80s that I realized it came from one of the gentlest, most well-behaved rock bands in history!
Album: A Farewell to Kings (1977);
- Concept Suite: Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage (10 min 25 sec); Favourite segments: Prologue, 2.
Rush continued the with a science-fiction setting for the concept suite that closed its 1977 album, which featured slightly darker lyrics and themes all the way through. The Prologue with its syncopated bass intro which slowly builds up as the other instruments join in, is really cool. Then, around half way into the suite, at around 5:54, we kick into a conventional song structure in the the segment named “2”, and we hear about the voyage to Cygnus – “I set a course just east of Lyra, And northwest of Pegasus, Flew into the light of Deneb, Sailed across the Milky Way”. This is perhaps the highest pitch that Geddy Lee has ever sung at.
Album: Hemispheres (1978);
- Concept Suite: Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres (18 min 08 sec); Favourite segment: Prelude
The Cygnus X-1 story continued into the 1978 album Hemispheres. In Book II, the story incorporates elements of metaphysics, essentially detailing a conflict between the two halves of the brain (hence, hemispheres) and culminates in the segment called Armageddon (The Battle of Heart and Mind). I love the bass lines in the Prelude segment and overall, this is my all-time favourite Rush concept suite. I love that it’s 18 min long because every time I listen to it I just don’t want it to end.
Album: Permanent Waves (1980);
- Concept Suite: Natural Science (9 min 20 sec); Favourite segments: Tide Pools, Hyperspace
This concept suite marked another shift in thematic focus, away from sci-fi to existential themes. with a commentary about man’s relationship with nature and technology. The first segment Tide Pools, starts with a slow commentary-style intro and the propels forward at the 2 min mark with the lyrics “Wheels within wheels, In a spiral array, A pattern so grand and complex; Time after time, We lose sight of the way, Our causes can’t see their effects”. The second segment Hyperspace, continues at a similar pace, then switches back and forth in pace. Musically, this feels like their most mature work up to this point of their career.
Album: Moving Pictures (1981);
- Concept Suite: The Camera Eye (10 min 58 sec); Favourite segment: New York and London
The Camera Eye is a forgotten part of an album that featured all-time classics like Tom Sawyer, Red Barchetta and Limelight; naturally it was not radio-friendly like the aforementioned songs. This is also the last of their conceptual suites in Rush’s body of work. This piece signifies yet another shift in the themes of Rush’s concept suites, having moved from fantasy to sci-fi to metaphysics to nature and now becomes somewhat introspective, reflecting on the urban rhythms of two great cities.
Wow, this post on Rush took a lot longer than I expected, but as with Coheed and Cambria in Part 1, I enjoyed listening again to all these pieces and reading about the band’s song-writing process during those magical years from 1976 to 1981.