RUSH — 2112 (review)

RUSH — 2112 album cover Album · 1976 · Hard Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
2112 is Rush's fourth album and their first real breakthrough in terms of both record sales and critical acclaim. The band arrived rather late in the progressive movement, their debut self titles album, having been released in 1974, a full five years after King Crimson and their contemporaries brought Prog blazing to the forefront of popular music. In addition, Rush didn't really get progressive until their third album, Caress of Steel, their earlier attempts being competent but somewhat derivative and undistinguished hard rock fare.

They first began to show signs of a more ambitious approach in 1975 with their Fly By Night album. After the departure of the original drummer, the band had the incredible good fortune to find a replacement in Neil Peart. Not only was he a fantastic drummer, but he also turned out to be quite a gifted writer, and his lyrics were a major part of what took the band to the next level, as well as his penchant for science fiction, fantasy and more ambitious subject matter in general.

Hints of this can be found as early as in Fly By Night's sprawling By-Tor and the Snow Dog, a first attempt at an epic that didn't quite work. But fortunately for Prog fans everywhere, the band did not let the raggedness of these early attempts discourage them, and their next release was the even more ambitious Caress of Steel. Once again, critics called it a failure, although fans seemed to be warming up to what the band was trying to do.

Finally, despite fervent objections by their record company, Rush made 2112, and in doing so struck musical gold. Just as bands like Yes and Genesis were running out of steam, and with the arrival of the Ramones in 1976 threatening to shred the very fabric of Prog to ribbons, Rush came out with an epic that experienced a popularity not enjoyed by any twenty minute plus song since Jethro Tull's Thick As A Brick four years earlier. It certainly didn't hurt that the band's reputation was more cemented in hard rock, a popular genre at the time, than in the rapidly waning excess of Prog.

Now let's meet the musicians who brought us this wonderful record. The frontman for Rush has always been Geddy Lee, and it would be hard to find a more unique band leader, whether in looks, sound, or instrumental virtuosity. Geddy sings and plays the bass, also providing support on keyboards when needed. His extremely high pitched voice is often a source of controversy among listeners, and many are turned off by what they deem to be an intolerable, banshee-like screech. Many others, myself included, feel that his voice is powerful and unique, and lends an energy and distinctive sound the band, and makes their music even more appealing. In the early Eighties, Geddy decided to start singing in a slightly lower register, making his voice much more accessible to the masses. Whether this was due to public and critical pressure or whether he finally realized that he couldn't keep shrieking that way without ripping his vocal chords out is anybody's guess, but it helped in gaining the band even more popularity, even though I personally prefer his earlier style of singing.

All that is to say nothing of his bass playing. Now bass guitar is not normally an instrument that gets a lot of recognition. Instead of the flashy excess of lead guitar or even drums, it is often relegated to providing a simple backdrop to whatever is going on in the "more important" instruments, rarely taking solos and often mixed so low that it is difficult to hear, even at high volumes. Geddy Lee proves that all of this is silly nonsense. He plays the bass like a monster and when he does it's impossible to ignore. Never before have I been distracted away from a guitar solo to listen to the bass part until I heard Geddy play. He is a truly remarkable musician.

Equally remarkable is the aforementioned Neil Peart, who is now recognized as one of the top drummers in the world. The energy, power and complexity of his playing adds immeasurably to any track he plays on, but especially lends itself to the ornate shifting time signatures that characterize Rush's style. And that's just on drum kit. He also specializes in percussion instruments of all varieties, including, but not limited to bells, chimes, wooden blocks and innumerable small percussion toys that have worked their way onto Rush albums over the years. His only real competition in this area is from the excellent Bill Bruford, who approaches his craft from a more jazz oriented style than Peart, who is through and through a rock and roll kind of guy. Peart's intellectualism, strong writing ability and sometimes controversial political views have helped transform Rush from a simple garage band into a powerhouse Prog Rock outfit, but more on that later.

The third member of the group is guitarist Alex Lifeson. While he too is a top notch musician with a unique style all his own, for some reason his playing just doesn't grab me as much as that of his bandmates. For one thing, he's not quite as showy in his approach to the guitar, opting for slower, more melodic solos instead of the lighting fast technical flourishes of his peers. This is by no means a bad thing, and indeed, it would probably be tedious to have him playing as furiously as Peart the entire time. What's really impressive about Lifeson is his range. He plays just about every kind of guitar you can think of. - six string, seven string, twelve string, acoustic electric and everything in between. In fact, his sound is so varied and he plays each instrument with such attention to its own unique qualities that at times it's difficult to believe there's only one guitarist in the band.

Power Trios such as Rush have a long and distinguished history in rock music, from early pioneers like Blue Cheer, to later masters like Cream. I was at first skeptical of the concept, because three instruments just doesn't seem like enough to produce a full, rich sound, especially in Prog. However, all these bands have managed to deliver the goods, so I guess my fears were unfounded.

All three of the members of Rush are among the best in the business, so it's no surprise that what they created would be so wonderful What is amazing though is that they've stayed together for more than thirty years with no lineup changes. I recently had the pleasure of seeing them in concert on their Snakes and Arrows tour, and they're still as good as they ever were, if not better.

But enough of that. On to 2112 itself. I bought the album right in the middle of a small progressive rock kick I was on, before I really got into the style. I had never heard Rush before, but I had heard good things about them and I knew I liked long songs, so this seemed to fit the bill. As a matter of fact, the cover alone is enough to pull one in, with its striking image of the Star Man against the black backdrop of outer space, a flaming red pentagram at his feet as he stretches out towards the infinite. This solitary man standing alone against the cold and empty void of space symbolize the strident individualism represented by Neil Peart's personal beliefs and the repeated themes on the same subject that appear throughout the album. I have been meaning to pick up a copy of the original vinyl, as I imagine the full size image would blow me away, especially compared to the tiny reproduction on the CD case.

2112 opens with dramatically swirling synthesizer sounds, conjuring up the kind of science fiction images and otherworldly magic that would later become a hallmark of all Rush releases. This is significant because up until this point the band had been a purely guitar, bass and drums trio, and the entry of keyboards into their sound, especially in such a prominent way indicated right from the get go that something was going to be different this time around. So begins the first section of this multi-movement suite. The first section is designated "Overture" in a nod both to classical form and as an indication that a story is about to follow. Overture was a term originally reserved for opera, and would be a sort of montage of the themes the audience could expect to hear throughout the play. This served to familiarize the music, making it easier to appreciate the second time it came around, but perhaps the primary reason for such a section was to get people to stop talking and sit down before the action of the plot began to unfold.

Rush's overture serves these same purposes. It introduces the main melodies that we will hear throughout the twenty minute epic, being played one by one with the fury and energy of Alex Lifeson's guitar playing. It also succeeds brilliantly at getting the listener's attention. The pounding guitar work and frantic drums, combined with the aforementioned synthesizers immediately get your adrenaline pumping and it is impossible not to feel excitement for what is to come. Slowly, quietly Geddy Lee's voice enters, singing an ethereal sustained melody above the instrumental fireworks in the foreground.

After all the themes have been played, the overture settles down and we prepare to hear the tale about to unfold. Just before the next section begins, Geddy utters a single phrase as though setting the mood and commenting on what he is about to sing, almost like a modern day version of Shakespeare's Puck. He gravely intones "And the meek shall inherit the Earth."

Now, to understand the implications of this phrase regarding the song as a whole, we will need to take a diversion into philosophy and discuss the inspiration and political messages present in the lyrics. Without understanding where the writer is coming from, we can hardly hope to understand or appreciate the art he spent so much time and effort creating. Neil Peart is a very strong supporter of the philosophy known as "Objectivism." It was first put forth by the ex-Soviet writer, Ayn Rand, and I shall attempt to briefly sum up its key points here. Basically, Objectivist philosophy states that every person should live for themselves and watch out for their own best interests (provided, of course, that doing so does not infringe on the rights of others.) It is often considered a branch of Libertarianism, and states that taxes are merely disguised theft and therefore immoral. Individual liberty is highly stressed Ayn Rand believes that no one should be forced to support another, less capable person. Indeed, she discourages even charitable acts towards the inept or lazy, whom she deems "moochers" off of the able and ambitious. Capitalism is viewed as the only acceptable economic system, as no other is based entirely on voluntary cooperation. Therefore, the phrase "And the meek shall inherit the Earth," taken from the Bible when Jesus gives his sermon on the mount, is used here ironically. Ayn Rand has been very clear that she is opposed to the values of Christianity, such as the belief that one should put the welfare of others above that of himself. Furthermore, Rand clearly has no use for the meek, as her philosophy glorifies the rugged individualist who isn't shy about sticking to his principles and being ambitious enough to achieve something great. Ever since the arrival of Neil Peart to Rush, their lyrics have frequently dealt with the these topics, such as in the songs "Anthem," "The Trees," and "Freewill."

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I am, essentially, an Objectivist, although I detest that name. To call your philosophy "Objectivism" seems to me no different than calling it "Correctism" or something similar, which I find rather arrogant. I try not to let politics get in the way of my listening habits, but I must admit that I find it refreshing to hear a band supporting my point of view for a change. That may be part of the reason I like Rush so much. But I digress.

The primary inspiration for 2112 came from a book by Ayn Rand called "Anthem" which is also the name of Rush's music publishing company. The book is similar to other dystopia novels of the time, such as George Orwell's 1984 or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. The plot centers around a young man in an oppressive future society where freedoms are almost non-existent and the "good" is viewed as self sacrifice for the good of the community, at the expense of the individual. This is the very antithesis of Objectivist philosophy, and the young man's realization of his imprisonment and escape from the society are the central plot points of the novel, all of which is prompted by his inadvertent discovery of electricity. A discovery to which the community leaders are highly resistant, fearing change and the threat of one individual becoming more or less than any other. I won't give away the ending, but it is a good read and I encourage anyone interested in these sorts of moral, political and philosophical issues to pick up a copy.

2112 is based on Anthem, but only loosely, as many of the details have been changed for reasons known only to Neil Peart. In general he's given the piece a more "science fiction" feel than that shown by the original work. I'll address these in more detail as they come up.

After the Overture, the next section is called "The Temples of Syrinx. It is told from the point of view of the leaders, or so called "priests" that govern this oppressive society, as they explain their jobs. The music here is fast and furious and Geddy sings in an extremely high register, with frenzied energy. One of the interesting things about his vocal performance throughout the song is that when he switches back and forth between different characters, he changes his register or level of energy or some other minor aspect of his singing. This has the effect of very clearly delineating the different characters, eliminating any confusion one might expect to arise from a single voice playing multiple parts. We can hear this again on Rush's Hemispheres album, although it is not so marked as it is here.

The priests sing about how they have taken care of all the needs of their people and how everyone is equal and balanced, but the irony shines clearly through. Here "taking care" of someone is merely a euphemism for enslaving them. This section of the song is important, as it shows how the priests (another jab at organized religion, that they should be so called) use euphemisms and doublespeak to disguise their true actions and motives. If you are constantly saying that you are working for the good of society, bemoaning the plights of the poor or disabled, it is hard for anyone to paint you as a villain.

The term Syrinx used here is an allusion to Greek mythology. Syrinx was a nymph who, after being pursued by that rogue, Pan, begged the Gods to help her escape. In response, the Gods transformed her into hollow reeds that grew along the river's edge. This did help her escape from Pan, although I doubt if it is what she intended. The Gods had a sick sense of humor back in those days. These reeds became known as Pan Pipes and over time Syrinx became a symbol of music itself. Since music is one of the many things outlawed in this imagined society, the use is, once again, ironic. It is interesting to note that when Rush perform 2112 live, they typically stop after the Temples of Syrinx section. However, this is probably just due to time limitations and the fact that the section ends a nice, final sounding cadence, rather than to any ideological point being made.

The third section, called Discovery, is particularly interesting for its uniqueness and unconventional approach to storytelling and programmatic music. In this part of the story, the hero stumbles upon a guitar in a cave, a forgotten remnant from long, long ago, and teaches himself to play. The music begins with a soft background sound of a babbling brook, flowing peacefully away from the prying eyes of the authoritarian government. Slowly, we hear Alex Lifeson begin strumming open strings off his guitar, tuning a little along the way as he goes. This is somewhat reminiscent of the beginning of the classic Yes song "And You And I," in which Steve Howe tunes his guitar before playing, but the important difference here is that the tuning actually fits in with the story line, rather than just being an interesting musical effect. Our protagonist has never seen a guitar before, or even heard music, and this is reflected masterfully in Lifeson's playing. Gradually the random plucking and strummings of an amateur evolve into a coherent piece of music, becoming more and more complex as our hero gains skill on the instrument through countless hours of practice. It is really quite a beautiful thing, as if we are witnessing the birth of an artist before our very ears.

I should mention that this part of the story differs slightly from the original book, in that the book tells of a man accidentally discovering electricity, not a guitar. However, this is a really minor diversion, and let's face it, a guitar is way more rock and roll than electricity (sorry AC/DC.)

After the the guitar playing becomes significantly complex, we segue smoothly into section four of the song "Presentation" in which our hero brings the guitar, quite naively, to the priests, expecting them to reward him for his amazing discovery and use it to better the lives of everyone in the community. The joy of discovery is plain to be heard in Geddy's voice as he makes his offering. However, he is immediately shouted down by the shrieking falsetto of the priests, whose power is threatened by anything that might give the people a sense of individuality. They dismiss the guitar as "another toy to help destroy the elder race of man" and chastise the messenger, ordering him to "forget about your silly whim. It doesn't fit the plan."

The next section, called Oracle: The Dream deals with the frustration and internal struggle of the protagonist after his rejection and chastisement by the priests. He lies in bed, fitfully tossing in his sleep and dreaming of confronting an oracle on top of an ivory staircase. The Oracle tells him of a fantasy landscape where people are free and unoppressed by government or any other kind restrictions, happy with their individuality. Free to produce art and anything else they please. A world that could be, if only.

In the next section, Soliloquy, he ruminates on the new ideas he has discovered and ultimately concludes that, now that he has tasted freedom, he can no longer live in such an oppressive society. Seeing no other way out, he resolves to take his own life, reasoning that it is better to be dead than a slave.

The last section is the Grand Finale, an instrumental section that rocks really hard and brings a sense of climax to the proceedings. The last thing heard in the song is a mechanical sounding voice proclaiming "Attention all planets of the Solar Federation. We have assumed control. We have assumed control. We have assumed control."

This ending is ambiguous and different fans interpret it in different ways. One common belief is that the voice is an arm of the government, announcing that all planets will soon be forced to bow to its will. This is a very dark and pessimistic interpretation, especially following a suicide. Rush are usually a pretty positive band, so I personally reject this view and tend to side with the other common school of thought, that the voice is coming from the original humans on Earth, relieving the tyrant priests from their positions and restoring freedom to the planet. Only Rush knows for sure which is the correct answer.

know I said that I wouldn't ruin the ending of the book, but just know that the last few sections of the song differ GREATLY from the novel, which has a much more uplifting (and much less sci-fi) conclusion. That's all I'm gonna say.

Side two of the original Vinyl is a much lighter and less political affair, which is nice given the heady nature of side one. I just wish the material were a little better. A Passage to Bangkok is about scoring good Marijuana all around the world. (okay, a LOT less serious than side one.) Despite its questionable subject matter, it is actually a great song with a very catchy guitar hook. It has been a concert staple for Rush for years.

Next comes The Twilight Zone, an homage to the 1950's sci-fi television series, created by the late, great Rod Serling. The song is okay, but feels a little pointless and meandering, with a really strong melody or riff to keep it going.

Lessons is a strong song, with another message from Neil Peart about learning from your mistakes, but Tears is un unmemorable ballad penned by Geddy Lee. As much as I love Geddy, his songs are usually not the highlight of any given Rush record.

The album closes with the rocker Something For Nothing. This iss an appropriate closer for the album, because it sums up in a less bombastic way the basic message of 2112. "You can't get something for nothing. You can't get freedom for free." It's a continuation of Peart's Objectivist leanings and a darn good song to boot.

So, to sum up, 2112 is not Rush's best or most consistent record. The imbalance between the two sides definitely hurts it, when compared to A Farewell to Kings or Hemispheres. However, the power and ambition behind the title song is such that I cannot in good conscious give the album less than five stars. It IS essential and every Prog fan SHOULD own it, even if they never bother to flip the record over.
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