RUSH — Caress of Steel (review)

RUSH — Caress of Steel album cover Album · 1975 · Hard Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
I think most hardcore Rush fans are aware of Caress of Steel’s infamous reputation at this point, but I’ll give a small rundown of it for the uninitiated. Essentially, this is Rush’s darkest hour commercially and critically; the tour to support the album was even called the “Down the Tubes” tour by the band themselves due to poor sales and concert attendance. As you’d imagine, the group must have thought the end was near and that they’d have to disband at their label’s insistence. After all, they were completely unwilling to heed any advice about becoming more commercial and accessible, eventually paving the way for what would become the super-successful 2112 and its highly ambitious title epic. But for all we know about the latter record, is Caress of Steel really as bad as critics once proclaimed?

Hell no. Granted, I can actually see why they might not have taken to it at first; playing progressive rock in the 70s, while commercially sound for some bands, was also like painting a huge target on your chest for music critics. And one look at the Caress of Steel must have been very striking back then: five songs? Two epics, one of them 20 minutes? For comparison, the longest song they’d made up to that point was “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” at a mere eight-and-a-half minutes. It may not have helped either that the lyrics were starting to become more impenetrable and complex, especially on the side-two epic “Fountain of Lamneth.” But the more you dig into this album, the more fascinating and ambitious it starts to become. I’m not going to say this was just too forward-thinking for the critics back then, but I am of the idea that Caress of Steel was the true beginning of what we would come to know as “classic Rush” for the rest of the 70s and early 80s.

The tracklist is very much a tale of two sides. That is to say, a merging of two styles: tracks 1-3 are more in a riff-heavy hard rock vein consisting of tighter, leaner arrangements. Tracks 4-5 are the lengthy epics that focus on weightier topics and consist of several different sections spliced together. With such a short tracklist, I suppose it would be smart to tackle both parts of the album separately and start with the shorter tunes. For starters, “Bastille Day” is one of the best openers Rush ever conjured up; the hard punk-ish riffs meld perfectly with the bombastic solos and varied drumming, while Neil Peart’s lyrics are just as grand as the music itself. It’s a wonderful mix of the heavy and the grandiose, a great way to usher in this new phase of Rush. Finally, Geddy Lee's shrill vocal style works really well with the aggression of the song and gives it even more personality.

The other two songs, however, serve as more of a farewell to Rush early Cream/Zeppelin-inspired stuff, consisting of more bluesy riffs and simplistic lyrics. “I Think I’m Going Bald” is Peart’s tale about how it might feel to grow old and watch the world around you change, so at least it’s a bit more deep than the title suggests. But at the same time, it’s definitely the weakest song here; the simple rock riffs and lack of variety make it stick out like a sore thumb against the more nuanced material here. “Lakeside Park” is a nice little trip down memory lane with Peart giving us a glimpse into some of his childhood; the riffs are also a bit more varied here, combining distorted and clean guitar tones to great effect.

Then we reach the real reason this album tanked: the epics. Interestingly enough, this section of the record is where I can give the most pros and cons at the same time. So let’s get the negative out of the way: first of all, you can tell the band were still trying to find their footing as far as lengthy arrangements go. Instead of the smooth transitions you hear in future epics like “Xanadu” and “Book II: Hemispheres,” both of Caress of Steel’s epics feature choppy transitions that usually involve awkward fade-outs and tonal inconsistencies. This is especially prevalent on “The Fountain of Lamneth,” which really could have done with some more editing in the studio. And it’s a shame, because the individual sections are fantastic (trust me, I’ll get to this). On the positive side, however, “The Necromancer” - whose lyrics are entirely based on The Lord of the Rings - fares a bit more smoothly; the shifts between tremendous metal riffs and foreboding soft passages is incredibly effective, and the middle section might just be the beginning of progressive metal as we know it. Seriously, that main riff is every bit as heavy as Black Sabbath’s doom riffs were at the time. And again, “Fountain of Lamneth” does feature incredible moments, especially in the more Genesis-inspired soft passages like “No One at the Bridge” and “Panacea” (check out the Steve Hackett influence in Alex Lifeson’s guitar work here!). It’s also nice to hear how “In the Valley” and “The Fountain” tie into each other to give thematic unity to the overall epic.

Caress of Steel occupies a weird place in Rush’s discography. It could effectively be considered the real beginning of what we know as Rush’s signature style, but it’s also a transitional wave goodbye to the band’s less sophisticated past. But just know: whatever crap you’ve heard over the years about this record, you’ll likely find it better than what those people have said. It’s flawed, but those flaws are part of what gives it its unique character. It’s clearly a stepping stone for a young band, but one that showed a band already poised to take over the rock world… even if people didn’t realize it quite yet.
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