Convinced that their run at fame was all but over, the members of Rush decided to go out “in a blaze of glory”. They were all very satisfied with Caress of Steel and felt that the rock world just didn’t get it. Further, with sales down and exposure decreased, they resented the fact that Mercury seemed to be leaning on them hardest at their most vulnerable point, rather than rallying around them and offering the support which they really needed. So, rather than deliver some lame, commercialized album like the record company had demanded, Rush decided to double down and make the album that they wanted to make. They had accepted the fact that this was probably their last best shot in the music industry and they were willing to go back to life as civilians rather than have their creative instincts dictated from above. In fact, they had jocularly referred to their recent tour of clubs as the “Down the Tubes” tour.
On April Fool’s Day 1976, Rush released 2112, a concept album that, with limited label support and little to no radio support, would sell like hotcakes on the strength of word-of-mouth alone. Ironically, it would buy the band their creative independence from any future mingling by Mercury and subsequent labels. The band would be free to make whatever kind of music they wanted to make. As Neil Peart said; “it was the skeleton key that let us open that door”.
The obvious focal point of the album is the “2112” suite that occupies the entire first side. Here again, Peart turned to Ayn Rand for inspiration, as the story closely mirrors that of her short story Anthem (ironically, the song “Anthem” off Fly By Night, while definitely inspired by Rand, was less a translation of the story by the same name). The suite is a cohesive and mesmerizing with an exciting jam, “2112 Overture” right from the top. Geddy Lee sings in different voices, playing the protagonist, the nemesis “priests”, and the “Oracle” – and he pulls it off fantastically, especially during the “Presentation” section of the suite. Further, the space age effects that encapsulate the whole piece gave it an additional edge for appealing to the Star Wars generation of the late 1970s (even though 2112 preceded the Lucas classic by more than a year). As yet another added dimensions, there is also something a bit religious about it (“…and the meek shall inherit the earth…”) as well as the society run by “priests”. The world was ready for this type of progressive album that fit perfectly 1976 but yet still sounds fresh a generation and a half later.
The second side is filled with standard-length, accessible pop rock songs that are each radio friendly (so, in this sense the band may have, in fact, quasi-capitulated to the record company). The side is highlighted by “A Passage to Bangkok”, a longtime fan favorite that moves from location to location on a “train” (which, at one point, mysteriously jumps the Atlantic Ocean from Bogota to Katmandu), sampling all the diverse “herb” of these native lands, and “Something For Nothing”, which returns to the Randian theme on individuality, with the band at full force to end the album on a high.
The album’s back cover included the “Starman Logo”, which Neil Peart describes as symbolic of the individual against the masses. The logo was designed by Hugh Syme, who first worked with Rush on their cover of Caress of Steel and would be involved with most of band’s cover art in the future. Syme also played mellotron on the 2112 song “Tears”, becoming the first outside musician to make an appearance on a Rush album. The Starman Logo would be
adopted as a symbol for the band itself in the nearfuture.
In June of 1976, the band recorded three shows at Massey Hall in their hometown of Toronto that would provide the material for All the World’s a Stage, a double-live album with material spanning each of their first four albums. In the liner notes it is said that this album “marks the end of the first chapter of Rush”. In fact, they would follow this pattern of releasing a live album after four studio albums through three more iterations up until their 16th studio album was followed by their 4th live album. 1976 was a good year for live albums as Led Zeppelin released The Song Remains the Same and both Kiss and Peter Frampton achieved phenomenal success with their respective Alive albums. All the World’s a Stage would become Rush’s first Top 40 album and would eventually go platinum.
Still, in the wake of all this artistic and commercial success, the band was constantly being criticized in the mainstream rock press. The intelligentsia on the coasts hated 2112 and Rush itself as “a complex band that somehow doesn’t alienate the common, everyday man” (as if this was supposed to be a bad thing). It was at this point that the band realized that there was likely nothing that they can do to please these self-appointed arbiters of art and they would stop paying attention all together. From this point forward it would all be about the band and the fans and nothing else.
To follow 2112, the band decided to get even more complex – a two-part concept that would be split over two albums named “Cygnus X-1”. Unfortunately, this concept would not be as coherent or as cohesive as that in 2112. The first part closes their 1977 album A Farewell to Kings and speaks of space explorers whose ship is swallowed by a black hole, while the 1978 Hemispheres, side long second part is far more philosophical, speaking of the analytical versus artistic sides of the human brain in a fictional battle between Greek gods.
The remainder of these two albums is quite good, actually downright excellent. In fact, if one were to combine the first side of …Kings with the second side of Hemispheres, the result may just be the best Rush album ever. A Farewell to Kings includes “Xanadu”, a true gem from the period with Peart delving into an 18th century literary work and the atmosphere being painted perfectly (you can feel the chill of the caves of ice) by the true musical artsmanship of the band, which now has been extended to include some synthesizers played by Geddy Lee. Lee wrote another song in total, “Cinderella Man”, inspired by the movie, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. “Closer to the Heart”, co-written by Peter Talbot, is a true pop song which gave the band mainstream acceptance, reaching the charts in England where the album was recorded and where most of the band’s inspiration had originated.
Hemispheres included three absolute gems that made up the second side. “Circumstances” is the pinnacle of a shorter, extremely complex Rush song that is completely enjoyable, contains the peak of Lee’s high register vocals and deliverss its signature line in French;
“…Plus ca change, Plus c’est la meme chose…”
“The Trees” is a philosophical song with a very accessible and ironic message. The forest section is perfectly accented by Lifeson’s finger-picked acoustic, while the internal conflict of the song is accompanied by a crushing, heavy rock pattern. Both “Circumstances” and “The Trees” contain small instrumental mid-sections that delve off the beaten path but make each song all the more enjoyable.
Hemispheres ends with “La Villa Strangiato”, a complex, 12-part instrumental that may be unlike anything in the history of rock n roll. It is like a Miles Davis jazz jam, but with deliberate structure and a hyper pace, and it would be the pinnacle of this classic era of Rush, to which they would never again return (although there were some shorter instrumentals that would also be fine works). The piece begins with an amazing, anticipation filled entry into the main theme and it only takes off from there. The band sub-titled this song “An Exercise in Self-Indulgence”, a tacit acknowledgement that the music world was changing rapidly around them and that the genre of progressive rock had gone a bit far. “La Villa Strangiato” would be a most excellent farewell to this genre.The band admitted that they began to burn out at this time, constantly touring while writing and performing material that may have actually beyond them. Also, their palate got so much bigger as Peart’s drum set continually expanded, Lifeson’s guitars grew in numbers and both he and Lee began using synth pedals to fill the sound live. Rush would next make a concerted effort to scale it back a bit and incorporate different styles and genres in the music itself.