The Great Albums

Suite success on 4th by Rush

January 27, 2002


Rush fans are a fiercely dedicated and somewhat obsessive lot. I last wrote about the band in January 1998, offering the apparently controversial observation that, despite the streamlined charms of its '80s material, it has basically been downhill for the Canadian trio since 1978's "Hemispheres," the last of its grand concept albums, and the beginning of the end of bassist Geddy Lee's original "Donald Duck on helium" vocal style.

I still get hate-filled e-mails (one or two a month!) for that one. But I remain unrepentant: My favorite Rush was the one of grand statements, where the lyrical ambition was matched by the musical muscle, and this Rush was never better than on "2112."

Though the band formed in Toronto in the late '60s, treading a unique path somewhere between heavy metal and progressive rock, it came into its own when Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson replaced original drummer John Rutsey with Neal Peart, an Ontario native with amazing technical chops and a sharp intellect honed by voracious reading (though he was a high-school dropout). The trio made a huge leap forward musically and conceptually, with Peart stepping in as lyricist.

Along with a fondness for science fiction and fantasy ("By-Tor and the Snow Dog"), the drummer immediately emphasized his two favorite themes: individualism and the glory of the creative spirit. These are the values at the heart of the 20-minutes-plus, seven-part title suite "2112," which took up all of one vinyl LP side when it first appeared in April 1976 on Rush's fourth album (its third with Peart).

Here is an exquisitely well-written parable about a society on another planet in the future where the spiritual/political rulers (the Priests who reside in the computerized temples of Syrinx) subjugate the masses by tending to their physical needs and providing all the cultural distractions they could ever want ("We've taken care of everything/The words you hear, the songs you sing/The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes"). The only catch is that the masses are denied the right of self-expression and, by extension, free will or thought.

One day, an anonymous individual appears before the Priests with a "toy" that he has discovered behind a waterfall--a guitar, a dangerous artifact that contributed to the destruction of "the elder race" (that would be us, back on earth). He's a little naive, our hero, initially thinking that the Big Boys will hail his discovery and the incredible sounds he can make with it. ("I can't wait to share this new wonder/The people will all see its light/Let them all make their own music/The Priests praise my name on this night!") Of course, they quickly disabuse him of this notion, berating him during a public debate, and crushing his ax to splinters.

Anonymous flees to his cave by the waterfall, despondent that he will never again know the joys of making music. Having tasted freedom, he cannot return to slavery, and he kills himself. ("I can no longer live under the control of the Federation, but there is no other place to go/My last hope is that with my death, I may pass into the world of my dream, and know peace at last.") The tune ends with the malicious authorities smugly voicing their victory via the electronically altered voice of Peart: "Attention all Planets of the Solar Federation, we have assumed control. We have assumed control!"

Alright, I'll admit it: It's all pretty melodramatic. So is a lot of great literature! Go mock Homer for "The Odyssey," why don't ya? The underlying message is gripping nonetheless, and it's made all the more powerful because it's meant to be heard , not read on the page, where it's separated from the incredibly moving music.

From a sweeping introductory overture that touches upon all of the different moods and musical themes, the song swings into the hard-rocking introduction of the Priests, and then the beautiful, idyllic passage where Anonymous discovers the guitar. A Zeppelinesque contrast between light/dark and lilting/heavy prevails during the debate with the Priests before we enjoy a meditative soliloquy by our crushed hero. Finally, it all wraps up with the aptly titled "Grand Finale."

Throughout, Lee's vocals are full of passion (though they're admittedly an acquired taste), and the interaction of his melodic bass and Peart's busy but propulsive drumming is astounding (think Keith Moon meets John Bonham while jamming with Charlie Mingus on speed). Meanwhile, Lifeson merges the musical invention of Yes' Steve Howe with the hard-riffing gusto of Zep's Jimmy Page.

Because the Priests get what is undeniably the coolest riff (the bad guys always do; witness the Pharisees in "Jesus Christ Superstar"), some fans mistakenly assume that the band is siding with the oppressors (i.e., the Priests are the heroes). They fail to recognize that Lee's opening crooning of the line, "And the meek shall inherit the earth" isn't the point of the tale, but the exact philosophy that the band disputes. Some also misinterpret the red pentagram on the cover as a celebration of Satanism/hedonism. "All it means is the abstract man against the masses," Peart told Creem magazine in 1982. "The red star symbolizes any collectivist mentality."

"Collectivism" is the key word there. The liner notes to the album read, "With acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand." Often misinterpreted (just like Rush), the controversial philosopher's basic tenet was that collectivism (a la "The Brotherhood of Man" portrayed in "2112") requires the most talented individuals to put themselves down and live not for themselves but for the lowest common denominator of the "average" man. Rush, like a lot of great rock bands, comes down on the side of the individual being all that he can be (to steal a good slogan from a completely inappropriate source).

As rock scholar and DePaul University professor Deena Weinstein writes in Serious Rock, "Having experienced a 'different way of life,' of taking responsibility for his emotions and expressing his real feelings, the person who discovered the guitar is unwilling to resume the 'meaningless,' 'cold and empty' life under the Priests' domination. Death is preferable." But the band doesn't celebrate or romanticize this death. I've always thought that Peart condemns Anonymous for failing to fight on (as Rush itself fought on), instead taking the "easy way out" a la Kurt Cobain and so many other rock stars.

Though the five songs on the second half of the album (all of them under four minutes long) do not match the accomplishments of the title track, they have some worthwhile musical moments. Lyrically, they shed more light on Peart's other then-current obsessions, especially "The Twilight Zone" and "A Passage to Bangkok," a song about the marijuana trade. But to tell you the truth, I'm usually so sated after the epic suite that I never flip the LP over, or listen to the rest of the CD.

Musical snobs continue to scoff at the hubris of Rush's brand of progressive metal, and the band itself has voiced mixed feelings about its work in this era. "Certainly there are a lot of people who hate all of our early records, and I would count myself among them," Peart told me in 1993. (The group has been on hiatus since 1997, following the death of Peart's daughter in a car crash and the loss of his wife to cancer, but it recently began recording a new album.)

Nevertheless, "2112" has a classic rock 'n' roll message and an emotional honesty that later Rush has never surpassed. The album stands as one rock's greatest for anyone willing to put aside their preconceptions long enough to listen. As Lee-as-Anonymous sings with his newly discovered instrument in hand: "Listen to my music/And hear what it can do/There's something here as strong as life/I know that it will reach you."