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Rush

A Farewell To Kings

Review by Mike Korn

It was 23 years ago when I first heard this album in its entirety. And now, many years and many journeys (musical and otherwise) later, it is still one of my most prized possessions. In the mid-70's, I was just beginning to explore the world of rock music in directions other than Top 40 and my AM radio dial. At that time, three bands spoke to me louder than any others: Kiss, Boston and Rush. To say I was a huge Rush fan at the time would be a gross understatement. There was something about their combination of aggression and intelligence that appealed to me. Of course, Geddy Lee's high pitched wails were something I found perversely fascinating, but I was mostly attracted to the intelligent, fantasy-oriented lyrics of drummer Neil Peart. Naturally, the rock cognoscenti of the time loved to lay into Rush for "pretentiousness"(which in their book meant communicating at a level above the subhuman). Man, a band had to be into what was happening NOW; baby...they couldn't talk about Ayn Rand or Tolkien or universal themes of free will. Well, damn the critics. I got into a lot of classic literature because of Rush. Later bands like Iron Maiden would take much the same tack. They broadened my mind, and that's not a bad thing for any entertainer to aspire to. Eventually, Rush and I diverged on our musical paths. I headed into heavier territory and they lightened up into a kind of progressive techno-rock with more concrete, less fantastic lyrics. However, to this day, I deeply love their earlier material. My favorite of all those records is "A Farewell to Kings". This album comes closer than any other I've ever heard to merging classical baroque music with heavy rock. It is one of the most medieval rock records ever recorded. The riffs, the lyrics, the image of the band (Peart's old handlebar mustache was awesome!)...all seemed to reek of an earlier time. And yet it was kick butt all the way, with surging power chords, killer drum fills and screaming solos. Rush had always hinted at this type of music since "Fly By Night" but only on "A Farewell to Kings" was it fully realized. Terry Brown's production was amazing for this era. Alex Lifeson's guitar sound had a ringing, bell-like tone that I have not heard exactly duplicated. Also, the band included more synthesizer and background ambience into their approach, but not so much as to become overbearing. In fact, "A Farewell to Kings" combined the folk/metal mixture of Led Zeppelin at their most epic, the crunching power of Black Sabbath, the progressive tendencies of Yes and the medieval feeling of true baroque music to create a great record. A disc which I still play frequently, even 23 years later.

Writing and thinking about the record, I am more convinced than ever that this was Rush's masterwork. I was disappointed several years later when the band ditched their epic, metallic approach for a more concise, less elaborate vision, but I've heard that they themselves regard "A Farewell to Kings" as one of their greatest achievements - and so it was...

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: The Early Years Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
A Farewell To Kings
The baroque feeling is immediately and brilliantly transmitted by the opening title track. Very Renaissance-like acoustic guitar picking starts the tune, with delicate bell-and-synth tones accentuating it. Then, it bursts into ringing, majestic power chords and an aggressive riff pattern. The song's structure is unconventional and nowhere near standard verse/chorus/verse stuff. Peart's lyrics are magnificent and could have been penned in days of old, yet they deal with themes that could be as current as Watergate and Vietnam - the betrayal of the masses by their leaders. This is an awesome song, both musically and intellectually.
Xanadu
When I am on my deathbed and asked what my favorite track is, this will probably be it. With literally hundreds of songs to pick from, this is clearly the greatest song Rush has ever done. And yes, I include "2112" in that list. Epic is not the word. The music has such a narrative feel to it and conveys the story so strongly, that I could see the events unfolding in my head like I was reading the S. T. Coleride poem upon which it was based. This is one of the ultimate fusings of rock and literature ever. The song begins gently with natural sounds of birds chirping and mountain zephyrs. Synthesizer tones create a feeling of Eastern serenity as a bell chimes. Then the track switches into a tumbling guitar arpeggio of immense majesty. "Xanadu" has more ups and downs than a roller coaster. Crashing power chords melt into reflective passages and then burst back into full-fledged metal again. There are so many great riffs here, it boggles the mind. Lee's high-pitched vocals, with their well-timed "quaverings", add color to the story of a man who seeks immortality and lives to regret it. "Nevermore shall I return/escape these caves of ice/For I have dined on honeydew/and drunk the milk of paradise." Not too much more to say about this. It's Rush's most fully realized song ever and more like a movie than a rock song. It is a classic in every sense of the word.
Closer to the Heart
After the epic power of "Xanadu", this lighter track cools things down a bit. Like the title piece, this is very heavy with that baroque feeling, melding acoustic and electric to achieve that effect. The song has a hopeful, noble feeling to it that conveys the intent of the lyrics. This shows Rush didn't have to create huge epics to get their point across.
Cinderella Man
A more up-tempo tune, this is still full of that medieval essence. A mixture of fast acoustic and standard power chords, it takes a twist in the last third, as Lee's bass takes prominence, and Lifeson lets loose with some really weird soloing.
Madrigal
A bit of a romantic trifle, this is a sweet-sounding ballad that is heavy with synthesizers. Lee sounds melancholy as he relates the tale of a weary man who finds solace in the arms of a loved one. They kept this fortunately brief, which makes it enjoyable.
Cygnus X-1
This is a far different beast from the other tracks here. It is one of the most innovative, not to mention heavy, songs of its era. Broken into three parts, it tells the story of a space traveler who is sucked into the black hole of Cygnus X-1 (his story would be continued in "Hemispheres"). Like "Xanadu", this really creates strong visual images through music. The last third of the song, which recounts the traveler being pulled into the gravitational maelstrom, conjures up a powerful image of someone being dragged inexorably to his doom. Lee's piercing shrieks help, too: "Sound and fury drown my heart/Every nerve is torn apart!" The least baroque of all tracks here, this summons up visions of a more ambitious Black Sabbath. It's sure one of their heaviest songs and the eerie bass work and background tones help to set a weird mood. The song fades with the same mysterious chords that will open the next chapter of the story on "Hemispheres."
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