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  • I read in an interview that the guys in Rush think that they had played out the prog-metal sci-fi epic on this one, that _Hemispheres_ is not as much as _2112_ or _A Farewell to Kings_. And they never really had an album-side-length suite after this album. Their next album, _Permanent Waves_ featured some shorter pieces (only eight odd minutes) with more fantastic themes (“Jacob’s Ladder” and the euphoria-inducing “Natural Science”), but as far as songs with titles like “Cygnus X-1 Book II” that are split into five sections go, this album has the last of it. I don’t really identify with what Geddy and the boys say here, because “Cygnus X-1 Book II” is as stirring as any suite they ever recorded. Maybe they were bored with the form (Geddy says they had worn it thin and that this album is one of their weakest because of this), but I don’t get bored with it. The only song I don’t adore on this album is the almost straight-up rocker “Circumstances.” The rest of the songs are amongst my favorites.

    I mean, really, has there ever been a better Socialist rock allegory than “The Trees”? No. You can quote this one to this day and impress your more socially-adept peers who were doing other things than studying Rush lyrics in their bedrooms. I mean how can it be more relevant than this?: “There is trouble in the Forest/ And the creatures all have fled/ As the Maples scream ‘Oppression!’/ And the Oaks just shake their heads.” And you can sing it to your peer, who was probably listening to Foghat at parties instead of being home by herself, in the same way that Geddy sings it on _Exit . . . Stage Left_. When you scream “Oppression!”, you really sound impassioned, too. Down with people who say Rush are bloated. Rush is a bunch of tried-and-true Canadian pinkos who are more political than the Sex Pistols ever could have been (tho’ I certainly like the Pistols’s more anarchic/apathetic politics, as well).

    And then the pictures of them on the sleeve. Did any band ever look more magisterial? Again, no! All of ‘em in jackets, Neil with the king of all mullets and a Sir Walter Raleigh mustachio, Geddy looking like he hasn’t left the studio in years (has he?). Oh a kid just used to fantasize about the wonders of technology by looking at what they play on each album. On this one, besides bass, Geddy plays “Mini-Moog, Oberheim polyphonic [and], Taurus pedals.” I still don’t know what an Oberheim polyphonic is; whatever it is it sounds awful freakin’ thick on _Hemispheres_. The list of instruments Alex and Neil play is even longer. You don’t see these kinds of instrument listings on any mainstream bands’ albums any longer (considering that some of these gadgets are spendy collector’s items these days, buried by less warm-sounding digital synths). That’s ’cause 90% of what makes the charts these days (as opposed to 80% back then)is made by people who learned to play their instruments last year.

    _Hemispheres_ also has the distinction of containing one of the best of the Rush instrumentals, if not THE best, “La Villa Strangiato.” Its only rivals for instrumental nirvana in the catalog are “YYZ” on _Moving Pictures_ and “Didacts and Narpets” on _Caress of Steel_ (the latter for sheer time-warped f**d-upness). It’s so much more than just a show-off session. These guys are making complex music that takes them to within an inch of their wits at all times on “Villa.” No wonder Alex and Neil both had carpal tunnel operations within a decade after making this one. They had to play it live every night.

    There’s one main thing I have to set the record straight on here, though. This isn’t their best album of any era. Of the supposed “pre-synth era” (as you see from what Geddy plays above, there is plenty of synth on this album: Alex plays some, too), this is behind both _Farewell_ and _2112_. All three of these are behind _Permanent Waves_, _Moving Pictures_, and _Signals_, supposedly part of “synth era” Rush. It’s a little disingenuous to group any of these by the presence of synths, as Rush had started using them more and more as they went along after Neil joined on the second album. If you were to start the synth era anywhere, it’s when _Grace Under Pressure_ came out and they overpowered Alex’s guitars. Alex and Geddy’s riffs are still center-stage as late as _Signals_. Really, _Hemispheres_ represents about as far as they could go with album-side suites and the second side represents the more concise and effective brilliance that was to come on _Permanent Waves_, which really is an improvement on this (still-brilliant) album.

    So this is the skinny. If you don’t like complex rock music with involved lyrical themes and a blazing streak of grandeur, don’t buy this one. In fact, don’t buy anything by Rush (of any era). Stick to their fellow Canadian Celine Dion. If you like music that is complex and feels larger-than-life, you can’t do a whole lot better than this, except for a handful of other albums by Rush and their equally inspired contemporaries like ELP, Tull, VDGG, etc. This one comes real close to stacking up to the Rush albums that sold better and made the radio, like _Permanent Waves_ and _Moving Pictures_. Really, “The Trees” is just as furious and rocking, visceral and cerebral, as more well-known pieces like “Freewill” and “Tom Sawyer.” Your Rush collection is so far from complete if you are missing this one.

    Posted on March 1, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • Everything that I like about Rush is brought to perfection on this 1978 release. Lengthy compositions, Geddy’s trebly Rickenbacker bass and fantastic technique, Neil’s excellent drumming and thoughtful lyrics and Alex Lifesons’s fantastic electric/acoustic guitar work. I think it is worth noting that Geddy and Alex turn in some of their finest recorded performances on Hemispheres and the band as a whole is really in top form, with some unbelievably tight and intricate ensemble work (they use a lot of shifting and asymmetrical meters), along with the wonderful use of dynamic contrasts.

    With regard to their use of dynamic contrast, I feel compelled to point out that the guys in Rush were unusually sophisticated in their approach to composition/arrangement and borrowed fairly heavily from the classic British prog bands of the early-mid 1970s. That means that on Hemispheres, along with the harder, heavy-metal aspects of the music, you will also hear quieter, delicate passages of acoustic guitar and spacey sections dominated by synthesizers – in short, some of the hallmarks of British progressive rock. Of course, Rush made it all their own by mixing in the thunderous bottom end of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, screaming electric guitars, and a high pitched heavy-metal vocal style.

    In addition to excellent performances all around, I think thematically and compositionally they were right on the mark. Cygnus X-1 Book 2 (Hemispheres), which was intended to be a continuation of Cygnus X-1 from Farewell to Kings (1977), is the centerpiece of the album. This 18′04″ epic ranges from thunderous and intricate ensemble work through a very spacey section that features the mini-moog and Oberheim polyphonic synthesizers, to a concluding section comprised of just acoustic guitar, the mini-moog synthesizer, and Geddy’s vocals. The other tracks on the album include the heavy (yet sophisticated) track Circumstances and my personal favorite – the completely over-the-top 9′34″ instrumental La Villa Strangiato. This is, in my opinion, the finest instrumental they ever wrote and Alex Lifeson’s lightning fast scalar runs on the classical guitar that usher this piece in are breathtaking, not to mention Geddy’s excellent bass solo. Neil of course, is a true virtuoso and I find his drumming to be inspirational – even though I am a bassist.

    The Trees is another well-arranged piece that presents a fun look at successional dynamics in a forest – well for this Biologist at any rate. I should note that this rather literal interpretation is more in keeping with Peart’s original premise (as quoted in Modern Drummer magazine, April/May 1980); namely that the song is not about anything particularly deep – indeed, Neil was quoted as saying that he wanted the lyrics to impart a “cartoonish” look at trees acting like people. As presented in the lyrics, the “oppressed” sub-canopy maples wish to form a union so that they can fight the “lofty” oaks and have more access to light. Ultimately, the reality is that timber harvesting renders both the oaks and maples as equals in the end “by hatchet, axe and saw” so all of their bickering is in vain. As a Biologist, I actually found this all very amusing, which is likely to have been Peart’s intent. Along these lines, here is an excerpt from the interview with Modern Drummer where Neil shares his thoughts on The Trees:

    CI: The tune “Trees” from your Hemispheres album comes to my mind as you speak.

    NP: Lyrically, that’s a piece of doggerel. I certainly wouldn’t be proud of the writing skill of that. What I would be proud of in that is taking a pure idea and creating an image for it. I was very proud of what I achieved in that sense. Although on the skill side of it, it’s zero. I wrote “Trees” in about five minutes. It’s simple rhyming and phrasing, but it illustrates a point so clearly. I wish I could do that all of the time.

    CI: Did that particular song’s lyrics cover a deeper social message?

    NP: No, it was just a flash. I was working on an entirely different thing when I saw a cartoon picture of these trees carrying on like fools. I thought. “What if trees acted like people?” So, I saw it as a cartoon really, and wrote it that way. I think that’s the image that it conjures up to a listener or a reader. A very simple statement.

    Unavoidably of course, far-reaching analyses have been developed that suggest that the lyrics comment on topics ranging from socio-political structure to British colonialism and beyond. At any rate, the beauty of the lyrics is that they offer up any number of possible (and plausible) interpretations – such is the hallmark of a great lyricist and Neil is (hands down) my favorite.

    The remastering of the CD is pretty good and features restored cover art and lyrics along with a little Rush “mini-poster”, although I will always prefer my old (and dearly departed) vinyl version of Hemispheres.

    This is excellent stuff that is recommended to those prog fans that do not mind elements of heavy metal mixed in with their prog along with Farewell to Kings (1977) and Permanent Waves (1980). In addition to these other albums, I would also recommend Utopia’s debut album (1974).

    Posted on March 1, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • Not that I begrudge Rush their tremendous success or anything, but I really liked liking them back before they got popular.

    _Hemispheres_ is one of my old favorites from that time. After the release of their next album (_Permanent Waves_), you couldn’t turn on an FM station without hearing ‘The Spirit of Radio’ or ‘Freewill’. Those are both great songs, of course, but because of their frequent airplay they’re very strongly associated with that period of time: whenever I’m reminded that I can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice, I close my eyes and suddenly Reagan is in the White House again.

    But I can’t recall that anything from this album got any real airtime. And in a way that’s nice, because I can listen to it today _without_ being transported back to my sophomore year of high school.

    And I do listen to it. _Hemispheres_ has lots of good stuff on it.

    Of course there’s the ‘rock opera’ track to which the title refers. Ostensibly it’s the second ‘book’ of a piece begun on _A Farewell to Kings_ (these guys are forever splitting up suites across albums) — and for better or worse, it does include the guy who got sucked into the black hole in Book I. But thematically, it’s a somewhat Nietzschean reworking of some ancient mythology (mostly Greek, but the Christian Armageddon is in there too), articulating the need for a proper balance between reason and feeling. It’s a bit shorter (and in my opinion tighter) than the title track from _2112_ but very much along the same lines. (And it shows lyricist/percussionist Neil Peart stepping a bit further away from his Randian roots; for Ayn Rand, feeling was firmly subservient to reason and that was that.)

    The remaining three tracks (which used to occupy ’side two’ on the original vinyl release) are pretty nifty as well, and (to my taste) better than their counterparts on _2112_. Probably the best known is ‘Trees’, an anti-egalitarian parable (along the lines of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story ‘Harrison Bergeron’) that doesn’t pretend to offer any simple resolution of the issues between the ‘oaks’ and the ‘maples’ but warns against a horrifyingly destructive _false_ resolution. ‘Circumstances’ is classic Rush rock, and ‘La Villa Strangiato’ (described as ‘an exercise in self-indulgence’) is one of the trio’s last extended instrumentals (‘YYZ’ on _Moving Pictures_ was it until ‘Where’s My Thing?’ on 1991’s _Roll the Bones_).

    The guys have really started to hone their ‘prog’ edge here, too. Guitarist Alex Lifeson has a whole new sound, and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee has clearly been working on his chops as well. They’re playing around with meter quite a bit, and nearly every third or fourth measure contains some unusual number of beats (usually prime: five, seven, eleven (5|6), even twenty-three (5|6|6|6) on the first part of the instrumental break on ‘Circumstances’).

    I suppose every Rush fan probably has this one already. If you’re new to the band, this probably isn’t the place to start; you probably want either _Permanent Waves_ or _Moving Pictures_, or maybe _2112_. But get around to this one when you have a chance; it’s some of the best music you’ve never heard.

    Posted on March 1, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • As the closing album of Rush’s classic progressive period, this is possibly the album where they reached their peak in composition and concept. Starting from 1976’s _2112_, and up to this album from 1978, one can see how the band’s performance & writing skills had progressed.

    The concept here (or rather the title centerpiece) deals with the conflict of reason (the left hemisphere of the brain) and emotion (the right hemisphere of the brain), and the consequences of the lack of equilibrium between the two. It’s divided into six movements: each (with the exception of the closing movement) represented by a mythological figure that correlates with the designated psychological/behavioral characteristics associated with each respective one.

    The musicianship displayed here is nearly flawless and awe-inspiring, as the band here is nearly playing orchestral music – only in a hard rock/metal context. I could easily see this title-piece arranged for an orchestra. The first movement called Prelude plays out like an overture: giving subtle glimpses of what will appear in later moments. It bursts open with an F#7 sus 4 chord from Alex Lifeson, followed by full band interplay which then plays out in typical rhythm – albeit with some unpredictable chord changes. Shortly after, Lifeson plays some ethereal guitar arpeggios, then switches the atmosphere abruptly with a near-diatonic scale riff in descending mode. Later, Lifeson plays more wispy, atmospheric arpeggiated riffs, which are later followed by the band playing in full hard rock mode, and not to mention Geddy’s infamous “shrieks.”

    The second movement called Apollo: Bringer of Wisdom opens up with that descending riff from Alex Lifeson found on the first movement. It then turns into a 7/4 smorgasbord of Geddy’s majestic vocals, Alex’s crunchy and complex chords and Neil Peart’s great drumming and poetic lyrics. Like the title of the movement suggests, the lyrics deal with the side of the brain that offers logic and necessity. The third movement called Dionysus: Bringer of Love is pretty much the exact same musical phrasing of the second movement: the same 7/4 rhythm, the same chords and progressions, the same vocal rhythmics and more. The only difference this time is the lyrics shift to talk about the side of the brain that offers emotion and total subjectivity.

    The fourth movement called Armageddon: The Battle of The Heart and Mind opens in a very tricky rhythm (in 7 possibly.) It’s a quirky romp which features a devastating and powerful riff from Lifeson before Geddy brings out his vocal shrieks. The fifth movement called Cygnus: Bringer of Balance starts off with the closing chords (C minor – Eb minor – E minor) from “Cygnus X-1″ (off of _A Farewell To Kings_), to possibly give the listener a feeling of continuation from where the aforementioned track left off. A few moments later, there are a couple of dimly audible snippets of “Cygnus X-1″ before Geddy gives a restive and haunting vocal performance set up against a lush bed of warm synthesizers. After that, the track continually builds in sonic intensity, before closing out on an explosive finale. The sixth movement called The Sphere: A Kind of Dream discusses what it would be like if one can achieve mental and emotional equilibrium. Geddy gives a decent vocal performance, as Alex Lifeson is strumming some nice chords on what sounds like a 12-string acoustic guitar.

    “Circumstances” is a short rocker which covers topics such as alienation, introspection and coming-of-age. These are topics that would be covered more immensely on future albums. Alex Lifeson is playing some unpredictable chord progressions on here. And for the beginning of the chorus, he pulls out a mesmerizing, elaborate and cerebral riff, which is then followed by Geddy’s commanding vocals, which are sung in English and French. There’s a short instrumental section, featuring more wispy arpeggios from Lifeson, nice drum fills from Peart and Geddy’s ever-moving basslines. The track then closes out with the chorus.

    “The Trees” is a track about inequality, as discussed by many other reviewers. It starts out with some Spanish-like guitar arpeggios, followed by a stern vocal from Geddy Lee. It then turns into a straight-ahead rocker before the instrumental middle section kicks in. In this section, there’s more atmospheric arpeggios as to be expected from Lifeson, exotic percussion, and some orchestral interplay later on. Each musician shines on his respective instrument. The track closes on a hard rocking note.

    “La Villa Strangiato” is the instrumental on here which displays the instrumental chops of each musician. The piece is subtitled “an exercise in self-indulgence,” though I wouldn’t necessarily call it the most self-indulgent thing out there, as I’ve heard many other things that I would label self-indulgent long before I would lend that title to this. The fun part is trying to decipher which movement is which, as this piece is subdivided into twelve different movements. It starts with a Spanish-like guitar (followed by a frenzied solo) from Lifeson, before he displays his signature atmospheric and inventive arpeggios, which is then followed by a synthesizer line which. Later, the band cranks it up with fiery playing & soloing, quirky/humorous atmospherics, complex drum fills, jazzy basslines and other assorted goodies.

    The album features brilliant musicianship, intelligent lyrics AND melody. If you crave either of the things listed above, how can you go wrong here?

    Posted on March 1, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • Hemispheres marks the end of Rush, Book 1, “the full-blown art-rock conceptual piece”. On future releases, the band would condense their complex song structures into shorter songs, sacrificing self-indulgence for the sake of melody to create more accessible songs.And this is a fine closing chapter, for it bridges to where Rush was heading in the 80’s. In the span of 36 minutes, they said goodbye to the side-long suite (“Cygnus X=1, Part II”), said hello to tighter song structures (“Circumstances”), introduced us to the new condensed prog-rock (“The Trees”), and gave us a first glance at the fusionesque instrumental (“La Villa Strangiato”).Neil Peart’s lyrics also began to change here. After completing the Cygnus X-1 story, he would abandon the mythological and science fiction themes for good, and concentrate on more human themes, such as fear, isolation, the pressures of fame, prejudice, and loss, to name a few. Thus, as the years passed, he became more introspective, and the lyrics really took on deeper meaning and connected more effectively. There is a glimpse of the new direction here on “Circumstances”, one of his more underrated lyric pieces.You have to own this album if you want to hear Rush at their most “progressive”. If it is your first buy (highly unlikely), you must also pick up A Farewell To Kings, for you need to have “Cygnus X-1″ to fully understand the story behind the concept. Then proceed to Permanent Waves, and so on… Heck, buy them all, preferrably in chronological order, and take note of the directions Rush took with each in terms of music composition and lyrics. It will be well worth the money you spend, if you truly appreciate what these three extremely talented musicians have to bring to the table.

    Posted on March 1, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now