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Hemispheres

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★★★★½
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  • 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