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).