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Hemispheres

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★★★★½
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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