Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Album: A FAREWELL TO KINGS
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
Canadian progressive rock trio Rush were on the verge of being dropped by their record label when they released the now-classic concept album 2112 in 1976. That career-saving record and its 2-LP live follow-up, All The World’s A Stage (which reached the U.S. Top 40), put them in a position to call their own shots and with 1977’s A Farewell To Kings they launched the second chapter of their discography. I distinctly recall marveling at the credits for each band member in the sleeve notes; instead of simply “bass/vocals, guitar & drums,” Geddy Lee handled “vocals, bass and twelve-string guitar, Minimoog, bass pedal synthesizers,” Alex Lifeson played “electric and acoustic six- and twelve-string guitars, classical guitar, bass pedal synthesizers” and Neil Peart (who was recently featured in Part 1 of the “You Rip, You Shred” series on my favorite drummers) formed his own percussion section with “drums, orchestra bells, wind chimes, bell tree, vibraslap, triangle, tubular bells, temple blocks.” Add in the fact that there are two 10+ minute multi-part songs and all of the things that turned off the punk generation to prog-rock are here (minus a keyboard player in a cape). For fellow musicians & others like me who relish instrumental virtuosity, however, Rush became our new heroes, taking things to a whole new level on this album.
The first epic track is “Xanadu,” one of my favorites in their entire discography. Following a peaceful 2-minute intro with sounds of nature, light percussion & subtle guitar accents, the band kicks in with an instrumental overture featuring Peart’s 16th note hi-hat rhythm and Lifeson’s power chords & ringing guitar melodies. In the 6 minutes following Lee’s first vocal appearance the song travels through several sections that showcase each player’s instrumental dexterity, as Lee memorably sings of a mystical place “within the pleasure dome, decreed by Kubla Khan,” based on a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The other extended track, album closer “Cygnus X-1 Book 1: The Voyage,” also features a moody 2-minute introduction before Lee’s bass line introduces the rhythmic melody with a 13/8 time signature (or possibly alternating bars of 6/8 & 7/8). I don’t usually get that technical but this is an aspect of Rush’s music that makes them so unique among their fans. I’ve never paid much attention to the lyrics about a black hole in space but I’ve always loved how musically adventurous it is. By contrast, “Closer To The Heart” is as close as they’ve ever come to a pop single, with idealistic lyrics and a simple, catchy melody. It was a Top 40 hit in the U.K. and made its way into the U.S. Hot 100, but likely would have been a much bigger hit had they released it a few years later. It’s remained a highlight of most of their shows over the last four decades. Album opener “A Farewell To Kings” begins with a minute of lovely acoustic guitar before shifting to a 7/8 rhythm that alternates with Peart’s double-time snare groove (in the “Cities full of hatred, fear & lies” section), all of which is punctuated by an impressive guitar solo that allows all three players to show off their chops. The more direct “Cinderella Man,” a rare Rush song with lyrics written by Lee (normally Peart’s territory), could have fit well on Side 2 of 2112, while the short, tranquil “Madrigal” functions as somewhat of a breather between the more substantial songs. The following year’s Hemispheres, which I prefer by a small margin, is a companion piece to this album, even including a sequel to “Cygnus X-1,” but A Farewell To Kings is every bit as essential. Thanks to impeccable performances and Terry Brown’s flawless production, it’s hard to believe such a vital recording is now 40 years old.