Although their latest release, Clockwork Angels, is Rush’s first full-length concept album, it’s not as though the band hasn’t had a lot of practice. Here’s a look at the Toronto power trio’s most beloved (and occasionally bemusing) concept songs to date.
1975: By-Tor and the Snow Dog: Clocking in at a relatively svelte 8’39”, Rush’s very first multi-part suite is drawn from their second album, Fly by Night. Not only did the bookish Neil Peart take over from John Rutsey as the band’s drummer, but he also took up the lyric-writing reins. Led Zeppelin-influenced songs with lines such as “I just want to rock and roll you woman” were scrapped in favour of pieces like this: a suite about a battle between a “centurion of evil” and a beast with “ermine glowing in the damp.” As Lee’s bass snarls and Peart pummels his drums, the fight rages through a section called “7/4 War Furor” (making explicit the band’s fascination with odd-metre time signatures), and ends with the canine victorious. Thanks to him, “the land of the Overworld is saved again.” Granted, the lyrics are over the top, but there’s an element of Rush’s vaunted humour here: the antagonists were, in fact, inspired by their manager Ray Danniels’ real-life pooches.
1975: Fountain of Lamneth: Caress of Steel’s entire second side is taken up by this six-part suite. Though its title suggests a Dungeons & Dragons adventure module, its narrative is difficult to pin down. It tells the tale of a man from his birth, (he emerges from the womb singing “I am born / I am me/ I am new / I am free”), through his quest for the titular fountain, which he seems to hope will bring him enlightenment. At the end of the suite – SPOILER ALERT!!! – he finds the fountain, but it leaves him as confused as before. The suite’s melding of adventure with disappointment makes it a precursor to Clockwork Angels. Musically, it’s a little disjointed, with each section fading away before the next begins. The album, which also features a 12-and-a-half-minute song called The Necromancer, bombed, and the band nicknamed the resulting tour “Down the Tubes.”
1976: 2112: Ignoring record-label pleas to record something less complicated, Rush delivered an album that opens with a 20-minute science-fiction suite about a world where everything, including music, is controlled by a group of priests. Perhaps it was an allegory for their own battle to write the music they wanted to play, and though the hero finds himself shot down after picking up a guitar and penning his own songs, Rush themselves would be vindicated as 2112 became one of their most popular albums ever. In 2006, it was named a MasterWork by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. Peart drew lyrical inspiration from the writings of Ayn Rand and he found himself castigated by the music press for being a “Randroid.” To this day, he asserts that he was never an objectivist or a pure libertarian, but that he was arguing for the importance of individual belief against a sometimes stultifying collective. Whatever the album’s political philosophy, it rocks hard, and its songs remain live staples.
1977-78: Cygnus X-1 (Books 1 & 2): This two-part suite stretches across two albums: Book I closes out 1977’s A Farewell to Kings, and Book II opens 1978’s Hemispheres. Clocking in at nearly a half-hour, the “duology” was inspired by the black hole of the same name. Book I details the journey of a spaceship pilot into Cygnus X-1, and Part II depicts a battle between the gods Apollo and Dionysos, representing order and chaos; the explorer returns and is declared “Cygnus, Bringer of Balance” between the two. In a tour book from the era, Rush were declared, with this suite, to have “boldly go[ne] where no band has gone before.” Peart references Don Quixote, Nietzsche, and Jane Austen, and Geddy Lee weaves whooshy synthesizer textures amongst the salvos of odd-metre rock.
1980: Natural Science: On the album Permanent Waves, Rush returned to shorter songs, influenced by artists such as Elvis Costello and The Police; nevertheless, the last piece is this three-part, nine-minute suite. Originally Peart had wanted to condense the 2530-line medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into a song; he scrapped the idea, but the band recast some of the material in this tale of how life inside a tide pool compares to hyperspace. The music veers from acoustic balladry to special effects-laden weirdness, and in the end, the lyrics echo the album opener, Spirit of Radio, with a call to artistic arms: “Art as expression / Not as market campaigns / Will still capture our imaginations.”
2012: Clockwork Angels: Rush’s first full-length concept album is a dense, churning work whose individual songs are relatively short but cohere into a 66-minute whole. The narrative, set in a steampunk alternate world, reflects Peart’s ongoing preoccupations with disillusionment, state control vs. individual freedom, and Don Quixote (the ballad Halo Effect brings to mind Quixote’s fascination with his ideal, Dulcinea). But overall, it’s more melodic than its predecessors, and it ends with the surprisingly reflective piece called The Garden. Here, the album’s hero hoes his own row, leaving others to fight their battles, and acknowledges, in a nod to David Foster Wallace’s epic novel, that “time is still the infinite jest.” According to Peart, “Only at my age can such wisdom be attained.”