Poor Man's Zeppelin? Or Underrated Scions Of Sword And Sorcery Rock?

By Geoff Barton, Sounds, February 5, 1977

You wouldn't have thought it possible, not really, listening to Rush's first album.

Not that it was bad, far from it. It's just that there was nothing, not even a single clue, not even the smallest amount of evidence to suggest that, with subsequent platters, the band would develop into anything more than an above average heavy rock outfit, if that.

Called simply 'Rush', the debut LP was energetic and enthusiastic enough, yet it lacked the vital spark of originality to set it apart from similar riff-dominated metallic product. With hackneyed song titles like 'Need Some Love,' 'What You're Doing,' and 'Working Man,' plus a vocalist who followed so closely in the footsteps of Robert Plant it was often acutely embarrassing, the future did not appear to bode at all well for the band.

They seemed to be doomed to flounder in that familiar minor league of power chord purveyors, of groups who release a few albums, have limited success, and eventually disappear in a cloud of dry ice and a last resounding 'ker-angg!', never to be seen again and without many people caring very much anyway.

But after that rather ordinary premier record release, Rush acquired a new drummer. And it made one hell of a difference.

Uh-huh. Is that a look of incredulity I see on your face? I thought so.

You're wondering why in God's name should the hiring of a new drummer effect such a sudden and dramatic transformation? Well I'll tell you.

John Rutsey, the band's first percussionist, was little else. Meaning he could do his job and thrash away at those skins as well as the next man, but -- it would seem -- his imagination did not posses the almost limitless bounds of his successor's, one Neil Peart.

Once a member of the band, Peart's Tolkien-slanted fantastical visions were allowed to run riot. Suddenly there was a second album and By-Tor, knight of darkness, centurion of evil, a dark, many fanged creature of the Devil fighting with the Snow Dog, protector of the Overworld; plus Rivendell, slumbering haven from [the] 'Lord of the Rings,' a magical, enchanted village; and also more, much more.

Rush's music was lifted by the sword and sorcery tales. The effect was simply shattering.

But before I get too carried away -- a brief historical update. Rush were formed some eight years ago in Toronto and, as a high school and bar act, played a seemingly endless string of one-nighters until 1973 when it was decided that the time was right to record.

In April 1974 an album was released on Rush's own label, Moon records, and soon enough radio stations were picking up the band -- in particular one prestigious FM company in the heart of industrial Cleveland. Interest grew, and Mercury records eventually offered the group a label contract.

With a nationwide distribution system to help it along its way, the debut album sold well enough and to promote it Rush were sent out on tour, opening of Uriah Heep and later Rory Gallagher. And they haven't looked back since.

'Fly By Night' was Rush's second album, the one alluded to earlier -- Neil Peart's first with the band, so naturally enough also the first to showcase new-found fantasy leanings. The cover depicted a huge snow-coloured owl soaring directly at you, its yellow eyes blazing, from the dark sky; the music inside was similarly high flying.

The LP's inner sleeve was plastered with reproductions of Peart's lyric sheets, embroidered as they were with tiny sketches, scrolls, and well nigh indecipherable words that bore more than a little relation to J.R.R. Tolkien's own inscrutable alphabet. Other band members, guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist, vocalist Geddy Lee, ostensibly inspired by Peart's fanciful lyricism, produced music of a rare heavy rock quality.

The riffs, on 'Anthem,' were still there in abundance, naturally enough, but at the same time Rush's playing had a depth, a commitment, even a subtlety that had been noticeably missing from the first LP. And Lee had begun to sound less like Plant and more like himself. It was sensational and then some -- 'Fly By Night' containing straight ahead rock numbers, plus 'By-Tor and the Snow Dog,' plus 'Rivendell,' an acoustic track of astonishing serenity and peacefulness. Rush were on their way.

Of course, there have been bands and artists that have, in the past, been much intrigued by the works of Tolkien, Moorcock, Howard, Burroughs, Eddison and others. Led Zeppelin -- or rather, more accurately, Robert Plant -- have written lines like 'It was in the darkest depths of Mordor I met a girl so fair/But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her' and 'The Ringwraiths ride in black'; Bo Hansson devoted an entire keyboard album to an, albeit largely limp and banal, interpretation of 'Lord of the Rings'; Jon Anderson did 'Olias of Sunhillow"; even the horrendous Uriah Heep have been known to compose songs of a somewhat sorcerous nature, ie: 'Rainbow Demon.'

But Rush beat them all. They've taken their convictions to heart, are so honest and unapologetic that it's scarcely credible. And 'Fly By Night' was no momentary flash of brilliance -- the subsequent LP, 'Caress Of Steel' just made the flame burn brighter still.

The cover, again, was suitably compelling -- a mysterious robed figure standing on top of a stony peak, snake coiled menacingly at his feet, cowering away from a glittering, floating prism, smoke billowing all around.

With the exception of two tracks, the endearing 'I Think I'm Going Bald' and 'Lakeside Park', 'Caress Of Steel' boldly went where no album had gone before. It went to a bloody 'Bastille Day'; it went to a grim, grey, depressing land ruled by a cruel 'Necromancer' who met and was defeated by Prince By-Tor (again); it went, ultimately, to the 'Fountain Of Lamneth'.

A complete tour de force, the track 'Fountain Of Lamneth' took up the whole of the second side of the album. One of Rush's more obscure compositions, it resembles one lengthy, Shakespearean soliloquy in places and appears to be a tale about some sort of fountain of youth.

The music was suitably captivating, many faceted, Geddy Lee's now mature vocals shrieking and soaring; Alex Lifeson's guitar work resourcefully inventive; Neil Peart's drumming original and inspiring. Although a humble three piece, Rush consistently succeed in shaming other, bigger, more powerful, more successful bands.

And then came the album '2112'.

If the 'Fountain of Lamneth' had been an epic, then this one was a piece de resistance. Same formula as before -- one side comprising several short tracks, the other accommodating a magnum opus, in this case, '2112'.

In seven succinct parts, '2112' takes place in the not-so-distant future, when the entire globe is under the rule of the Priests Of the Temples of Syrinx, 'Big Brother'-like dictators who govern with iron fists and iron hearts. One man who tries to bring back some of the pleasures of the past is rejected, harassed, and hounded, and ultimately falls victim to the priests' omnipotence.

Rush, through 'Overture', 'The Temples Of Syrinx', 'Discovery', 'Presentation', 'Oracle: The Dream', 'Soliloquy', and 'Grand Finale', the final part of '2112', has Lifeson's guitar seething power, eventually reverberating away to the sound of a voice booming -- 'Attention all planets of the Solar Federation -- we have assumed control.'

And is that isn't enough, now there's 'All The World's A Stage' to contend with, a riotous Rush live double set, their most successful album so far, containing 12 cataclysmic tracks -- 'By-Tor and the Snow Dog' and '2112' running hand in hand with several other numbers, including some from the first album, here benefiting from hindsight and coming across supremely well.

I've voiced my opinion in SOUNDS in the past that Rush should tour Britain in the immediate future, if not sooner, and if there were any nagging doubts in my mind as to how well they'd perform onstage (live albums often benefit from overdubs, y'know, but we won't go into that here and now) these were dispelled when, month or so back, I was the band play in Montreal.

It was totally unexpected. We arrived in the city (snowbound as it was as 25 degrees centigrade below, the sort of temperature that freezes your eyelashes together when you have cause to blink) primarily to interview Mahogany Rush and catch an Aerosmith concert at a nearby Astrodome. And, as you might imagine, when I heard that Rush were the support act for the night I couldn't get down there fast enough.

Unfortunately, it wasn't quite fast enough. Montreal's roads being under something like a foot of slush, it took the cab a fair time to wallow the short distance between hotel and hall, so when we finally took to our seats Rush were about half way through their set.

Through bleary eyes (we'd only arrived in the city from London a few hours before) and iced-up ears, I managed to catch the tail end of 'Anthem', and then, quickly and smoothly, the synthesized taped introduction to '2112' began.

As on 'All The World's A Stage', the concert version was minus acoustic interludes, and all the more powerful for it. Lights flashing rhythmically, Lee and Lifeson cavorted around the all but deserted stage, powering out the music with gritted teeth conviction. Behind a vast drumkit, the twirled ends of his curly mustache clearly visible, Peart thundered along with them, in total sonic sympathy.

Although Rush have a somewhat unassuming stage presence, the music is produced with such faithful, well-oiled dexterity that you can do little but sit back, enjoy, and maybe even marvel at the sounds this three man Canadian band create.

The volume geared way up, Lee's high-pitched vocals cut through you like a chilling knife edge, the Lifeson guitar is a big, beefy roar, while the bass and drums beat time, each thud a depth charge explosion.

With '2112's' end tape echoing away, Lee introduced 'Working Man'; incorporating 'Finding My Way'. After the complexity of '2112', it came as something of a relief to get down to the basics 'Working Man' provide. A number from the band's first album, considerably more refined than when it was first recorded, it pounded forcefully out of the skyscraping PA system.

And when 'Finding My Way' was smoothly slipped into the framework of the song, the sound engineers increased the volume to touch the pain threshold, G-force acceleration-type skin malleation being the end result.

By the encore, 'Fly By Night', I was finished. Jet Lag and sheer heavy rock noise had left me almost bereft of my senses. But boy, how I'd enjoyed myself.

All of which goes to prove that the sooner Rush tour Britain the better. In other words --

'In your head is the answer, Let it guide you along. Let your heart be the anchor, And the beat of your song.'

OK, boys?