By 1977, although Canadian progressive power trio Rush had taken the scenic route to commercial success, they were well on the way to becoming one of the biggest bands from the North American continent. Their proverbial last roll of the dice in recording an album, 2112, had finally found the band’s audience of kids who were desperately looking for a band that could combine the volume and dynamics of hard rock, with the virtuosity, complex arrangements and unfathomable lyrics of prog rock. As a result of this, 1977’s A Farewell to Kings brought a new experience to Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee and Neil Peart. This was a Rush album that people were actually looking forward to.
Okay, to be fair, it took me years to ‘get’ A Farewell to Kings. Actually, it took me years to ‘get’ Rush. Partly, this was due to my own misgivings of complexity for the sake of complexity in music, but also, it’s a measure of Rush’s appeal. There’s no sitting on the fence with Rush. Simply put, you’re either in, or you’re out. Sure, there are certain phases of their career you may favour over others (in recent years, my appreciation of their work before synthesisers started to dominate their sound is what has drawn me to them), but if you don’t like Rush, you really don’t like Rush. Good, there should be more acts that have a musical identity strong enough to divide opinion.
Starting with the delicate, almost medieval sounding, meandering acoustic guitar feature, a declaration is made that A Farewell to Kings is as far away from the attitude-laden direct attack of punk as rock music was likely to get in 1977. upon hitting the wall of hard rocking that sees the opening title track kick into high gear, you have received confirmation that A Farewell to Kings is an unashamed prog rock album, just like those the British big-hitters of the scene were making just five years ago, but have since got too bloated and overblown to pull off without sounding a bit silly.
The thing that prevents A Farewell to Kings from sounding a bit silly, and indeed has allowed to Rush to stand apart from the majority of progressive rock acts, is their full-blown commitment to their music, and pushing forward enough in terms of style, to not sound devoid of inspiration. On those rare occasions when they have wandered down a create cul-de-sac, and they have had to hit the reset button, they’ve done it with such success, that it’s given their career a whole new lease of life, and often brought lapsed fans back to them.
On of the big selling points of A Farewell to Kings is the inclusion of two of the band’s signature songs, the epic “Xanadu”, perhaps the definitive Rush number, which takes in hard rocking thrash, via playful synth doodling, instrumental virtuosity and impenetrable lyrics. The other signature number is “Closer to the Heart”, which in just short of three minutes of pop rock, puts to bed the assumption that all Rush knew how to do were lengthy, overly-complex numbers.
With such a strong first half, and a pop-rock classic opening the second side of the album, it’s a bit of a shame then that A Farewell to Kings can’t quite maintain it’s momentum. While they aren’t particularly bad, the last three numbers just don’t quite measure up to the first three. Sure, Lee, Peart and Lifeson give it full commitment, but now you’ve heard what Rush can achieve when the stars have aligned for them, it’s a bit of a shame that the rest of the album is merely ‘pretty good’. Sure, closing epic, “Cygnus X-1” has it’s fans, but is it really as good as “Xanadu”?
Regardless of these minor grumbles, A Farewell to Kings established Rush as progressive rock’s big hope for the future, especially at a time when Pink Floyd were starting to fall prey to internal squabbles, Yes and Genesis were undergoing identity crisis and Jethro Tull had gone morris dancing. Rush were now unarguably an act that mattered to both prog rock and hard rock fans, and regardless of changing fashions and temporary disbandments, it’s a position they still keep to this day.