Review Summary: A big step up from 'Fly By Night' in many respects but Rush were maybe being overambitious at the time and the delivery doesn't quite match up to the vision.
In 1975 Rush were on the up and up. 'Fly by Night' had been released to critical acclaim, leading to a Juno award for 'most promising group of the year', and the three lads from Canada looked to have a bright future. Things didn't go quite to plan though. 'Caress of Steel' flopped. It flopped so badly that it led to the band naming the supporting tour the 'Down The Tubes Tour' and prompted their record company to harangue the band to produce more accessible, radio friendly material. They stuck to their guns and responded of course with the seminal 2112 which heralded their transition from prog rock wannabees to prog rock demi-gods. But why was 'Caress of Steel' such a commercial failure and is it as bad as the cold reception it received might suggest ?
First and foremost 'Caress of Steel' is a huge leap forward from its predecessor both in terms of song writing maturity and musicianship. It may lack some of the bright enthusiasm of 'Fly By Night' but the progression from prog rock pretense to an attempt at the real deal is quite stark. Rush had hinted at what was to come with the sword and sorcery epic 'ByTor and the Snow Dog' but now they decided to throw caution to the wind and fully express their artistic preferences in the form of multi-part epics, a more literary lyrical approach and a bolder compositional style. One has to admire their bravery, especially since the tides were starting to turn against progressive rock at the time, but 'Caress of Steel' portrays a group that are maybe trying to run before they can walk in several ways. The audacious 'Fountain of Lamneth' doesn't really work as an extended side long opus and feels somewhat more like five separate songs sandwiched between the buffers of the opening and ending suites. Rush would finally bring this approach to its ultimate conclusion on 'Cygnus X-1 (Book Two)' three albums later but at this stage they certainly had not mastered the format.
If we set aside the lack of flow in the music as a cohesive whole there is a lot to love in this side long epic; the beautiful opening theme with Geddy's voice backed by solo acoustic guitar, the classic Rush riffing of the main theme and the nautical tale of 'No One At The Bridge' with it's swaying arpeggioed lines suiting the lyrics perfectly and its tasteful Lifeson solo which oozes class. Rush are at full steam merging prog rock with their hard rock roots on the crowd favourite 'Bastille Day' with it's memorable galloping hook and grand Queen-influenced chorus. 'Lakeside Park' is a more retrospective offering in the form of a homage to the band's fond teenage reminiscences and exhibits a charmingly wistful quality with its heartfelt lyrics and delicate middle section. It would be amiss not to mention the mini-classic 'The Necromancer'. The narration performed by Neil on a voice encoder is likely to induce hilarity in anyone hearing it for the first time but elsewhere on the track there is such an endearing youthful enthusiasm in the way that the band aren't afraid to let go of any restraint and fully embrace the cheesy Tolkien inspired world without a hint of irony. As on 'Fountain of Lamneth' the piece doesn't really work as an extended epic and the third movement feels as if it is just tagged on the end but Geddy's genuinely artless vocals and Alex's tasteful guitar work save the day. In fact, in the hands of lesser musicians this album could have been a near disaster in some respects and it is often the high standard of musicianship throughout that somehow elevates it from the norm.
'Caress of Steel' is often considered one of the lesser chapters in the annals of Rush. The seminal '2112' totally eclipsed its predecessor and this album stood as the poor step-daughter of the family while Rush went on to release classic after unabashed classic. Maybe the band took on more than they could handle and there are certainly some quite embarrassing moments to be found littered throughout this flawed masterpiece. However, in retrospect, this album is a fascinating chapter in the progression of the greatest power trio to grace the planet and acts as a worthy stepping stone from the naive enthusiasm of 'Fly By Night' to the triumphant statement of intent that was '2112'.