Review Summary: The pinnacle of Rush's discography.
Chapter VI: The Peak
No matter what you think of Rush, I think anyone can agree that they rarely rest on their laurels. Even later on in their career, the band would always experiment with sounds of the decade while sticking to own their guns in the process. The 70s and early 80s held the best examples of this, with the trio constantly expanding upon their concepts and style with each record. Their debut and a large chunk of Fly by Night were rooted in bluesy (sometimes folky) hard rock in the vein of Led Zeppelin, but they soon realized that evolution would be important to their work. If someone ever needed the best proof that Rush's progressive experimentation was the best thing that happened to them (along with Neil Peart, of course), I'd tell him or her to look no further than their 1978 effort Hemispheres.
With its four songs and 36-minute running time, Hemispheres is more abstract and less accessible than its predecessors; however, it also ends up being the band's most concise. We've got an 18-minute epic, a long-winded instrumental closer, and two shorter hard rock songs sandwiched in between. As with 2112's title epic, the opening epic on Hemispheres makes up the entire first side of the record. The storytelling and overall lyricism, also like 2112, are once again a big part of this song, as I'll talk about in a minute. As for individual performances, the trio absolutely astounds. One quality of Neil Peart's drumming here that really sticks out is the fact that he seems to put the overall band first. What I mean by this is that he only gets flashy when the situation calls for him to do so; he anchors the other musicians very nicely while bringing his own style to the table as well. Geddy's voice is as high-pitched as ever, but the bass playing is phenomenal at the same time. Alex Lifeson is more experimental with his guitar effects this time around, utilizing a wide range of tones and sounds to suit any given situation. His emotive and technical solos on "La Villa Strangiato" and "Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres" are standout moments on this album as well.
When the title track bursts right out of the gate, you can feel the band's confidence shining through 100%. The band aren't going to take any prisoners on this effort, and it shows as the instrumental overture goes on. Similar to "2112," you'll hear many of the song's future themes on this overture as it displays all of the band's frequent time signature changes and unorthodox compositions. As you could imagine by the "Book II" in the title, there's also a story to this epic. Following the events of "Cyngus X-1 Book I" in which the protagonist was sucked into a black hole during his voyage, the explorer enters a new world where he's eventually destined to be the God of Balance. In a world filled with multiple extremes and fluctuations between love and hatred, the explorer decides to be the balance that anchors everything into place and is named Cygnus. The story is epic and moody, and the instrumental work always gets switched up to suit the mood. For instance, the Apollo segment contains contemplative guitar work and a sense of instrumental control to display the theme of wisdom that's supposed to be represented there. While the technically remains present, it sounds more reserved at the same time. Then there's the Armageddon segment in which the music is much more distorted and loud to represent conflict and chaos. The rhythm Neil goes for is a bizarre sort of swing beat, but it surprisingly works with the music. The last few sections depict how the explorer eventually becomes Cygnus (after it's debated by the other Gods) and the Sphere segment tightly wraps things up with a calm acoustic finale. It brings a sense of closure to one of progressive rock's best epics; frankly, I can't recommend this song enough overall. It's simply a masterpiece in every sense of the word.
The other songs are great too. "Circumstances" is the most accessible song on here, a straightforward hard rock song with Geddy Lee's high-pitched screaming leading the chorus. There are still plenty of technical moments here as well, like with the calm instrumental break before the finale or the chorus itself. Either way, everything sounds tight and in place. "The Trees" is a bit more interesting, talking about prejudice but with... well, trees. Sort of a weird scenario, isn't it? Well anyway, it starts with 3/4-time acoustic guitar segment before launching into a clash of instruments before the verse comes about. The instrumental break in the middle is pretty interesting too, preferring to build itself up instead of making things too obvious. You get many little nuances here, such as Neil Peart's woodblock or the underlying synthesizers. Finally, we get to the other highlight of the album: the instrumental "La Villa Strangiato." Holy hell, this song is absolutely insane; first of all, what other song would start with a shredding intro on a classical guitar? Anyway, this is another song that builds things up, eventually leading to one of Alex Lifeson's most emotive and refreshingly spacious guitar solos. After that, the craziness begins; a rolling drum beat is supported by a hard rock riff and rhythm changes start to get constant. The "rolling riff" is a recurring theme but usually appearing in different forms, such as a bluesy swinging section that reminds me of "Lovin,' Touchin,' Squeezin'" by Journey. This song is pretty much a perfect combination of compositional variety, exceptional instrumental prowess, and a cohesion matched by very few progressive rock/metal bands even today.
So what do I think overall? Get this. I don't care how you get it, just do. It's one of the best progressive rock albums of all time, if not one of the best rock albums in general; this record represents what music is all about, and only in 36 minutes. Very impressive.