Why have I found it hard?
Because it was such an important album to me as a teenager and remains one of my favourites.
And that’s a problem because…?
It is difficult to give an objective review that explains why A Farewell To Kings is brilliant when it is so obvious to me that it just is.
Why am I asking and answering my own questions?
It seemed like a good way to start the review.
It’s annoying. Is it going to stop?
I’ll stop now. But I can’t promise I won’t do it again.
Dealing with sound quality first, as I have said before, they are doing it right. Remixed (at Abbey Road Studios, I believe) from analogue masters, Direct Metal Mastering to transfer the recordings to heavyweight vinyl, high quality downloads for free when you buy the record and, for A Farewell To Kings, a Blue-Ray Pure Audio version with 96kHz / 24-bit 5.1 surround sound and stereo. Everything even the most demanding of audiophiles could want! (On a personal note, I have no means of listening to Blue-Ray which is a scunner because I’d love to hear if they have made the little Welsh birds at the start of Xanadu fly around your head!) I am therefore taking the sound quality as a given.
A Farewell To Kings is the first Rush album I bought and when I first heard it, not only did I decide I wanted to hear more Rush, but also that I wanted to hear more of that kind of music. Up until that point, I had been fairly indiscriminate in my choice of music. Before A Farewell To Kings: The Wombles, Alvin Stardust and Abba. After A Farewell To Kings: Led Zepplin, Genesis and Pink Floyd. Nuff said!
Alex Lifeson has claimed that 2112 was where Rush, “…started to sound like Rush”. If that is true, I think it can be argued that A Farewell To Kings is where they nailed it. There are two long tracks on this album (“Xanadu” at 11:06 and “Cygnus X-1” at 10:27) but compared to “2112” at 20:34, they are positively minuscule. The songs still have the depth and complexity evidenced in previous albums. Rush are beginning to move away from lengthy epics but, while they are reducing the length, they are keeping the epic.
The first side opens with the title track which showcases their musical virtuosity. Alex: from thoughtful, classical style acoustic beginning to full-on rock solo. Geddy: stunningly complex bass lines, powerful vocals and keyboards to add texture. Neil: intricate and constantly shifting drum patterns, tuned percussion, and lyrics that makes the points he wants to without dressing them up in a fictional setting.
Can’t we raise our eyes and make a start?
Can’t we find the minds to lead us
Closer to the heart?
The closing lyrics of the first track point us forward to the opening track on the second side. But first, we have the behemoth that is “Xanadu” filling the rest of side one.
How many rock bands prompt their teenage fans not only seek out but also to learn a chunk of a poem by Coleridge? (Ask if you ever meet me; I can still recite the opening lines of Kubla Khan from memory.) Remember, this is in the days before the Internet, so I had to do some real research in a public library to find the poem. This is a band that led me to a philosophical novel with their previous album and directed me to a Romantic poet with this one. They are not your average rock band. If lyrics inspired by one of the great Romantic poets is not to your taste, the music has long, instrumental sections where all three band members are echoing each other’s musical themes before bouncing off into strange and wonderful new directions. Rush demonstrate that have grown into a tight unit, each knowing how to bring out the best in the other.
End of side one. Take a deep breath (or two). Turn over. And, if your socks are still on, prepare to lose them in the next twenty minutes or so.
Side two opens with “Closer To The Heart” which further explores the lyrical themes of the title track.
And the men who hold high places
Must be the ones who start
To mold a new reality
Closer to the heart
Musically, it also begins in a similar manner, with Alex on acoustic giving a relatively gentle introduction, but this time Geddy’s vocals start during the quieter acoustic section allowing the lyrics to have a more prominent role. A fantastic track and still one of my favourites.
The next two tracks are good but the main event is the closing track, “Cygnus X-1”, or to give it the full, trivia point wining title, “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage”. This album started with heartfelt philosophy, moved through English Romantic poetry and ends here with sci-fi spectacular. The track showcases the band’s musical confidence and, while we have different section and themes, it feels very much of a whole, rather than a collection of parts. It tells the story of an explorer who is (**spoiler alert**) sucked into a black hole. I remember playing this track on the family “music centre” when my sister came into the living room. The song was reaching its climax: the urgency of the rhythms increasing; the power of the bass and guitar amped up to eleven; and Geddy screaming, “Every nerve is torn apart!”. The look on my sisters face was priceless as I screamed along with Geddy. What more could a young rock fan ask for? Loud music, screaming vocals… and the disapproval of a big sister! Perfect.
And best of all, the closing track is billed as “Book I”, it finishes on a series of minor chords implying a sense that the black hole might not be the end, and most importantly, the lyrics in the gatefold sleeve say, “To be continued…” You have no idea how excitedly I waited for the next release and how long I felt I had to wait for Hemispheres to be released. If you are coming new to these albums, be thankful that you do not have to suffer that agonising wait.
My first album by Rush. It may be titled “A Farewell To Kings” but for me, it was a welcome to Rush. I hope you feel that welcome too.
Is that the review finished then?
Yes, it is.