Another review from the Twelve Months Of Rush series. This review is of the May release: Hemispheres. I may have mentioned before that I am an old, fat, baldy bloke and as such, I have to guard myself against sudden shocks. (There is only so much my old heart can take.) In the interest of health and safety, to avoid a potentially dangerous surprise, I am going to give a spoiler of my own review here in the opening paragraph. Brace yourself and prepare for a shock: I am a huge fan of Rush but in this review, I am going to say something critical about one of the tracks on this album. I am not going to tell you yet exactly what annoys me about the track but forewarned is forearmed.
Now, to release any tension that may have built up, a joke ( the relevance of the joke may become clearer nearer the end of this review). An explorer was living with a small tribe in a remote jungle when one day, he heard the sound of drums coming from a neighbouring village. When he asked what the drums meant, he was told that they were war drums. The people in the tribe seemed unconcerned, so the explorer decided the distant sound of war drums was nothing to worry about. But when the drums stopped, the tribespeople went into a flat panic. He asked them why they were panicking now the drums had stopped and was told, “After the drum solo comes the bass solo!”
So, to the review of Hemispheres. It is part of the Twelve Months of Rush programme, so when you get the vinyl re-release, you get top quality audio: heavy vinyl (slightly less heavy in the UK for unknown reasons but still, 180g is not to be sneezed at); re-mixed from analogue original recordings, Direct Metal Mastering; and a high quality download for free when you buy the vinyl. (I saw one review which said you also get a poster free too but I have not been able to confirm this – may be North America only.) So, as with the other albums in this series, short of getting Rush to play in your living room, you are getting the best sound quality possible.
The opening track of Hemispheres is “Cygnus X1 Book II: Hemispheres” and it is the concluding part of the story begun in the last track of the previous album. If you read my review of A Farewell To Kings, you will know how much I loved “Cygnus X1 Book I: The Voyage” and how much I was looking forward to part two. The year between the release of of A Farewell To Kings and Hemispheres seemed to last forever. While I was waiting, I bought as much of the Rush back catalogue as I could afford, I fell in love with 2112 and decided Rush were the greatest band on earth… ever! So, Hemispheres had a lot to live up to. When it was finally released, I could hardly wait to get home and get it on the turntable. Headphones on. Volume cranked up to eleven. Gatefold sleeve open. But what followed, as I listened to side one, was somewhat disappointing!
No, that’s not fair. My teenage self would not have said, “Somewhat disappointing!”. The teenage me was gutted. I couldn’t understand it. Where was my Sci-Fi epic? What was all this Greek mythology nonsense? Why have you done this to me Rush? For a long time, I just didn’t play side one of Hemispheres. I was so disappointed with it. In retrospect, I had built up in my mind about how awesome it was going to be, so perhaps it was inevitable that it would fall short of my hyper-inflated expectations. It took me some time (about ten years) to get enough emotional distance to give it a reasonable appraisal. Eventually I acknowledged that it was not as bad as I thought it was when I first heard it and that parts of it were actually quite good. Not exactly a ringing endorsement but the best I can manage.
If I was trembling with excitement when I put side one on for the first time, I was probably trembling with fear when I turned over to side two. What if side two was rubbish? Thankfully, the opening track, “Circumstances”, laid all my fears to rest. No mythology, no sci-fi, but a song about Neil Peart’s experience of trying to make it as a musician in London. It sounds like it is written straight from the heart. And, as an added bonus, Rush continue to expand my educational horizons: philosophy; Romantic poetry; astronomy; … and now, modern languages.
Plus a change,
Plus c’est la meme chose.
The more that things change,
The more they stay the same.
And then it got better with the next track, “The Trees”. The band took a bit of stick in the left-leaning British music press for tracks like this, but one of the things I like about Rush is that they usually have something to say in their songs. And, even if you don’t fully agree with what they are saying in “The Trees”, it is a great track to listen to. It has light and shade (lyrically and musically) and a complexity and depth about it but it still remains accessible.
Then, the final track, “La Villa Strangiato (An Exercise in Self-Indulgence)”, effectively washes away any lingering bad feelings I had from side one. It is often described as their first instrumental track but as previous tracks often had long instrumental sections, that may not be entirely accurate. It is, most definitely though, outstanding. Each band member is given the opportunity to shine and each one of them grabs that opportunity and runs with it. A classical guitar introduction; complex musical themes are introduced and developed; crashing power chords; stupidly complex drum patterns and time signatures; … and a bass solo! It may have taken me some time before I could face playing side one again, but as “La Villa Strangiato” ended, I picked up the stylus and put it back to the start of the track again. …and again, … and again! Every listen revealed new levels and structures in the track. Every listen confirmed not only how good each member of Rush was on their respective instruments but how well they work together. It is a monster of a track that just keeps on giving with every new listen.
Hemispheres is a tale of two sides: the first side is not that bad (damning with faint praise!); but the second side, starts off by being brilliant and gets better with each track!