Rush: A Farewell To Kings 40th Anniversary Edition (UMC)
1976 had seen Rush deliver their opus 2112. Much has been written about how this release saved their career and gave them the freedom with which they were able to create their music for the next 38 years. It is widely acknowledged that after Caress Of Steel, Anthem Records were certainly putting pressure on Rush. Well, after 2112, the pressure certainly abated and in 1977 the band settled into the Monmouthshire countryside at Rockfield Studios to record album number 5. Released on 1 September 1977, A Farewell To Kings is a mere 37 minutes long, short by today’s standards where digital recording allows mediocre artists to churn out 60+ minutes with ease.
37 minutes it may be, but what a glorious 37 minutes you got. The title track opens the album, a retrospective look at history, Alex Lifeson’s gentle acoustic guitar, light timpani and the delicate ebb and flow of Geddy Lee’s keys ease in before a crashing riff kicks the song off. Lee’s vocals, that instantly recognisable high-pitched soar, bring to life the astute lyrics of drummer Neil Peart. His lyrics evolving slowly away from the fantasy and Sci-Fi influences and towards social commentary. A Farewell To Kings contains in my view some of Alex Lifeson’s finest guitar work, with rip roaring solos cascading through the title track.
You then you arrive at one of Rush’s finest works - Xanadu. The opening birdsong of the Welsh countryside, the stunning five-minute instrumental introduction which leads to Peart’s narrative based on Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan. What Xanadu also introduced to Rush was the transformation to full use of synthesisers, a step forward from the synth effects of 2112. This meant that when performed live, Rush’s evolution into technology accelerated with their use of multiple effect pedals amongst many other options. It also saw Lee and Lifeson use the now legendary double neck guitars, a real spectacle. For me, Xanadu remains one of their most impressive and evocative songs.
How to follow that 11-minute opus? Well, try Closer To The Heart, an anthem that would be synonymous with the band for the rest of their career. Co-written by Peter Talbot, a close friend of Peart, it charted at number 36 in the UK charts and remained in their set list for most of their tours despite being dropped on the Vapour Trails tour as the band were “sick of it”. Listen to the rabid Brazilian crowd sing it on Rush In Rio and you’ll understand why the band had to bring it back! Two songs which fit comfortably on the album follow, Cinderella Man and the folky Madrigal. Both are lyrically clever, and the playing is superb. They lead neatly into the sci-fi themes of closing Cygnus X-1 (Book One – The Voyage), the story of the flight of the Rocinante spacecraft as it is drawn to the black hole Cygnus X-1; it’s explorer pilot believing that there is something worth exploring through it.
The track opens with the spoken narrative by producer Terry Brown, before Lee’s heavily syncopated bass riffs allow the band to drown out the opening effects, the synths again prominent as the swirling time signatures change. From there on, it’s a rip-roaring ride as we journey with our ‘hero’ as the Rocinante is sucked into Cygnus X-1, Lee hitting his highest ever pitch on a studio album as “every nerve is torn apart”. Cygnus X-1 of course leads to part two, the eighteen-minute story which opens 1978’s Hemispheres, as we learn about the story of Apollo and Dionysus.
Disc two in the special edition is where things get just a little exciting. A full concert, recorded at Hammersmith Odeon on February 20th, 1978, as Rush toured in support of Kings. At their peak, Rush could kick out the jams with the best of them and this recording demonstrates this. Kicking off with the riff heavy Bastille Day, both the band and crowd sound on top form. For a three-piece, I would argue that Rush in the 1970s were as heavy as any of their peers. You can, however, hear the way in which their sound was developing, the embryonic shoots of their move towards a more synth heavy sound that would be fully in play by 1981’s Moving Pictures already audible.
The joy of listening to Rush live in the 1970s is that you get the opportunity to hear tracks that have long been dropped from the set list. Unsurprising given their vast catalogue, but what a delight to hear Lakeside Park, By-Tor And The Snow Dog and Kings itself. Although many of this setlist remained staples throughout their career, the gusto and rawness which gripped both the band and the audience as they blasted out Something For Nothing and 2112 in all its glory is fantastic.
The Hammersmith recording also allows a small window into the professionalism surging through a band who four years earlier had only released one record. To think that within that four-year period, Rush would move forward to set lists that contained Xanadu, 2112 and Cygnus X-1 is astonishing. The intricacies of these tracks, which are delivered perfectly remain quite breath-taking. The encores stand the test of time as well. Working Man, Fly By Night and In The Mood all rockers which still grab you by the balls in 2017. The seeds of Neil Peart’s long term drum solo production which ultimately resulted in three solos in latter sets can be found in the solo which precedes the final track, a rarely heard Cinderella Man.
The third disc follows a that of the remasters 2112 release with covers of tracks on Kings from other bands with an affinity to Rush. Given their history of touring with Rush, it’s unsurprising that Rush selected John Petrucci and co to give Xanadu a go. Musically, it’s close to the original, as you’d probably expect. However, James LaBrie is no match for Geddy Lee and struggles throughout. It becomes a bit painful by the end of verse one, and by ten minutes you wish it was an instrumental.
Why Big Wreck were selected to cover Closer To The Heart is beyond my comprehension. Ian Thornley's only decent vocal is the final note and whilst the heavier version kicks the track along, it is not that enjoyable. Similarly, Countrymen The Trews attempt at Cinderella Man doesn’t really hit the spot, although it’s a decent enough stab. Alain Johannes version of Madrigal is turgid, the multi-instrumentalist not really suited vocally to the track. So far so poor, but the unreleased outtake of instrumental effects Cygnus X-2 Eh? does at least provide something new to hear.
So overall, one superb album, a must-have live release and some rather uninspiring covers. It’s worth it for the Hammersmith show on its own. 9/10