Rush Review – The 70's: "Caress of Steel"

Author’s Note: This article was originally published on another site I write for, That Hashtag Show, on 16 Jan 2020.

I decided to do this album as a separate article from the next one, 2112, for one simple reason: They both deserve their own review. These two were concept albums that shaped the future of Rush as a band, and how their fans would expect future albums to be. As far as their recording label is concerned, 1975’s Caress of Steel was not a success. The highest it got to on the Billboard 200 is 148th, However, mega-fans love it and often refer to it as Rush’s underrated triumph.

Rush: Caress of Steel cover art, 1975
Rush: Caress of Steel cover art, 1975

Something unique to this album is the band’s first attempt at one long song broken into pieces, not just by tracks but also within the track itself. This type of concept recording was not a new thing. The Moody Blues, YES, Pink Floyd, The Who, and many, many others had published concept tracks and albums by this time. This would also not be the last time Rush made a concept album like this, and though the record label hated it, Caress of Steel was the harbinger of great things to come.

Mercury Records magazine ad for Caress of Steel
Mercury Records magazine ad for Caress of Steel

Bastille Day kicks off with a rocking intro. I Think I’m Going Bald and Lakeside Park are good rock-out tunes. However, the money is made on the last two songs. This album is set apart by the epics The Necromancer and The Fountain of Lamneth; two multi-part short stories made into song. They cover more than 30 minutes of the total 43-minute cut. So when playing this album, listen to the first three songs. Rock out Rush style and have fun. When track four starts, shut off your phone and the lights, kick back, and close your eyes. The music and the words will paint pictures for you. And you don’t need any chemical enhancement to see it.

Lee, Lifeson and Peart, 1977
Lee, Lifeson and Peart, 1977

Caress of Steel – Track 1: Bastille Day

Live performance at Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ – December 1976

This high-energy lead off track knocks fans out of the park with Lifeson firing riffs and Peart’s double-time drums. When Lee jumps in with the high pitch call for Revolution, the song is cemented as an ode to heavy rock before heavy rock was cool. The quick beat hardly lets the listener breathe for four-and-a-half minutes. It’s not my favorite song, but it grew on me after a while. Lifeson’s master guitar-smithing is on full display here, and it’s pretty damn good.

Caress of Steel – Track 2: I Think I’m Going Bald

The title is oddball, but don’t let that fool you. This track is about a frontman in another band that was close with Rush at the time. It tells of an upbeat and comedic look at getting older, but still doing it your way. Lifeson’s rocking, more-traditional guitar riff echoes in the back while Lee belts out the realization of aging. This song is reminiscent of tracks on their debut album and will really get your foot tapping.

Caress of Steel – Track 3: Lakeside Park

Live performance at Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ – December 1976

Another personal memoir of Peart’s youth put to song. Lakeside Park tells the story of a park near where he grew up that he worked at, and all the menagerie that happened there. The lyrics call back to anyone who remembers a traditional carnival midway at a state fair as a youth. It paints a fond memory of carefree youth and a “pocket-full of silver” being “The key to Heaven’s door” with these lyrics:

Dancing fires on the beach,
Singing songs together.
Though it’s just a memory,
Some memories last forever.

Lakeside Park by Rush

The words are poignant nostalgia of innocence and days gone by. It’s a good song, but feels like a filler. It didn’t have the hit track qualities of their other tunes.

Caress of Steel – Track 4: The Necromancer

Featuring the return of By-Tor from Fly by Night, The Necromancer tells an epic story in three movements. Overall, the song almost plays out like a D&D campaign and doesn’t hide its nerdy greatness in any way. In fact, I’m sure there’s some DM’s out there who turned this song into an awesome night of dice, maps, and miniatures with their buddies. These lyrics are obviously influenced by Tolkien’s writing, too. The Necromancer in The Hobbit turned out to be Sauron the Destroyer. Peart’s lyrics tell a short story on the same vein. Take a listen:

Part I. Into Darkness is very Pink Floyd-ish, and sets up the story of three adventurers passing into the Necromancer’s lands. It’s a slow, acid rock-y dirge to set the dread our heroes are feeling as they approach the Necromancer’s borders.

Part II. Under the Shadow changes perspective to the Necromancer and picks up the musical pace. Similar to By-Tor and the Snow Dog, the guitar and the bass take the spotlight for a few minutes. Our heroes from Willow Dale (ironically, also the Toronto suburb) fall in the Necromancer’s clutches.

Part III. The Return of the Prince turns the song to upbeat, cheery strumming and picking, heralding the defeat of the evil Necromancer by Prince By-Tor.

Hard-core fans love this song, and so do I. One fan on YouTube jokes that you don’t need drugs when people make music like this! When asked why By-Tor is portrayed as the hero here and not on Fly by Night, Neil Peart said, “I guess he’s like all of us—sometimes good, and sometimes he’s bad!

Caress of Steel – Track 5: The Fountain of Lamneth

Clocking in at 20 minutes long, The Fountain of Lamneth is the threshold Rush needed to cross in order to make 2112. That does not, however, take any grandeur away from this progressive rock work of art. As I said earlier, fans didn’t appreciate this entire album at the time. It grew better with age, and this song is what drives it. Snippets out of this tune show up in later tracks, like chord progression during Bacchus Plateau came back in High Water on their 1987 album, Hold Your Fire.

Some call By-Tor and the Snow Dog Rush’s first “weird” song, but I disagree. I think this is that first weird one, but it’s good. The constant tempo changes, the high fantasy lyrics, fade-ins and outs between pieces, the switch between electric and acoustic throughout, and Peart’s scorching drum work during the second movement. About that second part, called Didacts and Narpets, Peart explained the shouted lyrics:

“…the shouted words in that song represent an argument between Our Hero and the Didacts and Narpets – teachers and parents. I honestly can’t remember what the actual words were, but they took up opposite positions like: “Work! Live! Earn! Give!” and like that.”

Neil Peart, 1991 interview with the Rush Backstage Club

Judge it how you like. It’s a weird song, but good—and necessary. It’s the first of three songs Rush made taking an entire album side—paving the way for great works to come.

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best)…

I give Caress of Steel a 6 out of 10. I want to rank it higher, but of their catalog, this whole cut is one giant musical experiment. It feels like a we-need-to-get-this-one-out-of-our-system type of recording effort. It’s a good album (there is no bad Rush album) that fans learned to appreciate more as it aged, but struggled with when it came out. Ticket sales reflected that on the tour that followed. The album, sadly, never even hit Gold status.

Rush, 1974

The record company practically begged the band to abandon this train of music-making and go back to The Working Man-type of success. Many fans agreed at the time, expressing little interest in an album where one song took up the whole side of their LP. I’m glad they stuck to their guns. Without Caress of Steel being cut like it was, and if Rush would have capitulated to the record label gods, 2112 would have never been made. That album, and the effort that went into this one, is musical master-work and I’ll fight those who disagree!

The next review coming shortly… 2112! See where this review all began here.

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