Rush Review – The 70’s: “A Farewell to Kings” & “Hemispheres”

Hemispheres – Released in 1978

They also recorded Hemispheres at Rockfield Studios in Wales and it would be Rush’s sixth studio offering. It’s only four songs long, which hardly seems worth the price of an album, but our trio makes the most of it. What an album it is!

Hemispheres is Rush almost at peak musical performance. The complex time signatures and multi-part movements of this album are the culmination of this trio finding their sound and sticking to it. That formula paid off, as it went on to be their second U.S. Gold record upon release and hit #47 on the Billboard charts.

Hemispheres in the original red vinyl
Hemispheres in the original red vinyl

They would continue their success with deep science fiction and mythology-based lyrics on this one, too, though not as much as 2112 or Caress of Steel. The track Circumstances is about the only conventional rock song here, and in this writer’s humble opinion, not their best offering. The other three are distinctly Rush in both verse and sound, and they are nerdily glorious. This would be their last U.K. recorded album before heading back to Canada for their next album, Permanent Waves. Only four tracks to dissect here, but what a selection of amazing music. Here we go…

Hemispheres: Track 1 – Cygnus X-1 (Book Two: Hemispheres)

The final chapter in the voyage of the Rocinante into the black hole in Cygnus. Book Two covers an 18-minute journey into sci-fi, Greek Mythology, astronomy, and about anything else you want to geek out about. Here, our hero from Book One on A Farewell to Kings has arrived at the black hole, and based on an old legend bravely plunges in, only to find it’s a gateway to Olympus. There he witnesses the battle between Apollo and Dionysus for the fate of man. It’s wisdom versus love, and the song gets emotionally deep. That’s what makes it so cool.

Isn’t that the ultimate struggle in all good people? Tempering passion with intelligence, and loving unabashedly even though your mind tells you otherwise? The album cover alludes to that struggle, with the sensible man in the suit and bowler hat on one side of the brain looking across brain hemispheres to the untamed naked man unashamed to let it all hang out (literally and figuratively!) Art imitates life, and it does so beautifully with this track..

Hemispheres: Track 2 – Circumstances

This short song tells an autobiographical story of Neil Peart’s time in England before coming back to Canada and joining Rush. The lyrics paint a gloomy picture at the beginning and become hopeful at the end. That’s the part I like. It’s a good song, but the riffs feel messy to me. That’s the part I don’t like.

Rush’s licks are slick and orchestrated. This one, not so much. Perhaps it is meant to be that way. For my taste, I’ll take spaceships and mythology over this one. Circumstances does, however, remind fans that in between fantasy-inspired hits, these guys can still rock a song.

Hemispheres: Track 3 – The Trees

Ah, one of my all-time favorite Rush songs. At first it feels like another Rivendell or A Farewell to Kings with the bard-like acoustic intro. Geddy lays out the plight of the maples and their struggle against the tall oaks for more sunlight. An ode to the politics of trees. But wait for it… the crash of cymbals and growling guitar turn this track into wooden warfare. The lyrics are straight out of a fable some wise old king would impart to his kids on his deathbed, and the beat draws you into the conflict. Before it’s over, you become a fan of the oaks or a fan of the maples and you’re ready to take up their banner for the fight.

Fans debated the meaning of this song for years. Some say it’s an alliteration of the little man taking on the big man. Some say it’s a snapshot of the quiet competition between Canadians and Americans. Others say it shows how communism will never overcome the power of the individual’s will. Neil Peart finally settled the argument on what the lyrics mean, but even his explanation hasn’t quelled the debate.

“It was just a flash. I was working on an entirely different thing when I saw a cartoon picture of these trees carrying on like fools. I thought, ‘What if trees acted like people?’ So I saw it as a cartoon really, and wrote it that way. I think that’s the image that it conjures up to a listener or a reader. A very simple statement.”

Neil Peart, 1980 interview with Modern Drummer magazine

Hemispheres: Track 4 – La Villa Strangiato

If you couldn’t get enough of Rush’s musical talent on Xanadu, then you are about to be rewarded with this instrumental masterpiece. Nine-and-a-half minutes of Rush just slaying the idea of music and giving it a new life from the ashes. Writers will say some of their most powerful stories come from their dreams and nightmares. Leave it to guitarist Alex Lifeson to take his nightmares and make them into music. If my nightmares were as rocking as this track, I’d be happy to have them.

“Alex doesn’t really call them nightmares. They’re just strange dreams. He’s plagued with them and he drives us crazy by calling us up all the time to tell us about them until we just say ‘Stop, you’re giving me a headache.’”

Geddy Lee

You get the band as a whole rocking out through the eleven parts of this song, but you also get solos from all three musicians individually, and a little Looney Tunes-based theme to boot! Villa Strangiato is a real place in Italy; the house of an Italian nobleman named (drum roll, please…) Strangiato, and Neil Peart has joked that more time went into working on this one song than the entire Fly by Night album!

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

I give Hemispheres a solid 9 out of 10. The album is short, but awesome in musical scope and visionary in lyrical prose. It has all the signatures of Rush that fans have come to expect. The fan site Cygnus-x1.net reprinted a 2018 interview with Geddy Lee about the entire album, and how difficult it was to make. Geddy Lee said this:

“We were tired after the touring but at the same time we were also feeling pretty good. Our range was expanding and we were feeling pretty ambitious at that time… We’d had a good experience working at Rockfield Studios before and that left a good taste about the whole idea of recording in Britain again.

We were psyched, we were excited, but at the same time we were not super well prepared. Although we had a lot of ideas, we hadn’t really hammered them out, so we found ourselves in a new situation… We’d planned to be there for a short time and it turned into a much longer time, as everything to do with that album did.”

Geddy Lee, Beauty and the Bass, 2018

Hard-core fans know this as the album that almost broke Rush because of their lack of preparation and the structure of the music pushing them near the limits of their musical ability (if you can imagine these guys having musical limits). However that may have been the motivation they needed to produce what fans say is one of their top-3 albums ever (along with 2112 and Moving Pictures). This fan agrees with that assessment!

What’s next on the Rush Review?

My next article joins Rush going into the 80’s, where some of their best work happened, and continues shining to this day on Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures.

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