Rush produced a low-key but respectable debut with their 1974 self-titled album, emerging as an energetic (if slightly derivative) blues-hard rock power trio from the Great White North. With the departure of original drummer John Rutsey, the band thrived with drummer/primary lyricist Neil Peart joining guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, following up their debut with 1975’s Fly By Night, a minor hit that represented a major shift in the band’s sound. The songs became tighter, more complex, signifying a deeper sophistication in both the music and Peart’s literary, soaringly humanistic lyrics. It also included the first of what would be known as their ‘epic’ tracks, the rollicking battle cry of the nearly nine-minute “By-Tor & the Snow Dog”.
Rush toured relentlessly in 1975 to promote Fly By Night, returning to the studio that summer to record their next album Caress of Steel. The album erupted like a declaration of principles of sorts, as it represented a dramatic shift towards more long-form conceptual pieces, moving the band more towards the progressive end of the spectrum. Three-fourths of the album’s 45-minute length were taken up by only two tracks: the epic “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth” — the latter of which took up the entire Side 2 of the album!
Caress of Steel was released in September of 1975, and the results were pretty disastrous. Sales were dismal, the ensuing tour was poorly attended and saw them playing smaller and smaller venues. Critical reaction to the album was entirely disappointing as well. Even retrospective critiques remain pretty harsh; Caress of Steel is often dismissed by all but the most ardent of Rush fans. Album tracks like “Bastille Day” and “Lakeside Park” would remain in their set-list for a while (showing up on the 1976 live album All The World’s A Stage as part of their 2112 Tour), but the “epic” tracks would be almost immediately forgotten, except by band devotees.
The album is far from the disaster that history has made it out to be. Make no mistake, it has its missteps and a few moments of failure, but at least those moments stem from misguided ambition rather than inertial stagnation. There are moments of greatness and hints of greater successes to come. Of their entire 70s output, it ranks high for reach but lower on execution; probably the least essential album of their catalog until 1987’s Hold Your Fire. Casual fans evaluating the album would peruse the track listing and most likely not even bother with the record; it has no discernible “hits” or “fan favorites” (although the aforementioned “Lakeside Park” and “Bastille Day” would show up in compilation albums like Chronicles; the latter song would also appear in other collections like Retrospective I and Gold) and, with two tracks clocking at longer song-lengths than usual, would not present itself as one of their more ‘accessible’ records.
The album has its strengths, even if you have to cherry-pick quite a bit to find them. I find “The Necromancer” to be a little too watered-down Tolkien and a lot too watered-down Rush. It feels hollow and musically lacking at times, while the lyrics are second-rate Dungeons and Dragons mixed with somewhat embarrassing narration from an over-modulated Neil Peart. I do enjoy the feel of the Meddle-era Floyd “Into The Darkness” opening, and it ends pleasantly enough with a triumphantly melodic outro and some tasteful soloing from Lifeson, but the track feels unfocused and a structurally haphazard.
I much prefer the 20-minutes of “The Fountain of Lamneth”. The seedlings of later classics like “Xanadu”, “Natural Science”, the “Cygnus X-1” two-part exploration, and portions of “2112” can be found here. Divided into six parts, the song details the journey throughout an entire life, from the explosion of birth, the natural rebellion of the learning process, doubt and abandonment, joy and acceptance, and finally death. Some sections are more interesting and more evocative than others, but the piece holds together fairly well and remains one of their more experimental and challenging efforts of the era; there’s certainly nothing close to this in the previous two albums, and it provides the springboard from which Rush would delve deeper into long-form progressive works. It’s not classic Rush, but it’s good Rush with flashes of even better Rush.
The remaining three tracks are the more traditional Rush-sounding songs. “Bastille Day” opens with Townshend-like guitar intensity and Plant-like piercing vocals as the band erupts into a howling rocker, one that would have fit right at home on Fly By Night. “Lakeside Park” is a mildly pleasant if unremarkable tune, a straightforward mid-tempo bit of childhood reminiscing from Peart. While the song is nothing much, it acquits itself as a reasonable album track — perhaps a step above filler.
And finally we get to “I Think I’m Going Bald”, which is the most bugfork tune on the entire album. Almost a novelty track of sorts, it was allegedly inspired by Kiss’s “Goin’ Blind” (Kiss and Rush toured extensively together in 1974) and with its bluesy rock backbone it could almost have sprung from their no-frills debut album. Making the connection of going grey and losing hair with that of lost dreams of youth, or some such nonsense, the song is messy, absolutely bananas, utterly pointless, and full of the posturing bravado that Rush seemed to pulling away from with their overall sound and ethos, and yet I somehow kind of love it, warts and all.
Caress of Steel is an appealing curiosity for those seeking to chart the band’s transition from traditional early 70s blues-rockers to the progressive hard-rock superstars of the late 70s. While casual fans would have little use for it and deeper fans might view it as a lesser effort (which, in light of their entire ‘classic’ catalog, would be an accurate assessment), there is still much to pick out of and enjoy from the record.