After the commercial failure of 1975’s Caress Of Steel and the ensuing disappointment of the resulting “Down The Tubes” tour, Rush was teetering on a precipice. Their album sales, pre-COS, were respectable but not exactly lighting up the stratosphere. Now with their first commercial dud, the label was on the verge of dropping the band entirely. Only with assurances from the band’s manager that they would go in a far more commercial and accessible musical direction were they granted a stay of execution. They got the go-ahead to record one more album. Certainly Rush wasn’t crazy enough to stick with their epic/prog ambitions, right?
Rush doubled down on the crazy. Sticking to their artistic principles, their fourth album 2112, released in April of 1976, featured an entire album side dedicated to a 7-part, 20+ minute suite, a quizzical science-fiction ode to objectivist philosophy. The way Rush saw it, if they were to be damned, they were going to be damned for who they were, rather than what the record label assumed they should be.
Well as I mentioned before, they doubled-down on their hand and the ensuing play netted them quite the bounty. 2112 was a commercial breakthrough, quickly going Gold in North America and eventually hitting Triple Platinum in sales. Sections of the “”2112” suite — specifically “Overture” and “Temples of Syrinx” played in succession — and “Passage To Bangkok” received significant FM airplay. The resulting tour made bank and brought them back to the forefront of the mid-70s AOR stage.
The album also introduced significant Rush iconography: specifically the image of the naked man (symbolizing the individual) standing before the pentagram (symbolizing the restrictions of the collective). Known as the “Starman Emblem”, this image has been closely associated with the band ever since. This wasn’t the only iconic Rush image; rather unintentionally, the picture of the band garbed in goofy kimonos on the rear album cover has been a cause for joyful derision, even among devoted fans of the band.
And that’s all well and good but let’s talk about the album itself, shall we? The first half of the LP is dedicated to the “2112” suite, and while only that side makes up the “concept album” portion of the record, it is so entirely pervasive that 2112 is consistently mentioned among the list of rock’s premiere concept LPs. I’m personally not the biggest fan of concept albums. Too often they get caught up in their own self-indulgent goofiness and meandering pretense, or spiral into shallow, pseudo-intellectual exercises in proselytizing tedium. I mean, every time Pete Townshend tries to reinterpret or repackage Tommy into a new format or daring new presentation, it gets that much more one-dimensionally laughable. And I *like* Tommy too!
So yes, in many ways the Ayn Rand-inspired story behind “2112” is just utterly silly. It has something to do with a futuristic society in which the “Elder Race of Man” has left the solar system, leaving behind the “Solar Federation”, a system ruled by a totalitarian theocratic regime, stifling individuality, creativity, artistic expression, and the entire concept of self-triumph. The protagonist finds a guitar in a cave, begins to make music with it, and presents his findings to the Priests, who pooh-pooh his ideas entirely. Crushed, he returns home and dreams of a world before the Solar Federation, that of significant human achievement and creativity, and upon waking commits suicide out of total despair. Then the Solar Federation is destroyed as the Elder Race of Man returns to reclaim his birthright.
Or something like that. It’s all a bunch of piffle anyhow.
Roger Ebert once said that a great movie isn’t so much what it is about, but rather how it’s about what it’s about. What makes “2112” so unbelievably satisfying is the performances by the band and the incredible music provided by Lee, Lifeson, and Peart. Unlike the stilted musicality and underlying cheesyness of “The Necromancer” from the previous album (I much prefer “The Fountain of Lamneth”, flaws and all), Rush found away to embrace the otherwordliness of its subject matter by injecting it with a deeper thematic resonance; relating to ‘three warriors battling some nebulous super-villain’ is a ponderous exercise dabbling in adolescent romanticism, whereas the creative/artistic/self-fulfillment conflict between ‘the abstract man and the masses’ gives the work a greater sense of urgency and (dare I say) ‘gravitas’ — even while it has been ostensibly decorated with 1960s television sci-fi tropes.
Plus “2112” really, really rocks. Up to this point, the band had never been this consistently great at presenting a cohesive, integrated musical theme with this amount of melodic motion, heavy metal crunch and power, and FM radio hooks. “I. Overture” does exactly what it sets out to do, introducing the tone and feel of the work by presenting and unifying queues and motifs from each section. It’s hard, heavy, and segues perfectly into “II: The Temples of Syrinx”, a thunderous power-chord rocker that establishes the antagonist body of “2112” while maintaining the hard rock momentum from the Overture.
“Part III: Discovery” presents an instrumental discovery of the long-lost guitar in an underground cave, what with echoing waterfalls and strange tunings and atmospheric effects aplenty. This leads into “Part IV: Presentation”, a back and forth between the protagonist and the ruling Priests, the gentle earnest melody of our hero contrasted against a wall of distortion emblematic of the antagonists’ dismissive anger, erupting into Alex Lifeson’s ripping guitar solo of self-righteous rage.
“Part V: Oracle: The Dream” delivers a fantasy sequence in which our hero dreams of a better world, two minutes of straightforward rock that establishes the freedom and creative triumphs of the Elder Race of Man, lost to antiquity. It’s a punchy, almost anthemic number, which leads into the slower, bluesy lament of “Part VI: Soliloquy”, in which our hero takes his own life. The two songs make for an interesting pairing, dropping the action and tempo down a notch to move the story along while still maintaining the musical momentum of the piece. “2112” ends heroically with “VII: Grand Finale”, a fast, hard-rocking instrumental piece that wraps up the suite with great flourish and incredible musicianship from the band. Much debate has ensued from the apparent open-ended conclusion, but I’m convinced the “good guys” won. Neil agrees with me. So there.
The “2112” suite is such an iconic representation of Rush’s music — certainly some of their most recognizable — as well as an engaging and ultimately satisfying piece of music, that the remainder of the album almost feels anti-climactic. Almost. But perhaps anything would, in comparison with what came before it. Instead of continuing the story on Side 2 (or creating a separate suite of music), Rush recorded five stand-alone songs instead.
The side opener, “A Passage To Bangkok”, features one of their most iconic riffs (marred by an unfortunate piece of Oriental musical cliche during the opening). This ode to mind-altering experimentation is an absolute winner; a strong, melodic, confident number from start to finish. “The Twilight Zone” is a bit of a step down for me; their homage to two episodes of the classic Rod Sterling television show features rather unremarkable verses. The chorus, however, is fascinating. It feels soft, eerie, and is punctuated by a strong minor-key riff that leads into Geddy’s restrained, haunting vocals. Kudos for not using any elements of the show’s TV theme whatsoever. While a bit weaker than the preceding tracks, the song definitely has its pluses.
Lifeson’s acoustic strumming and Lee’s punchy, walking bassline opens up “Lessons”, a rare Lifeson-penned track (Neil Peart is the primary lyricist and has penned the lyrics for nearly all of the band’s songs). The tune wears its Zeppelin influence on its sleeve; Lifeson seemed to be in pure Jimmy Page mode here. But this is influence, not homage, and the work stands on its own as an enjoyable if not overly memorable rocker.
Geddy Lee took his turn at album lyrics with “Tears”, a gentle, mournful ballad featuring some tasteful mellotron work by Hugh Syme. It’s a good song and one I definitely enjoy, but it somehow feels out-of-place on this album. As if to remind us of this, Neil returns to the lyric desk with the closing number “Something For Nothing”, an austere rocker that reminds us that the rewards of life always come with a price. The tune works well, as an album closer and as a thematic callback to the entire “2112” suite. I find it more of an expression of the freedoms and consequences that come with asserting individualism than as some kind of snarky right-wing anthem. Your mileage may vary, of course.
2112 was a game changer for Rush. It legitimized their prog-leanings in the eyes of their label and solidified their status as an FM radio staple. It sold by the truck-load and assured the band a strong measure of creative freedom to continue making music their way. It is also viewed by most fans as their first “classic” album (of many), as well as setting up a “trilogy” of like-minded records with A Farewell To Kings and Hemispheres. Author Ernest Cline even established a 2112 “planet” in his infectiously enjoyable sci-fi’ish novel Ready Player One, and there’s a playable 2112 section (set in the world created by the album) in one of the Guitar Hero videogames. The album’s iconic legacy has crossed over well into popular culture. But however you wanna slice it, 2112 was the record that elevated Rush from a scrappy, hardworking Canadian power trio to the big leagues, a commercial success and headlining act, a position they’ve retained to this day. Plus it’s a damn great album. This one’s a keeper, gang.