1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
It's tough being a cult band. Based on the title alone, you're not supposed to sell many records. Rush had successfully not sold many records after its first three releases, but Mercury Records was not having it. They heavily advised the band to drop its habit of releasing concept compilations (like its previous bomb "Caress of Steel") and start producing singles. Neil Peart, the band's drummer and lyricist, took the advice of his objectivist icon Ayn Rand and wrote "2112," the concept album that would define the band and make it an icon to nerds and instrumental junkies everywhere.
Side A is the definitive moment in the band's long career. It combines the two things that the group in known for, narrative concepts and a stupid amount of instrumental talent. "2112" is actually one 20 minute song, which the band broke into seven chapters to please the label. The chapters tell the story of an unnamed protagonist who lives in a "Brave New World" style galaxy overseen by the overbearing Priests of Syrinx (don't ask). The protagonist finds a guitar and sees it as a sign of hope, but of course the Priests disagree, leading to a tragic end for our hero. The narrative is relatively easy to follow compared to modern concept albums from bands like Mastodon, which are enjoyable but confusing listens.
The opening instrumental, "Overture," displays the band's virtuosity and widespread range of influences. The synth opening was a modern touch, followed by an impressive showcase of hard rock, and the piece closes with a rock quotation of Tchaikovsky's "Overture of 1812." The track showcases both Peart's famous drumming ability and Geddy Lee's fleet fingers on bass. "Overture" was released with "Temples of Syrinx" as a single, a short song describing the reign of the priests. "Discovery" is a clever track, describing the narrator's discovery of the guitar. The strumming and chords get more complex as the song progresses, simulating a man learning the instrument. Alex Lifeson, a guitarist who doesn't shred as often as other hard rock players, allows himself some indulgence at the end of "Presentation," probably the best solo of his career. The side ends with another instrumental passage illustrating the overthrow of the Priests, although it doesn't live up to the opener.
The first side might be the highlight, but the second half shouldn't be skipped. "Passage to Bangkok" features a trippy riff from Lifeson, one of the band's best and most underrated guitar lines. "Twilight Zone" and "Something for Nothing" are also worth a listen, although the only two tracks with lyrics not penned by Peart, "Lessons" and "Tears" (by Lifeson and Lee respectively), are okay to skip.
"2112" was everything that Rush wanted to be. The band is, in my opinion, the most talented group ever, comparable to other popular picks like The Experience, Cream and Led Zeppelin. "2112" demonstrated its ability to showcase that talent while reeling in ego (many would argue with me about this last part). Best of all, it allowed the trio to show its inner nerd without shame, and has allowed fans to do the same for 35 years.
INTERESTING FACT: Many people, for example my mother, think Rush to be a squeaky clean band. A closer look at "Passage to Bangkok" reveals it to be a huge drug trip however. Peart lists stops in the world's biggest drug producers (Jamaica, Afghanistan, Thailand) and the line "golden Acapulco nights" is more likely a reference to the popular marijuana strain "Acapulco gold" than a stay-over in Mexico.