1978 marked the beginning of a very dark period for progressive rock. The punk scene had arrived, bent on destroying everything and everyone that crossed its path, and established institutions like the existing music scene were an immediate target.
In addition, the press started to turn against progressive rock bands almost unanimously. For instance, a band like Yes, who had been hailed as 'People's Band' just a few years earlier, were now dubbed rock dinosaurs.
All these changes in the musical environment didn't fail to have an impact on prog rocks leading bands. Apart from being written off by the press, Yes fell apart in 1978, after delivering an unsatisfactory album. Cracks had also begun to appear in Genesis' steadfastness as a champion of progressive rock: they had begun veering away from the progressive spirit into the dubious world of pop music more and more. Emerson, Lake and Palmer quietly disbanded, while Pink Floyd was suffering from internal strife, which would lead to the band falling apart just a few years later. New bands found it extremely difficult to secure recording deals.
But amidst this general malaise one band's star was rapidly rising. Out of Canada had appeared a storm called Rush. Playing a kind of music that can be described as a combination of British artrock and heavy metal they had conquered the live scene by gigging endlessly across America and Canada.
Rush' first three albums were no big commercial successes, although all of them have now acquired at least gold status in the United States and other countries. The real breakthrough came in 1976, with the release of 2112, an album that established Rush' style for years to come. The tour for the live album All The World's A Stage, released after the 2112 tour, brought the band to Europe for the first time.
A Farewell To Kings, released in 1977, was a natural continuation after its predecessor. The album was more consistent than 2112, spawning such classics as Xanadu, Cygnus X-1 and Rush' signature song, Closer To The Heart. 1978 saw the release of the album that is the subject of this Counting Out Time review. Hemispheres marks the peak of what I consider to be Rush' golden age, the years 1976 to 1981.
The entire first side of Hemispheres is taken up by Cygnus X-1 Book II, subtitled Hemispheres. It is the second part of the Cygnus duology, the first part of which can be found on the album's predecessor A Farewell To Kings, and is simply called Cygnus X-1. I will call it Book I for the remainder of this review, to avoid confusion.
Book I has a rather ominous open ending and the booklet says 'To be continued', promising that the story will continue on the next album. Despite this, there is very little musical and lyrical analogy between Book I and Book II.
First let us look briefly at Book I. The term Cygnus X-1 designates an X-ray source in the constellation of Cygnus, believed to be a black hole. The lyrics of Book I tell of a person sailing in a starship towards the black hole, hoping to find out what's in there, and on the other hand dreading that there's nothing there and he will simply be destroyed. The song ends just as his ship is spiralling into the black hole.
We will now take a closer look at Book II. Neil Peart, who apart from being the drummer, also writes almost all Rush lyrics, came up with the lyrics for Book I after reading the book Powers of Mind. He describes the brain as being divided into two hemispheres, the left being the one dealing with emotion, and the right being the one dealing with rationality. He uses Greek mythology to make these abstract notions tangible.
Cygnus X-1 Book II is made up of six parts. The first part Prelude, introduces us to the age old struggle between the champions of the two Hemispheres, Apollo, the God of Reason, and Dionysus, the God of Love.
The music slowly fades in, and rises to a crescendo before launching into a very powerful part, that sets the tone for the rest of the song. Alex Lifeson's guitar is everywhere, filling the hemispheres, alternating between raw metal and melodic rock. Pearts tight drumming keeps this violence under control while Geddy Lee's Rickenbacker gives the music its depth.
It's only after three minutes into the song that Lee's voice can be heard for the first time, singing the first stanza. His is a high voice, but it is rarely gentle or soft, and it has a special quality to it that you either love or hate.
There is no bridge between Prelude and the next part of the song. Instead it just fades out.
Part two is called Apollo - Bringer of Wisdom. He is the first to get a chance to convince the people to join his side. He tells them how they can take care of themselves and how they can improve their minds and lives by learning and building great things.
The first part of Apollo is the second stanza. It is musically very similar to the final part Prelude, but features a guitar solo by Lifeson.
At first the people are very content but gradually they discover that they're missing something. So they seek out Dionysus.
Dionysus - Bringer of Love is the third stanza in all respects. It is musically very similar in structure to Apollo. Dionysus tells the people how they can rid themselves of their worries and just live their lives in revelry, making music, making love, giving the people back the joy in their lives.
For a while this works out fine but then winter comes and the people, having abandoned their homes, are unprepared for its savagery. So once again the war has not been concluded.
A sudden change in rhythm brings Armageddon - The Battle of Heart and Mind. It starts of with a guitar solo, which weaves its way through the octaves like a sinus. Lee's voice is somewhat aloof as he relates how the people begin fighting each other, and how both their minds and their world are split asunder into two hemispheres. The music becomes more frantic, working towards a climax, and the story of Cygnus X-1 Book I is introduced as an old tale. In the final part of Armageddon things get more hectic by the moment, with Lifeson's wall of guitar and Lee's effective use of synths depicting the horror of the struggle. The ending is very bombastic, forming a huge contrast with the gentle acoustic guitar that introduces the next part, Cygnus.
Cygnus - Bringer of Balance is a beautiful piece, carried by some very atmospheric synth sounds. In the background a sample of a bit of music from Book I travels across the stereophonic spectrum like a falling star. In this part Lee shows us that he can sing in a very gentle way, too. Thunderstorms can be heard, depicting the ongoing battle between Apollo and Dionysus, who are hurling thunderbolts at each other. And then, unknowingly, Cygnus halts their battle.
The contrast between music and lyrics can hardly get any bigger than at this precise moment. When Lee sings 'Then all at once the Chaos ceased', it is the subdued synth sounds that cease, to be replaced by a full band onslaught and Lee singing at the top of his lungs again!
Cygnus makes Apollo and Dionysus realize the error they've made, and only now they see what they've done to the world. Lifeson plays another one of his energetic guitar solos before the Gods appoint Cygnus as the God of Balance. The song then ends in a Rushian powerful way, with some tremendous drumming by Peart. The music slowly fades out before going into the final part.
The Sphere - A Kind of Dream is more a stand-alone part of the song than an integrated part of the story. It's a gentle piece dominated by acoustic guitar and supported by a little bit of piano and synth. It is the message of Cygnus, saying that people should be left to make their own choices, listening in equal measures to their heart and mind.
Circumstances is the shortest song on the album and is often overlooked among the other three songs on Hemispheres which are all Rush classics. It's still a great song but compared to the others it's merely good. At first glance it's a straightforward rock song, following the stanza-chorus-stanza-chorus pattern, but some of Lifeson's unusual rhythm guitar playing and some superb bass playing by Lee give it that extra something. The middle of the song features a quieter piece with multiple layers of keyboard sounds but the ending is as aggressive as the beginning.
Circumstances is followed by The Trees, a jewel both musically and lyrically. The lyrics are about a disagreement between two types of trees in a forest. The trees sort this problem out in a very human way, by forming unions to press demands, and by passing laws. The political analogies are rampant, but Peart has always said that he didn't intend there to be secret messages in this song.
Contrary to the heavy opening of Circumstances, The Trees starts off very gently with acoustic guitar and Lee singing the first stanza over a nice bassline. Birdsong can be heard in the background, completing the image of a peaceful pastoral scene. This calm is deceptive however as Peart's drums and Lifeson's heavy rhythm guitar come crashing in. This part of the song features some of Peart's best drumming on the album. Peart's instrument list also lists Temple Blocks, which he uses to great effect during the quiet intermezzo that follows. The music starts building up in volume when Lee's Rickenbacker takes to the forefront, followed by a guitar solo. Birdsong and windchimes end the song.
The last cut on the album is a nine and a half minute instrumental going by the name of La Villa Strangiato. It is subtitled An Exercise in Self-Indulgence and that it is! Having already proven that they are excellent musicians in the first three songs, the Rush triumvirate does it all over again for good measure. The song even has twelve named parts, some of which seem to have no clear meaning at all.
Spanish guitar opens this song, after which several synth melodies build up into the first outburst of power with sawing guitars and hacking bass. This is called the Strangiato Theme, which will be revisited later in the song. The long and incredible guitar solo by Lifeson that follows goes by the name of A Lerxst in Wonderland, which is of course a play of words on Lifeson's first name Alex.
The song gains in power slowly, as Lifeson plays faster and faster and Lee's bass becomes more pronounced. The outburst that follows is truly orgasmic and as such it wouldn't have hurt if it had lasted a little longer! The Ghost of the Aragon is Peart's showcase, introducing a part of the song where the time signature seems to change with every bar. After a reprise of the Strangiato Theme, the song ends rather abruptly and there's a deep silence in which you are given the chance to recover from this onslaught!
La Villa Strangiato feels like it was written out of a jam session, which is not so strange considering the fact that Rush was on the road for most of the time in those days and albums were recorded in the little time that was left between tours.
Hemispheres is an album that combines the best elements of Rush in a perfect blend. The power rock that featured a lot on their previous albums and the use of synths that would increase more and more in their later albums. On Hemispheres, the power rock is still adventurous and strong and synths add that little extra while still used sparingly.
Rush remains to this day a very special band, not in the least because the line-up hasn't changed in any way since 1974, which can be considered a rarity in the otherwise quite volatile world of prog rock! Sadly, Neil Peart lost two loved ones in recent years and at this time it is not certain if he will return into music. I do hope that he and Rush will find the strength to carry on.
Written by Derk van Mourik