A lot changed for Rush with “A Farewell To Kings”.  Emboldened by the success of “2112”, they decided to expand their sonic palette even further.  Alex Lifeson started incorporating nylon string guitars, double-necks, and 12-strings.  Geddy Lee acquired a Moog Synthesizer and a set of Taurus pedals and started including keyboard sounds.  And Neil started adding bells, chimes, and woodblocks to his drum set.

They had started tweaking expectations at this point though.  While there are two ten minute epics on “Kings”, they’re not multi-part like “2112” or even “The Necromancer” were.  It also featured two of their shortest songs (both under three minutes), one of which was Rush giving a concession to a tight, radio-friendly pop song.  The difference though is that their record company had encouraged them to write butt rock anthems like Bad Company had, but Rush was having none of it.  If they were going to write a pop song, they were going to do it their way.

…But we’ll get to that.  “A Farewell To Kings” starts off with…”A Farewell To Kings!”  All the things I listed earlier are on display in this opening track: Alex’s classical guitar plucking, Geddy emulating a flute with his synthesizer, and Neil chiming in with his…chimes.  We even get some birds chirping for good measure!

When things pick up though, we get more grandiose sweeping chords rather than the grinding butt rock of the past.  That’s a good word to describe the guitars from this point on: chiming.  Alex has traded in his warm phase-shifting sounds for bright, chiming chorus pedals, and it makes his guitars glisten from this point on.

The chirping birds continue onto the next track, the 10-minute epic “Xanadu”.  Geddy’s synths and Alex’s guitars swell as Neil’s bells resonate before a guitar arpeggio ring in the beginning of Rush’s new era.  I don’t have much to say about this track other than it’s awesome, so just listen to the sample below.

We then switch gears completely to the band’s first big chart hit, “Closer to the Heart”, with lyrics co-written by Peter Talbot.  Like “Tom Sawyer” would later perfect, “Closer to the Heart” would prove to be a three-minute microcosm of who Rush was and what they could do, with a positive lyric about creativity, gentle acoustic guitar chords leading into sweeping open chords (the arrangements are so simple I always imagine Alex doing Pete Townshend windmills on them), and brief appearances by Neil’s bells and Geddy’s synths.  This is Rush showing they could trim the fat if they wanted to, and the results are spectacular.

“Cinderella Man” switches between more of a grinding tone and a story-telling folksy tone, perhaps reflecting the tone of a romantic story of an underdog boxer as they do here.  This is one of the few times Geddy would still write lyrics after Neil came on board, and they’re some of his best yet, but still not up to the standard Neil had set, and the chorus is still full of simple rhymes.  Still, it’s strong musically and still has a great wild solo from Alex.

“Madrigal”, despite it’s short length and simple arrangement, is a song I confess I have a hard time writing about.  Geddy’s synths mimic a pan flute this time around, and it keeps the same quiet clean tone throughout.  It doesn’t so much “end” as it does just sort of “fade away”.  It feels like album filler and perhaps it’s no wonder that it’s never been performed live by the band.

The album closes with the second 10-minute epic “Cygnus X-1 Book 1: The Voyage”, which opens with narration like “The Necromancer” did.  You’d think this would turn me off, but it’s actually done very well this time.  The reverberating synths and the deep filtration on the narration create a very alien, unsure tone before Geddy’s bassline slowly fades in and the song starts proper.  The loose plot is an explorer aboard the ship Rocinante being drawn into a black hole in the constellation of Cygnus.  The song builds the tension as he gets closer, and ends on a faint heartbeat.

What happened to him when he went into the black hole?  We don’t find out until the next record, during which time I’ll talk about both parts of “Cygnus X-1” as a whole.

But what about the album itself?  Well, when it’s awesome, it’s really awesome!  It has a pair of the band’s best epics and one of their best stand-alone singles.  Finally the band is coming into its own and finding it’s voice, shaking off the perception of them as a Led Zeppelin clone.

Sadly though, the other tracks don’t measure up as well.  The title track and “Cinderella Man” would rightfully end up as live staples during this era, but they simply aren’t as good as later classics Rush would include on either “Moving Pictures” or “Permanent Waves”.  Admittedly though, that’s a high standard and so “A Farewell To Kings” still comes recommended from me.

Next time, Rush would take their epic suites as far as they could go, and the story of Cygnus would continue…

BEST SONG: Either “Xanadu” or “Closer to the Heart”
WEAKEST SONG: “Madrigal”

BEST LYRIC: “Sound and fury drown my heart/Every nerve is torn apart.”
WEAKEST LYRIC: “Cinderella Man/Doing what you can/They can’t understand/What it means”

RATING? Very Good