Rush fans are a funny bunch. Passionate and opinionated, they love to argue amongst themselves. From Zeppelin-esque beginnings, to prog-rock glory, to misadventures with keyboards, the band simply followed their musical instincts. While most fans embrace all eras, an emotional minority clings to specific periods that they hold near to their heart. For me, this narrow connection roughly translates to 70’s Rush. True, I love parts of Permanent Waves and freely admit that “YYZ” is an indisputable work of undying perfection. Yet, to me, Hemispheres was the last great Rush album.
A musician myself, I’m blessed to play in a trio with other Rush fans. My drummer even lists Rush as his favorite band. In fact, he’s the one that pressed me to forgive Rush for their 80’s transgressions and explore their post-synth material. Yet, we argue incessantly about this band. The point of contention? He dislikes their first three albums, including the mighty Caress of Steel.
Here’s the thing, he’s not the only one. The story is famous. Caress of Steel was a financial flop in 1975; coming nowhere close to the commercial success of Fly By Night. The record buying public shunned the longer tracks that were destined to become the future of Rush. Those who embraced FM radio singles like “Working Man” had zero interest in a twenty-minute song that encompassed an entire album side. Dismal ticket sales led the supporting tour to be dubbed the “Down the Tubes Tour.” Consequently, the record company practically demanded the band forsake their new direction. Rush refused, fine-tuned their approach and produced the space-rock masterpiece, 2112; their commercial breakthrough.
There could be no 2112 without Caress of Steel. Essentially, the birth of Rush as a professional band was born with the vital album I have set out to defend. Not merely a defense, but also a guide; my goal is to liberate this work of art from its undue reputation as a misfire in the Rush canon.
What made my drummer, a genuine Rush fan who loves 2112, disregard Caress of Steel as a viable contribution to a storied discography? My suspicion is he approached the album with preconceptions; mistakenly equating the album as the product of young apprentices that have yet to master their craft. Consequently, the album was given a half-hearted listen and quickly forgotten.
No wonder he dislikes Caress of Steel. It’s an album that demands attention. One must find solitude. Sit alone in a darkened room with headphones and allow the sonic landscape to envelope the self. You’ll find yourself lost in distant worlds, much like a good book transforms the reader into a world of fantasy.
“Bastille Day” kicks the album off with the time-tested honesty of a Gibson through a saturated Marshall stack. It is the sound of rock n roll purity. Single notes interspersed by drum fills give way to distorted chords designed to reverberate off theatre walls. Moments later the drums kick into double-time and off it goes! Geddy leaps into a high-pitched yelp as he puts forth an urgent plea for revolt!
What really matters here is the ENERGY. Remember, this is 1975! It’s just so HEAVY for the mid-seventies. This song gives bands like Sabbath and Purple a run for their money. But, again, the ENERGY! No wonder this song opened each Rush concert for several tours in the seventies (Be sure to check out the live versions on All The World’s a Stage and Different Stages).
Rush have never feared showing their humorous side. “I Think I’m Going Bald” finds Geddy lamenting the loss of youth, innocence and…well…HAIR! The lyrics are clearly meant to be funny but a much more serious sentiment lurks beneath the surface. Even in their early twenties, these musicians have found themselves “so involved with life.” Somehow the band is not what it once was.
Imagine the pressure of having a corporate goliath invest unfathomable amounts of money in your art with the expectation of profit. Rush were not rock stars in 1975 but three young men who were putting their heart and soul into making music they loved. It was a “do or die” moment. Success meant living out meaningful careers that gave them fame for simply indulging their passions. Failure meant the loss of all they had worked for and uncertain futures in a drab 9-5 world.
When Geddy Lee introduces “Lakeside Park” on All The Word’s a Stage, he tells the crowd, “This is a song that Neil wrote the lyrics for about a place not too far from where he was born.” This is perhaps what is so endearing about the song. “Lakeside Park” is personal, reflective and a remembrance of the lost innocence lamented in the previous track. Lyrics like, “Drinking by the lighthouse, smoking on the pier, still we saw the magic was fading every year,” make me happy and sad at the same time. I absolutely love the bridge that starts at 2:37. A slow phaser beautifully corrupts jangly open chords. The inflection in Geddy’s voice reveals just how well he understands the importance of phrasing. It’s a standout track that proudly represents Caress of Steel on the previously mentioned live album.
“The Necromancer” holds the distinction of being my favorite Rush track of all time. Clocking in at over twelve minutes and sub-titled; “A Short Story by Rush,” it represents their first true attempt at composing an epic song. Yes, the lyrics hold a distinctly Tolkien quality that unabashedly displays the nerdy qualities that have become synonymous with Rush. Chuckle if you will. To me, it’s endearing, honest and part of their appeal.
The song itself is separated into three sections. “Into the Darkness,” “Under the Shadow” and “Return of the Prince.” Each section thematically represents a distinct chapter in a longer story and begins with a spoken word intro performed by none other than Neil Peart!
“Into the Darkness” fades in slowly. Delay drenched guitars, alive in electric tube glory, glow beneath spoken words that tell of desperate times. You sense anguish, fear and terror in the notes. It is up to three travelers from Willowdale (Geddy and Alex’s hometown!) to overcome insurmountable odds to break the “dread power” of an evil Necromancer. The moaning lyric, “Weighs like iron tears,” gives way to an emotional guitar solo. Simple pentatonics are all that’s required. Alex refrains from playing anything too busy. This section is all about tone, emotion and pushing the story forward.
Neil’s spoken words return to introduce the next section, “Under the Shadow.” Warning that the Necromancer is “already aware of the three helpless invaders trapped in his lair,” the stage is set for conflict. Shortly after the four-minute mark, a drum fill soaked in reverb gives way to a distorted riff that locks in with the rhythm section.
I always listen from the perspective that the album was recorded in the mid-seventies. In that context, it strikes me as the HEAVIEST song ever written. Listen to Geddy perform the passage that begins with “Brooding in the tower.” Contemplate the sheer physical strain involved. A visceral emotion that begins in the gut, shaking the rib cage as it rises before being expelled in a tortured yelp. Alex solos again with more intensity than before, yet the ear is drawn to Geddy’s galloping groove underneath. A bass line that steals one’s attention from the big guitar solo? For those listening in 1975, this is when the revelation hits. GEDDY LEE IS THE ULTIMATE BASSIST!
Next, the listener is assaulted by a series of heavy riffs. Each instrument comes together and grooves with an intensity that has no rival. Studio trickery designed to impress stoned teenagers segues into an all-out virtuoso shred-fest where the three instrumentalists play without restraint. The energy and heaviness that make me love this era of Rush is firmly represented. It all comes back together and the three instruments lock in tightly once again. The second passage stops on a dime. Pure aggression is underscored by an abrupt change that marks the start of the final section.
Let it be known, that I absolutely adore “Return of the Prince” with every ounce of my soul. Sharp tinges of unbridled emotion ignite every nerve ending when I listen to this passage. It’s rare that music can impact one’s emotional state with this level of intensity. Here, we have victory of good over evil. I can’t help but smile while listening to “Return of the Prince.” This section makes me feel happy to be alive.
Bright, cheerful arpeggios complement the final appearance of our narrator who now has good news to report. Who will save our brave warriors from the supernatural powers of the evil Necromancer? Why, Prince By-Tor of course! After eight minutes of dread, fear, anger, hopelessness and despair the mood changes. Musically, this section exudes happiness, joy and celebration.
I just LOVE the way Geddy delivers his vocals in this passage. Listen. Seriously. LISTEN! You should be in a state of relaxation and unconcerned with the thousand trivial distractions that eat at the mind.
Consider all the thought and planning that has gone into this song. This band is attempting to paint their masterpiece. Listen to the music beneath. The three musicians have created a beautiful canvas to paint upon. The vocals are the last stroke that will make or break their proudest moment. He delivers perfectly. The song is their single greatest achievement at this point in their career.
What can a band conceivably do when they have just written a sprawling song of epic proportions? Why, you out-epic your epic! It is now time to flip the record over and explore Side Two, consisting solely of the twenty-minute, “The Fountain of Lamneth.” Deserving of it’s own article, I’ll keep my comments brief.
Really, the track is not as intimidating as it seems. “The Fountain of Lamneth” is broken up into six sections, that while related, can be approached as six distinct songs. An acoustic guitar begins the celebration of youth that is “In the Valley” before big riffs and loud passages break up gentle musings on the beauty of life. The world is full of wonder for a young protagonist who experiences the foolish optimism that universally plagues the innocent.
Drums, studio trickery and aggression fuel “Didacts and Narpets.” Anger and conflict move the song into new territory. Once more, I find myself marveling at the sheer heaviness of a young Rush.
Remember, it was my DRUMMER’S unwarranted slight of this album that spurred me to defend the honor of this masterpiece. This section is indisputable proof that my drummer didn’t LISTEN to the album. How could ANY drummer hear Neil Peart in full-throttle mode and not have it become an instant part of their musical essence. As the final word of the section demands, “LISTEN!”
“No One at the Bridge” is a moody song of being lost and alone in an uncertain world of turmoil. “Panacea” amounts to a tender love song. “Bacchus Plateau” is a sad tale of finding oneself irreversibly trapped in the hopelessness of modern adult life. This section also contains one of my favorite lines. There is clearly an internalized purity when Geddy screams, “GIVE ME BACK MY WONDER!”
“The Fountain” is the end of the song, end of the album and end of life. The riff from “In the Valley is revisited before the acoustic intro returns as an outro, serving nicely as bookends. It’s really a beautiful song. A final note cascades. Is it death? The end? Draw your own conclusion.