Rush’s “Hemispheres” Subdivided: Prog Review #11

Rush’s “Hemispheres” Subdivided: Prog Review #11


Tl;dr: I should be listening to A Farewell to Kings (1977) instead. Seriously, the inclusion of Hemispheres (1978) at number eleven is an obvious error on the part of the Rolling Stone editors. Hemispheres is a fine album, of course, but it is no masterpiece. I think a lot of fans would agree that 2112 (1976) or Kings is an easier choice. I'd even suggest Permanent Waves (1980) ahead of this one.

Side one of this album is an eighteen-minute follow up to A Farewell to King’s final track, “Cygnus X-1 Book 1: The Voyage”. “Book II: Hemispheres” continues the story introduced on the previous album about the space explorer sucked into the black hole Cygnus X-1. In part two, he re-emerges on Olympus and resolves a dispute between the Greek gods Dionysus and Apollo about the relative values of emotion and logic: commonly associated with the right and left hemispheres of the brain respectively, hence the title. Both halves of the story blend allusions that don’t really belong together: bizarrely, the spaceman’s ship is called the Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. But the explorer has nothing in common with the wayward knight, that we know of. And how does a black hole connect to Greek mythology?

Musically, though, “Hemispheres” is a disappointment, lacking the intensity of “The Voyage” and often merely revisiting musical themes from the previous album. The first sections of “Hemispheres” sound a lot like the song “A Farewell to Kings,” minus the folk guitar and dreamy synth and chimes. "Hemispheres" is flat and dull and empty. It doesn’t really go anywhere, and it should be telling that this was the last side-long track Rush would ever release.   

The remaining three tracks are a mixed bag. “Circumstances” is Rush at their most mediocre, it could have been featured on Test for Echo. “The Trees,” by contrast, is fresh and fun, even despite its similarities to “Closer to the Heart”. Like “Hemispheres,” it employs clumsy allegories, telling the story of a civil rights battle between maples and oaks that results in a forced equality through the intervention of “hatchet, axe, and saw.” Is this song about equality? Environmentalism? Or just a silly pseudo-fable? As a story, it’s kind of funny, and as a song it’s pleasant and complicated. The shifting time signatures make you sit up and pay attention, especially during the 5/4 instrumental section build-up with its long gaps of acoustic guitar punctuated by cymbal crashes and synth chords.

The true gem of the album, though, is the closer, “La Villa Strangiatto,” the longest and best instrumental track in the band’s catalogue, and among Rush's best songs period. This is nine-and-a-half minutes of swirling, jazz-inspired rock and roll delight.    

Nevertheless, Hemispheres sounds like a whole lot of sameness. You can hear Rush trying to branch out a little with the complex rhythms and structures of “The Trees” and “La Villa Strangiato”, but “Hemispheres” tries too hard to replicate the aggressive, epic sounds of “2112” and “The Voyage”. Hemispheres is Rush reaching toward new ideas without the conviction to fully move away from their past. It’s a forced and often uninteresting rehash that only briefly looks forward to the innovations of the band’s next two albums.  

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Yes – Close to the Edge

  3. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  4. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  5. Rush - Moving Pictures

  6. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  7. Yes - Fragile

  8. Rush - Hemispheres

  9. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  10. Can - Future Days

  11. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here


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