A Great Discovery in Rush's "2112": Prog Rock Countdown #22

A Great Discovery in Rush's "2112": Prog Rock Countdown #22

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Though less impactful upon me than Foxtrot (1972), 2112 (1976) constitutes the prehistory of my love of prog. While I was discovering music in my early teens in the late 90s, Rush was unavoidable on Canadian rock radio. I quickly grew to love their idiosyncratic hits, though I did have a hard time distinguishing Rush from Heart and even Sass Jordan at first.

Before I got to 2112, though, I immersed myself in the triple live album, Different Stages (1998). Although this contained a live version of the entire "2112," I was wary of a song divided into 7 parts totaling about 20 minutes, so I typically skipped it. Even by after I bought a used copy of 2112, I was more enthralled by the 2 other albums I got at the same time: Presto and Counterparts (1993) remain among my top 5 Rush albums, while 2112 ranks somewhere in the middle.

Over time and with careful listening, I've grown more appreciative of 2112 of course, but it will never be my go-to Rush album. I betray my poseur status as a prog fan by stating publicly that I prefer 80s synth Rush to the earlier prog stuff.

The appeal of this album is immediate, however, and it was an appropriate choice as one of the first additions to my Rush collection. After a spacey intro, the "Overture" of the title track hits hard with its unmistakable staccato eruptions that eventually lead up to the explosive and expository "Temples of Syrinx."

It's rare for these 20-minute prog epics to have a story this coherent, with a tone and mood to the music that so perfectly matches the narrative. I'm especially partial to the 3rd movement, "Discovery," in which the protagonist discovers an ancient guitar and gradually sings his pleasure at bending the strings to his will. As he describes his growing musicianship, the guitarwork becomes increasingly complex: the section begins with some tentatively plucked notes and chords, and then on to more and more intricate chord progressions. The live version of this section from Different Strings is even better, though it supersedes the buildup with Alex Lifeson showing off what he can do with a guitar right from the start.

After "Discovery," there's a plot twist in the 4th movement: the leaders of this dystopian society are well aware of music, but they keep it from the people, lest the untalented become jealous of the gifted, creating dissatisfaction. Or something. (Neil Peart was apparently way into Ayn Rand at the time.) The accompanying sense of betrayal is developed beautifully, with the next two sections providing a moodily defiant fallout as the protagonists confronts the truth of his world. The ambiguously forceful finale is then dissatisfying from a narrative point of view - we don't know which forces have "assumed control" - but wonderfully cathartic in the way it brings back the riffs and the bombast of the "Overture" and "Temples of Syrinx" sections.

Enough has been said by others about "2112." The story, while well-developed considering the medium, is ultimately less interesting than the countless dystopian novels and short stories dealing with similar ideas about the conflict arising from a false dilemma of volatile individualism versus peaceful conformity.

"2112" itself is an undeniable classic. Had the second side been an equally powerful epic, this album would easily rank in the top 3 of both Rolling Stone's list and my own. But the question of 2112 always comes down to whether the other 5 songs are all that good or not. I don't think anyone says they're better than the title track, but many would say they are a fitting counterpoint. The album begins as Rush's breakthrough statement about their place in the cannon of prog - are they perhaps the musical genius whom a jealous hierarchy cannot abide? The second half more modestly proclaims that the band is still comfortable and quite competent with a mainstream rock sound as well.

"A Passage to Bangkok" is a fan favourite, but I find it the worst part of the album by far. The veiled references about where in the world to score good weed is sophomoric, and the music is not that exciting. Its simplicity and lifelessness is a disappointing follow up to "2112."

Things get a little better on "The Twilight Zone," a song that, like "2112," vacillates between aggressive and wistful to great effect and contains some beautiful soloing from Lifeson.

Although it's the most conventionally classic rock song on the album, "Lessons" somehow schools the two tracks that precede it. It's just a great jam.

The acoustic ballad "Tears" is one of the most beautiful and understated songs in Rush's discography, and far less nerdy than the Lord of the Rings inspired "Rivendell" off their first album or the similar fantasy reflection "Madrigal" from A Farewell to Kings (1974). Nor is it as self-indulgent as the later "Second Nature" and "Tai Shan" from Hold Your Fire (1987). Rush actually has a hard time with soft, heartfelt songs, and "Tears" is the clear standout.

And then there's "Something for Nothing." The album closes with the only among the shorter tracks to match the power and brilliance of "2112," even if its message is commonplace.

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

  12. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  13. Pink Floyd - Animals

  14. Genesis - Foxtrot

  15. King Crimson - Red

  16. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  17. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  18. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

  19. Premiata Forneria Marconi - Per Un Amico

  20. King Crimson - Larks’ Tongue in Aspic

  21. Camel - Mirage

  22. Rush - 2112

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Genesis - Foxtrot

  3. Camel - Mirage

  4. Yes – Close to the Edge

  5. King Crimson - Red

  6. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  7. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  8. Rush - 2112

  9. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  10. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  11. Rush - Moving Pictures

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

  13. Premiata Forneria Marconi - Per Un Amico

  14. King Crimson - Larks’ Tongue in Aspic

  15. Pink Floyd - Animals

  16. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

  17. Yes - Fragile

  18. Rush - Hemispheres

  19. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  20. Can - Future Days

  21. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  22. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

Tangential Musings on Tangerine Dream's "Phaedra": Prog Rock Countdown #23

Tangential Musings on Tangerine Dream's "Phaedra": Prog Rock Countdown #23

Seeing Doubles in Camel's "Mirage": Prog Rock Countdown #21

Seeing Doubles in Camel's "Mirage": Prog Rock Countdown #21