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Concept Album Corner - '2112' by Rush
As the year of 2012 draws nearer and nearer to its end, our thoughts become more and more occupied with the looming promises and threats of the future ahead of us, for good reason. Part of what makes the future so fascinating to us, I believe, is the notion of the unexpected, of the unpredictable. Certainly, the years we’ve passed have been filled with their ups and downs, leaving memories for us to look back on time after time, but the future is left totally empty, a whole series of memories waiting for us to live them out and enjoy them. So as 2012 comes to a close, where do you think humanity might be in, say, fifty years? Seventy-five years? How about a hundred? In 1976, Canadian rock band Rush decided to give their interpretation of the year 2112.
Rush is certainly a prominent figure not only in the creation of concept albums, but in rock music in general. The band has two features that many unfamiliar listeners will instantly find recognizable throughout their work, the first being Geddy Lee’s vocals and the second being Rush’s constant attempt to experiment with new styles of music throughout their discography. For the first aspect, it seems a bit unfair to single out Geddy Lee for his vocals and ignore the musicianship of drummer Neal Peart and guitarist Alex Lifeson, but for me at least, Lee’s vocals seem to be a feature that either turn music lovers off of Rush completely or attract them. It isn’t a unique vocal trait, but a very stylistic one, one that is rather gender ambiguous, similar to a Roger Daltrey victory howl, gospel-like and scratchy. As for the second aspect, the band’s most prominent feature, Rush’s constant experimentation with sound design and ideas behind their songs, whether they work or not, have certainly garnered them enough respect in the Prog Rock genre.
For their fourth studio album, Rush decided to do something bold and daring for their next concept album to top the commercial failure of their last album, Caress of Steel. In 1976, Rush – namely Neil Peart, heavily borrowing from a sci-fi novella entitled Anthem – conjured up a story for a concept album where no concept album had gone before (for the most part). Up until then, most concept albums and rock operas were focused on the spiritual and the surreal, the insane, focused on average everyday life and the aspects of it, and in the seventies, messages of peace and inner tranquility. So it was unheard of, outside of perhaps David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, to see a concept album that had spiritual, anti-authoritarian views that devoted itself entirely to the realms of science fiction. 2112, a full twenty minute suite that took up an entire side of the album, told the story of a dystopian future ruled by extraterrestrial kings and vanquished by, what else, the Power of Rock.
The song starts with a full minute the sound of an electrical, machine-like instrument booting up and whirring and whining like a drum beat far off in the infinite horizons of outer space before greeting us with the loud bombing notes of an electric guitar. Here we are given the first snippets of the suite’s major themes in an Overture, soon accompanied by the hyper bang and thrashing of drums by Neil and a choral chanting by a ghostly, alien choir, fittingly enough. The Overture roars and howls with epic, war-like bombast like some sort of intergalactic battle sequence, even containing a guitar arrangement of a snippet of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, ending with the light plucking of guitar strings, it’s only lyrics being And the meek shall inherit the Earth, a reference to a phrase from The New Testament of The Bible. Though most people aren’t entirely certain what events take place in this piece of the suite, as said before, it is typically assumed that the alien force, The Solar Federation, it’s symbol a famous logo for Rush being a Red Star, assumes power and rises to control the earth.
The next song, loud and menacing, the guitar a roar rumbling from the throat of a monstrous creature, introduces the antagonist of the piece, “The Priests of the Temples of Syrinx.” Through an ostentatious set of “great computers”, the priests are able to control every single facet of the way we live ever since the year 2062, the human race brainwashed to believe that everything is under control, that we have gained intergalactic peace ever since the remaining planets have joined together under the Red Star of the Solar Federation. Though the Priests preach of equality, that equality is a rather tricky notion to get around. In order to be equal, everyone is required to be just the same as everyone else, to all be one whole rather than individual parts, no one better than the other or weaker than the other, save for the Priests who control our lives and deny even the smallest piece of individuality or free will to spark through. We’ve taken care of everything/The words you read and the songs you sing/Never need to wonder how or why. Geddy Lee is placed as the vocalist for the priests, which honestly works for the album. For such a loud, gender ambiguous voice, it suits the notion of an alien overlord, understandable, yet odd and strange, unfamiliar and, dare I say it, alien. Throughout, the song is perfect hard gutbucket blasting rock and roll, just the way I like it, save for the soft quiet string plucking foreshadowing the next song.
The sound of a bubbling brook fades into the picture as the nameless protagonist of 2112 makes a “Discovery”, as the title suggests. The light strumming of the electric guitar is made, supposedly, by the protagonist, finding an ancient guitar, a life-changing treasure, found in a cave by a waterfall. The protagonist learns to tune the guitar and play it, open noted and simple to increasingly complex chord patterns, the man’s joy rising as does his musical prowess. He is making his own music, different from that of the priests. Good intentions at heart, he goes to show the priests, hoping to gain their praise and make a new discovery that people will cherish for eons to come, from the ability to make their own music.
In “Presentation”, things don’t go over with the Priests as well as the protagonist hoped. One particular priest, Father Brown, is especially displeased with the protagonist’s discovery, not showing grateful joy but quiet rejection. They dismiss his music and his guitar as a child’s plaything, an obsolete, useless tool for their advanced way of living. In fact, they dare say that reverting to the past would lead them to destruction as it had for ‘the elder race of man’. Still, the protagonist tries to convince them, hoping for peace and prosperity out of the ordeal. The contrast between Alex Lifeson as the protagonist and Geddy Lee as the priests is executed very well, the softness of the protagonist and the distorted hard rock of the priests working against each other smoothly and easily. Finally, the priests can’t stand any more, destroying the guitar and leading to an outro of their tune from “Priests of the Temples of Syrinx”, leaving a warning: Don’t annoy us further.
In “Oracle: The Dream”, the protagonist returns to his home, defeated and humiliated. At home, he has a vision of the past (for some reason) and supposes it to be a dream. But it bothers him, how realistic and honest it seemed to him. He meets an oracle along the way who guides him through the past, showing a world and a life five decades before the Solar Federation took over. He shows a world where individuality flourished and creativity reigned on everyone before the invasion. The guitars are somewhat distorted, echoing fluidly like ripples in water, dreamlike, not alien per say, before going back to a decidedly more upbeat hard rock. The protagonist is even shows that ‘the elder race of man’ never died out, but simply left, vowing to come back to destroy the Solar Federation. The protagonist is left to question everything in his life now, especially life’s meaning and overall purpose, now that it is cold and empty.
The song “Soliloquy” ends on a rather dour note. The quiet plucking of electric guitar echo with the protagonists voice, slowly growing more and more distant, as he dreams of the world he wants, the world of the elder race of man. The song again switches to mournful hard rock, the protagonist tumbling over in despair and misery, knowing he’ll never reach those days again. Drowning in sorrow, he does what any person would do in this situation. My blood spills over ends the song, heavily implying suicide.
We finally end with, appropriately enough, a “Grand Finale”, the loudest and most heavily rock oriented part of the suite, sounding like an early Who song at the beginning, the fast throbbing of bass notes booming while the guitar shouts in the distance like a victory march before going straight into the action. The suicide of the protagonist has not been in vain it seems, as the Priests are overtaken by a revolution of the planets they have overtaken, even being attacked by the elder race of man mentioned from before. The track remains heavily instrumental for the most part, action taking over the scene until the massive explosion of an ending, an electrically transmitted voice repeating an ambiguous message three times: Attention all planets of the Solar Federation, we have assumed control. While the ending is ambiguous, Neil Peart later went on to say that his intention was optimistic, that the elder race won the battle.
I cannot say I’m a massive fan of Rush as this is their only album I have (at the time, anyways). I cannot say I’m a massive fan of science fiction either, as many concepts of science fiction either seem a little too complex for me to fully appreciate or perhaps a little too “out there” even for a fantasy lover like myself (no pun intended). Actually, perhaps the case with sci-fi is that it isn’t too “out there” to be fantasy, but too grounded in reality to be fantasy, merging the two together. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is admittedly an alien notion to me (pun intended).
Still, while I’m not a massive fan of either, I wouldn’t ever say I hate them. There is obvious talent and intrigue that both Rush and science fiction have. Part of what makes science fiction and Rush work is the simple question of “What if?”. Sci-fi creates worlds wherein geniuses are able to test their imagination coupled with their massive knowledge of biology and chemistry and so forth. Likewise, the band members of Rush are obviously musically gifted and musically intelligent, so seeing a band with enough knowledge of music to try and create new ideas with music is always a welcome. This is by all means a good album, I’m just not the intended audience, per usual.
Me personally, I’m a fan of characters, of delving into a person’s mindset and the reasoning behind their actions, which works well in any setting, even with a sci-fi aspect. Which will lead us into the next review for the New Year of 2013. Happy New Year’s, everybody.