20 Rush Albums in 20 Days: Hemispheres
DAY TWELVE: Rush, Hemispheres, running time 36:14, released October 29, 1978
Sitting down to listen to Hemispheres this morning, I expected what some consider Rush’s most self-indulgent album (and indeed, the band itself subtitles their lengthy instrumental “La Villa Strangiato” “An exercise in Self-Indulgence”) to be a bloated mess. Instead, I was surprised by how fresh and exciting it sounds, even showing signs of minimalism along the way. It’s a snappy, ambitious effort that highlights Rush’s virtuosity while still presenting memorable and accessible melodies.
“Hemispheres,” a sequel from the previous album, is lengthy at eighteen minutes, but it doesn’t get bogged down under its own weight. The prelude effectively touches on all the prominent themes, thereby anchoring the listener in what’s about to transpire, and the sections are well laid out with interesting time signatures and memorable melodies. The piece takes a momentary respite in the section “Cygnus,” which reminds me a lot of how Yes took things down a notch during their magnum opus “Close to the Edge” in the “I Get Up, I Get Down” section. The only thing “Hemispheres” lacks is the compelling story that made “2112” such a terrific vehicle for a side-long song (“Clockwork Angels” suffers the same comparison). The battle of the heart and mind simply isn’t as interesting as oppressive forces shattering a person’s discovery of music. Nonetheless, it’s a good piece, and the ending (“The Sphere”) is one I keep hoping Rush will one day play live. It’s such a beautiful, short piece and still within Geddy’s vocal range, that it would make a wonderful encore. The audience would explode. Perhaps one day.
Side two offers two shorter tracks, “Circumstances” and “The Trees,” that both take advantage of dynamic changes during their respective instrumental sections (something the previous album I listened to, Power Windows, could have benefitted greatly from), and the former offers a heretofore rare glimpse into a first-person Neil Peart, something he’ll explore more and more in the upcoming albums. The 9-minute “La Villa Strangiato” is Rush’s first legitimate instrumental, and it works on so many levels. After a terrific classical guitar opening by Lifeson, the song begins a long crescendo into a very unpretentious three-chord theme before going off into some more elaborate directions. What I really like about this tune, aside from it’s obvious playfulness during the “Monsters!” theme (a rip-off, by the way, of Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” – a fact that resulted a payment by Rush to Scott), is the way Geddy gets the hell out of the way at 3:40 and lets Lifeson do his thing, which he does oh so well for the next two minutes. It’s a fantastic example of how less is more, and it’s among LIfeson’s most impressive and effective guitar solos.
This was the end of the line for Rush’s penchant for lengthy sci-fi pieces, and greater things were soon to follow as the band began to balance shorter, more accessible pieces with slightly longer, more ambitious efforts. In this sense, perhaps “The God of balance” in “Hemispheres” was a prescient symbol of the band’s musical journey.
Tomorrow, I’ll be listening to…drum roll, please…number 16, Test for Echo, the end of an era for Rush before personal events forced a six-year interruption.