Here’s a clip of Canadian math-rock progists Rush with their 1978 track “Xanadu” as taken from their album A Farewell to Kings. Of any North American band who ever tried to match their European progressive rock counterparts for complexity and lyrical conception, it is Rush. This track is a part of their middle-phase, when their high concept material and intricate playing began to define them.
The first phase had them as skilled Zeppelinists, pumping out hard blues-rock much like Zep, but not really nailing down a voice of their own. By 1976, with their album 2112, and with the addition of a new drummer and lyricist in Neil Peart, their musical ambitions expanded with more rhythmic complexity, longer instrumental passages, conceptual lyrics, and approach to presenting their songs as a part of a greater whole. And so was the second phase of the band’s career begun, with a slight shift from Led Zeppelin to something more akin to Yes with bigger cojones, and just as the prog rock was beginning to wane in Europe. I think the success of the group lay in the fact that they built on their Zep-head roots, while adding something new to the prog landscape.
Sure, “Xanadu” is complex, and dependent upon source material having to do with the English Romantic poetry of Coleridge more than with the riffage of Chuck Berry. But, it doesn’t forget to rock, as well as build a story. So, the stoners bought in, but so did the musos and sci-fi geeks. That’s quite an achievement for a little band formed in Willowdale Ontario, just north of Toronto.
Ironically, the single taken from this same record is “Closer to the Heart”, marked with the same lofty lyrics as anything else on the album, and looked upon as something of a signature tune even today. It was certainly a radio staple. And perhaps it was the success of CTTH that the band began their third phase, which was about radio-friendly singles with only a hint of their progressive rock leanings, as opposed to the unabashed, arguably long-winded ‘prog’ as found on “Xanadu”.
As such, they rode out the backlash against big, generic corporate rock shows by continuing to pursue the three piece hard rock of their roots, matched with an embrace of technology – keyboards, MIDI technology – that sustained them into the 1980s. By the next decade of course their appeal was cemented. Today, they’re an institution, true prog/hard rock survivalists who have gained pan-generational appeal; a rare thing indeed.
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