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Caress of Steel is the album that almost killed Rush. Upon its release it was lambasted by critics, ignored by most fans and drew the ire of record executives. There are some legitimate reasons why Caress of Steel received such a negative response. It is musically inconsistent, has an awkward flow and lacks an overarching vision. It starts with three straight-forward rock songs and ends with two massive prog rock epics. The first three songs tackle pragmatic and worldly subjects, while the later two tracks delve into fantastical and allegorical stories. The short songs are musically direct and emotionally simple while the latter two tracks are demanding in every sense of the word.
Thus, Caress of Steel is an album that simply cannot be looked at as a whole, because it’s two elements are so disparate. This is somewhat true of Rush’s next album, 2112, whose Side A consists of one 20 minute epic and Side B contains five short, catchy rockers. However, on 2112 there is at least stylistic consistency between the two sides (similar style of riffs, lyrical themes etc.), even if the song structures are worlds apart. In contrast, Caress of Steel is all over the place, both musically and thematically. This is especially true of the short songs, which sound totally different from one another. “Bastille Day” is a fast-paced, fiery cut of hard rock that has an inspired sing-along chorus. Geddy Lee’s elaborate bass-lines are prominent, though Alex Lifeson’s regal guitar melody on the chorus is also unforgettable. “I Think I’m Going Bald” is arguably the worst song Rush released prior to 1987. The song is a tongue-in-cheek blues-rock piece that throws the finger up at aging. The music is stale and the witless lyrics are some of Neil Peart’s worst. “Lakeside Park” is a mellow, groovy piece that creates a nostalgic atmosphere through a series gentle guitar melodies and dreamy rhythms. While tracks 1 and 3 are actually very strong, they feel totally out of place standing next to the leviathan tracks that follow them. In all likelihood these songs were tossed on the album for the sake appeasing record company execs with some radio-friendly material.
Caress of Steel is defined by the two epics that make up almost three-fourths of the album. These songs are revolutionary for their interweaving of soft and heavy sounds, and dark and light moods to create labyrinthine emotional journeys. Both the song structures and the individual arrangements are very complex. These are difficult pieces to break into. They are not loaded the glorious hooks of other Rush epics such as “2112” and “Hemispheres.” Nonetheless, these songs will reward the listener who takes the time to become familiar with their intricate terrains.
“The Necromancer” is a twelve-minute, three part suite. It tells the story of a land where people have lost their freedom and will power under the reign of the evil Necromancer. In Part I, three travelers hunt for the Necromancer in his forest, hoping to defeat him and regain their freedom. The music is gentle but dreary and spooky, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of a dark, foreboding forest. Lee’s vocals are full of a fatalistic sorrow and Lifeson’s bluesy solo provides a palpable sense of impending doom. In Part II, the travelers are captured by the Necromancer and taken to his torture chamber. This section is exceptionally dark and heavy for 1975, rivaling Black Sabbath’s most evil moments. The bass and drums provide a low, doomy foundation over which Lifeson delivers a series wicked, menacing leads that bite at the listener like the various whips and chains of the torture chamber. Lee’s vocals are harsh and grating; at times he flirts with abandoning himself to sheer screams. Part II begins at the pace of a funeral procession, but eventually reaches a blistering tempo with all three musicians executing slashing, technical progressions with riveting precision. Part II is ground breaking: the harsh vocals, evil atmosphere and combination of speed and technicality provide the blueprint for much of the metal that emerged during the following decades. In Part III, By-Tor, the antagonist from Fly by Night’s “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” returns, this time as the hero, and expels the Necromancer from the land, allowing the citizens regain their freedom and will power. The music is pure psych-folk bliss, full of sweet and joyous vocals and guitar solos.
“The Fountain of Lamneth” is even longer and more structurally complex. It is a six part, twenty minute suite that tells the story of a man’s lifelong journey to the fountain of youth. The song is heavily allegorical and explores humanity’s insatiable desire for immortality and the ultimate isolation of the individual in the journey through life, especially in the face of death. In his pursuit of immortality, the protagonist must endure social ostracism, abandonment by friends, the loss of love and the exhaustion that comes with old age. The hand of death looms large throughout the composition, sprinkling even the most upbeat moments of the composition with a sense of morbidity.
Though “The Fountain of Lamneth” is an engrossing journey, it is not as consistent as “The Necromancer”. Part II, which is essentially a drum solo accompanied by a few harsh screams and heavy riffs is kind of cool when taken in isolation, but is disruptive to the overall flow of the composition. Part IV explores themes of love, sensuality and romance. As usual, things get ugly when Rush touch on the subject of women. The music is overly saccharine and Lee’s vocals sound like a sorry excuse for a medieval madrigal. Still, the brilliant moments heavily outweigh the weaker ones. Part III weaves back and forth between dark, jazzy, prog rock and crunching heavy metal (a section that Opeth has replicated ad infinitum). Part V creates a wonderful tension by accompanying joyous psychedelic rock with exhausted and depressing lyrics, creating the aura of a final Bacchic celebration before death. The opening and closing acoustic passages contain some of Lee’s most moving vocals, combing a sense of awe and wonder with profound pain. Overall, “The Fountain of Lamneth” might not be as accessible as Rush’s other sidelong tracks but once you break through, it's theme of mortality will resonate deeply.
It’s impossible to call Caress of Steel a great album because the songs are so distant from each other, both musically and conceptually. However, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth” are groundbreaking compositions that set the bar for countless progressive rock and metal bands. Beyond influence, they are intrinsically powerful works of art that might have been too experimental for the majority in 1975, but sound surprisingly fresh today. Even if you ignore tracks 1-3, the final two tracks are essential listening for fans of progressive rock and metal.
Originally written for deinoslogos.wordpress.com