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"Life for yourself -- there's no one else more worth living for / Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more..."
It's pretty amazing what can happen to a band within the space of a year. Rush's self-titled debut had initially tanked commercially, but gradually gained popularity as months went by. In that time, their drummer John Rutsey had to leave the band due to complications with diabetes, leaving a third of the band's membership up for grabs. The decision to induct Neil Peart into the ranks of Rush stands as one of the most propitious lineup changes in rock history. I like the debut - I really do! - but it's difficult in current hindsight to dissociate the band's sound and style from Peart. Alex and Geddy had more than enough personality between the two of them to carry a rock record, but it was Neil that pushed them towards a more sophisticated end.
Rush was a solid hard rock album, but it was limited in intellectual scope. Sure, "Working Man" could be interpreted as existential to a certain degree, but their lyrical themes were hooked within genre expectations: contrived lust, having fun, and youthful malcontent. With Peart and Fly by Night, they went from that to songs aboutAyn Rand, of all fucking things. More than that, they were also making songs about Lord of the Rings and the mythic struggles of frostbitten puppies. An expression of highbrow literacy paired with an inkling for all things Fantastic were sure signs that Rush were well on the way to becoming progressive rock.
...It's unfortunate that the music quite as interesting. Despite a few incredible tracks, Fly By Night is one of those sophomores that tries to be several kinds of follow-up at once. Rush were trying to push past the straight-up heavy blues on the debut; a nine minute track like "By-Tor & the Snow Dog" (complete with incomprehensible subsections) was a clear nod towards bigger things. At the same time, they clearly didn't wish to alienate fans of the first; rockers like "Best I Can" and "Beneath, Between & Behind" could have easily masqueraded as weaker tracks on the self-titled. Fly By Night is a less consistent album, with higher highs, lower lows, and a weaker sense of coherence, if only because Rush were trying out so many new things at once. It was a necessary transition album, but it's always struck me as one of the weaker chapters in their discography, alongside the arguable nadir they hit in the 90s, circa Test for Echo.
At the same time, Fly by Night isn't so easily dismissed. On top of having a few of the least appetizing tracks of Rush's early career, there are a couple of the absolute best. On the heels of the self-titled, hearing "By-Tor & the Snow Dog" is a revelation. The peppy rock energy they've carried throughout their career becomes entwined with progressive bombast here. Even if they were new to the 'prog' genre here, they were already teaching it a thing or two. Most progressive suites take time to build and get started; "By-Tor" erupts with a quick drum fill and bursts into the quick meat of the song. The instrumental mid-section is one of the coolest things Rush would ever do; the counterpoint between Lifeson's playful leads and Geddy Lee's heavily distorted bass fuzz sounds like a conversation between two distinct personalities- isn't that what all battles are to begin with?
Even if it's certainly the most ambitious piece on the album, "By-Tor" isn't my favourite. The honour has always gone to "Anthem", which musically might be described as "Finding My Way" on amphetamines. Rush were clearly trying to recreate the thunderous energy that opened the self-titled, and they managed to one-up it in every possible way, creating one of the best hard rock songs I've ever heard. I really like how it takes absolutely no time whatsoever to demonstrate the talents of their newest member. Neil Peart is in top form with "Anthem"; the drums are crisp and frantic, and it's clear Lifeson and Lee are benefiting from the fresh blood.
I have so many good things to say about those two tracks- even the title track "Fly By Night" has gone some peppy flame to it, although the nuisance of radio overplay probably weighs against it. It's a memorable, catchy pop song with a contagiously cheerful riff to boot. much like the debut however, there are just as many songs on Fly By Night that come off as underwhelming. "Best I Can" and "Beneath, Between & Behind" sound like they're rehashing the self-titled without the credit of great riff writing. Barring the title track, the rest of the second half is downright disappointing. I suppose "Making Memories" is decent, but there's nothing really compelling about a simplified acoustic rock tune in the wake of what came before it. "In the End" tries to play the role of bombastic closer, but the hazy pace feels lifeless. Worst of all (and I'm sure some will disagree) is "Rivendell". By all means I know I should be enjoying Rush trying to be Yes or something out of Jon Anderson's solo career, but the sleepy atmosphere never seems to end. It is a small handful of initially charming ideas stretched out to make a song two or three minutes longer than it really should be. Fly By Night has considerably more to say than its predecessor, but nothing off of Rush felt as lazy and uncompelling as the last couple of tracks here.
Fly By Night is a total mixed bag. Unlike the self-titled (which I think benefited from a revisit) my thoughts on Rush's second album haven't changed much over the years. There are a few immortal tunes, some 'meh', and a couple I'm bored stiff by. In any case, there's a lot to be said for any band that tries this hard to see what they're capable of. Emerging from the shadow of their influences was no doubt a scary step to make, but judging from the streak of legendary records they would make soon after this, I think their leap of faith paid off fairly well; don't you?