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Before Rush developed one of the most innovative and influential sounds in modern rock, the group was not much more than a Led Zeppelin-worship act. On the self-titled debut, Rush fails to even create top shelf Zeppelin-worship. The songwriting is overly derivative, the lyrics do not fit Geddy Lee’s vocal persona and the drumming is far too vanilla. On its sophomore release, Fly by Night, Rush predominately produce cuts of Zeppelin-inspired hard rock, but this time they do a damn good job of mimicking the masters.
From the opening notes of Fly by Night it’s clear that Rush have improved their sound in numerous areas. Most importantly, the pedestrian drumming of John Rutsey is replaced by astonishing percussion of Neil Peart. Peart treats drumming like a master painter treats landscape painting. In the same way that the painter is careful to give each tree, mountain and stream its own personality through the small details, Peart constantly provides subtle variation, seemingly within each bar. His fills are varied and elaborate and add tons of color to every song. Peart plays with power and precision, which in turn allows Lee and Lifeson to play more technical progressions and employ a greater variety of time signatures. As a result, the compositions have way more detail and depth than those found on the debut.
Another major upgrade is in the production department. In contrast to the flat sound of the debut, Fly by Night is a robust recording, with each instrument filling a ton of sonic space. Echo and reverb are used effectively to create a rich textures, especially on the icy “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”. The improved sound is partially due to equipment upgrades at Toronto Sound Studios and partially due to the superior sensibilities of Terry Brown (who would produce the next seven Rush albums).
Peart’s impact as a lyricist is also evident. Gone are the clichéd rock n’ roll lyrics of the debut (save the Lee penned “Best I Can”) and in their place are Peart’s poetic and fantastical lyrics. In addition to simply delivering some beautiful lines (the chorus of “Beneath, Below and Behind” is Pulitzer-worthy), Peart’s lyrics fit Lee’s vocal style very well. Lee’s soaring falsetto is the perfect medium with which to express the dramatic stories and big feelings found in Peart’s lyrics.
While Fly by Night still stands the shadow of Led Zeppelin, Rush are at least resting beneath the right branches. Instead of trying to replicate the raunchy and sensual dimension of Zeppelin’s sound (which just doesn’t fit Rush’s personality), Rush replicates the bright, upbeat sound of Zeppelin’s mythological tracks such as “Battle of Evermore” and “Over the Hills and Far Away”. Even “Anthem,” which structurally resembles the visceral, erotic “Black Dog,” attunes the format with philosophical lyrics and bright, spirited vocals. As a result, Rush sound less like out-of-place wannabes and more like Zeppelin’s little brother who can’t help copying his cooler older brother’s style, but at the same time is at the cusp of developing his own identity.
That unique identity manifests on the eight and a half minute epic “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”. Over the years, Rush have become known for allowing the instrumental segments of their compositions to express portions the song’s narrative, and that is achieved brilliantly here. The first two verses set the stage, describing the a mystical world in which By-Tor and the Snow Dog prepare to battle over the fate of its land and people. The battle is expressed through screeching guitar and bellowing bass which shout at each other over racing rhythm before culminating in a series of heavy stop-start riffs that are executed with razor sharp precision. At first, the riffs are bridged by jaw-dropping drum fills, but after a while Rush just leave bars of silence between the crunching riffs. Eventually the composition falls into the dead space and enters the “Aftermath,” a minimal and atmospheric passage that creates an icy atmosphere through chimes and atonal guitar work. The song concludes with a soulful, bluesy guitar solo that leads back to the third verse, in which Lee celebrates the victory of the Snow Dog.
While “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” is the only true masterpiece on the album, tracks like “Anthem” and “Fly by Night” are beautiful and catchy pieces of 70’s rock that are full of spirit and energy. On the downside, Fly by Night does contain some filler at the end. “Rivendell” is a dull and melodramatic acoustic ballad that drags on for five torturous minutes. “In the End” is nowhere near as boring, but it does lack a memorable hook and is bloated at almost seven minutes. Even if this album loses steam down the stretch, there is enough quality material here that it is essential listening for Rush fans. On Fly by Night Rush begin to piece together their identity and establish the excellent chemistry that would drive them onward through the next two decades. Even if everything isn’t in its right place, Rush have clearly taken flight.
Originally written for deinoslogos.wordpress.com