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Primordial ooze - 69%

OlympicSharpshooter, April 28th, 2005

Most bands do their best work within their earliest recordings, when the passion burns hottest and the music flows most freely. Most bands, however, are not tinkering away in isolation on a type of music never (or only circuitously) heard previously. Rush did not really manage to capture the elusive essence of their sound until their fourth record and even then took an additional two records to inch their way to the creative zenith of the early 80’s. No, Rush has no Sad Wings of Destiny or Ride the Lightning to shake the collective consciousness of the music world and even their first convincing testament to progressive metal (2112) is often a shaky affair. But in spite of the lack of a real lightning rod, watershed album it is still worthwhile to take a look at the murky meanderings on Rush’s first three platters and specifically here on A Caress of Steel.

More so than the bouncier and generally lighter Fly By Night, A Caress of Steel can make a case as the first progressive metal LP. It would be difficult to call an album with one twenty minute track comprising side two anything but progressive and the metal quotient is certainly quite respectable, but this bares little resemblance to the prog metal of today. The album is quite jammy and certainly in a technical headspace, but its more of the pastoral 60’s drenched sound of Jethro Tull or The Moody Blues crossed with the chops of Yes, and perhaps with a touch of Procol Harem’s class and The Who’s wild heart. However, there are certain elements of the core sound that are present here, as well as paths that have since become weed-choked and overgrown from disuse. The acoustic passages on this album are positively ethereal, folksy and often melancholic. The subtle shading here is above and beyond the scope of the great majority of bashers who would follow outside of freak mutations such as Opeth, and here they are allowed to dominate. I’d conservatively estimate that half of Caress is acoustic. Rush would later cultivate these magical musics and integrate it more smoothly with the rest of their sound; here the about-faces seem downright amateurish at times.

The metal here is thumping and enthusiastic, utterly 70’s in sound. You wouldn’t guess that the riffic pyrotechnics of 2112 were immediately forthcoming by listening to Caress because everything here is low-slung and Sabbatherian. “Bastille Day” does brisk business, but lacks the Purple flavour that signifies speed metal heritage, and “I Think I’m Going Bald” is no more (and no less!) than dirty blues played loud, distorted, and half-cocked. But look ye at the second part of “The Necromancer” (“Under the Shadow”) and savour the death-shrouded Zep-improving trick-flipping funk metal, the raw and raspy Geddy vocal, the bass-driven groove riff. When Alex cranks the guitar on that sucker, it’s as mosh worthy as any riff of the early 70’s. The stop-start timing of that tight riffset is impressive, but what follows is more so. Sabbath fastbreak section with a total neoclassical shred solo o’er top around the seven and a half minute mark that leads into a brief neckwrecking riff at 8:30. Pause the CD. Rewind that riff. Hardest riff in metal as of 1975? Were it longer the likes of “Symptom of the Universe” would quake in their boots.

So, why 69/100? Well, quite frankly, Rush just aren’t good enough to get everything right yet. “The Necromancer” which consists of awesome psych-y space rock (“Into the Darkness”), crushing metal (“Under the Shadow”), and uplifting Wishbone Ash-style acoustic rock (“Return of the Prince”) manages to shoot itself right in the foot by including a good two minutes of NARRATION by some guy who sounds like he’s been smoking pot since roughly 1968. This dope is outright gutbusting to people who don’t know the album and the number one cause of strokes for people who try to take this thing seriously. There are three interludes wherein the ‘plot’ is explained for us, completely breaking the flow of the piece and eternally maiming what should have been an evergreen Rush classic. And try not to laugh when Geddy starts yowling about Prince By-Tor. My lord.

The song construction is incredibly bizarre to boot. There are two drum solos here that burst out of nowhere (one is actually titled, “Didacts and Narpets”) and sound like crap because the bass drum sounds totally hollow. And good luck listening to “Fountain of Lamneth” is one sitting. There are a number of good-to-excellent parts such as “In the Valley” and the sublime “No One at the Bridge” which manages to capture a feel not unlike what Priest achieved on much of the Sad Wings LP. And that solo… my God. But while I’m thanking you for that, I must confess God… those long mellow acoustic sections are damnably hard to keep straight. There isn’t enough variation here, and worse, “Lakeside Park” and “The Necromancer” also contain similar acoustic sections. All this adds up to is a lot of déjà vu. It feels like a sin to condemn the music box-like beauty of “Panacea” as I listen to it now, but will I remember it an hour from now? Sadly, the answer is no.

In short, A Caress of Steel is a curiosity for Rush fans, and those few of you here who have an affection for 60’s folk and progressive rock. A beautiful, crafted, and surprisingly farsighted curiosity at times… but a curio nonetheless.

Stand-Outs: “Under the Shadow”, “No One at the Bridge”, “I Think I’m Going Bald”
[Note: Generally I take songs like “Fountain of Lamneth” as one song, but here I’d be recommending more than half of the album with my standard three-song stand-out list, so I went sectional. So there.]

[Note the Second: Check out the liners for the CD reissue. Are those lyrics impossible to read or what? Reprinting the original jacket is fine, but bump up that font-size damn you!]