It’s always interesting how a record can be so dear to audiences while the artists who made it will always see it as a reminder of a very difficult time. After all, the creative process can be like pulling teeth sometimes, and by 1978 Rush had one hell of a wisdom tooth that badly needed extraction. 2112 and A Farewell To Kings established the band as a force in progressive rock, and as always is the case with ambitious young bands, the temptation to make each follow-up bigger and better was irresistible. Little did Lee, Lifeson, and Peart know before they booked time to write their fifth album in a farmhouse near Rockfield, South Wales, however, that they were perilously close to self-indulgence, self-parody, and overbearing pretension.
So where do you go after putting together a seminal, iconic heavy rock classic and a richly varied, pastoral follow-up? For musicians as skilled as these three, it was obvious: make the music even more complex and challenging than ever. Much has been made of how difficult the threesome and producer Terry Brown made things for themselves during the making of Hemispheres. It took a long time to write, record, and mix, and costs quickly spiraled out of control. The songwriting process continued right through the recording of the album, songs being constantly tweaked. Even worse, by the time Lee recorded his vocals, he found out that the songs required him to sing in a register outside his comfort zone, and it was too late to make the necessary adjustments. Consequently, not only did it make for brutal stress in the studio, but it would prove to be just as difficult to perform the material live. By the time the album was finished and on store shelves, the guys were less enthused in subsequent promotional interviews. Instead was a prevailing sense of relief by a very exhausted band.
The incredible thing about Hemispheres, though, is despite the complexity of the material and the strife surrounding the making of it — they famously remarked that one song took longer to record than the entire Fly By Night album — Rush is in absolute peak form, the music shockingly accessible, effortless sounding, and best of all, fun. Yes, fun. Even the sprawling, 18-minute “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres” that comprises all of side one. Lushly produced — you can hear how expensive the damn thing was — there’s so much more texture on this track compared to the hard-driving “2112” and the experimental “Xanadu,” thanks to Lifeson, who doesn’t rely on heavily distorted riffs anymore, making room for cleaner melodic lines to breathe. In addition, although Peart sounds as taut as ever, there’s a grooviness to his drumming that was never heard on a Rush album before. Whether or not his sixteenth beats on the hi-hat are derived from disco, they lend liveliness to Lee’s playful vocal melodies. It’s the moment Peart learned to relax a bit, and that restrained approach would lead to some fascinating experiments with minimalist drumming in the years to come. Although Peart’s mythical sci-fi storyline, which continues where the first “Cygnus” track left off at the end of A Farewell To Kings, is nowhere near as concise and interesting as “2112,” the natural flow of the music more than makes up for it. It’s a surprisingly beautiful, commanding suite by a band at the peak of its game.
As strong as that song is, the second side is where Hemispheres’ true greatness lies, featuring three songs that have since gone on to become enduring fan favorites, not to mention some much shorter songs. “Circumstances” is the heaviest, snarliest Rush song in years — Peart’s bilingual lyrics (“Plus ça change/ Plus c’est la meme chose”) and more straightforward, philosophical theme a welcome change from all the arch fantasy narratives. One could criticize “The Trees” as being painfully blunt hesher metaphor — “The trees represent society, man!” — but Peart embraces the idea, and in in his own verbose way, has a little fun with it: “The trouble with the maples/ (And they’re quite convinced they’re right)/ They say the oaks are just too lofty/ And they grab up all the light.” Besides, the arrangement on the song is tremendous, Peart adding to the whole woodsy theme with his temple block playing during the subdued bridge midway though.
It might come as a surprise to some that it took Rush five albums to record an instrumental, but it finally happened on Hemispheres, and “La Villa Strangiato” is not only the first, but it’s the band’s greatest. Self-deprecatingly subtitled “An Exercise In Self-Indulgence” — again, one of this band’s great characteristics is its sense of humor — the song is a lively and playful musical depiction of a surreal dream Lifeson had, consisting of a series of movements that range from soulful to cartoonish. One section even dares to quote Raymond Scott’s legendary “Powerhouse,” and as the story goes, despite his not taking legal action against the band, Rush were still good Canadian boys and sent Scott monetary compensation anyway. It’s as fun a progressive rock instrumental as you will ever hear and for years was a highlight of many Rush live performances.
It’s amusing how Hemispheres would be criticized for its self-indulgence, yet at only 36 minutes it’s an incredibly economical progressive rock album. That can be seen also as a by-product of the band being completely out of ideas, unable to stretch things out to a more conventional 45 minutes. But the shortness of the album works in its favor, making it easy to absorb the four songs. Still, it was on this album that the members of Rush knew they’d hit a creative wall. They’d taken their blend of progressive rock and heavy metal as far as it could possibly go, and it was time for a change, and although the series of albums that would follow would be a direct result of avoiding the headaches that dominated Hemispheres, it would be the smartest, most financially rewarding decision Rush would ever make.