Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: Rush's 'A Farewell to Kings' Deluxe Edition

After three spotty albums that found them fumbling between beery hard rockers to intellectual prog noodlings, Rush cracked the nut on 2112. The band’s resident thinker Neil Peart settled in as chief lyricist, the whole band started writing music worthy of their epic concepts, and their shorter songs tightened up too (even if none of them reached the heights of “Fly by Night”). Now that they had their act down, Rush could start perfecting the new format. With A Farewell to Kings, they came pretty close to doing that. The exciting title track, the looming “Cinderella Man”, and “Closer to the Heart”, the power ballad that launched a zillion Zippos, were miles beyond any of the short numbers on Side B of 2112. “Xanadu” was not as ambitious as the “2112” suite, but it was more melodic and stands as one of Rush’s very best long songs. “Madrigal” is winsome, but the corny lyrics suggest that love songs don’t fit comfortably into Rush’s sci-fi and sorcery universe (no biggy), and “Cygnus X-1” is a bit of a return to the muddled narratives of Caress of Steel, though it’s better than its mixed reputation suggests and the middle section (“I set a course just east of Lyra…”) rocks with that old Labatt’s-brewed fury. More importantly, it is the necessary first act of the even less penetrable yet stunningly beautiful “Cygnus X-1: Book Two” that would be the focal point of Rush’s next album.

On its fortieth anniversary, A Farewell to Kings is getting deluxe treatment via Universal Music. The core album is the same remaster released on vinyl in 2015, and the most startling thing about this remaster on CD is that it is significantly quieter than the album’s first CD incarnation released in the eighties. So the big boon of the triple-disc edition is that it includes a complete concert recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in February 1978. The quality of the recording is much higher than any of the live material on UMe’s deluxe 2112 set, and the choice of songs is excellent with every Farewell track but “Madrigal” represented. There’s the occasional glitch, like a buzzing mic at the beginning of “A Farewell to Kings” and Geddy Lee sometimes has a bit of a frog in his throat in addition to the usual leprechaun, but this is a very release-worthy concert recording.

Finishing off the deluxe edition are four minutes of the weird noises that begin “Cygnus X-1” and pointlessly faithful cover versions of four of the album’s six tracks. As I wrote in my review of Universal’s deluxe edition of 2112, I’m not sure if fans are really going to want material from other artists on a Rush album, but at least these covers are more like bonus tracks tacked at the end of the concert than the centerpiece of a disc as they were on the 2112 set. I’m also not sure how fans will feel about the fact that the album’s original cover has been replaced with new digitally rendered artwork that makes A Farewell to Kings look like a Dream Theater album. Considering that Dream Theater is one of the contributors to this Rush album, that might be intentional.
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