Moving on down the line, we have my #15 ranked Rush album, their second album from 1975, Caress of Steel. Their third album, and the second to feature Neil Peart on drums and lyrics, Caress is about as Rush as Rush ever got. It’s very proggy, very high-concept, and very, very strange. With only five songs, and the first to feature a sidelong epic in The Fountain of Lamneth, Caress of Steel simultaneously paved the way for their future success and nearly destroyed them as a band by being their most commercially disappointing record to date. The subsequent tour was deemed the “Down the Tubes” tour, as they expected a quick demise following the low record sales. That said, Caress of Steel has good parts, and while most of it is a bit verbose or pretentious, it’s still worth an occasional listen.
Like every other Rush album, Caress opens with a great track, this time with the historically-grounded Bastille Day. Perhaps the only real winner on the album, Bastille Day is about exactly what you think — the French Revolution. And almost all of it works really well. The drums are pretty on-point here, Geddy’s early-career trademark high-pitched vocals are right where you want them, and the opening guitar riff is fun and, more importantly, ear-catching. Interestingly enough, Bastille Day is very similar in form to a much later Rush song, Headlong Flight. It shares many riffs and indeed seems to have paved the way for what is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best Rush songs of all time. That aside, Bastille Day is a great listen in its own right, and is perhaps the reason to buy the album.
We follow that with what must be the most out-there Rush song title ever, I Think I’m Going Bald. Ironic though it may be for a 22-year-old Geddy Lee to sing about going bald, there’s more going on in this song than you might initially think. It poses a fairly profound look at aging and wistfully looking back one’s youth, with pretty great lyrics like “Once we loved the flowers, now we ask the price of the land.” It’s not all depressing though, as the last lines are sure to note that “even when I’m grey, I’ll still be grey my way.” Of course, the 63-year-old Lee shows no signs of that today, but it still has a pretty solid message. The sound of the song is pretty straightforward rock-n-roll, and it’s overall not a bad addition to Rush’s early repertoire, but it’s ultimately overshadowed by much of their later work.
After that we get Lakeside Park, the only song on the album besides Bastille Day that ever got any significant concert play, and it provides another wistful look at one’s youth, this time to a park nearby where Peart grew up. The drum fill that opens the song is a favorite of mine, and the song is, again, pretty straightforward, but it’s easy on the ears (apart from a few of the screechier lines from Geddy), and the bridge verse is a guilty pleasure of mine to hear sung.
Everyone would gather on the 24th of May
Sitting in the sand to watch the fireworks display
Dancing fires on the beach, singing songs together
Though it’s just a memory, some memories last forever
And then we get weird. Real weird. The last track on the A-side is The Necromancer, Rush’s second real prog outing (after By-Tor and the Snowdog off FBN), which is a 12-minute piece about Sauron (yep) and it’s … it’s not great. From Neil’s too-quiet-and-too-artificially-deep-and-also-just-plain-weird narration at the start to the off-putting sound effects throughout to the awkward insertion of By-Tor, previously a villain, as the hero of the story in place of Bilbo, The Necromancer is just not great. There are a few good guitar riffs near the end, and the drumming and bass work are solid throughout, but … there’s just not enough here to warrant repeated listens.
We then come to the B-side, The Fountain of Lamneth, which I’ll discuss in sections, as unlike 2112 and Hemispheres after it, Fountain isn’t a true side-long song, as each section is distinctly an individual piece of the whole. The Fountain of Lamneth, as a whole piece, is meant to represent one’s life by way of using the allegory of a character searching his whole life to find the mystical Fountain of Lamneth. Yep. It’s pretty weird.
In the Valley begins our journey, dealing with things like birth and early childhood into adolescence. Perhaps the most straightforward and directly enjoyable section as its own piece, there’s a lot of good musicality and fast-paced singing happening here that I really like.
Then we come to Didacts and Narpets, representing the teenager’s struggle against authority from teachers (“didacts”) and parents (“narpets”). To listen to it’s actually just a straight minute of an angry, boisterous drum solo from Neil with Geddy occasionally shrieking things over top of it. Not sure I get it, but it’s there, I suppose.
No One at the Bridge finds our hero stranded on a boat amidst a storm, “lashed helpless to the mast” a la Odysseus. Representing the first years on one’s own with no one nearby to help, No One at the Bridge smacks of desperation and fear. The whole section is backed by a rolling guitar part by Lifeson that does a great job of representing the waves of the ocean, a technique he’d later use to great effect for The Spirit of Radio.
Then we have Panacea, wherein our hero falls in love. Featuring only acoustic guitar and Geddy’s vocals, it’s one of the softest things Rush has ever played. It’s also not very good.
We then come to Bacchus Plateau, the most straight-up catchy segment of The Fountain of Lamneth, wherein our hero has … well, a midlife crisis, resorting to drinking to relive his glory days. It’s probably my favorite section of the piece, and also features the first reference to Bacchus (Dionysus) who would later play a key role in Hemispheres.
And then the song ends with The Fountain, a reprisal of the first section, which does a really good job of tying the whole piece together. It follows the form of In the Valley in reverse, beginning with complex instrumentation and fading back into simple acoustic guitar and one-syllable words, referencing Shakespeare’s “second childhood” idea of elderly vulnerability.
The Fountain of Lamneth has a couple good sections and a couple not-so-good ones, but as a whole it’s okay. It’s not great by any stretch, and I can see why it caused the album to be a dud, but there are a lot of interesting ideas in play here. The reason I appreciate it is because it essentially paved the way for 2112 to be as great as it was. If Fountain is the price we have to pay for 2112, I’ll happily listen to it from time to time.
And if Caress of Steel is the price we have to pay for the greatness that followed it, I’m fine with that, too.
Best songs: Bastille Day, Lakeside Park