Thursday, March 12, 2009
FBO: 'Astral Week: Message for Kings, Na-Na-Na-Na, Hey-Hey'
Yes, it's still 'Astral Week' at the FBO, and we really are trying to sit through and say something on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks by tomorrow. Meanwhile, we couldn't resist -- after many many years -- a return to Rush's 1977, seven-song epic A Farewell to Kings.
Here, Rush matured on 2112's juvenile futuristic concept -- 'what is this? a guitar?' -- without completely abandoning the Dungeons & Dragons crowd: in particular 'Madrigal's dragon slaying, and 'Cygnus X-1: Book One's overworked black-hole itinerary.
The album doesn't always work. 'Madrigal' -- even at just 2:34 -- is unbearable, while the disappointing opening title track telegraphs the pass, by introducing the feudalistic subject with Shakespearean guitar picking on a classical guitar. But the 37-minute album did produce the band's most enduring 'chick-friendly' song -- and most accessible song between 1975's 'Fly By Night' and 1982's 'New World Man' (their only Top 40 song) -- with 'Closer to the Heart.'
It also gave us one of their most underrated epics, with gorgeous segways connecting the dots of the 11-minute 'Xanadu.' Lyrically, Neil Peart once again looks way backward for inspiration, reworking Samuel T-Dog Coleridge's hit poem from 1797 'Kubla Khan': more or less a journey for immortality in Mongolia. (Yes, it's the same Sam who directed Iron Maiden to 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner.')
'Xanadu' was Rush's first serious show-off, multi-instrumental platform -- everyone does double duty in the musical sea of synths, wood blocks, bells, tom fills, double-necked guitars syncopating accents with staccato cymbal splashes.
It starts, mercifully, vocal free for a breathless five-minute musical trip that pulls us into the domain of Mr Khan. For two minutes, we wake into a meandering landscape of tapped guitars and birdsong, before the Ontarian trio lead us into a triumphant spider-crawl, King Crimson-esque riff backed by wind effects and big Neil Peart accents and tom fills. It then erupts into an upbeat, charging, faintly 'The Song Remains the Same' riff (with Alex Lifeson's open chords and superb Geddy Lee bass lines). Much is guitar driven, yet Lifeson shows restraint in allowing no solos in the 11 minutes.
You can almost dance to 'Xanadu' till it finally winds down to Lee's vocals ('to seek the sacred river Alph'), which plod over burpy synths, then shifting into a syncopated guitar/cymbal/bass accents in a harder chorus ('from an ancient book, I took a clue!'). Most of the vocals color dream-like, slower melodies -- an area best suited to Geddy's shaky voice, which gets irritating at higher levels (like the unlistenable wails towards the end of 'Freewill').
Conjuring Mongolian emperors in an 11-minute song at the same time stop/start punk rock and coked-up disco dominated radiowaves and livehouses? Not bad.
--> Sadly, it's a song that can't be downloaded as an individual song, necessitating a full $7.99 purchase of the album on both Amazon.com and iTunes.
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