Monday, March 30, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 9: Was 'Hemispheres' remaster cover art given 'Smell the Glove' treatment?

We're in the Top 10 of our R40 Countdown of Rush's albums from "least-glorious" to "Moving Pictures," and we're starting to see some big differences of opinion. And, watch for "Spinal Tap" references.

No. 9: “Hemispheres”
Released in 1978

Highlights: “Cygnus X-1, Book Two: Hemispheres,” “Circumstances.”

Least glorious moment: The album cover

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“We can walk our road together
If our goals are all the same
We can run alone and free
If we pursue a different aim

Let the truth of love be lighted
Let the love of truth shine clear sensibility
Armed with sense and liberty
With the heart and mind united
In a single, perfect, sphere”
-- "Cygnus X-1, Book 2: Hemispheres, Part VI The Sphere, a Kind of Dream" 

Like “2112,” “Hemispheres” is anchored by an epic, classic song that takes up an entire side of the album.

And also like “2112,” this release originally was ranked higher in my countdown but was passed by as others moved up as I listen to the albums all over again.

That’s no slight to “Hemispheres,” because we’re moving into the upper reaches of the countdown.

The epic continues the character “Cygnus X-1” from “A Farewell to Kings” with a story about conflict between the gods of love and reason as they battle for the fate of man. You know, typical Rush stuff.

The first of the song’s seven sections – “Prelude” – is as great as prog-era Rush gets. The part where Geddy’s bass seems to take over the melody is pure magic.
The more familiar cover.

So here’s what confuses me: As far as I can tell, Rush stopped playing the song, other than a snippet during the “R30 Overture.” The classic first sections of “2112” have been concert staples. “Hemispheres,” has been relatively ignored for 20 years.

(I originally thought that the song hadn't been played since the Permanent Waves Tour, but the kind folks at The Rush Forum noted that it was last played in 1994 on the Counterparts Tour, which Geddy seeming to struggle with the high notes.)

The album has only three other songs and two of the three – “The Trees” and “La Villa Strangiato” – are played frequently, and they’re all strong. “Circumstances” was revived for the “Snakes & Arrows” tour.

So the mystery remains of why the band has continued to ignore what might be its best epic.

The album didn’t perform as well on the charts compared with other Rush releases, peaking at No. 47. The band resisted changing after “Caress of Steel” receded on the charts, but switched gears after “Hemispheres” with glorious results.

OK, now let’s get to the cover. There’s a naked guy on there. I get the whole right side/left side of the brain thing, with the stuffy suited guy on one side and the naked, creative guy on the other. Now, there is no more insecure being on the planet than a teenage boy.  And when 98 percent of your audience is guys, well, a design like that isn’t going to sell too many T-shirts.
Here's a great -- and rare -- live version of "Circumstances."

When the remastered edition came out years later, the CD came with the usual booklet, and also a second with a black cover, with just the distinctive wordmark and album title. Did some at the label think Rush needed to “Smell the Glove?”

And Will jumps in:

So what you're saying, Dave, is that if Rush had thrown a naked babe on there, it might have sold better with pimply faced youths from Long Gisland who can't reconcile the strange sensations they experience when they see a naked man? And how did the cover of All the World's a Stage strike you or was that OK because the naked man in question there was part of the 2112 logo and, thus, automatically acceptable, because it was badass cool? 

Dave again: All I'm saying was that the next album cover did have an attractive female on the cover, and it did sell better! But that's later in the countdown.

Back to Will:

Personally, I had a harder time with the photo on the back of the 2112 album cover, but we've already discussed that.

After a first half where our choices were very similar, we're starting to diverge more, like, well, two halves of a perfect sphere.

No. 9: Test for Echo
Released in 1996

While I would say that it's even money that we'll hear at least something off Dave's choice--my guess is part of "La Villa," but even a snippet of Hemispheres would be awesome--I further would bet that of any of Rush's albums, the one most likely to not be represented at all is my selection. Dave talked about a lack of Rush playing the title track of his album since its release, but since the Test for Echo Tour in 1996/97, Rush has played exactly two songs from "Test for Echo:" "Driven" in 2002 and an acoustic "Resist" in 2004. The ONLY Rush album less represented in the set lists over the same time is "Caress of Steel."

For a long time, I didn't get why this would be the case. It's a damn good album, although, I must admit, it slid a bit upon further examination--and only because everything I have above it is better. I liked "Test for Echo" almost in its entirety right away, and it marked a return to the more atmospheric sound that I loved so much before "Counterparts."

Now I know why (or I think I know why), and it's the same reason why I expect to not hear Afterimage on this tour as well: Neil doesn't want to have anything to do with it, and not unreasonably so. Yes, it's been almost 20 years, but "Test for Echo" was the last album Rush did before Neil's life fell apart with his daughter and wife dying with a span of a year. I can't imagine, even though things are much better for him now, that he ever feels like going back and re-examining these songs even if his anguish isn't as acute. It's not as if he has to. "Test for Echo" wasn't a huge selling album, so there aren't any songs they HAVE to play, and when you have a canon as large as Rush's, you can skip as much as like and not short-change anyone.

It's too bad, because this album makes me think of happy times. In fact, the first time I ever heard the title track was a great day I remember well. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 1996. That year, my now-ex had a new job with little vacation time accrued, most of which was going to be burned up by a vacation to New England. I had a ton of time, so I was able to take extra days off. I decided one Monday to take a day off and hit all of the card stores in Columbus that I'd never visited before. (For the kids in the audience, card stores were actual stores where retailers sold baseball cards back before the Internet changed/ruined everything. If you're in a really big city, you might see one of these dinosaurs slinking off into the desert.)

I went to seven locations, two of which had closed, two of which became regular stops over the years (but since have closed). I was finding a lot of good stuff and having a pretty good day just being a little kid, although the weather was somewhat overcast and drizzly when I finally arrived at Hilliard, which is on the West Side of town and almost as far away as you could get from where I lived while still being in the Columbus metropolitan area. That's when the sky opened up.

I had just made a small buy when the rain came down in buckets. Even making the 50-foot dash to my car in the parking lot would've soaked me to the bone, and, more important, it would've soaked the batch of 1994 Fleers I'd just bought to fill in my Will Set. So I waited inside the door for the rain to let up, which it finally did after about 20 minutes. In the parking lot were puddles the size of Lake Erie, and I might have gotten a soaker or two before reaching my car.

I went to another store in Hilliard, and when I came out of that store--with hands empty, alas--the day was rapidly turning into a beautiful September evening. It was warm, with the sun beginning to set and huge white clouds of the storm that passed through framed against a bright blue sky. The roads were adorned with large puddles, but the sunlight shown orange through the green-leaf-bedecked trees. I had Q-FM on my radio, and Test for Echo came on. My ex had heard it once or twice already--she listened to the radio more than I did--but I hadn't. The shimmery tones of Alex's guitar seemed to represent precisely the change in weather, and as the song built--and I realized I loved it instantly. I called my ex at the next stop--she was home from work by now--saying I was about to head home, and I'd heard the new Rush song. We went out to dinner that night, and I remember feeling happy. I'd had a really good day, and Rush was definitely a part of it.

And no one will be more shocked than I if I get to relive it in June by Rush blowing the dust off the title track and giving it a go once more.

Your R40 Countdown so far:

No. 15: Fly by Night (Dave) and Counterparts (Will)

No. 16: Vapor Trails (Both of us)

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