When album number three arrived, Rush were primed to take the next step forward in their career: they were a successful touring act in Canada and the U.S. and they were getting played on the radio. With Caress Of Steel, they decided to shoot the moon and go for their prog-rock dreams. The result was nearly catastrophic in professional terms: listeners were confused, the label hated it and the subsequent tour lost money as the audiences dwindled. However, financial success isn’t the same as artistic success – and Caress Of Steel, though flawed, was a necessary moment for the band that the career-defining success of 2112 possible.
Side one delivers a pair of long-term concert staples in “Bastille Day” and “Lakeside Park”: the former is a barnstorming rocker about the French revolution full of fiery Alex Lifeson guitar solos and stop-start arrangement twists while the latter is a warm, nostalgic ballad with funky underpinnings in which Neil Peart waxes lyrical about a teen-years job at an amusement park. This side also throws a few curveballs. The first “I Think I’m Going Bald,” a blues-rocker with quirky lyrics about aging and fading ideals. It remains a source of heated debate amongst Rush fans but it’s actually quite witty and perceptive once you get past the shock of the title. There’s also a twelve minute epic in “The Necromancer.” Like last album’s “By-Tor And The Snow Dog,” it’s a fantasy epic about good vs. evil. The lyrical concept is barely there, with a nebulous plot that feels like it’s missing several beats and a wonky ‘deus ex machina’ ending, but the band’s jamming is melodic, telepathic in its tightness and covers a trio of musical stylings: Hendrix-esque psych ballad, dark rocker, joyous folk-rock.
The second side offers the band’s first side-length conceptual piece, “The Fountain Of Lamneth.” The Peart-scripted lyrics outline a fantasy concept about a boy obsessed with climbing a mountain visible far from his home. Of course, youthful dreams aren’t easily achieved and his journey become a lifelong quest as he deals with criticism (“Didacts and Narpets”), abandonment when he chooses to go his own way (“No One At The Bridge”), the temptation to abandon dreams for domestic contentment (“Panacea”) and the vices and disillusionment that come with aging (“Bacchus Plateau”). The band crafts a strong arrangement for the different segments, utilizing a mellow-then-heavy framing motif and a mixture of guitar-driven and acoustic stylings that offer strong melodic content throughout. Lee gives his best vocal performance of the pre-2112 era, particularly on the emotive, ballad-style segments. The end result is more a song suite than a single epic, with too little connective tissue in terms of recurring melodies and motifs, but it’s tuneful and compelling from start to finish.
The band was proud of Caress Of Steel at the time but became critical of it in subsequent years, critiquing themselves for being too self-indulgent and stoned to achieve their ambitions. That said, the only track here that feels conceptually undercooked is “The Necromancer” and it still boasts fantastic playing. The band would reconnect with their fire and focus on 2112 but Caress Of Steel offers plenty of proggish delight in its own eccentric, occasionally meandering way.