What a difference a drummer change can make. Changing a band’s percussionist often reshapes their sound but when Rush brought in Neil Peart to replace John Rutsey, it altered more than the band’s groove. Peart also brought a love of words that made him the band’s main lyricist overnight and a sense of relentless intellectual curiousity that fueled the burgeoning musical ambitions of guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee. Fly By Night was the first album together for what would become the definitive lineup of the band – and it showed they were interested in more than the usual power trio theatrics.
The band’s sonic and conceptual makeover announces itself on side one, cut one with “Anthem”: Peart paraphrases Ayn Rand to create a ‘we do what we want’ manifesto for Rush 2.0 and the telepathic, heavy-yet-melodic interplay of Lee and Lifeson goes through a dramatic arrangement full of time-signature turns. It’s all driven by Peart’s drumming, which is tight, aggressive and crammed with mathematically complex fills. “Best I Can,” a solo Lee composition, harkens back to the debut album with its plain-spoken ‘gotta be me’ narrative but it has new fire and complexity thanks to the refurbished band’s chemistry. “Beneath, Between & Behind” offers a first taste of Tolkien-inspired fantasy narrative fired by a stop-start arrangement and “By-Tor And The Snow Dog” goes for a full multi-part fantasy epic. The latter was inspired by stoned joking about the dogs owned by Rush manager Ray Danniels, mutating into a concert showcase that communicated its good-vs.-evil narrative via fierce jamming, guitar FX and a quick but potent drum solo.
Side two goes for a softer, more melodic counterpoint to the first side’s hard rock fireworks. The title track kicks things off in charming midtempo style, unleashing a wanderlust narrative blessed with a singalong chorus as the band applies its power to pop hooks for the first time. “Making Memories” shows the band turning their life as a prolific touring act to continue the previous track’s open-road romanticism, this time with a acoustic-layered arrangement that gives it a campfire song vibe. “Rivendell” goes full Tolkien in its lyrics for a plush ballad with elegant slide-guitar effects from Lifeson. “In The End” offers a classically-style ‘gentle then heavy’ closer, conveying its romantic narrative with an arrangement that dramatically shifts from plush acoustic soundscapes to an intense yet gently-paced power ballad driven by an ever-twisting Lee bassline.
Fly By Night is a transitional album, as shown by the shared lyric-writing duties and the experimentation with different arena rock subgenres, but it all hangs together beautifully because of the commitment the band shows to their sonic explorations. They would get more ambitious and delve deeper into progressive concepts soon but this record remains a joyful portrait of a band finding itself, looking out eagerly to the creative vistas that lie ahead as they teach themselves to harness the power of their chemistry.