Hemispheres is the “difficult birth” of Rush’s classic era. They spent a month writing the songs and then pushed themselves to the limit by crafting tricky arrangements, including vocals in difficult keys, and recording endless takes in search of prog-rock perfection. You could say they gave all they had to give for the art-rock genre here because the struggle to get this one on tape led to a group decision that it would be the last hurrah for this kind of exhausting formalism in their music.
Side one is devoted the last of Rush’s side-length suites, “Cygnus X-1, Part II: Hemispheres.” The concept as laid out by Neil Peart is the timeless battle between the mind/pragmatism (represented by the Greek god Apollo) and the heart/emotions (represented by Dionysus) to determine which side will control mankind. The dispute only finds resolution when the lost astral traveler from the first part of “Cygnus X-1” enters the storyline. The music backing this up is complex in terms of time signatures and arrangement twists but both lyrics and music are laid out in a pleasing, well-organized form. The band manages its set of motifs with care and Peart’s lyrics find the right balance between metaphor and message. Geddy Lee pushes his high register vocals to their uppermost heights here: they’re effective but he’d begin reining it in after this. The resulting suite doesn’t hit with the immediacy of “2112” but it’s just as satisfying in its own quieter, more artsy way.
Side two offers two short-form songs and one instrumental epic. “Circumstances” is one of the more underrated Rush songs from this era, with Peart ruefully reflecting on an unsuccessful early stint as a pro musician in England and using it as a metaphor for the battle between determinism and fate that anyone ambitious faces. “The Trees” is a live favorite with a wonky, pseudo-political lyric that would later make Peart cringe. If you take it as a piece of fantasy, it’s got a nice sense of drama and a great arrangement with a killer stop-start instrumental break. And speaking of instrumentals, album closer “La Villa Strangiato” is a multi-part, ten-minute mega-jam that represents the band’s ultimate prog rock statement: a handful of motifs are explored, expanded, turned inside out and swirled through several time changes into a kind of art-rock alchemy that had countless budding musos struggling to decode its arcane magic.
The resulting album sounds fresher than a lot of progressive rock from the late ’70s because the band keeps their experimentation focused, limiting the amount of keyboard frills and focusing on the mechanics of they can achieve instrumentally with just three players. It’s also an album you can return to and keep picking up nuances as your ears absorb its twists and turns. Rush would continue to push their technique and ambition on subsequent albums but they took their prog-for-prog’s-sake side as far as it would go on this album – and the result remains their ultimate purist outing in the genre.