Caress Of Steel‘s blend of prog rock and hard rock was an adventurous step forward for Rush but the muted reception it got almost killed the young band, prompting ominous requests from the label for a return to more commercial hard rock. It has become one of the most beloved stories in Rush lore that the band stayed true to their muse and focused on perfecting their heavy/prog alloy. The quality of the resulting record, 2112, worked hand in glove with the band’s intense work ethic in the concert halls to put them over the top on their own terms.
Side one is devoted in its entirety to the title suite. The narrative, crafted by resident lyricist and drummer Neil Peart, is dystopian sci-fi with a double shot of Rand-ian objectivism. It tells a cautionary tale of a young man trying to revive the art of music in a sterile, anti-art and computer-driven society. He is rejected by the ruling class but his ambition inspires a rebellion, the results of which are left to the listener to decide. The conceit works thanks to a mixture of clarity and drive: the lyrics are laid out using a punchy, highly dramatic style of storytelling and the band marries their formidable chops to an intricate, carefully-arranged set of motifs that repeat and mutate in ways that mirror the story’s ebb and flow. The result never meanders or drags because it is as disciplined as it is filled with ideas and emotions. The mixture of complexity and hard rock firepower ensured it would be a live staple for the rest of the band’s career.
The second side has the band delivering a side of straightforward songs in a way that still allowed them to experiment. “A Passage To Bangkok” is a fanciful “stoner world tour” narrative, a fun travelogue of marijuana hot-spots that takes Zeppelin-esque Eastern musical shading into the Far East. “The Twilight Zone” is a Rod Serling tribute in a bouncy, acoustic style that began a tradition of Rush writing and recording one song quickly in the studio during an album session. “Lessons” was entirely penned by guitarist Alex Lifeson and offers an enigmatic yet personal narrative with interesting soft/heavy contrasts (note the way the plush, fast-strummed acoustics burst into electric riffing at chorus time). “Tears” began a string of lush ballads that would continue over subsequent albums, allowing bassist Geddy Lee to sing rather than shout, and “Something For Nothing” brings things full circle with an objectivism life lesson, sans politics, set to one of those killer stop-start arrangements that Rush excelled at.
The sum total of listening to 2112 gives the listener a feeling that Rush has planted their prog-goes-heavy flag in the sand, successfully staking out their own personal territory. Terry Brown’s skillful production completes the sonic palette, showing he could deliver all the textures and heft required for the band’s expanding sound. It would be all growth/all the time from here on out for Rush, with the band suffering no more orders from the label as they continued to build an audience eager to keep up with their sense of sonic adventure. What would come next would stun rock fans, progressive and otherwise, with its exponential growth in musical diversity.