“Tears,” an elegant ballad tucked away on side two of 2112, hinted at the future for Rush: guest Hugh Syme’s contribution of mellotron to this tune, along with synth textures added to 2112‘s title track, sparked an interest in bassist/vocalist Lee to add keyboards into the group’s sonic palette. This indeed happened on A Farewell To Kings, which found the band recording abroad for the first time in England. Its contents showed the band exploring their proggier side in a way that revealed they were leaving behind the Zeppelin-isms of their first phase.
The title track kicks off the first side: a lilting intro of acoustic guitar, bells and a soothing synth line soon gives way to a fiery rocker whose lyrics challenge the negative, hypocritical direction of modern society. “Xanadu” is this side’s epic: a Coleridge-derived tale of seeking immortality is given an elaborate treatment that includes a long and ambient intro, sections of intense, fusion-ish prog jamming and an ethereal chorus highlighted by a dreamy synth line. It required Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee to both use double-neck instruments to capture its complexities on stage, creating the most enduringly “prog” visual of the band’s career (a glorious version can be seen in the concert film for Exit… Stage Left).
Side two starts with the anthemic “Closer To The Heart,” a counterpoint to the title track whose lyric challenges people to restore their own humanity. It has a hymn-like use of synths and bells, a soaring Alex Lifeson solo and a vocal melody that made it a sing-along favorite at concerts for decades. “Cinderella Man” has a Lee-penned lyric that seems to channel Peart’s Rand-isms with its story of a rich man challenged by the world. It also has a stellar jazzy instrumental section at the tag highlighted by Lee’s nimble bass lines. “Madrigal” is a straightforward ballad that is somewhat controversial in Rush circles for its direct, simple nature but no one can deny it’s a great vehicle for Lee’s melodic bass work and knack for simple but elegant synth parts. “Cygnus X-I” closes the album with an epic flourish, dealing out another epic that starts in ambient style before building into a clockwork behemoth of tightly-wound prog jamming and a sci-fi lyric that ends things on a cliffhanger note.
A Farewell To Kings is lighter in style than previous Rush albums, with the focus on heavy guitar scaled back for a more lush sound highlighted by acoustic textures, a wider array of percussion devices and Lee’s newfound love of analog synth lines to flesh out the sound. That said, it’s all beautifully captured on tape by producer Terry Brown in a way that maintains the group’s energy and sense of adventure. If you’re a prog-rocker at heart, you’re likely to consider this one of the treasures of the Rush catalog.