Rush - A Farewell To Kings: Album Of The Week Club Review

In which Rush head to Wales, where reader Ian Pritchard spots Geddy and Alex out sight-seeing, looking down the Brecon Valley toward Llangynidr

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Rush - A Farewell To Kings

1. A Farewell To Kings
2. Xanadu
3. Closer To The Heart
4. Cinderella Man
5. Madrigal
6. Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage
    I. Prologue – 0:00
    II. 1 – 5:01
    III. 2 – 5:45
    IV. 3 – 7:13

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Recording for the first time outside their native Canada, Rush quickly became homesick and were fazed both by the remoteness of Rockfield’s isolation and the cumulative pressure of four years of almost non-stop touring. There’s no way that anything good should have come out of such circumstances, but A Farewell To Kings is better than good. It’s Rush at their peak.

For 38 minutes it takes the listener on an extraordinary journey, first lulled by an acoustic guitar before the swaggering hookline and revolutionary history motif on its opening title track, then buoyed all the way to the frantic riffing and the heart of a black hole at the end of final number Cygnus X-1. Even the least-loved track, Madrigal (a mournful lament meandering to a sleepy fade) has improved with age.

Add to that the unlikely UK Top 40 hit Closer To The Heart (led by Peart’s glockenspiel and judicious use of vibraslap) and the joyful rocker Cinderella Man(featuring Lee‘s extraordinary and, at times, ridiculously funky bass-playing) and you’re getting warmer…

The afterburners on this album, though, are its two epics: the aforementioned space-rock riot Cygnus (which begins with echoey effects and producer Terry Brown‘s synthesised spoken intro, and ends with Geddy Lee screeching the line, ‘Every nerve is torn apaaaaart,’ like a method actor) and the peerless Xanadu (Peart’s soaring and imaginative take on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan). With dazzling guitar by Lifeson and evocations of pleasure domes and honeydew, Xanadu remains Rush’s Stairway To Heaven. Goosebumps guaranteed.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

It had been a tumultuous ride up to A Farewell To Kings. Rush were following the acclaimed 2112 album, which they had released after the poorly received Caress Of Steel and the threat of being dropped by their label. The success of 2112 had given them their creative freedom, and the quickly assembled live album All The World’s A Stage was their stopgap. 

So how do you follow a concept album about a dystopian future where music is banned, civilisation is domineered by a hierarchy of priests and the lead protagonist commits suicide in order to free society? Good question. For Rush, you create a record informed by socialist polemic, the movies Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Citizen Kane, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry, a nod to Don Quixoteand what passed for a fiery death in the heart of a black hole. And in Madrigal, they even wrote a love song, albeit one that referenced dragons. It was a Rush album, after all.

It was springtime in Toronto and Rush were wondering what to do next. The band were toying with going back into work at Terry Brown’s Toronto Sound Studios (where they’d recorded their four previous albums), but as the band’s success escalated, so did demands on their time.

“We were doing well in Canada,” says Lee, “and things were getting more hectic. Frankly, we wanted to go somewhere where there were less distractions. Rockfield [in Wales] was our first residential record – we’d never done that sort of thing before – so Terry suggested: why don’t we look for a place where we could stay and work. We were all up for the adventure.”

Other albums released in September 1977

  • Thin Lizzy - Bad Reputation
  • Chicago - Chicago XI
  • Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane - Rough Mix
  • Talking Heads - Talking Heads: 77
  • Steely Dan - Aja
  • Randy Newman - Little Criminals
  • The Rolling Stones - Love You Live
  • The Stranglers - No More Heroes
  • Ringo Starr - Ringo the 4th
  • Hall & Oates - Beauty on a Back Street
  • Richard Hell and the Voidoids - Blank Generation
  • The Boomtown Rats - The Boomtown Rats
  • The Babys - Broken Heart
  • Tom Waits - Foreign Affairs
  • Klaatu - Hope
  • Cheap Trick - In Color
  • Grateful Dead - What a Long Strange Trip It's Been

What they said...

"On 1977's A Farewell to Kings it quickly becomes apparent that Rush had improved their songwriting and strengthened their focus and musical approach. Synthesizers also mark their first prominent appearance on a Rush album, a direction the band would continue to pursue on future releases. With the popular hit single Closer to the Heart, the trio showed that they could compose concise and traditionally structured songs, while the 11-minute Xanadu remains an outstanding accomplishment all these years later (superb musicianship merged with vivid lyrics help create one of Rush's best all-time tracks)." (AllMusic)

"Rush's first studio album after 2112's breakthrough found the band juggling various aspects of their sound. "Xanadu" and "Cygnus X-1," the beginning of a narrative that would be concluded on the first side of Hemispheres, were the long story songs, but "Closer to the Heart" and "Madrigal" were their first sub-three-minute recordings in years. And where "Xanadu," for instance, saw Rush adding the synthesizers that over the next few years they would use more and more, other tracks featured instruments as analog as bells, acoustic guitar and wind chimes." (Rolling Stone)

"The most obnoxious band currently making a killing on the zonked teen circuit. Not to be confused with Mahogany Rush, who at least spare us the reactionary gentility. More like Angel. Or Kansas. Or a power-trio Uriah Heep, with vocals revved up an octave. Or two." (Robert Christgau)

What you said...

Benjamin Kelk: This is a quintessential listen for first time Rush listeners. Absolutely perfection from beginning to end (All Rush albums are though). From the opening notes of the title track, to the closing, fading strums of Cygnus X-1, there is never a dull moment on this album. Every time I listen to it is like the first time I listened to it, gives me chills every time. Best to listen to it and immediately follow it up with Hemispheres. All bow down to the mighty Rush!

John Edgar: I'm fine with it when a band I like decides to 'grow', and this was definitely a growth spurt for Rush. To me, it was a natural ascension in their playing and writing. I loved this album, but then I love everything they've ever released. At the same time, I had a lot of friends that began to drift away from Rush when this came out. To this day, they're still stuck in the past, only listening to those first few albums, missing out on all that awesome music that came after. Their loss.

Cam Traviss: My favourite RUSH album, and that’s saying something because I adore this band. Listen to Xanadu through good headphones. Life changing. Saw this tour, it was incredible!

Shane Reho: Rush's finest (studio) hour. The first side is perfection, between the title track's mixing of styles and then whats probably their best song, Xanadu, which likewise visits quite a few points along its protagonists immortal insanity. The second side isn't as perfect but still awesome. 

Closer to the Heart is the hit it deserved to be, working its way up from mellow acoustic song to full on rocker in less than two minutes. Cinderella Man is the only lesser track on this album in my opinion, and thats probably only due to what else is on the record. Madrigal comes high in the running for Most Underrated Rush Song, and stands in stark contrast to the heaviness of the other five songs, instead staying relaxed the whole way through and gently easing you into Cygnus X1, which has no problem taking its time to get to where its going to (in this case, a black hole). A great album for Rush and prog rock in general. 

Ian Pritchard: They recorded it at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth. The 12-year-old me and my schoolfriend Vince and classmates were cross-country running up at Trefil quarry near the Chartist's Cave, and we saw Geddy and Alex sight-seeing, looking down the Brecon valley toward Llangynidr!

Richard Cardenas: Home Run! As far as Rush goes, this album is my favorite. I loved from day one and still do today. I can’t really say much more beyond that. It was all about how it made me feel. I was lucky enough to see them support this record four times.

Vinnie Evanko: 2112 was my intro to Rush and I loved it and then came A Farewell to Kings and it was nearly as good. Xanadu might be my favorite Rush song and the title track and Cygnus X-1 are excellent songs. A really good album and is still probably my 2nd favorite Rush album.

Bill Griffin: My first Rush album. Rush was a band that, up through Signals at least, got better with every release. The progression was readily apparent both in their technique and in their songwriting. 

I saw them on this tour without ever having heard a note. By the time Xanadu was over, Rush was my favorite band and it was my favorite song.

Karen Boudreaux-Biles: All of their music/ lyrics make me stop and think. They are timeless, and as time goes by - a little scary given the state of our world. Still my favorite. Ever.

Gary Torborg: #3 best album by The Boys. And who ever heard of an albu mending in a cliffhanger? Movies or TV episodes, maybe, but an album? Rush pulled it off, though, and topped it with the followup. Fantastic album, incredible musicianship.

Daniel L. Travieso: I feel that this album has more of a feel and connection to the underrated but mighty Caress Of Steel than it does to any other Rush album... it’s almost as if AFTK picked up where COS left off.

Gerry Ranson: This is the height of my Rush-love, to be honest, having come up through Archives and 2112. Bit less of a heavy concept than its predecessor, more immediate though, and for some reason, my favourite of all Rush sleeves. Hemispheres I found impenetrable, was disappointed by Permanent Waves' non-gatefold sleeve (hey, the sleeve's part of the whole package, right? No pun intended!), so that was it for me and Rush. Still love this though, for a quick Rush-fix.

Paul Nadin-Salter: Bought it when I was 14, loved them ever since, still have my Farewell to Kings tour program from Sheffield City Hall,. What can you say about this album apart from absolute classic and probably inspired most of modern prog, rock and metal.

Debii Marie: This is my favourite album by Rush with the sublime Xanadu, the title track and Closer to the Heart. It also heralds the concept of Cygnus, which is continued in Hemispheres. However Cinderella Man is the weak link and its Elton John-like melody sounds dated.

LaDonna Crumbliss: Rock and Roll was forever changed by the sound of Rush! I remember when I first heard them, I was 16 years old and never heard anything like them. They were way ahead of the times, lyrics, and music!! Much respect to the trio.

Gavin Norman: That was the first rush album I heard and had a cassette taped off a mate. The opening title track is still a favourite. That moment when the acoustic introduction gives way to the crashing electric chords still raises a fist in the air. 

Cygnus is another superb track and As the years have gone by the track Xanadu has become another favourite. Fantastic drumming on that. Second side opener closer to the heart is a nice track , with only Cinderella Man failing to make much of an impression. Have to give a shout out to the artwork and that great logo. Have repaid the band by buying it on vinyl and cd along with everything else they’ve done over the years. Home taping killing music ? What a load of mush; home taping spread the word!

Maxwell Martello: Foreword: I love the record, I think it never falters, all songs deserve praise. Yes, I love Cinderella Man too, courtesy Of Geddy Lee’s passionate vocal delivery. He sounds like he means it! There’s a sense of tragedy in the refrain. 

Having said all that, somebody has to set the record straight.

Cygnus X-1 arguably contains the very first accidental exhibit of what became known as “second wave black metal” (I’m talking Mayhem, Darkthrone, Immortal, Emperor and the like).

I’m dead serious about this. Fast forward to 8.35 of Cygnus X-1. That’s black metal, right there! Hell, at some point Neil Peart even throws in some quasi blast beats for good measure! 

It’s as grim and frostbitten as it gets and Rush are Canadians, definitely no strangers to winter!

Try screaming on top of that 8.35 riff... it fits! It’s like Immortal’s At the Heart of Winter some 20 years early!

Paul May: One of my favourite albums of all time. I'm not sure I agree with it being called a 'socialist polemic'. Rush have never been socialist (remember the furore in the UK press about 2112 in NME?), although they do have a social conscience and a respect for others' freedoms. 

Cinderella Man (based on the movie) is all about doing something useful and fulfilling with your wealth, not just squandering it on useless junk. Xanadu (based on the poem) is about obsession, and how it can drive you to do great things, but also can be destructive. Some people think that Closer to the Heart is telling us we should all be more 'giving' and selfless, whereas it could actually be interpreted as meaning being truer to yourself, to one's integrity (Rush were still in their Ayn Rand phase then, remember). 

The title song A Farewell to Kings simply says that tyrants and 'kings' who see themselves a better than other people and rule over them accordingly should not be tolerated - it's a song about freedom of the individual over dictatorial rule. Oh, and Cynus X1 is about falling into a black hole. However you interpret the lyrics, this album is still one of all-time classics.

Steve Roberts: A lot if prog rock hasn’t held up well over time, but this one has... mainly because it still rocks. Excellent vocals from Geddy and guitar work from Alex. Drums are solid but not showy. Xanadu and Closer to the Heart the standouts in my opinion.

Robin L Haddon: For me this is Rush's best album. I can remember buying the vinyl and marvelling at the sound production and it stands the test of time. Regular airplay in my house and Xanadu is a masterpiece.

Timothy Morris: Absolutely one of my favorite Rush records, probably my favorite of the 70s. It’s amazing the growth from 2112 to A Farewell to Kings. And it’s immediately apparent on the opening title track and it’s followup, Xanadu. This record never fails to blow my mind.

Mark Slade: Though Hemispheres is my favourite Rush album, AFTK was the first of their 70s albums that I ever heard. I still listen to it today on a regular basis, but for all that Xanadu and Closer To The Heart are the often mentioned songs from it, I think it's bookended with its best songs - the title track is very underrated I feel when the best Rush songs are mentioned (that guitar solo section is immense), and Cygnus Book 1 is just a monster of a song. It's a brilliant album. It'd be a crowning glory achievement for most bands. But this is Rush we're talking about.

Cathal Kenneally: I don’t listen to this enough. I have so much Rush music. When you see them live, it’s only then you begin to appreciate their music. Like a good wine, they get better with age. When I listen to Rush, I don’t just pick one album, I play several in a row. I have a habit of doing this with Pink Floyd as well.

Christopher Kupczyk: Includes my all-time favorite Rush song, Xanadu. Have literally listened to this song 500 times or more and still love every note on every listen. Everything that makes Rush, Rush in one epic composition.

Mike Knoop: Aside from the two epics, Xanadu and Cygnus X-1, I don't listen to this album that much although I'm a big Rush fan, so it was nice to listen to it all the way through again a few times. The title track appeals to me much more than it used to and it's been long enough since I've heard Closer to the Heart that it didn't feel so overplayed. Cinderella Man and Madrigal are decent enough trifles, but the two epics, one opulent and one ominous, are still where the treasure is at.

John Davidson: Rush were always on the move musically but this is the start of a set of transitional albums from the hard rock sound of 2112 to the epic Moving Pictures. I loved this album when I was 16 and I still like it now.

AftK is a good opener, Xanadu is the epic crowd pleaser, Closer to the Heart is the Scottish singalong we all know and love and Cygnus X1 is the mini-prog multi-parter, but Madrigal and Cinderella Man are album fillers by Rush standards (though CM is blessed with a great solo).

I'm not a huge fan of Cygnus X1 or the follow-up song Hemispheres but they do deserve to be listened to together to get the whole musical story.

The production is distinctly Rush but still quite different from previous and subsequent albums. Perhaps someone with the technical expertise can explain it to me. It fits the mood of the album well enough but seems a little 'arch' for want of a better word.

So home of a couple of absolute classics and some decent album fodder. By Rush standards a 710.

Lewis Griffiths: I shall force myself to be restrained and brief, or I’d end up writing an essay on every song.

A Farewell To Kings is one of a handful of albums that friends introduced me to in my teens and which ignited my life long love of all forms of rock music. This is the album that nurtured an ability in me to appreciate the more complex and challenging - and hence rewarding - style of rock music.

Even though I have hung on to my original vinyl album down through all the years, I had to purchase the 40th Anniversary remastered edition as well. Listening to it is a rare, transportative joy - the music genuinely takes me to other places. It is a rare work of art that engages me both emotionally and intellectually. I have a number of treasured albums or novels or paintings that can do one or the other. But A Farewell To Kings is rare and special, precisely because it achieves both.

Through his lyrics, not just on this album, Peart often questioned the nature of free will, and freedom from tyrants, and what it means to be a human being responsible for your own fate. He may not always have come up with the right answers, but he was asking the right questions.

Kev Sullivan: So. Gave this another two blasts. One on way to France on EuroStar and another on way back today. Soothed the stress of travel wonderfully. Is that a valid review ? 

Truth is... I didn’t know this album half as well as I thought and I’d forgotten more than I remembered. So this was a welcome outing. I’ve given it a well-deserved dusting off and have no regrets. Need to dig out more Rush now. Wonderful stuff. Symbolism, escapism, metal, prog... it’s “get away from it all music” at its best or its “get in deep” if you want to go that way. Cheers.

Final Score: 8.59 ⁄10 (406 votes cast, with a total score of 3489)

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