Gods and astronauts, savants and seers. Never let it be said that Rush ducked the epic subjects during their grandiose 70s peak. And they were never more grandiose than on A Farewell To Kings, the album that ushered in phase two of their career.
Originally released in 1977, AFTK gets a 40th-anniversary reissue. Like last year’s souped-up 2112, it comes with added bells and whistles in the form of a full live set and a quartet of covers from contemporary artists (let’s gloss over the appalling 21st-century ‘reimagining’ of the cover artwork).
The original album remains a flawed masterpiece. It starts with the never-bettered one-two of the title track and the Coleridge Taylor/Orson Welles-referencing Xanadu. But then the pacing goes screwy: its central run of three short, stylistically similar songs (Closer To The Heart, Cinderella Man, Madrigal) starts strong but gets less and less interesting.
Then there’s Cygnus X-I. The least successful of their 70s epics, it possesses neither the controlled structure of 2112 itself, the mystical, breaking-fast-on-honeydew aura of Xanadu or the dazzling musicianship and batshit crazy battle-of-the-gods theme of its sequel-of-sorts, Hemisphere’s Cygnus X-I: Book II. Instead, it’s unfocused and for the most part unmemorable, with the exception of the grand finale where the crew of the spaceship Rocinante – spoiler alert! – plunge into a black hole to a soundtrack of Geddy Lee’s ear-piercing shriek. Perplexingly, it putters to a stop, like they couldn’t be arsed to finish it. Maybe that’s just black holes for you.
More frustrating are the two live discs. Not because of the quality – recorded at London’s fabled Hammersmith Odeon on February 20, 1978, this set is the missing link between All The World’s A Stage and Exit… Stage Left, combining the flow of the former with the latter’s sense that there’s an actual audience present. No, 11 of its 15 tracks were released as part of 1997’s Different Stages. While you do get unreleased versions of 2112, Lakeside Park and Closer To The Heart, plus a terse Neil Peart drum solo, it all feels a bit second-hand.
The cover versions on the end of the second live disc are almost an afterthought, more interesting in theory than reality. Dream Theater galumph through a near carbon copy of Xanadu and Canadian makeweights Big Wreck turn Closer To The Heart into a Nickelback power ballad. Only Alain Johannes’ delicate version of Madrigal emerges with dignity intact, and he was starting from a pretty low base.
This reissue isn’t perfect. When it’s good, it’s phenomenal; when it’s not, it’s frustrating. But then Rush’s flaws are still more interesting that most other bands’ perfections.