Right, let's get this out of the way first. It's absolutely not (in my view, of course) pretentious to use words or concepts like 'Overture' in rock music. I know I'm preaching to the converted here - at least, I hope I am - but this kind of thing can spoil perfectly good friendships, you know.
So we have an overture. A proper one, just the way Mozart or Wagner would have done it - weaving in the themes from the whole work, and prefiguring the whole thing, while at the same time playing the oldest trick in the book - the one that modern-day pop song writers imagine they invented: letting us hear the melody of the chorus up front, so that when it comes around, it's already familiar, and you are even more predisposed to liking it. Just as Mozart previewed the big arias, so Rush here give us snippets of the big riffs and themes, softening us up for the main event.
When it starts, I'm immediately whisked back to my little room in Edinburgh. It doesn't matter how long it is since I heard this, I'm never going to mistake that synthesized swirl for anything else. Immediately, I can see that all the lessons learnt over the last 3 albums have been put to work here; the arrangement is tight, the production awesome. At times the bass leads the way, at others the guitar dances a jig; at all times it sounds like the mature Rush sound. This is where it all falls into place. I'll even forgive the explosions.
Temples of Syrinx
A seamless segue from the cataclysmic end to the overture, and we're straight into an anthem which is meant to sound like - well, an anthem. Here's the strident voice used to its proper effect - there's no mistaking what's going on here, and for all the joyful bounce of the melody, we're under no illusions that this is a facade, and the manufactured happiness is just that - manufactured. The lyrics deserve a mention here - sinister without there being anything you could put your finger on; I always loved "Oh, what a nice, contented world" - chilling in it's naive simplicity.
As we move along, I'm struck by a Rush trademark, which I must have overlooked earlier - suddenly guitar and drums are the rhythm section, while the bass does its thing, and the sound created is unmistakable. I'm strangely pleased at having put my finger on something I'd always taken for granted.
Possibly the boldest thing they've tried so far; I have always loved this. The spare, picked opening is utterly convincing (although it is a rare talent indeed who can pick up a guitar for the first time, and never hit a bum note) and if the development to harmonics and then structured melody is rather rapid, let's not forget that this is a narrative device, not a literal guitar lesson.
The melody is still highly effective, and the sound is possibly unique in all of Rush music - is this the only track which features only guitar and voice?
The crux of the whole thing; the pivotal moment, and it doesn't disappoint. The melody flows logically from the previous section, and the narrative voice blossoms from the earlier uncertainty to the strong, true sound - we can hear he has right on his side -
Which is why the contrasting voice (Father Brown; an odd resonance for me - I somehow doubt that G K Chesterton was high on Neil's reading list, but you never know) is so devastating. "Yes, we know; it's nothing new" is possibly the single most crushingly dismissive line in all of recorded music. So much so that the remainder of the song is a kind of anti-climax; just going through the required motions (which is what the characters in the story are doing) until we can reach the devastation of the breakdown, and the pained howl of the guitar solo.
Oracle: The Dream
(How many song titles have a colon in them? Never mind.)
Putting aside for a moment my initial reaction (a male Oracle?); what strikes me about this is the way the vocal line leads the rhythmic pattern. This is unusual for Rush, and it stands out for me; more usually, the voice serves the rhythm and is emphasized by it in return; this is odd, prompting me to wonder if it was composed differently to normal. Or maybe I'm just hearing things.
Sparsely orchestrated, here the music tells the tale just as well as the words. This is ultimate despair, and the breakdown is complete - as the music boils over, so the voice is lost, becoming in its final agonies almost a caricature of the Priests' voices - the irony, I am sure, is entirely intentional. The abruptness of the end still seems a little shocking, but there are time constraints here, and we do understand that this was the only course which seemed open to him. It's just a little - sudden.
If you're going to have an Overture, you'd better have a Finale, and this is a beauty - satisfying the classical geek in me with its two competing themes, cleverly intertwined with the darting guitar solo. If I have a quibble, it is that the ending is obscure, but then I realize that it may well be deliberately so; who wins this battle? Just who has taken control, and of what? You can read it both ways and the music doesn't help, either.
I think that, as a younger man, I assumed that the good guys had won, that the Elder Race had come back to sort everything out. Now, I'm older and more cynical, and I'm not so sure - my feeling is that the music tips us the other way, that the nascent revolution caused by this suicide has been brutally stamped on.
But I could be wrong. What's not to like here? A song cycle, properly constructed, with themes and counterpoints, narrative tension and an unresolved ambiguous ending. No wonder I like Mahler...
In the end, am I amazed? No, not quite, but it's still pretty damned good, and I am happy to have found new things in something which I knew so well.