I know things are going to be a bit different now- it's a given, isn't it? So what exactly am I looking for? Of course I hear the drums immediately (and I'll come to the lyrics in a moment), but what I hear most of all is tone and structure. From the start, this is a song performed by a three-piece. Each strand of the music is clear (and all four parts are given equal weight - no more drowning everything in multi-tracked guitars). This is a clean sound, and the song really benefits from it. The structure is instantly more interesting than anything on 'Rush' - the various sections hang together, the instrumental parts are there for a reason, and the music works with the words, not just as a rhythmic device to distract you from their banality.
Words. I'd better declare my position up front, because I'm going to deviate from it often enough. I don't believe Neil Peart to be a poet. I actually don't even think that he's the greatest wordsmith in modern music - and I don't think he's ever tried to be. What I believe he is, is the most consistently interesting, thought-provoking and musical lyricist in rock music. And the most important word in that list, for me, at any rate, is 'consistent'. This may not be the first song he ever wrote; it may not be the first Rush song he ever wrote, but straight off the bat you notice two things:
1. He's on the arrogant side of thought-provoking ("Don't let them tell you that you owe it all to me"? Er, hello, Mr Peart; I don't believe we've been introduced. Who are you , exactly?) From 30 years away, it's a familiar and somewhat wry comment on the perils of fame, but just think for a minute about the fact that it's the first time anyone's heard a Peart lyric. Wow, that's confident.
2. You don't understand it first time out. He doesn't use words like 'baby', does he? How many other rock lyrics include the word 'wrought?' I'm going to have to go back and listen again to figure out what's going on here. The first time I heard this, I was studying the metaphysical poets. This made me think almost as much to figure it out. How can you not love something like that?
Best I Can
Woah, hold on there, guys. Where did this come from? One song into the new era, and we're right back among the dinosaurs. It must be a hangover from the first album, and I suppose you might as well put it here to draw in those who loved that, and haven't quite got over the shock of 'Anthem'. However, you do notice all that drumming poured all over it, which kind of raises it up the scale a bit, and there's a nice breakdown section. But it's not the best thing on this album, is it?
Another 'last' - is this the last time we hear Geddy sing the words 'Rock 'n' Roll'?
Beneath, Between and Behind
Two things straight off. When I heard this again for the first time in twenty or so years, I thought it was the riff to 'Lakeside Park', only to be brought up short. It'll be interesting to hear how similar they actually are when I get there. Then I thought I was getting 'Bastille Day', thanks to that initial yelp. I'm not sure if that says more about my memory than it does about the song.
Actually, now I listen more carefully, it does seem to be a dry run for 'Bastille Day' - all that stuff about 'noble birth' and a certain briskness to the structure. Considering I only dimly remembered the title, and thought it was two other songs, this has since stuck in my head quite pleasantly. As someone might say, it's nifty.
By-Tor and the Snow Dog
Before I even start, I'm looking forward to this. It's the first of the really extravagant songs, and I remember it well - there's something orchestral about it in my memory, and although I'm not the biggest fan of fantasy lyrics, there's something comforting about this because it is still, after so long, utterly familiar.
Incidentally, I was never a big fan of fantasy writing either. Then I was introduced to Guy Gavriel Kay. Trust me, you should try him. He is Canadian, after all.
So, for an eight-minute epic, this doesn't hang about. Two quick verses, fairly traditionally structured, and suddenly we're off. Now I can see why Neil's writing works so well. The complaints I had about the instrumental sections in 'Working Man' have all been addressed here - this is integral to the song, and all this musical sparring serves a narrative purpose. How tedious it could have been to write (and listen to) "Then By-tor leaps at the Snowdog's throat, but with one swipe of his mighty paw...' Yawn.
Instead we get thrilling musical battle, the greatest countdown in all of rock (6...5...4...3...2...Bang!. The timing is perfect, and the metre is maintained throughout), a wonderful funereal lament - mists slowly clearing over the battlefield, that sort of thing - a drum roll and a liquid bluesy solo, followed by the scrambled resurrection back into the verse. It's a lot shorter than 8 minutes, I swear.
I'd write more, but I'm going to listen to it again instead.