Saturday, May 10, 2008

An Analysis of Rush Epics

Rush is a multi-platinum-selling progressive rock band who have been consistently putting out new albums for nearly 35 years, without ever having a personnel change during that span. Among other things, Rush is famous for a series of “epic” songs they recorded in the early years of their career, some of which were upwards of twenty minutes long, comprising entire sides of vinyl albums. Although it is not necessarily a major topic of debate, even among diehard Rush fans who tend to analyze all things Rush to death, there is some disagreement over just how many epic songs Rush recorded. In this analysis, I want to set forth the criteria for what I believe make an “epic” song, and then look at each one of Rush’s early albums to determine which songs qualify as epics and which do not.

When Neil Peart joined the band as drummer and primary lyricist in 1974, Rush only had one previous album to their credit. As soon as Peart joined the band, the direction of the music, both lyrically and instrumentally, changed course dramatically. The difference in sound and lyrical content between the first and second albums is marked – even if you do not know anything about the band’s history, it is obvious that something changed between the first and second albums. One of those changes included a penchant for writing long songs with unusual lyrical content primarily consisting of science-fiction/fantasy themes.

Before delving into the albums and songs, it is necessary to outline the criteria for what makes a song an “epic” song.

1. Length. Any good epic song will be longer than average. If we assume that an “average” rock song is about 3:30, then any epic song would need to be considerably longer than this.

2. Lyrical Theme. For a song to qualify as an epic, the lyrical theme should generally be out of the ordinary. “Out of the ordinary” could include science-fiction themes, historical themes, sociopolitical themes, fantasy themes, nature themes, mythology themes, folktale themes, etc.

3. Lyrical Content. Generally speaking, a good epic song will tell a story. Like the country music “story songs” of the past, a rock epic should be arranged in such a way that a writer might be able to adapt its lyrics to a short story.

4. Formatting. Most rock songs are arranged in a traditional format, with an opening, a series of one to three verses, a repeated chorus, a bridge and/or solo section, and an ending, which often includes a repetition of the chorus. Musically, this can be denoted with a series of letters. Thus, a song with two verses, a repeated chorus, and a bridge, might look like this: ABABCBB, where “A” represents the verses, “B” represents the chorus, and “C” represents the bridge. For a song to be a good epic song, it should generally stray from this sort of traditional formatting. It may follow a much more complicated format, or it may be durchcomponiert, that is, “through composed,” meaning there is no repetition of any one musical section – no repeated verses, choruses, or bridges.

5. Instrumentation. If an average rock song uses electric guitar, bass guitar, and drums, an epic song should have a wider variety of musical instruments employed. These may include strings, keyboards, synthesizers, various percussion instruments, brass, and even choirs.

6. Stylistic Arrangement. If most rock songs generally follow the same style throughout, an epic song should have various sections where the style of the music differs greatly from previous and subsequent sections. An example might be a song that starts out loud and fast, with traditional instruments, and then moves into a section where the music slows and quiets down, and new instruments are brought in to create a different sound and mood. Dramatic changes in key signatures and time signatures may also accompany these stylistic variations.

With these criteria in mind, we can perhaps come up with three categories in analyzing songs for “epic” quality. Any song that contains five or more of the above criteria could reasonably be labeled an epic song. A song with two or fewer epic criteria should be labeled a non-epic song. In the middle of these two – with three to four criteria – is a category I will call “pseudo-epic.” There will be some overlap, of course, depending on which criteria a particular song employs. For instance, a song that tells a story and has unusual content, but no other epic criteria, is probably best called a non-epic. However, a song that has unusual content and is over ten minutes long could very well be considered a pseudo-epic, even though it, like the previous example, only had two of the six qualifying criteria.

Having outlined the standards we will be searching for, we now take a look at the actual albums and songs.

Rush’s second album was entitled “Fly By Night,” and this album, I believe, has two songs worthy of consideration. The first is “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” widely accepted in the Rush community to be Rush’s first epic. Keeping our criteria in mind, this song displays abnormal length (nearly nine minutes), an unusual theme (it centers on a wizard-like tale about a battle between the title characters), it tells a story, it uses a variety of instrumental sounds (the “battle section” involves a sound that mimics the barking of a dog), and it has a varying stylistic arrangement. Thus, this song displays five of our six criteria, and is therefore considered a certifiable epic song.

The second song on “Fly By Night” which should be considered is “Rivendell.” This song is frequently not included in discussions about Rush’s epic songs, but I believe it qualifies as a pseudo-epic. It has unusual content (it is based on Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”), and it has unusual instrumentation (the music consists entirely of solo classical guitar, with some very soft electric guitar sounds in the background, mimicking the sound of a medieval woodwind instrument). It is not significant in length, but it does run about five minutes, making it quite a bit longer than an average rock song. These three criteria, I believe, qualify “Rivendell” as a pseudo-epic.

Rush’s third album was called “Caress of Steel,” and it includes two songs that are without question epic songs – “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth.” The former has at least five of the six necessary criteria, lacking perhaps only the necessary varied instrumentation.

“The Fountain of Lamneth” contains four of the six qualifying criteria, lacking only varied instrumentation and complex formatting. The song is arranged into a series of five or six “movements,” with each movement more or less functioning as a stand-alone song with traditional formatting. However, because of the arrangement in movements, an easy argument could be made that this song carries the complex formatting criterion as well. Either way, there is no question this song is a certifiable epic.

A possible third candidate on “Caress of Steel” is a song entitled “Lakeside Park.” It contains an unusual lyrical theme, it tells a story, and it has varying styles. With these three criteria, it could probably qualify as a pseudo-epic, but in my opinion this is still too much of a stretch because the varying styles and unusual themes are not really varied and unusual enough to qualify as “out of the ordinary.” Thus, I would probably categorize “Lakeside Park” as a non-epic.

Rush’s fourth album, “2112,” contains perhaps its most famous epic song. Also titled “2112,” this song runs over twenty minutes (it would have been clever of them to make it 21:12 instead of 20:33), and tells a sort of futuristic science-fiction story that ends with the narrator’s suicide. Like the epics before it, the only criterion it seems to be missing is varied instrumentation, but it has some sound effects in the middle and near the end, including a robot-like voiceover. Whether this qualifies as varied instrumentation or not, the song is certainly strong on the remaining five criteria. It is arranged just like a symphonic work, with an overture covering musical themes from subsequent sections, individual movements, and a finale.

Rush’s fifth album, “A Farewell to Kings,” begins with a song by the same name, and I believe this song, though not widely regarded as an epic, demands consideration. It is longer than average at nearly six minutes, it has unusual themes in that it discusses modern sociopolitical concerns with metaphors couched in medieval images, it has unusual formatting in that it has only verses but no true chorus and is strewn with various bridge-like sections that sometimes follow one after the other, it has complex instrumentation including classical guitars and various percussive sounds, and it has stylistic variations, beginning and ending with classical guitar solos. Thus, “A Farewell to Kings” qualifies as much as an epic song as “2112” or “The Necromancer” with five out of the six criteria met.

Two other songs on this album most definitely qualify as epics. These songs are “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1.” Both of these songs quite clearly contain all six of the required criteria of length, theme, content, formatting, instrumentation, and style, and I will not waste a lot of time discussing them. Suffice it to say, these are the first two songs in Rush’s catalogue that have, without question, all six of the necessary criteria to make an epic song.

Rush’s next album, “Hemispheres,” has an 18-minute epic by the same title. Like “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1” before it, it has all six epic criteria, and is also considerably longer and more varied than either of those songs. Like “2112,” it is arranged like a symphonic work, with an overture, movements, and finale.

The final song on this album, “La Villa Strangiato,” bears consideration. Frequently overlooked in discussions about epic Rush songs, this song contains five of the six necessary criteria for epic songs: length, theme, formatting, instrumentation, and style. It fails on the lyrical content only because the song has no lyrics – it is a nearly ten minute instrumental with themed movements, but no words. I believe “La Villa Strangiato” is a certifiable Rush epic.

Another song on “Hemispheres” that I believe deserves consideration is “The Trees.” This song qualifies on theme, content, instrumentation, and style. One could also argue that it qualifies on length, running about 4:45, though this is a stretch. It contains unusual subject matter (a sociopolitical commentary using a living forest as a running metaphor), it tells a story, it has complex instrumentation, and its style varies because the song begins – like “A Farewell to Kings” – with a haunting classical guitar solo. “The Trees,” therefore, qualifies as a solid pseudo-epic, meaning that three of the four songs on this album have epic qualities.

Rush’s seventh album, “Permanent Waves,” has several candidates, starting, perhaps, with “Freewill.” This song qualifies on length and content, but it would be a stretch to find any other epic criteria in it. Thus, it is best described as a non-epic song.

The next song to be considered is “Jacob’s Ladder.” Though this is the shortest of Rush’s widely regarded epics, I think it most certainly deserves the designation. At 7:28, it qualifies on length, and also qualifies on theme, formatting, instrumentation, and style. It may be Rush’s only song that is truly durchcomponiert, with no repeated sections from beginning to end. There are repetitions of motifs within sections, but no sectional musical theme is ever repeated in the song. “Jacob’s Ladder” is a solid epic.

The final song on this album, “Natural Science,” frequently wins fan polls for favorite Rush song, and is generally lumped in with Rush’s epic songs. However, a close look at the song shows that it probably only displays four of the six epic criteria – length, theme, formatting, and style. The lyrics do not really tell a story, and there is not much variation in instrumentation. The song opens with a creek bubbling in the background, but this is not enough, alone, to meet the instrumentation criteria. I think this song is probably more accurately called a pseudo-epic, but we are ultimately splitting hairs. The varied style, movement-oriented arrangement, length, and lyrical themes are probably enough to push this one over the edge into epic status.

Widely regarded to be Rush’s last epic song, “The Camera Eye” is found on Rush’s eighth and most popular album, “Moving Pictures.” In interviews, band members have repeatedly said that this is the one song that is most often requested to be performed live. This fact is no doubt the result of several factors, most notably that it has not been performed live in well over twenty years, and that it is included on Rush’s best-selling album – meaning that this may be one of the few epic songs that casual Rush fans are familiar with. I think “The Camera Eye” is a fine song, and I enjoy listening to it, but up against their other epic-quality songs, it is among my least favorite.

Be that as it may, “The Camera Eye” is probably a true epic. It qualifies without question on length, theme, instrumentation, and style. It probably also qualifies on formatting, although the format is not quite as varied and complex as many of Rush’s other epic songs, and it contains a number of repeated sections – hallmarks of non-epics. However, it does not have a true chorus, and this strengthens the formatting qualification. I think it is fair to call this song a certifiable epic.

Another song on “Moving Pictures” that bears consideration is “Red Barchetta.” This song most certainly qualifies on length, theme, and content, and it could probably be argued that it qualifies on stylistic arrangement as well, due to an introduction that is otherwise quite different from the rest of the song. Even with only three qualifications, those three are solid, and I believe this song is a pseudo-epic.

As I mentioned above, most fans regard “The Camera Eye” as the end of Rush’s “epic” period. Following “Moving Pictures,” Rush began writing almost exclusively traditional, non-epic songs. They have continued to maintain eclectic lyrical content and varied musical styles, as well as complex instrumentation, but gone are the days of excessive length, unusual content, “story” lyrics, and complex formatting. For the most part, their albums since “Moving Pictures” have contained songs that are certainly intellectual, notably virtuosic, and frequently eclectic, but they are generally arranged and performed in a traditional manner. “Pseudo-epic” claims could probably be made for songs like “Manhattan Project,” “Territories,” “Mystic Rhythms,” and “Tai Shan,” but I believe these songs are simply non-epics that happen to be eclectic.

However, there may be a few legitimate pseudo-epics among Rush’s later albums. “Digital Man,” from their “Subdivisions” album, is the first. This song qualifies strongly on length and theme (it was their longest post-“Moving Pictures” song until 2007’s “Snakes & Arrows” album), and a good argument could be made for formatting as well, as it has a more complex format than a non-epic song. I believe this one qualifies as a pseudo-epic.

The next to consider is “Losing It,” from the same “Subdivisions” album. This song probably qualifies on length at nearly five minutes, and it has an unusual theme, tells a story, and contains varied instrumentation (including an electric violin solo). Despite this, I think “Losing It” is more in the category of “non-epic but eclectic,” rather than pseudo-epic.

“Red Sector A,” off of the “Grace Under Pressure” album probably qualifies as a pseudo-epic. At 5:11, it qualifies on length, and it most certainly qualifies on theme, content, and instrumentation.

“Roll the Bones,” from the album of the same name, qualifies on length and style, and more weakly on instrumentation and formatting. What really pushes this one over the top is the unusual bridge in the middle of the song, which more or less contains a rap. This song is widely unpopular among diehard fans, but by my criteria in this analysis, I think “Roll the Bones” qualifies, just barely, as a pseudo-epic.

In the final analysis, I believe Rush’s epic-quality songs line up like this:

Certifiable Epics
By-Tor and the Snow Dog
The Necromancer
The Fountain of Lamneth
A Farewell to Kings
Cygnus X-1
La Villa Strangiato
Jacob’s Ladder
Natural Science
The Camera Eye

Of this list, perhaps only “A Farewell to Kings” is a true shock, but as I noted above, several other widely accepted epic songs (“Natural Science,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “The Camera Eye,” and even possibly “The Fountain of Lamneth”) just barely make the cut.

The Trees
Red Barchetta
Digital Man
Red Sector A
Roll the Bones

A lot of people would no doubt argue this list, as generally none of these songs are given any sort of epic status among diehard fans, but by the same criteria that make the certifiable epics what they are, I believe these songs have enough qualities to at least get an honorable mention.


Anonymous said...

I would argue that Natural Science does tell a story. It tells the story of evolution and science.

Scott said...

Yes, it does tell that story. But by "telling a story," I meant a story in the traditional sense.

Anonymous said...

I understand this is an old blog, (I don't even know if it's still maintained, as I just came across this page via Google) but I was wondering what your thoughts would be on regarding the Fear Trilogy as a single composition?

-The songs are united via the theme of life being ruled by fear.

-The length of the entire composition is nearly 16 minutes. (over 20 if you count the fourth part from Vapour Trails)

-If you count the synths and various electronic instruments they added to their arsenal in the 80's as "different instrumentation", then it has varied instrumentation.

-Though each song follows a verse/chorus format, each song can be seen as a movement in a greater work. Also, Witch Hunt's atmosphere and pace is definitely a departure from the first two upbeat tracks.

Scott said...

Anon: Yes, I suppose that in its own unique way, the Fear Quartet could qualify as a "Rush Epic." I didn't consider it at the time that I wrote this piece, but I think you've made a good point.

Anonymous said...

i would agree with your epic list, with the exception of "a farewell to king." i dont think it is quite long enough to be an epic. it doesnt feel like an epic to me either but that is subjective. it doesnt feel like it has multiple parts, which is an important component in an epic in my opinion. by i agree with the rest.

Scott said...

Yeah, A Farewell to Kings certainly doesn't normally get "epic" status among Rush fans, but going with the criteria I outlined in the post, it fits.

Anonymous said...

I'm another Anonymous from those who have previously commented.

I think my knowledge of Rush borders on obsession, and you've covered all the songs I would choose, but I am intruiged on one thing: "Red Sector A" qualifies as a pseudo-epic, I agree, but there are two other songs on P/g that someone might bring into consideration: "The Body Electric" and "Between The Wheels". If this blog is still maintained, could you maybe give your thoughts on this?

Rush rules.

Scott said...

Yes, this blog is still maintained :)

Going by my original criteria, The Body Electric would qualify on lyrical theme (sci-fi) and lyrical content (tells a story) for sure. The formatting is pretty straight forward (verses, repeated choruses, etc.) and the style is not varied (no changing keys or time signatures or tempos, etc.).

As for length, it's a bit longer than the average rock song, but only about 4:45.

The instrumentation is also pretty straightforward.

So I would argue it qualifies on 2 of the 6 criteria. This would make it a non-epic by my outlined standards. However, the two it qualifies on are very, very strong, and it kinda sorta maybe qualifies on length, so I would put this one into the pseudo-epic category, but only just barely.

As for Between the Wheels, my first thought when you said it was "no way," but upon reflection, you are probably right about this one too.

It qualifies on style because it goes back and forth on tempo and time signature. It somewhat qualifies on instrumentation because of that symphonic sounding keyboard in the slow sections.

I don't think it qualifies on lyrical themes or content - the theme of the lyrics is not unusual, and they don't tell a story.

Formatting is pretty normal, I think. An intro, which is repeated, verses, choruses, and a bridge. Fairly straightforward. Maybe a touch more complex than the average song, but not enough to qualify, I don't think.

At 5:45, it probably qualifies on length.

So it qualifies on style, instrumentation, and length. I don't think any of these categories are knock-outs, however. It kind of just barely qualifies in all of them.

Still, going by what I outlined, I suppose we need to include this one on the pseudo-epic list too.

Thanks for commenting, Anon! It was interesting for me to revisit this old post.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the lyrical themes made me hesitate on "Between The Wheels" as well. It's just that, you see, I'm also a Genesis fan, and they had a song with a similar message on their "A Trick Of The Tail" album, "Ripples". The music on that song is among the most far-out of the post-Peter Gabriel Genesis. And, although "BTW" does not even come close, I was thinking of it being perhaps a pseudo-epic if "Red Sector" qualified.

Great blog you have here, man. You have a new reader.

Anonymous said...

You should have mentioned the "Fear" series of songs in here somewhere.

Scott said...

Yeah, not analyzing Fear was probably an oversight. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Phil said...

There is no "Subdivisions album." The album is called Signals.

Scott said...


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