On this day, thirty-nine years ago, the Canadian rock band Rush released an album called 2112. Almost 21 minutes of this nearly 39-minute-long album is dedicated to a seven-part â€œsuiteâ€ called 2112. Oddly enough, this 2112 suite does not have a duration, 21 minutes and 12 seconds, but maybe Rush was not into being cute at that time. Apparently, the 2112â€¦suiteâ€¦had been released earlier in the year, or at least parts of it had. But, whatever; the first of April is the only date that I have as being certain, so I am going with that.
For years and years, Rush has been one of those bands that raises passions in people, whether it be love or hatred and derision. Perhaps most of it is due to their reputation as being nerdy libertarians. Or maybe it is the way that Geddy Leeâ€™s high pitched vocals pierce in a way that the high-pitched vocals of his musical contemporaries do not. I am not as familiar with Rush as many seem to be, so my opinion is informed only by a few songs that I hear on the radio and a handful of albums that I have listened to only once.
This post, despite the many digressions, is primarily about the 2112 suite, so let us start. I am going to try to avoid talking about the book Anthem, by Ayn Rand, since I have read only a synopsis of that book. I will note only that it Rush has had to acknowledge accidental inspiration, even though a few major aspects are different. Soâ€¦here goes.
Wait, before getting to the musicâ€¦beyond the actual lyrics, there is extra text in the liner note that read like a personâ€™s journal entries. Why Rush thought to do this, I donâ€™t know. Maybe it was supposed to be like a libretto. Or maybe it is because they really wanted to use the word â€œTemplevisionâ€, but realized that it sounded stupid when said out loud. In any case, the backstory is that a person lives in a place that might be called Megadon. It is not Earth, since it has two moons. It is implied that there was a huge war that destroyed many planets, but peace came in 2062, when the Solar Federation took over. We might assume that the Solar Federation came from our own Star System, since there is little reason why would they use the term â€œSolarâ€ in their name unless it had become just some word to use by that time. We might also assume that they have roots in Communism as their banner is a Red Star. It is interesting to note right now that in the lyrics proper, there is pretty much no mention of other planets until about three quarters of the way through thisâ€¦suiteâ€¦and the term â€œSolar Federationâ€ does not come up until the very end. Yet the reference to the Red Star shows up fairly early on. Hmmmâ€¦Anyways, our protagonist claims to have been happy until something changed.
Okayâ€¦now I shall finally get to theâ€¦suiteâ€¦.
Seriously? It is called “Overture”? Fine. Fine. To be fair, it is kind of an overture, or at least in the general sense. It is a mostly instrumental piece that serves as a preview of what the rest of thisâ€¦suiteâ€¦has to offer. I donâ€™t know why they felt like a 16-minute-long piece needed a 4 Â½ minute-long overture, but whatever.
So, this track begins with around 45-seconds of spacey-whistle noises that give this a rather appropriate sci-fi feelingâ€¦and then it abandons them altogether for the next nineteen minutes. I realize that 2112 came before the band entered its synth phase, but maybe they could have pushed that forward for this. What comes after this is standard rock combination of guitar, bass guitar, and drum set. For this…Overture, the rest of the piece is pretty much at one energy level, despite going through a few melodic changes. Honestly, I find it to be plain old boring.
The only two bits of note take place towards the end. The first is when the piece suddenly includes a segment from “The Year 1812”, otherwise known as the “1812 Overture”, which was first performed in 1882 (around 94 years before the release of 2112) and celebrated the Russians (or the Russian Winter) beating back Napoleonâ€™s invading French forces. Ironically enough, this piece was one of the later types of overtures that did not accompany a large work, unlike the 2112 Overture. I am guessing that there was meant to be an implied connection between 2112 and 1812. I suppose that, since the “1812 Overture “employed the French National Anthem, the “1812 Overture” itself is fair game for copying. Now, that particular French National Anthem was actually banned during Napoleonâ€™s reign, but it had become the National Anthem in 1879, so it would may have been familiar to Russians at the time. Similarly, that one part of the 1812 Overture may have been the one piece of Russian music that was most recognizable to non-Russians at the time.
Why use Russian music? Maybe because Russia was Communist at the time. One could argue that the “1812 Overture” had allusions to religious music, but that would be rendered irrelevant, given the one lyric in the entire piece, which is at the very end: â€œAnd the meek shall inherit the earth.â€ That is a line directly from the Bible. That implies a connection to Earth itself, as well as religion. It could also suggest that the meek were the teeming masses, the people, the Communists, the Russians. This could be why they chose a piece of Russian music to press the point.
On a completely unrelated note, I have read that the Boston Pops orchestra played the “1812 Overture “on the 4th of July 4th for the first time 1974 and has done so ever since, which is why I grew up hearing it every year. Why they do it is a mystery to me, particularly since there is a part that references a song about the Tsar. No American composer can come up with a way to incorporate heavy artillery into a musical piece? I am not complaining, though, as it is a great piece of music, despite the original composer hating how its patriotic and populist popularity overtook his more personal works.
So, this is the first song properâ€¦and it is only a little over two-minutes long. The song is from the point-of-view of the priestsâ€¦of a templesâ€¦of Syrinx. Now, neither the song nor the relevant journal entry (the only thing that the journal entry really clarifies is that the temples are in every city and they are huge) say what Syrinx is, but it is apparently a nymph who got turned into a bunch of reeds in order to avoid being raped by the god Pan. Then Pan cut her up and turned her into panpipes. Or something like that. I donâ€™t know what this has to do with the story or the song, but I guess that this was just one of those times when Rush wanted to allude to Greek mythology.
Anyways, the priest control everything in the cities and the planets. They keep the people contented and unquestioning. They also preach equality, even though they are obviously in charge.
There are three things of note in the lyrics. The first, of course, is that these are priests and, thus, religious leaders. The second is the notion of the halls of these huge temples being filled with computers. The third is the frequent allusions to equality and togetherness, which would might not imply communism if not for the direct reference to a Red Star. So, religion and communism: two things that Rand hated. The computers did not show up in Anthem, perhaps because they did not exist when the book was written and an important part of the story was an ignorance regarding the existence of electricity.
Lyrically, these three concepts are important to me becauseâ€¦wellâ€¦none of them fit with the music. The music comes across like a stripped-down Spaghetti Western theme. It does not remind me of religious music of any sort, it sounds like no type of music that I have heard coming out of Communist countries except maybe in recent years, and as for computers? I know that the concept of computers was much different back in 1976 than today, but come on. Kraftwerk had broken out a couple of years before. Electronic music had existed before that. And there were even synthesizers in the beginning of this whole thing. In fact, there was even a Canadian band called SYRINX that released this song in 1970 . Doesnâ€™t that sound like it could have been made by a computer? Even if Rush had wanted synthesizers only for the start of the piece, guitars can make their own weird noises. If progressive rock was meant to break out of the constraints that were placed upon the rock genre, why not do so? I mean, sure, I guess that â€œThe Temples of Syrinxâ€ itself is fine if taken on its own, but should â€œfineâ€ really cut it?
The protagonist finds aâ€¦thingâ€¦that had been in hidden room. Heâ€¦wait, is the protagonist male? Well, Wikipedia says so, so it is so. He starts fiddling with its wires (and keys, according to the journal) and quickly finds that it makes music. He has no idea what this â€œdeviceâ€ is, but Wikipedia says that it is a guitarâ€¦wait a minute.
A guitar? He has no idea what a guitar is? We had been hearing guitars for six minutes before this part of the story came around. What does this mean? Does this mean that he has never SEEN a guitar before even if he has heard one? Is it because this is the first time that he has heard a guitar that was not distorted? Does this mean that the music that we had been listening to is not actually the music that they would hear? I suppose that that would explain the computer music that isnâ€™t.
That might also explain this particular piece too. After an extremely minimal amount of experimentation (he did not even use it as a percussion instrument), the protagonist starts playing chords quite ably. Maybe the passage of time was sped up or maybe he had a real knack for standard chords. He doesnâ€™t exactly jazz it up, though. What really gets me raising my eyebrows is when he starts describing emotion and imagery to the sounds coming out. There is joy, sadness, pain, building high like a mountain. Now, maybe it is because this person has never really felt feelings for himself, but he is projecting a whole lot onto what is basically him bouncing back and forth between the same few chords, with no change in tempo or style or volume.
Really, how is this music different from what was played in the temple aside from being cleaner and quieter? Maybe it is just my own lack of imagination, but I hear nothing that he is hearing and I feel nothing that he is feeling. I cannot even understand or appreciate from a distance what he is hearing or feeling. On both an intellectual and emotional level, this song is at a complete disconnect for me.
Anyways, the protagonist wants to share thisâ€¦deviceâ€¦with others and let them make their own music. And, surely the priests will praise his nameâ€¦whatever his name may be.
The protagonist brings the device to the temple and plays a song for the priests. They areâ€¦unimpressed. One priest, called Father Brown in the journal entry (Father Brown? Really? Is this an implication that they have no imagination when it comes to names? Well, at least it is not Father Sameness), says that they already know about it, that it is nothing new. Now, he could be lying, but the implication is that the priests might have at least paid lip service to something that they claimed to be new. In any case, he says that the device was a silly waste of time that helped lead to the destruction of the elder race of man…wait, what? There was an elder race of man? That was kind of just sprung on the listeners. Are the people in this story humans? Are there different races of humans? Is Rush just making this up on the fly? When exactly did people start accusing Rush of being fascists?
It should be noted that when the protagonist is softly speaking, the music is rather quiet, clean, and somewhat quick with the strumming. When Fatherâ€¦Brown screams out, the music rocks out like AC/DC, with loud distorted guitars playing big and bold chords. I suppose that that is meant to show the stark difference between the two sides. A synthesizer would have helped here, in my opinion. Or pan pipes. Shouldnâ€™t the Temple of Syrinx be represented by pan pipes?
Well, anyways, Fatherâ€¦Brownâ€¦says that the average has no use for this thing. Does this mean that this music is too smart for the stupid masses and above their notions of what has worth? I think that I get what this line is trying to say about nonconformity and the pressure to compromise and cater to everyone and how the push for equality leads only to mediocrity, but this line is about as stupid as the â€œaverageâ€ in this story. I suppose that one could make the argument that this line predicted how current pop music has brought about the death of guitar music, but that is also stupid. The producers behind One Direction have access to at least one guitar.
Father Brown claims that this toy does not fit the plan (Godâ€™s plan? The Five-Year Plan? The Computerâ€™s Plan? Maybe all of those things) and tells the protagonist to stop annoying them. According to the journal, Father Brown stepped on the thing until it was just splintersâ€¦wait, was that an acoustic guitar? Thatâ€¦may explain a few thingsâ€¦except that the guitar that had been playing in Discovery and the protagonistâ€™s part of this song was definitely electric. So, we do not hear the acoustic guitarâ€¦neither do we hear it get destroyed, which would have been somewhat easy to believably fake by just making guitar noises. Instead we get a return of the Spaghetti Western Temples of Syrinx theme. I would have had a much easier time accepting this story if the device had been something like a set of magic markers instead of a guitar.
I also must say that, in some oppressive societies, the protagonistâ€™s behavior here could have gotten him thrown in prison or worse. That they just took his toy away and told him to go away is not so bad, relatively speaking.
Oooâ€¦I actually quite like this part. Coincidentally enough, it is also the shortest part of the suite. Damn you, Rush. So, it is the return of the clean and quiet guitar (though it sounds as if it is underwater) as the protagonist goes home and goes to sleep. After some noises (hey!) the loud and distorted guitars come in (are these not the Temple Guitars?) with a grand jump as he dreams of meeting an oracle who takes him far away to a place where the elder race reside. Light years away to another planet. This is the first mention of other planets in the actual lyrics. There was a chance in â€œTemples of Styrixâ€ for there to be references to the Solar Federation, but the lyrics just â€œthis worldâ€ instead. So, if you had been reading the journal entries, this part may have seemed to come out of nowhere.
Everything there is different and wonderful. How is it different? Well, neither the lyrics nor the journal entry actually say, though the word â€œsculptedâ€ appears. I guess that it is up to the listener to determine how the two worlds are different. Apparently, the elder race of man left the protagonistâ€™s planet long ago for reasons that are unspecified. Also unspecified is what long ago means. If 2112 actually refers to the time that is 97 years before now, then either there is another planet where a race of humans with Earthling origins had lived for a while before leavingâ€¦whenever.
Regardless of why they left, the elder race of man has improved upon itself and is returning to claim its home, to tear down the temples and to changeâ€¦ummâ€¦oh, the song just stops. I guess the protagonist woke up. Seriously, I was enjoying this part quite a bit and they just stopped it. The music, had a joyous bouncy quality and its melody even sort of almost sounded like something that might have fit in a classical piece. There was potential for this section to really let loose, freed from the restraints of both the Templeâ€™s unimaginative simplicity and the rudimentary (but surprisingly skilled) of the protagonistâ€™s melodies: not with minutes of guitar shredding or anything, but something that really helped the listener envision the greatness of this completely different life. But, nope: it just ends. I suppose that, like the incomplete imagery from the lyrics and a Syfy Original Movie, we are meant to imagine greater.
Okayâ€¦so…this dreamâ€¦did it have any basis in reality? Maybe the protagonist doesnâ€™t believe so; figuring that his imagination has just expanded far beyond what the present society allows. Maybe Father Brown and the priests were even lying about there ever having been an elder race of man. Perhaps that is why all of this was so vague: there were not enough details for him to hold on to and he forgot most of them when he woke up.
This had better be worth stopping the first part of the suite that I really liked. Wellâ€¦
So, the song says that he is in bed, but the journal says that he is in the caveâ€¦did he move a bed to the cave? Was there already a bed in the cave? Did he always live in the cave? Anyways, the music is quiet again and underwatery as the protagonist wishes that life was like the dream that he just had. Then the loud guitars come back and the protagonist starts screaming like Father Brown. Okay, so I give up trying to work this thing out musically. The music of this part is only okay, anyways.
So, the protagonist, who is definitely not Father Brown (but maybe they all sound the same), starts saying that he cannot live in such a world that the Federation has created and maintained after seeing what life could be like. So, what does he do? Do he try to make contact with the elder race of man? Does he make an effort to better himself and others? Does he try to save at least his part of the world from the Priests? Does he try to make a makeshift guitar? Nope. He decides to kill himself. Perhaps the Pan Pipes Priests had properly predicted that they did not need to punish him more than they did, as he would eventually kill himself without doing any more harm to whatever their plan was. I guess that that is what happens when you donâ€™t have individualism: you kill yourself when you realize that someone is living better than you are. So, this one ends slightly less abruptly than the last piece, but still somewhat suddenly.
VII: Grand Finale
And what a finale it isâ€¦two sets of rockinâ€™ riffs that are perfectly fine. Then it kind of goes manic at the end as someone who sounds like he is speaking through a metal tube tells the planets of the Solar Federation (the first time that that phrase has been used in the lyrics) that they have assumed control. I suppose that they are meant to be the elder race of man. So they are real? Sure, fine. So, how long has it been since the protagonist died? Why even tell his story if he had absolutely no impact onâ€¦anything? Are we to wonder whether there had been others like him who killed themselves and that this kept happening until the elder race came back? And why did they leave? Did the Solar Federation drive them out and just tell everyone that they all died? Why did it take so long for them to â€œlearn and growâ€ to a level that was sufficient enough to destroy the Federation? Is this all just the protagonistâ€™s dying dream vision? Are these things that listeners are expected to work out for themselves? Am I to assume that Rush fans have created an expanded universe around this suite that has answered these questions? Or is this all just allegory and it is not expected to actually make total sense? Does that extend to the music? Was I supposed to imagine it sounding different from what it actually was? Could I simply imagine that the device with that makes sounds was symbolic for a set of magic markers?
Apparently, 2112Â made a bit of a splash back in 1976. Or maybe it didnâ€™t. I donâ€™t know; I wasnâ€™t there. In any case, a lot of people donâ€™t get it and I am one of them. The music is all right, and there are two minutes out of this 20 minute thing that I really enjoy. But at pretty much no point does the music fit the story. Maybe the intention of Rush was not to challenge the boundaries of rockâ€™s sound, but the ideas of what lyrical content that rock sound could accompany and the ambition that surrounds that sound. That would be a terrible explanation, but it would be an explanation as to why the ambition surrounding thisâ€¦suite…completely overshadows the actual thing itself. As it is, it just seems to be targeting people who feel like they are special or different when they really are just deluding themselves and annoying everyone else. If I separate the music from everything else, I find parts of it that are rather enjoyable. I can sometimes do that with music where the lyrics detract from the enjoyment of the song. If the music is good enough, I can forgive questionable lyrical content. Here, though, there is so much distracting nonsense that is piled on top of the music, that I find it incredibly difficult to do this. The music may be good enough, but the lyrics seem to suggest that the music was supposed to be more than merely good enough. And it isnâ€™t. In this case, merely good enough is simply not good enough.
What really made this piece noticeable? I doubt that it was the music. Sure, the music is fine, and I can imagine people loving it today as well as back then. But I donâ€™t find that it particularly stands out or anything. I am not particularly well-versed in the world of progressive rock, but I have listened to a couple albums from Emerson Lake Palmer, Jethro Tull, and Yes. While I would not say that I necessarily liked these albums more than what I have heard from Rush, I would say that I was more impressed by what I have heard. Rush seems rather standard, which makes the call to be above the standard even more laughable to me. What people call â€œmusically complexâ€, I call two mediocre songs and one pretty good song cobbled together into one mediocre song. Maybe the frequency in which a Black Eyed Peas song would switch back and forth between sounds has soured me on this description, but I remain unimpressed regardless. Though I guess that Rush has the Black Eyed Peas beat when it comes to shoehorning sections of the song that are in 5/4 or 74 time.
Contrast this piece with “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which was released as a single about five months before the release of the 2112 album. Now, that is an impressive song, and not just because of the multiple vocal tracks. It goes through five (some say six) wildly different sections in less than six minutes, alternates between two primary keys, goes through several others, and has extended instrumental melodies. That song was ambitious and it pulled off that ambition. Plus, it seemed to have its tongue in its cheek. The only thing that 2112 has on that song is being over three times as long.
Was it its length that made 2112 noticeable? There were other pieces made at the time that were around the same length. I have listened to rock songs that were longer than twenty minutes, but I had never heard them described as suites. I suppose that that is not the most pretentious thing that I have ever heard coming out of music. Perhaps this is called a suite only because it is too short to be considered a concept album. And, as far as I can tell, only the first seven minutes of it was released as a single. â€œEchoesâ€ by Pink Floyd was released almost five years earlier, was nearly three minutes longer, and had all sorts of spacey-sounding sounds. I am not a Pink Floyd fan, but that song is awesome.
Anyways, 2112. Was it the story? Sure, stories of dystopias and false utopias have been popular before and after 2112, and a lot of them are meant to be more allegorical than a full and precise representation of what society might become. Some of them are great, like (in my opinion, of course) the movie that I will talk about next week. But some of them are bad. This one comes off to me as bad. To me, this story seems rather terribly put together. Instead of world-building, the lyrics pick out random details that work only in a context that may not apply in the actual world that has not been built. A Red Star? What is the Earth in this story? It is not for lack of time that there is only minimal world-building here. There are aspects that come out of absolutely nowhere and go absolutely nowhere. They may be twists in the story or doled-out pieces of a whole, but they remind me of when kids make up stories on the fly. This would be okay if this were an extended joke, like the movie that I discussed yesterday, but this does not come across as comedy, at least not intentional comedy. The journal entries seem to me less like a supplement to the lyrics or an integral part of the experience or even another facet of this projectâ€™s pretension, and more like a failed attempt to patch over some nonsensical parts of the lyrics.
I suppose that the world-building comes from the emotions of the protagonist, and the actual imagery is meant to be left up to the listenerâ€™s imagination and interpretation. Well, I imagine some lazy writing. This is not a matter of needing to be spoon-fed. I am not asking for a lot of details, the how and why, as they say. I am not even really asking for any details; many songs do fine with lyrics that are either filled with nonsense, minimalist, or symbolism that is so obscure that it might as well be nonsense. It is just that any details should allow me to put myself in that universe and not force me out of it.
While I was kind of joking about the magic markers, I really do mean it when I say that the focus on the guitar in the story takes me out of the experience. But I guess that magic markers sounds like the kind of thing that an angry father takes away from his bratty eight-year-old son, while a guitar is what a terrible father takes away from his moody teenage son. Had this been a straight ahead story that was not actually set to music, then maybe I could accept the idea of the guitar. If it was in book form, I could imagine the music for myself instead of try to explain it away. As it is, though, there is too much mental compartmentalization that I have to do in order to accept it as a valid part of the story and that just eats into my enjoyment.
What of the message of individual expression? I suppose that maybe the notion of being yourself and doing the best that you can could have been seen as an antidote to all of that hippy dippy togetherness and disco hedonism, but that stuff seemed fairly commonplace in music when I was growing up in the 1980s, and all that stuff about the pressures of conforming to the everyday and the need to not simply accept what those in charge give you had become quite familiar to me during the 1990s. I like some of them. Even the movie that I reviewed last week featured a musician who was engaging in a semi-existential struggle against the regimented predictability and oppressive boredom of adulthood. Maybe they all owe a debt to 2112 and few of them were particularly interesting musical either, but most of them got their points across more quickly, even if their lyrics were sometimes even dumber.
If this was supposed to be a call for individualism like Anthem was, I actually am not hearing it much in the lyrics. Sure, collective thought, centralized regulation, and forced equality are portrayed in a negative light in terms of world of the Solar Federation, but is there an alternative? What about the elder race of man? What are they like? It is implied that they have artâ€¦andâ€¦thatâ€™s it. There is nothing to suggest that they are any less of a monolith than the people of the Solar Federation; it is just taken as a given that they are better, at least in the protagonistâ€™s dream. They are described collectively and refer to themselves collectively at the end. This could be simply because they are not real. The only reference to individualism here is that the protagonist frequently refers to himself in the first person as if it is no big deal. Perhaps it is the discovery of the device that awakens his sense of self and the desire to awaken other peopleâ€™s individualism without his understanding this or being able to cope with it, but I feel like that is a stretch. Really, this seems less like being pro-individual and more like being against extreme collectivization. That is fine, I suppose, but it took a strange path to get to that point.
So, that is my take on 2112. Maybe I am just too young to have experienced what it was like back then or I am too old to appreciate the sentiments made by men in their mid-twenties. Regardless, like with much of what I have heard from Rush, I found it to be perfectly okay and thoroughly unimpressive. Maybe it could form the basis for a really funny rock opera, if it hasnâ€™t already. Really, there are two positive outcomes from this for me. The first is that it got me to listen to the 1812 Overture again. And it reminded me of a time many years ago when I had mistakenly thought that 1977â€™s Come Sail AwayÂ by Styx was by Rush. It does not actually have anything to do with this post, but I ended up listening to it several times. After I post this, I think that I will listen to it again.