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This is a fun release for Record Store Day that mimics the cornerstone of countless mixtapes made by teenaged prog-rock nerds of decades past. I’m certain I wasn’t alone in dubbing these related deep cuts from the Rush catalog back-to-back. For the first time, “Cygnus X-1, Book I: The Voyage” and “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres” are officially bundled together into one complete story.
Following Rush’s career-making fourth album 2112 (1976), the Canadian trio released A Farewell to Kings in 1977. The album is best known for radio single “Closer to the Heart,” but fans revere the epic side-closers. Side one featured the 11-minute “Xanadu.” Side two’s closer was the sci-fi themed “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage.” The song unfolds with the tale of an intrepid space jockey who dares to pilot his craft into the heart of the deadly black hole, Cygnus X-I. Dubbing the spaceship “Rocinante,” drummer and lyricist Neil Peart introduced countless music geeks (self included) to the broken-down but intrepid steed who carried Don Quixote on his bold errands in Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century novel Don Quixote.
Personal interlude: On long car trips, my father was somewhat loathe to relinquish control of the cassette deck. He knew that what he heard in the house emanating from my room didn’t sound anything like Marty Robbins or David Frizzell. I have a vivid memory of one of the rare events that I was given permission to supply the soundtrack, while riding in his beloved 1970 Pontiac GTO along the Rock River on State Route 2 near Oregon, Illinois. I seized upon the opportunity to share my recent discovery of “Cygnus X-1, Book I: The Voyage.” To his credit, Dad made it almost five minutes before punching the eject button, fixing me with his gaze and asking, “Were they almost done warming up?” Geddy Lee had yet to sing his first note. I felt every bit like the hapless protagonist of 2112 during “Presentation,” thwarted upon making an offering of musical beauty to the Priests of Syrinx.
Peart left the story of “The Voyage” open-ended. The band dedicated the entire first side of 1978’s Hemispheres to completing the adventure of the unnamed astronaut. “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres” begins with the invigorating synergy among Alex Lifeson’s major-chord guitar heroics, Lee’s melodic and muscular bass, and Peart’s intricate drum arrangement. Peart’s metaphysical story describes division among the Olympian gods. Apollo enforces the rules of law and logic upon the throngs of earth. Dionysus responds by offering freedom and unfettered emotion. The first approach leads to overwhelming ennui among the people. The second approach leads to ruin. Celestial battle ensues, to stirring musical accompaniment.
Ultimately, the disembodied spirit of the spacefarer arrives from his passage through the black hole. He witnesses the battle of the gods, and is dismayed. Apollo and Dionysus heed his lamentation, and the conflict ceases. The traveler is then brought into the pantheon as none other than Cygnus, the god of Balance. The side ends with a peaceful refrain as humanity is saved with “the heart and mind united in a single, perfect sphere.”
The tracks are pressed on 180-gram heavyweight vinyl as an RSD exclusive for April 22, 2017.
p.s. Due credit: In 1986, my father took me to see the Power Windows tour at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago. Thanks, Dad!
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