Fly by Night has a special place in Rush history. It’s the group’s second album, but the first with Neil Peart as drummer and lyricist. Peart’s addition transformed the band, upping their technical skills, and adding a conceptual framework. Very quickly, Rush transformed from a perfectly solid hard rock trio into one with much grander designs.
The new Rush announced itself with the now-famous opening track “Anthem.” It’s a classically tricky Rush arrangement, giving all three members a chance to shine: Geddy Lee is already using bass as a lead instrument, Peart is doing his dazzling snare rolls, and Alex Lifeson brings it together with a majestic riff. The music is exuberant, which perfectly suits the lyrics – the first of Peart’s homages to the Russian philosopher Ayn Rand. “Anthem” puts her message of self-reliance in earthly terms: “Keep on looking forward, no use in looking ’round/ Hold your head above the crowd and they won’t bring you down.”
If one track shows where Rush was headed in the future, it’s the nine-minute “By-Tor & the Snow Dog.” It was the group’s first stab at a multi-part, epic track. Peart’s lyrics set up a story about two fearsome dogs who guard the gates of Hades, engaged in a battle to the death. The three-part instrumental does most of the work, though: The first dense and chaotic, the second a more structured riff-driven battle, then the calm afterward. It shows their affinity for prog rock, and presages the long concept pieces that would appear on every Rush album through the 70s.
That was all in the future, though. On this album, Rush still had a firm foot in traditional hard rock. Two of the songs on Fly by Night were written before Peart’s arrival, and had been played live with original drummer John Rutsey. “Best I Can” is a short, attitude-heavy rocker. Few Rush songs to come would include sentiments like “leave me alone and let me rock and roll!” The rock & roll life also inspires the title track, with one of Peart’s more down-to-earth lyrics about leaving home and following your musical dreams.
The big surprise is the rest of side two. After the title song, it’s the closest Rush ever came to a fully acoustic album side. “Making Memories” falls on the very short list (with the next album’s “Lakeside Park”) of country/folk-styled Rush songs. “Rivendell” is a contender for the least characteristic of all Rush songs. Inspired by Lord of the Rings, it’s about finding love and contentment; it’s a gentle song with textural guitar, no drums, and a near-whispered vocal that few listeners would even peg as Geddy Lee. The group only ever returned once to this style, during the brief “Soliloquy” section of 2112. Closing the album is another Rutsey-era leftover. “In the End” is more thoughtful than most of the first album, and remains introspective even after the full band kicks in.
Fly by Night didn’t make Rush rich and famous, but it did free the trio to reach past the hard rock format and explore any and every musical idea that came to mind. That freedom would pay off grandly in the years to come.