Why a page on Rush?
A) After a binge, I needed exorcism.
B) Nothing else on the stove at the moment.
C) I don’t mind if it shanks my credibility with jazz-only folk.
D) The glory days of artistically progressive rock groups are long over – notwithstanding a few modern exceptions – and given the sorry state of today’s popular music, why am I apologizing?
E) All of the above, plus a couple of cold ones.
Whether one likes their music or not, Rush is an admirable group. Bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart are clear-headed musicians with a work ethic beyond reproach. The only problem I’ve really ever had is that they tended to adhere to Big Rock Band Rules: Write the album, record it, learn how to play it live, go play it live, repeat cycle. In other words, the songs become holy writ, recreated in performance where Mr. T-Shirt in the audience can air drum everything that happens on stage. As someone who gravitated toward jazz, King Crimson’s improvisations, etc., I came to assume that musicians with Rush’s ability ought to take chances when they perform, but they generally play it safe. (I don’t count throwing a drumstick in the air as being dangerous.) But I’m being unfair. Rush isn’t a jam band, and one could argue the opposite: if you spend time creating good parts and arrangements for songs, why change them on a whim live?
Individually, the band members each set a high standard for themselves. A couple of obvious influences aside, Alex Lifeson devised an original mix of rhythmic prowess and vivid solos, more proficient than the average bear. Geddy Lee is well known for his hyperactive bass style and high singing voice, which gradually descended from its initial wailings. Lee also started playing keyboards, first as a side item, then as a main instrument to enhance the writing. I’m not one of those who regard Neil Peart as the greatest drummer in the whole wide universe, but he’s inventive and likes challenging himself. I don’t know of any other rock drummer who takes the craft more seriously than Neil.
Peart’s lyrics present some problems in that their iambic stiffness and fantasy character (at least in the Tolkeinish ‘70s) don’t age well. Later lyrics ditched the fiction but retained the rigid, pseudo-poetic character. Overblown narratives like “2112” and “Hemispheres” are Spinal Tap fodder despite having solid ideas at their core. At other times, Neil balances verbiage with flow, and clarity with poetry, and I would say that his best lyrics emerged around the time the band made its best music, in the early 1980s.
A lot of those who brickbat Peart’s lyrics take shots at his early Ayn Rand influence as well. Let me reiterate that Neil’s style can be clumsy and sophomoric despite its best intentions, but I don’t mind the Rand-ish thoughts in comparison to the confessional, fantastical, or hypocritical things that you might hear elsewhere. In an age of envy and relativism – and mystical fanaticism, for that matter – it can be shocking to hear someone sing about earning your way, or promoting reason and accountability. It might also be inspirational. But I won’t dwell on that here.
Anyway, after being impressed by Rush as a young listener and drifting away for a while, I revisited a couple of their mid-period albums and found more sustenance than I expected. Perhaps it was a thirst for personalized, accomplished rock in a current pop culture that lionizes the vacuous and disposable. That led to the first version of this page, which skipped over some early and later recordings that I hadn’t studied in a while. In late 2011, I acquired the three ‘Sector’ boxsets which contain all 15 of their Mercury albums, and I’ve now reviewed some of the previously omitted titles.
The eponymous debut presents Rush as a hard rocking, good-time band, short on artistry but stocked full of strong riffs that echo Zeppelin and even some US southern rock. In customary form for the day, they lay out catchy instrumental hooks, dispatch lovin’ lyrics, and make room for wailing guitar solos, but there’s an extra measure of musicianship and intensity here that Rush would capitalize on in due time. Bassist Geddy Lee and original drummer John Rutsey nail all the standard rock rhythm tropes beneath Alex Lifeson’s gutsy guitar work. Lee’s high register screeching is a harder taste to acquire, but I tend to write it off as him not knowing any better at this point. “Working Man” is the most famous entree from this platter, a Big E jam as I call it, and “Finding My Way” and “In the Mood” also played their part in Rush stage history. But every track works in a clear-cut way, like the heavy groove of “What You’re Doing”, “Before and After” with its captivating introduction and subsequent Zep vernacular, and even the throwaway “Take a Friend”, the intro of which betrays a tiny Mahavishnu Orchestra influence. (There’s more cherry-picked MO to be found on Caress of Steel, which some readers might spot.) I can’t help playing the trace-the-lick game because it’s so obvious in places, but apart from that, here’s Rush paying their dues and putting their groundwork on display.
(I wonder if there still exist old school Rush-heads, hidden in huts or basements somewhere, who recognize only the debut as the one true Rush album, just as a fair contingent of folks only acknowledge Syd’s Pink Floyd with Piper at the Gates of Dawn...)
Drummer/lyricist Neil Peart takes the place of departing John Rutsey and Rush starts to mature but doesn’t yet do so in full. There are some hangovers from the first album’s brusque simplicity (like “Best I Can”), but the range broadens elsewhere, encompassing in part the progressive rock ethos, albeit filtered through the Canadian border. I mean, with a title like “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” (further subtitled into four sections), they really aren’t on the same astral plane as someone like Jon Anderson, and yet this extended piece happens to be one of the album’s high points thanks to a heated instrumental section. Another success would be the title track, as well-formed and directly appealing a song as they would ever do. The rest of the album, typical for a sophomore collection, covers some loose ends; you get a powerhouse attempt at redefinition (“Anthem”), a dose of softness (“Rivendell”, lingering a couple minutes too long), a four-chord wonder milked to the nth degree (“In the End”), and an infectious rocker in “Beneath, Between, and Behind”, leaving “Best I Can” and “Making Memories” as mediocre padding.
Fly By Night doesn’t contend as a definitive album, more a mishmash where the positives outweigh the neutrals and the group begs further opportunity to develop. Which isn’t bad, and that glaring owl on the cover portends a formidable future, doesn’t it?
Caress of Steel raises the bar for Rush, and despite the general perception that this album was a flop, I’d say it’s underrated in how it strengthened the group’s resolve, an honor usually given to 2112. They still live vicariously through certain influences, but a few original moments can be heard, and the group is clearly reaching beyond the bluesy rock they’d already mastered.
The opening “Bastille Day” contains a ton of heavy chords, stop-start riffery, and hysterical vocals, a la “Anthem”. It’s not a favorite of mine, but the determination in the playing is undeniable and I appreciate the unexpected lyrical subject. “I Think I’m Going Bald” may not have a bad reputation if its title line had been stricken from the lyrics, which meditate on getting older, a topic Peart tackled in a wiser way on “Time Stand Still” a decade or so later, when he actually was older. The music of “Going Bald” grooves though; I can’t resist Neil’s swishing hi-hat against the chewy guitar. “Lakeside Park” has a neat sway to the verses and some gentle moments that make for a decent song. The three-part “The Necromancer” suffers only from a silly narrative overlay (three travelers meet a bad wizard, saved by the return of Prince By-Tor, or something like that, surely tongue in cheek). Musically, minor-key moods and intense thrashings build up a tension that’s resolved by the soothing harmony of the third part. “The Necromancer” is a novice stab at a long-form song to be sure, but the earnest playing sells it.
The second side of the record is a suite of songs (Rush’s Abbey Road if you will, and you probably won’t) that aren’t related in any empirical way but nonetheless all fall under the title of “The Fountain of Lamneth”. (These six separate pieces are annoyingly indexed as one track on CD, like the second half of King Crimson’s Lizard, a similarly arbitrary suite.) The first and last pieces (“In the Valley” and “The Fountain”) share the same musical elements, which are quite interesting, while the middle four numbers are each separate entities. “Didacts and Narpets” is a quick drum feature punctuated by power chords, and “No One at the Bridge” is a song built on dark arpeggios that could have been a fine mood piece had Geddy not sung it so roughly. It does however include a beautifully paced guitar solo that Lifeson said was inspired by Steve Hackett. The ballad “Panacea” and mid-tempo “Bacchus Plateau” are both shallow yet catchy in places and lay groundwork for more enduring songs that would surface later. All this is acceptable enough, but it’s in “Valley” and “Fountain” that one hears the true originality Rush was capable of, using time tested chord changes in freshly steered ways and putting depth in the arrangements.
Without wanting to overly tout Caress, I think it establishes Rush’s self-motivation as much as 2112, youthfully ambitious and fun to hear.
Often stamped their first classic, 2112 has never fully awed me. The side-long title piece – concerning an individual’s attempt to bring life to a tyrannical collective – indicates that Rush did not have the textural variety or creative scope to assemble a satisfying extended work, not in the way that more resourceful inspirations like Yes and Genesis had already done. They get the notion of the Overture correct, instrumentally previewing all the themes that will be used throughout, and it’s an exciting four minutes or so, but these same themes get tiresome within the actual song segments (Temples of Syrinx, Presentation, Oracle, Soliloquy). The chord sequences and melodic ideas are too plain to be sustained as long as they are without thematic extensions or reharmonizing. Nonetheless, excitement is restored in the Grand Finale, another riff-em-up extravaganza that ends with a pounding climax, the “We have assumed control” voiceover, and a last squeal of guitar feedback. I’ve no complaint about the “2112” tale itself, although some of the lyrics are clunky and Geddy Lee is still in his phase of screeching the emphatic parts.
The second half of 2112 features five so-so songs, of which the token “Passage to Bangkok” stands out, the exotic guitar riff and vocal lines in particular. “Twilight Zone” has an entrancing quality in places but the lyric brings it down a bit. “Lessons” tries hard not to be filler, and “Tears” is the most sensitive Rush ballad to date, darkened nicely by Mellotron. “Something for Nothing” contains a couple of good ideas, especially the opening passage, but these are upset by acts of aggression that make for an uneven arrangement, although perhaps the heavy ensemble stabs are meant as a “wake up call” to fit the lyric. Speaking of, some listeners take knee-jerk offense to the words of this song, which state the observable fact that making something of yourself or getting what you want in life takes effort, a wise sentiment in my experience. That being said, the awkward vocal phrasing makes me think that Rush were determined to mate the lyrics and music no matter what.
2112 leaves a strong impression of confidence and has great moments, so I don’t consider it overrated, but it’s not a compositional pinnacle from front to back. Honestly, I prefer Caress of Steel, which is uneven in a slightly more enjoyable way.
I doubt Rush knew at the time how long their career would last, but here they inaugurate the cycle of four studio records followed by a live one, where the live record not only carries extra immediacy but collects exemplary material from the preceding phase of the group’s life. Stage captures Rush in the high voltage raw: just guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, no triggered samples to be heard (although someone at the mixing desk added appropriate sound effects when needed). They detonate shorter powderkegs at the front of the set (“Bastille Day”, “Anthem”) then deliver grander statements like “2112” (albeit partially cropped), “By-Tor” (featuring a spooky Echoplex section for Lifeson), “In the End”, and the medley of “Working Man” and “Finding My Way” that also finds space for Peart’s big drum solo. Elsewhere, “Fly By Night” segues into “In the Mood” (“C’mon, let’s see some hay-ands!”) as Rush manipulates the libidos of however many Massey Hall attendees. Only a couple of these performances really supercede the studio versions, but if you’re ever tired of the studio records and want an extra blast of energy, climb on Stage.
Kings marks new ambitions within the group. The music comes closer to the surface variety of the progressive rock Rush had claimed as influences while retaining the muscular sound of their recent history in a satisfying middle ground. Most of that variety is due to an expanded instrumental palette: Lifeson on a wider array of guitars, Lee’s new synthesizer, and Peart’s added percussives. They’re also more adept at coming up with genuinely unique musical ideas, rather than repurposing standard chords and licks.
The first half makes big advances, starting with the title track, which sounds to me like something they wanted to write back in 1975, but couldn’t. There’s a classical guitar passage at the beginning, then numerous electrified hooks under a lyric that re-imagines society. This piece takes exciting chances (like the multi-stage guitar solo) and works well. The Coleridge fantasy “Xanadu” is their greatest accomplishment to date, an integral extended piece and not just a workshop of riffs and contrasting rhythms. I love the atmospheric prelude and its turn to a victorious instrumental theme. The song itself is very nice, utilizing a suspended chord here and there and featuring some of Lee’s most fetching vocal work. “Xanadu” may be escapism at heart, but escapism can occasionally illustrate ideals, and it ranks as a top offering. (Did they speed up the tape slightly for this track? It’s a little sharper than concert tuning.)
After those two, the remainder of the album slides slightly downward. Well, there’s nothing wrong with the concise “Closer to the Heart”, a melodic advance in its own way. “Cinderella Man” makes much ado about nothing, yet the instrumental break contains a groove jauntier than any they’d yet recorded. “Madrigal” almost lulls itself out of existence, though I like the gentle chordal refrain that appears throughout. The main misstep is the brutish “Cygnus X-1”, a black hole story with pointed riffs, arbitrary chord movement, and awful screaming from Lee near the end. There are a few salvageable parts, and the moody intro is terrific, but it’s still an embarrassing relic.
Minus a few dismissable moments, this album broadens Rush’s outlook in a major way and puts them on an investigative path in “Xanadu” and “Farewell”. The radio hit didn’t hurt either.
While the progressive bands that influenced Rush were recoiling in the face of punk and threats of extinction, Rush themselves soldiered onward with the side-long title piece of Hemispheres. It has more interesting musical ideas than “2112” but suffers the same flaw of not needing to be as long as it is. The lyrics contrast the left and right sides of the brain through mythological characters – reason and love, Apollo and Dionysius – but this conceit hardly deserves a whole story replete with a trip to Olympus. At any rate, it shows that Peart was sold on the value of reason but proposing that the emotional lobes get exercised as well, and thanks to the god of balance, one might be able to create a “perfect sphere” and be a well-rounded person. Trite, yeah, but the music is good, especially the Overture, where Lifeson hammers home the suspended F# chord that defined “Xanadu”, and I love the part where Peart plays triangle and hi-hat beneath hypnotic guitar harmonics. However, as in “2112”, the introductory motifs that are so stimulating in short bursts get stretched into song portions that exhaust their appeal, and I’m thus hesitant to rate “Hemispheres” too highly, but that’s not to say the repetition ruins it.
Following that are “Circumstances”, a hard rocker with a stirring middle break, and “The Trees”, Peart’s fable about the evils of proactive egalitarianism. The instrumental section in “The Trees” showcases the band’s improved subtlety and dynamics in warbly guitar arpeggios, a soft synth lead, and a stylish 5/4 workout. The closing instrumental “La Villa Strangiato” runs the gamut from rocking anthem to jazz runs to husky metal, all denoted with Rush’s increasing technical skills. Impressive, though it feels cobbled together, and in my experience it’s actually more fun to play than listen to.
Aside from a few wincing moments, namely the vocals of the title suite, Hemispheres tallies up well. With shades of both past and future, it can be heard as a transitional record, and “The Trees” and “La Villa” rate as classics.
Here begins what I consider Rush’s apex trilogy, where all of their creative and technical components come into alignment. Now the chops serve the material, instead of being intricate or stretched out just for the sake of it. Rush never really had the conceptual depth to fill their earlier sidelong epics, but they had improved at filling mid-size songs with well-arranged information, as “Spirit of Radio” and “Freewill” attest. In the former, a schizoid array of riffs, basslines, and synth sequences approximates the variety one might hear on an open-minded radio station, while “Freewill” shows how much smarter the group had gotten with their hard-rock tendencies, and its lyric takes a straightforward stand for rationality. Less neo-prog and more neo-pop is “Entre Nous”, thick with guitars and topped by an analytical (and slightly awkward) love lyric. The playing shines in these three tracks, and more than that, Rush attains a new level of overall assurance.
The other three tracks are quite good. “Jacob’s Ladder” follows “Cygnus X-1” in an attempt to depict a scene (a thunderstorm) with regimented riffs and dark chord changes. While it’s certainly better than the black-hole ditty, the scattered vocal lines are a little too Playskool; yet I live for the moment near the end when Peart deploys different beats behind a mixed meter guitar line. “Different Strings” is arguably the best of Rush’s ballads so far, delivered with care and a stinger of a guitar solo. The closing mini-epic “Natural Science” features several compelling components that are subjected to clever variations in tonality and texture, for example the ambiguous chords of the opening verses that are morphed into a heavier theme towards the end, or other bits that get condensed or expanded as needed. I suspect the piece was assembled from a bunch of stray ideas, with Peart’s broad lyric intended to tie everything together, and some of the connections are admittedly forced – hear the non-sequitur crossfade that begins the ‘Hyperspace’ section. But there’s so much dramatic activity in “Natural Science” (either by happenstance or design) that I think it outdoes both “2112” and “Hemispheres” in epic feel.
Rush neither overreach nor pander on Permanent Waves, and the melodies and lyrics have become more palatable than before. Perhaps some of the streamline came from absorbing the new-wave movement into their mindset, and recording-wise, they’re set with plumb-lined viscerality. Essential.
Generally regarded as the ultimate Rush album, I can’t think of any reason to vote differently. The material is very strong and the musicians are each at the top of their game, particularly Alex Lifeson, whose skills are on wide display. Only overexposure might dull one’s shine for the first four songs, the very definition of a classic LP side. “Tom Sawyer”, “Red Barchetta”, the instrumental “YYZ”, and “Limelight” distill the trio’s forceful musicality into resilient radio and stage favorites. The one word you have to use when talking about Rush at their best is craft, and certainly the staying power of these songs is due to the attention to detail with which they were constructed. Richly melodic and well-organized, they contain astute guitar leads and great rhythm section work to boot. Geddy Lee has become a much better singer as well, rounding his voice and finding other ways of punctuating lines without the wailing. I won’t go into more detail on these fab four tracks, as they’ve received barrels of commentary and examination over the years, but they are bulletproof.
The remaining cuts aren’t as famous but make up a compelling side all their own. At eleven minutes, “The Camera Eye” is the last hurrah of the mini-epic style, although it’s of a different emotional stripe than “Xanadu” and “Natural Science”. I think the main theme is repeated once or twice too often, but beyond that, it achieves a special grandeur. The two vocal stanzas observe metropolitan foot traffic in different locales. I consider it one of Peart’s best lyrics, with lines of admirable economy, perception, and sensitivity toward his fellow primates, and he does some fine drumming as well. Lee uses keyboards more prominently in this song, while Lifeson turns in yet another dandy guitar solo towards the end. A very worthy track.
“Witch Hunt” sits more on the grungy gothic side, offset by loftier moments in the middle and at the end. This is the album’s “studio production” number and carries more artificial weight than the others; the drums are even double tracked in one section. The lyric tackles censorship and book banning, etcetera, neatly summed up by the final lines: “Quick to judge, quick to anger / Slow to understand / Ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand.” It brings the album a dark, solemn air. Finally, there’s “Vital Signs”, a mix of sequenced synth, reggae, rock riffs, minimalist drumming, and lyrical wordplay. You can tell from the choppy accents that Rush had heard the Police, an influence that was beginning to roost. “Vital Signs” has always topped my list of favorite Rush tunes; there’s something so pure and tight about it. Credit to Alex for sticking to rhythmic playing in this case, as a solo would have been out of place.
To keep my adulation of Moving Pictures to a mininum, I’ll just say in conclusion that there’s good reason (actually, seven good reasons) why it is considered a high water mark.
The second live collection often garners a couple of polarized opinions, one being that it’s the definitive display of Rush’s writing and performing skills. The other complains that the tapes received studio repairs and don’t sound very alive. Acknowledging the negative, I don’t care if they replaced a few vocals and guitars after the fact, because the essence is detectably from the stage, and the 2011 Sector remaster has a strong sound, despite some boxy guitar tones. On the positive side, this album consolidates the artistic steps they had taken recently, and I consider it essential, even if the arrangements rarely deviate from the studio recordings.
The tracklist includes several classics (“Spirit of Radio”, “Freewill”, “Closer to the Heart”, three from Moving Pictures, etc), a couple of solo spotlights (Peart in “YYZ”, Lifeson in “Broon’s Bane”), and longer, stage-geared numbers in “Jacob’s Ladder” and “La Villa Strangiato”. There’s a beautiful link between “The Trees” and “Xanadu”, both dramatic songs that work very well live; I think “Xanadu”, like “Strangiato”, beats the studio take by a notch of intensity. For that matter, so do “Passage to Bangkok” and “Beneath, Between, and Behind”, and the latter sounds kind of funky when Peart whips up some pea soup in the last verse.
Admittedly, there is a certain sterility to the recording, and a few performances miss the bolstered studio perfection – “Spirit of Radio” and “Tom Sawyer”, for sure – but the sound mix is hardly poor (witness a couple of Rush’s later live albums in that regard) and Stage Left puts a bundle of peak material in one place, delivered with full command.
The influx of Geddy Lee’s keyboards and the waning of Alex Lifeson’s hard edged guitar often lead people to say that this marks a turning point in the group’s operations. I don’t fully agree, because though the writing seems more keyboard oriented, the tone of the material is definitely in line with the preceding two albums. I’d nominate about half the tracks as being among their best, and Signals overall has a neat atmosphere that I cannot accurately describe. Also, I think it contains some of Neil Peart’s best drumming – listen to “Digital Man” or “The Weapon” for how he runs with the Stewart Copeland rock-reggae style.
While the keyboards expand sonic possibilities, the arrangements are still as clear and inviting as those of Moving Pictures. The rhythms groove more, particularly with the aforementioned reggae that informs a few passages. The album starts with the hit “Subdivisions”; normally I’d not praise an adolescent angst song, but Neil’s observations are well versed and the driving arrangement gets a lot of mileage out of simple elements. “Analog Kid” contrasts uptempo verses with a halved refrain of beautiful chords and melody (“You move me, you move me”). “Chemistry” is endurable filler, the one track that suffers from overbearing keyboards, but some nice space exists in parts. The rhythmically intricate “Digital Man” moves from shuffle/swing to reggae to a straight “digital” pulse beneath good melodies and lyrics. Some people bemoan an absence of guitar on Signals, but the instrument is certainly apparent in “Digital Man” and elsewhere. Anyway, this is a strong song on all counts.
Another personal favorite is “The Weapon”, a dark yet majestic piece paced by a sequenced synth pattern. Peart turns in a spiffy performance and Lifeson contributes a cool atmospheric solo. “New World Man” uses an innocuous synth figure and reggae accents to construct a fine pop-rock number whose lyric I think allegorizes America. The affecting ballad “Losing It” shifts gracefully through different meters, laced with violin (Ben Mink), telling a sad tale of personal erosion. The closer “Countdown” recounts a Space Shuttle launch over alternately tough and uplifting music. Some of the lyrics are too literal and cliched, and the NASA radio transmissions might seem geeky from this distance, but I nevertheless find it an inspiring track, especially as it endorses those on the “leading edge of life.” Contrast these aspirations and values with the mindless minutia emphasized in today’s culture, or perhaps the number of bombs detonated by this or that peaceful religion...but I digress. Once again, Lee’s vocals sound great on this record, and I haven’t singled out his bass playing much because it almost goes without saying that he’s doing something interesting in that department.
The Waves/Pictures/Signals threesome represents the best Rush had to offer in my view. Forced to choose one for keeps, I’d pick Signals for subjective reasons.
I didn’t like this at all when I first heard it way back when, and it wasn’t until a latter-day revisit that I warmed to most of it. Grace continues in much the same musical vein as Signals, only with colder production and more mechanical arrangements. Geddy still plays nimble bass, but he can’t keep his fingers off the synthetic black and whites either, claiming the blocky chord parts that were once the guitar’s province. In response, Alex rips some frantic solos (“Kid Gloves”) and otherwise takes a complementary rhythm role. Neil explores dexterous grooves in a clever yet self-conscious way. (For example, does the ska-like beat in “Enemy Within” need to be so complex?) Throughout, the lyrics slip into darkness: nuclear war, a deceased friend, a concentration camp, internal strife, and so on. So the 1980s weren’t just pixelated apes and pant-leg bandannas after all.
I wouldn’t say this is a heavy album, but I appreciate how the songs relate to the album’s title, whether it be the tense scenario of “Red Sector A” or the synopsized historic grind of “Between the Wheels”. The sci-fi story “Body Electric” shows that Rush hadn’t lost their touch for rhythmic contrast (lurching verses, rousing release points) and attractive chords (some nicked from Andy Summers, let’s be honest). I can do without the binary code chorus, but it fits a lot of scope into five minutes. “Red Lenses” is an experimental number, stiffly funky with electronic drums and thick synth chords, and Peart opts for a more fragmented lyric than usual. I like it, strange though it might be. “Kid Gloves”, with a neat 5/4 riff and infectious chorus, takes the honor of most accessible tune, and “Enemy Within” might get one’s foot tapping and head bobbing despite the fact that the words don’t sing well. Meanwhile, “Distant Early Warning” and “Afterimage”, both objectively good tracks, don’t connect with me much. Rush often turns pedestrian chord sequences into something special via cool vamps, melodies, or whatever else, but these tunes remain locked in foursquare minor-key prisons, though the vocal phrases bake small files in the cake.
On the whole, this album has a frigid sound, as Lee’s bell-like synth patches are glassier than the analog keyboards of previous albums, and the production (Peter Henderson, replacing longtime fourth ear Terry Brown) removes some warmth as well. Couple those changes with a stronger move toward pop concision for the most part, and Grace breaks from the resonance of the preceding trilogy. It has its share of fine moments, though, and I can identify more classic DNA in it than in the next couple titles.
Despite a positive vibe, Power Windows is hampered by overproduction and a handful of forgettable songs. It’s hard for me to determine the larger offense – that I can forget how the likes of “Grand Designs”, “Middletown Dreams”, and “Emotion Detector” go while they’re playing, or that the whole disc is soaked in irrelevant synthetic chatter. An extra player is credited with additional keyboards – an interview somewhere referred to his contributions as little “events” – but these intrusions have little to nothing to do with the songs they inhabit. I don’t mind Geddy Lee employing keyboards as long as they play an integral role in the music, but the group and producer Peter Collins sprinkle a lot of indiscriminate fairy dust in an attempt to sound modern, and modern for 1985 does not date well.
“The Big Money” and “Marathon” both score points by overcoming the oppressive production with cycling rhythms, soaring guitar parts, and memorable hooks. “Territories” and “Mystic Rhythms” are also of interest but are suffocated by synth interjections and multi-tracked hoopla. “Manhattan Project” (yes, about the Bomb and Enola Gay) would have been unwieldy in any form, let alone this cheaply grandiose arrangement. On the note of unwieldy, Peart sinks to a lot of banal phrases throughout the album, despite having noble themes in mind, but I’m so put off by the circus-like production environment that lyrics are the least of my complaints. And the first three tracks I named in this review have never registered enough in my brain to warrant judgment.
One still hears amazing bass and drums on Power Windows, and Lifeson’s shift to a textural guitar role to accommodate the keyboards is praiseworthy, but the signature style that Rush had as an unadorned trio is decisively lost here, replaced by an artificial process that makes them sound at least two members larger. To be fair, a lot of fans love this album, and Geddy Lee has called it the best balanced of the keyboard-era records. I would encourage a newcomer to check it out because they might get more out of it than I do, but for me, it’s got two or three standout cuts and is otherwise a challenge to listen to, not in a good way.
More bland synth pads, thin guitars, and window dressing splashed over another half-forgettable song selection. (This time ten songs, and some groups who could profitably concentrate on forty-odd minutes per LP started diluting their work when aiming for an hour or so on CD.) This album has no point of entry for anyone viewing Rush as a singular hard-rock trio; not that they needed to keep rewriting “2112” or “Tom Sawyer”, but they enter an area here where their uniqueness disappears. So many tracks are based on generic melodies and/or keyboard chords, enlivened in places by Peart’s drumming, while Lifeson is left with tinny rhythmic parts and solos that plead in a wanky, disposable manner. But aside from the lamentable fact that Rush no longer sounds like they did, the unmemorable songwriting disappoints me most. Whether or not one enjoys Permanent Waves or Farewell to Kings, or even Caress of Steel, one can probably recall their contents. Hold Your Fire is the opposite of distinctive. I could make a parallel with U2 – upon ‘discovering America’ they started writing conventional strum-along songs and abandoned the homegrown style of their early years. Some groups get the songwriter bug and lose their real assets...
Curbing that digression, I’ll turn to the better parts of Fire like “Force Ten”, a driving number with hooks strong enough to survive egregious production events. Similarly, “Turn the Page” has some worth beneath intrusive elements. “High Water” is oft-dismissed but I think it creates a poignant mood, given weight by bass figures that recur now and again. “Time Stand Still” has enough sympathy between melody, harmony, and lyric to illustrate its theme of growing older in a touching way. I think if you blended these four with the better songs from Power Windows and produced them with less superficiality, you’d have a great album.
I’ve never understood the appeal of “Mission”, so sappy apart from the instrumental episode that reminds the listener that Rush still had reason to rehearse. “Lock and Key” wastes a lot of detail on melodramatic banality. “Open Secrets”, “Second Nature”, “Prime Mover”, “Tai Shan” – no matter how many times I listen, I literally cannot remember anything about them, except that I should stay tuned until the end of “Open Secrets” for a brief moment of transcendence, not that I remember how that goes, either. And that’s my main problem, the lack of distinctive material. I understand that Rush had to evolve and commend them for doing it, but forfeiting the characteristics that earned them longevity in the first place has a negative side.
Here’s the live summary of the so-called keyboard phase spanning Signals through Hold Your Fire. Sequencers and triggered samples allow the group to replicate every bleep and wheeze from the records, so the songs are not stripped down in live form. Only “Subdivisions” appears from Signals, and as I’ve said, I think Signals qualitatively belongs to an earlier era, so it sticks out in the tracklist. As do “Witch Hunt” and “Closer to the Heart”, which has a jam section at the end. Everything else comes from Grace, Power, and Fire, and I’m at a loss in comparing them to the studio versions. More energetic? Maybe, but most of these songs aren’t designed to benefit from energy anyway. “Big Money”, “Marathon”, and “Turn the Page” come across with a likeable edginess, yet the other selections reveal nothing novel in their stage guise. Toss in an edited drum solo, and you’re left with a less-than-fulfilling live representation.
As much as Power Windows and Hold Your Fire drained a large amount of blood from Rush’s sound, the following albums Presto (1989) and Roll the Bones (1991) were even thinner productions, despite returning compositional emphasis to guitar. More alarmingly, some of the material became even more vapid. 1993’s Counterparts restored the band’s tubey, authentic sound out of the blue, and most of it is a strong listen. Rush continued riding the wave of post-alternative hard rock on Test for Echo (1996), ironically taking a cue from bands who were probably influenced by classic Rush in the first place. I’ve never heard 2002’s Vapor Trails in full, but I did get the later Snakes and Arrows from 2007, which has several solid moments and could be better if fifteen minutes were shorn off. (The curse of the overlong program strikes again.)
This retrospective pulls fourteen selections from that period, which produced more than enough to make up a good single disc. Every fan’s compilation would look a bit different, as to be expected.
“One Little Victory”: Vapor Trails followed a long hiatus after Neil Peart’s personal tragedies, and the title of this song speaks a small volume about the improbability that he would have ever returned to public work. The music leaves no doubt that Rush was back in business, although in the interim, Geddy Lee’s voice lost range and gained some odd microtones, which lessens my like of this track somewhat. Vapor Trails was also an infamously compressed CD with squashed dynamics and digital clipping. The two VT tracks on this collection are slightly improved via remixes, though they still make me ask why recordings from decades earlier can sound so much better.
“Dreamline”: The leadoff cut from Roll the Bones, rather dull for my money. Eliminate one of the chord changes, sedate the drums, and any band could have come up with it, thus wasting the semi-clever line “We’re only immortal for a limited time.”
“Workin’ Them Angels”: As with a few other tracks on Snakes and Arrows, this feels too crowded with guitars, too rhythmically leaden, and too monotonous melodically, but somehow that works in its favor vis-a-vis the lyric.
“Presto”: The outstanding title track from an unremarkable album. Though not ambitious in any way, the song succeeds through winsome melody and subtleties.
“Bravado”: A pleasant tune from Bones with a straight beat and ethereal guitar. Very nice.
“Driven”: The sole representative of Test for Echo, and I suppose it’s the obvious choice (if you can’t have “Resist” or the title track), but they’ve ridden plenty of smarter riffs than this one, and the sudden twist to acoustic bareness for the “my turn to drive” line is as insultingly manipulative as any Oscar-nominated Spielberg movie.
“The Pass”: Another standout from Presto, awkward to a degree, yet there’s a subtle hook preceding the chorus – “Turn around and turn around and turn around” – that convinces me for a moment that the pure songwriting quest wasn’t totally misguided. For what it’s worth, I also like “Scars” and “Show Don’t Tell” from Presto, along with the album cover. I wish I liked anything else about it.
“Animate”: While not eclipsing the glory days, Counterparts revived the group’s rock sensuality and resolved the identity crisis that began in the keyboard era. “Animate” sums up the coup – full blooded sound, a vintage riff in the verses, an occasionally resonant vocal, and a bridge that breaks down the momentum and builds it up again. All done in simplistic 1990s style, but great nonetheless.
“Roll the Bones”: Angular rock and funk with a generic chorus and “rap” section. Ah, 1991, so many genres to acknowledge. Parts of this track are cool. Other bits, not so much.
“Ghost of a Chance”: A live rendition of another Bones number. I love the beautiful floating chorus.
“Nobody’s Hero”: A pandering ballad where the lyrics are good in intent, unintentionally funny in practice, not the only Counterparts track to suffer from such. Like “The Pass”, this song has a strategically placed hook (“As the years went by, we drifted apart,” revealing a heartening major chord) that gives the listener incentive to bear it out.
“Leave That Thing Alone”: Terrific Counterparts instrumental, with the rhythm duo grooving underneath solid guitar work and a drum break that begs detailed examination. Like “YYZ”, short, varied, and distinct. You know what else I dig from Counterparts? “Double Agent” and “Cut to the Chase”. And the chorus of “Between Sun and Moon” is brilliant. Just wanted to get that on record. Back to the program at hand...
“Earthshine”: The second Vapor Trails delegate, still sludgy despite the remix, and condescending in the primal alt-rock-ness, but there’s a lovely precursory section to the chorus that illuminates things, and the lyric is fine by me.
“Far Cry”: Here it is from Snakes and Arrows, the most on-point track Rush had done in a long time. Lifeson’s hemispherical chord makes a dramatic reappearance, Peart rebels against the madness of the world in an incisive lyric, Lee’s vocal soars, and the main riffs and transitional segments are suitably powerful. They rise to the occasion with a mix of anger and determination in one of their most meaningful songs ever.
And that’s Retrospective 3, so numbered because Volumes 1 and 2 were released several years before. If you haven’t heard any Rush past the 1980s, this is well worth getting. One can debate the omission of various tracks, but it shows in schizophrenic fashion that Rush continued to mine gold in later years.
Other albums deserve as many words, but this is a contemporary reaction rather than a review of music that’s received much attention before. Though maybe I should one day go into term-paper detail about the Waves-Pictures-Signals run...
Anything you may have read elsewhere about Clockwork Angels being Rush’s best work in at least a quarter of a century is true. Their several previous records (some noted by proxy in Retrospective 3 above) each contain great moments, but this one recommits to strengths that invested older classics – durable melodies and riffs, rhythmic necromancy, structural drama, thematic lyrics – and embracing past ambitions pushes the group forward. As always, they remain in tiptop instrumental shape, and Geddy’s vocals sound better than they have since the ‘90s. Also, for the first time in a long time, there’s no filler. Every song has a distinct character, and trying to condense Angels into single LP length reveals a surplus of great material.
It’s no coincidence that this is a conceptual album, which I suspect emboldened the group to both refocus and indulge themselves, including the use of a string section on a few tracks. Nor is it a coincidence that the cover art clock indicates 21:12, as the title track of 2112 also tells a story of an aspiring individual within a regulated culture, though the Clockwork Angels narrative covers a whole album (and stretches into a corresponding novel that doesn’t fall within my jurisdiction). Neil Peart has addressed the same general theme in plenty of other songs; it shouldn’t surprise that he returns to it in Rush’s golden years, and he also pens brief prose preludes for each lyric. In accompaniment, artist Hugh Syme delivers wonderful illustrations of a steampunk dystopia.
“Caravan”: I’m glad Rush persevered into the new century because this and “Far Cry” rank amongst their strongest statements. “Caravan” packs zigzag riffs, a stutter-stepping chorus (“the caravan thunders onward”), and a slower section (dreamlike guitar and bass beneath the signature line “I can’t stop thinking big”) into an invigorating package that ratifies one’s instinct, should it exist, to conquer any obstacle ahead, and there begins the protagonist’s story. Longing for a larger life, he sees transports going by and resolves to set off. An inspirational message intensely scored, “Caravan” contains everything I would want from Rush at this stage.
“Caravan” was released as a single b/w “BU2B” in 2010, both tracks being remixed for inclusion on Clockwork Angels.
“BU2B”: That’s “Brought Up To Believe,” a lyric that describes the protagonist’s unquestionable world yet echoes much of Snakes and Arrows in its criticism of religion, and naming the societal ruler The Watchmaker references scientist Richard Dawkins’ writings on evolution versus creationism. Despite the tight meld of heavy riff and cascading chorus, the end result doesn’t stick with me as much as it should, probably more due to production rather than musical quality.
“Clockwork Angels”: What I said about past ambitions moving the group forward is best heard in the album’s centerpiece, which (apart from one lick reminiscent of “2112”) is totally fresh yet comes from the same gene pool as “Xanadu”, “Natural Science”, etc. “Clockwork” doesn’t sound like those songs but certainly sounds like a modern effort from the same group. The dynamic scope of the piece makes one connection – pummeling ensemble figures versus lighter verses; vocal melodies that spill dramatically between sections; grand harmonic movement – and so does the sense of freedom that produces such music in the first place. I love the mechanical triplet figure at the beginning that initiates a ton of rhythmic evolution throughout, the poetic lyrics, the buildup to certain vocal lines, the patented Lerxst chords, and the half-time tangent coming out of the guitar solo. One of their career-best in my opinion.
“The Anarchist”: Starting with a chunky riff that could have fit Roll the Bones if Rush were serious about crashing the college-rock party back then, and moving toward a flanged guitar part 56 seconds in that recalls “Beneath, Between, and Behind” on Exit Stage Left (at almost the exact same time mark!), this rocking piece comes from another character’s point of view. Consumed by envy and hate, the Anarchist intends destruction or a threatening display of such, and the catholic line “a missing part of me that grows around me like a cage” applies to the title rebel, Peart’s loss of his family, and many points between. Like a couple of other tracks, “The Anarchist” conceals its best hooks within dense surroundings and might take time to sink in.
“Carnies”: The sludgy guitar motif and rousing vocal sections may not seem congruous right away, but the tune makes sense after repeated exposure and is also a rare point where something happens in the story – the Anarchist tosses his detonator to the protagonist, drawing unlucky attention to the latter.
“Halo Effect”: Imagining a certain acrobat as his soul mate, our smitten fellow gets disillusioned - a common enough pop-lyric premise, but Rush has never manufactured the average love song. Ever analytical regarding matters of the heart, Peart rationalizes that projecting an ideal onto an undeserving attraction can lead to the halo effect in question, a relatable experience for sure. (Also note that author Christopher Hitchens debunked a different “halo effect” in an oddly illuminated photo of Mother Teresa, and whose book did we see Alex reading in the Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage?) The acoustic guitar gravitating downward from C major has been heard too many times before, but the consistency of vocal phrasing that extends from the verses into the electrified chorus grants a nice integrity to this song. I like the closing observation of the “goddess with wings on her heels,” as if the impressions have been properly diagnosed but the narrator still wishes they were true.
“Seven Cities of Gold”: The first I heard of the legendary Seven Cities of Gold was through Ozark Softscape’s mid-‘80s exploration game, which was followed by the sequel Heart Of Africa. Respectable R&D aside, neither game would pass politically correct muster nowadays, given the ex post facto contempt for...never mind, there’s a Rush album at hand. Our hero makes his way to one such City (“A man can lose his past in a country like this”) only to be disillusioned again. “Seven Cities” is one of the album’s heaviest hitters thanks to brawny riffs, bass and drum interplay, apocalyptic guitar noise, and smart arranging. (For example, if having introduced a refrain in bit-by-bit fashion once, best to be more concise the second or third time around.) And apart from Commodore 64 nostalgia, there’s a nod to Bill Bruford’s “Sahara of Snow” for the prog-fusion savant in me.
“The Wreckers”: Pedestrian in some respects, melodious in others, “The Wreckers” might have been a hit for a commercial artist, assuming lighter subject matter than shipwrecks, looting, and drowning. A decent number, it’s tough to denounce the rich chorus or universal lines like “sometimes you have to be wary of a miracle too good to be true.”
“Headlong Flight”: The last slugger in the lineup rocks hard through persistent changes of pace and even nicks the verse chords from “Bastille Day”, all fitting for a song where the protagonist looks back without regret on his adventures thus far. Regarding the record’s performances in general, Rush have never coasted on past accomplishments, and the three players continue to expand their vocabularies while retaining a watertight bond.
“BU2B2”: A string-laden ghost of “BU2B”, the lyrics reflecting lessons learned. Another callback or two would have integrated the album even further, not counting the small interludes that link a few tracks. Rush has never created reprises with the panache of their influence Genesis (who did?), though they boldly traversed two albums when snippets of “Cygnus X-1” made a cameo in “Hemispheres”.
“Wish Them Well”: This basic rocker advises how to deal with prickliness in life – just wish the bastards well and move on. Brighter in tone than “The Wreckers”, it has the same straightforward appeal (and some subtle metrical shifts).
“The Garden”: A few lovely passages exist in Rush’s lengthy past, but “The Garden” is one time they’ve achieved true poignancy. It’s not just the specific seductions herein – simple bass figure, warm harmony, goosebump strings, gorgeous piano breakdown – but more their overall contours that make this an especially mature piece, the structure of which happens to give Lifeson’s solo a huge emotional advantage. The lyrics reflect on love and respect being the “measure of a life,” but like the music, the verbal sentiments just feed the flow of a song unlike any Rush had done before.
Judging Clockwork Angels as a whole, I like the philosophy of the story and appreciate that the narrative spine gave Rush license to resurrect their more dramatic inclinations. I’d have to rewind to Grace Under Pressure to find an album with as much artistry and excitement. (For others, it might be Power Windows, not that CA sounds like either of them.) Of later works, Snakes and Arrows and Counterparts were both noteworthy rebirths but are inconsistent in comparison. Then again, discussing catalogs of longtime bands is tricky because they can evolve in radical ways. Clockwork Angels doesn’t dethrone its royal ancestors but meets the same standard, and in an age where the notion of an Album is disappearing, bravo to Rush for once again exploiting its potential.
(Unfortunately, modern recordings often beg comments as to sound quality. Clockwork Angels is not an excessively loud mastering, but the EQ and mix sometimes obscure Peart’s drum timbres and rob other instruments of their full distinction. Compare Angels to Hemispheres, where layered guitars can be heard as separate entities, the bass fills its spectrum without overcrowding, the vocals are clear, the drums “speak,” and the overall soundfield has a satisfying balance. Minus some oddness, Clockwork Angels is good enough for the music’s sake and could have been much worse. How sad is it to be thankful not that a new album sounds great but that “it isn’t as bad as it could have been.” And how ironic that older recordings often outshine those of the current century, given the advances of studio ware. For psychological enhancement, imagine this as a demo mixed by retarded aliens, and then it sounds quite awesome.)