This is how I think of Rush’s entire studio catalog, in short summaries.
This is a set of young rockers trying to follow their dreams. Raw, immature, full of pride and purpose. Surprisingly good, especially when you consider that “Working Man” was an earnest staple of the band for their entire career.
Sophomore effort; apparently switching drummers to the new guy worked out. The sound’s a lot lighter, the playing is far less raw, and the topics are much better than on “Rush”, even though it still had songs like “Rivendell” on it. This is a band trying to figure out its new sound, and it’s working.
This is a band indulging itself after Fly By Night; it’s almost like they said, “Hey, Fly By Night worked, let’s do that, but more of it.” It sounds indulgent in retrospect, but it’s still Rush and it’s got some great stuff on it – Bastille Day, The Necromancer, even The Fountain of Lamneth has value despite the indulgence. The sound didn’t grow a ton from Fly By Night to Caress of Steel, and neither did the writing… they grew some, but not much. It ends up feeling uncommitted.
Commitment time! With Caress of Steel feeling unfulfilled and the band teetering on the edge, the guys decided to go for it and do what it feels like they really wanted. Instead of trying to figure out what someone else wanted, they did what they wanted to do, and gosh, it seems to have worked. The sound was a little better than on Caress of Steel – the sound really hadn’t taken a leap yet – but the playing and writing is very, very strong. This one might be a classic.
An album produced by the confidence gained through 2112 and a successful live album. It sounds like they were inspired by doing well when they did what they felt like doing. It’s a confident album. It also had a giant leap in sound quality with Cygnus X-1. They introduced more instruments, too – the synths finally started really rearing their heads, becoming core parts of Xanadu and other songs. The synths were an interloper in the sound spectrum; this becomes important.
Wait, did we say A Farewell to Kings was confident? Then Hemispheres takes that confidence and multiplies it by ten. This feels like they decided to challenge themselves to do listenable progressive rock, yet still propelled forward by things other than pastoral sounds. The actual sound of the album is a little fuzzy, a little dark (where’s the sustain on Geddy’s bass?) but the album itself… you either love it to death or hate it. (I love it. Probably my favorite Rush album.) The synths were still trying to find out where they went, though; La Villa Strangiato won with them, Circumstances… used them. But when Circumstances is the weakest song on your album, you have a winner.
They finally moved away from the indulgence of prog rock. Tightened the songs dramatically. Also opened up the sound a good bit, and the synths fit well here. If Hemispheres wasn’t the perfect Rush album, Permanent Waves was.
Note that this is a crappy summary. Permanent Waves is a freaking great album. Natural Science, Freewill, Spirit of Radio, Jacob’s Ladder (which gave me chills, seeing it live on their last tour), Different Strings, Entre Nous… all fantastic songs. And that’s every song on the album.
Here, they took Permanent Waves and amped it up again. The sound is brighter and entirely … Moving Pictures. This is Rush’ best-sounding album – it’s also one of the best sounding albums (IMO) from anyone, anywhere, and it’s built on nothing but fantastic songs all the way through. The synths are still lurking, still looking for where to really be used, but they’re just right – just like everything is on this album. If Permanent Waves wasn’t the perfect Rush album, Moving Pictures was.
And if we’re telling the truth, Moving Pictures is the perfect Rush album.
Signals is what happens when you don’t know where else to go – and you choose a different direction. The underused synths from Moving Pictures took the limelight, so to speak, and the sonic spectrum suffered dramatically for it – the synths collided with everything, drowning out the drums (which sound muddier than ever before, even compared to Hemispheres) and the guitars (Rush had a guitarist?). It’s a great album, really; the music as written is fantastic, but the sound really hurt it. If Moving Pictures wasn’t the perfect Rush album, Permanent Waves was. Not Signals.
Rush chose to go a different way with Signals – on later albums, they would just stick with what worked. I liked the choice they made here, even if the sound suffered from it. I wish they’d have been as adventurous later. Apart from Vapor Trails and Snakes and Arrows, this is the last experimental album Rush made (and neither of those later albums was as experimental as Signals, for Rush’s sound.)
Signals was my introduction to Rush – from here I went to Hemispheres and then to… everything.
Grace Under Pressure was an album where they tried to figure out how to fit synths in with everything else, trying to craft their sound. The synths actually tried to duck the guitar (which was what hurt Signals) and the bass (now a Steinberger headless, not sure what model) also tried to dodge the drums. The band was trying to find the perfect mix again, but with more instruments to choose from. Songwriting was still very tight; Peart sounds like he’d pretty much done everything he wanted to do, from a drummer’s perspective, and was basically playing around (something that had started on Signals.) Geddy went from a melodic bass approach (where every line was a melody, duh) to more of a traditional bass player’s approach, where he was holding down the low end of the sound when he wasn’t playing keyboards. Song construction stabilized; guitars, then synths in the chorus, lots of ringing guitar chords.
Geddy changed his singing technique – his deep vibrato started to disappear at this point. I missed it.
Grace Under Pressure, amplified. Clearer sound than Grace Under Pressure, still great songs, but it feels like they just did Grace Under Pressure with newer instruments and more of them. I think it’s still the Steinberger bass, but it doesn’t matter. (Later research: nope, it’s his Wal bass, which he used for this and the next three albums.) It’s still got little meat because it’s trying to dodge the drums.
More of Power Windows’ attitude of “let’s run with this synth thing.” The sound is great, even though I find Geddy’s Wal bass to be really weak here, and the snare was… weird. Alex’ sound was meatless because of the sonic spectrum. Great playing, but still strangely lifeless. This album is sort of the Grace Under Pressure’s gutless grandchild; the genes are there, but the heart isn’t, even though the songwriting, as usual, is about as good as you could hope for. (Song construction was still kinda boring, with the same guitar-driven then synth-driven shifts throughout.)
Geddy’s enunciation during this period drove me nuts. “Hold yuh fiyuh,” indeed. Thankfully, this was a vocal tic that lasted for only this and the live album that accompanied it.
At last! Back to guitar rock! The song construction finally changed, and the band sounds like they’re trying to work out how to get back to playing with meat. It’s not here – this album sounds really light, apart from subject matter – but they’re searching for the sound again instead of saying “Where is it? Let’s add a synthesizer.” Who knew Rush had a guitarist?
Having rediscovered that they have one of rock and roll’s unheralded heroes at guitar, they decided to use him. More bass (and low end, period) than Presto, it’s a funny, great album. Good mix, but still a little top-heavy. Ged’s still on the Wal. Neil still sounds like he’s searching for a reason to play the drums.
Having rediscovered that they have one of rock and roll’s unheralded heroes on bass, they decided to put him in the mix… big time. Geddy finally abandoned the Wal and went to a good bass for him, his Jazz. One of Rush’s better bass guitar sounds. Very heavy album, almost a reaction to how light the previous six albums had sounded. Has “Alien Shore” on it, which would make any album good. It’s still only a decent Rush album, though. (Most bands wish they had something as good as this.)
This is where the song construction finally overtook the songwriting. (This was a one-album phase, thank goodness.) The songwriting here feels… tired. The playing’s pretty good, even Neil sounds interested on drums (he started taking lessons from Freddie Gruber for this album). The sound itself is a little raw, but still mature – it’s a good, bright sound. Not as good as Moving Pictures, but few albums are. This album was a Rush album – again, most bands would kill to have something as good as this, but for Rush, it’s another album that’s good to listen to, but it’s also “meh” because of high expectations.
Years have passed, with much tragedy for Neil, between Test for Echo and Vapor Trails. The sound took a giant, giant, humongous leap backwards – this can be a hard album to listen to, because of the recording quality (everything is brickwalled). Very few examples of dynamics, and even when they’re there (“Secret Touch,” “Ghost Rider”) they’re still pretty much brickwalled. Everyone is playing incredibly hard the whole way through – Alex sounds like he’s kinda where Neil was on the prior seven albums (“What’s left to do? Oh, I’ll noodle.”) but Neil’s playing like a man who needs an income again. Unfortunately, he’s also playing like he’s done most of what can be done.
I totally love this album. If not for the sonic quality, I’d have it on a pedestal along with the “Golden Era” albums from 2112 through Grace Under Pressure – and given that it sounds like Rush was actually interested again, it probably belongs on the pedestal despite the sound quality. And if you’re wondering, I actually find I still prefer the original flawed release; the remaster sounds much better but I love the rawness of the original.
With this album, we started seeing more live stuff from Rush than studio work. Rush is a great live band, but… I wanted studio albums more than live.
“Hey, let’s record an album of covers so we can make a lot of money on tour! Maybe we can go on tour again afterwards just so we can promote that we were on tour! And then go on tour! Where’s my money?”
Let’s just say that while I like a lot of these songs and am always super-excited when Rush gives me stuff to listen to… I was not impressed.
New producer who doesn’t want the band to rest on its laurels in any way, Neil’s actually invested in lyrics again… Nick R. wanted the sounds to harken back to the classic sounds from the band (so you get echoes of every great Rush album here, it feels like), so in some ways it sounds like they’ve freshened up a ton of their catalog… and it all works. Great mix, great songwriting, adventurous. Their best album since Moving Pictures, in my opinion, although if I had to make a choice between this and Signals, Signals would probably win.
Let’s do Snakes and Arrows, except in a concept album! It’s actually really good, but the sound didn’t mature much from Snakes and Arrows, and the concept album part felt a little lazy to me. It’s still a great album, and it’s definitely something for the pantheon, but it’s not a competitor for “best album” like Snakes and Arrows would be.
And the endless “give us money” tours preceding and following the album finally broke Neil for the road.