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Rush After Signals: What Happened?

On Facebook, a user in a Rush fan page asked if anyone else found Rush after Signals difficult to enjoy. There’s been a lot of commentary on the topic, much of it not really useful to me; most of it is dissent or agreement, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they don’t add anything to shed light on why Rush’ “golden era” ended at Signals.

There have, however, been a few comments that I think might add up to something.

A common statement was that their long-time producer, Terry Brown, parted ways with them. (I found writing that sentence to be kinda funny, because Brown and Rush worked together for less than a decade: 1974-1982.)

I think this has merit, but isn’t quite as direct a discriminator as people make it seem. For example, I’ve made it a point to listen to other albums and bands produced by Terry Brown, and while they sound good, they don’t have the essential something that Rush had while working with him. It might be, of course, that it was the combination of Rush and Terry Brown, and taken in isolation, neither combined with their new partners quite the same way.

Another common refrain was in the sound of the albums. Rush always morphed their sound from album to album throughout their entire career (settling down some after Vapor Trails), and there’s some merit here, too, but complaints seem to center in two areas.

One complaint is in the use of synthesizers. Signals was dominated heavily by synthesizers; there were songs were they were less prominent than in others, but even in the “less dominant” synthesizer songs, they were used to greater effect than in nearly every song up to that point. The guitar was buried in the mix (not intentionally, but the synthesizers’ sonic range was so great that they pretty much wiped everything else out in their path – including the guitars and drums).

However, later albums, spanning the entire synth era, actually largely corrected the problem of dominance. Grace Under Pressure, the album after Signals, used synthesizers heavily as well, but the guitar actually presented melodic and rhythmic elements again – and that was a trend that continued through the next two albums after Grace Under Pressure, too (“Power Windows” and “Hold Your Fire.”) After Hold Your Fire, the compositional elements changed again, where the synths contributed but were no longer used as prominently – and eventually Rush would record albums that didn’t use any synthesizers, but those albums aren’t called out as a “return to the golden era of Rush,” so I don’t think the synthesizers are the core aspect of the complaint about Rush after Signals anyway.

(It wouldn’t even make sense if they were – it would mean that these people didn’t like Rush after Moving Pictures, not Signals, as synths dominated the heck out of Signals.)

Another thought is in Alex Lifeson’s guitar tone. For Signals, he shifted to a largely single-coil sound, preferring Stratocasters and Stratocaster-style tones; thinner, brighter, often more digital sounds that were easier to isolate in the mix so that the guitars weren’t buried by the synthesizers. Hearing Rush in concert, with a chunkier, bigger sound, makes a lot of the songs recorded with the Stratocasters sound “better,” as a common statement.

I can agree with the sentiment; there are a lot of songs from the post-Signals era that I like from the albums, that simply come alive in concert. However, I don’t think this is “the answer,” for the same reason I don’t think that synthesizers deserve the blame: Lifeson actually went back to a bigger guitar sound for a few albums (and often chose a tone to fit individual songs); those albums aren’t beloved because of Lifeson’s tonal choices.

The same goes for Geddy’s bass – he went from a distorted Rickenbacker and Jazz tone on Signals to a much brighter, thinner sound first with a Steinberger headless bass on Grace Under Pressure, switching to a Wal for Power Windows, Hold Your Fire, Presto, and Roll the Bones, finally switching back to the Jazz (and sticking with it) for Counterparts and subsequent albums. But like Lifeson’s guitar tone, while I think this might contribute, it’s not all of it – otherwise people would have rallied around Counterparts. (“I liked Rush up through Signals, but they lost me until Counterparts,” for example. And there are people who say that, surely, but it’s not a common sentiment.)

I’ve posited before that I actually think it’s the songwriting – the mechanisms of composition and the mode of the lyrics.

Lyrically, Rush tended to be introspective for a long time; after Signals, though, they wrote ballads (stories) differently, and had more of an edge where they dictated modes of thought. They went from “you can choose a ready guide, but I will choose free will” to a more-challenging “I don’t have faith in faith, you can call me faithless.” It became more about the band and less about the being, which is a slight but important difference.

Musically, the compositions were dominated by computer. In the “Golden Era,” the writing was done informally, two or three guys jamming and building a song organically. Then Geddy Lee discovered software, and started preserving ideas on computer (using Finale, I think, but my memory might be faulty and I don’t think it’s important enough to look up.) The writing process turned into a matter of jamming and getting a few good ideas, then spending time preserving those ideas in a reusable form in the computer, then selecting ideas for each song and building tracks from those ideas; often, those ideas were overlaid completely by the process of recording.

I think that’s the actual crux of the different sound: the actual mode of composition made the music feel slightly less “alive.” It felt less joyful, for the most part, with a few exceptions here and there.

Does that mean it’s bad music? — Gosh, no! Late Rush is perhaps not as stunning as some of their early output – particularly in the “golden era,” where it seemed that everything they did was just right. But there are still stunning songs! The Pass, The Garden, Driven, Alien Shore, Mission… there are multiple songs on every album that you could call out as being excellent and just as good as any of the songs in the golden era, dependent on taste, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Rush was, thankfully, always consistent in their pursuit of quality, and I think they achieved it at a very high level for their entire career.

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