Rush from 2000 feet

I wrote an article a few years back entitled “How I See Rush’s Albums from 10000 Feet,” basically summarizing each studio album in the context of the entire discography.

That’s… pretty high level. I wanted to kinda of give myself more room to dive in to each album, to look at them all a little more closely in their own context.

Rush

This is an album where they were trying to fulfill their dreams of being the next Led Zeppelin. The “first Rush lineup” was made of John Rutsey on drums, Geddy Lee on bass, and Alex Lifeson on guitar. Sonically, it’s pretty spare; there’s a phaser on the guitar, Geddy doubles most of the vocals (really pretty impressive for such a young band), and the sound’s pretty beefy after Terry Brown fixed it.

The songs themselves are about what one would expect of such a new band. It’s all original, which is nice (many bands of the time did covers of other songs first.) Some of the songs were even fairly iconic; the obvious is “Working Man,” with “What You’re Doing” and “Finding My Way” being barn-burners themselves; “In the Mood” stayed with them for most (if not all) of the band’s career, too, but I find the song puerile even for 1974.

Other songs: “Here Again” is the band trying to be something it never would really accomplish again: a blues band. It’s a good song, but it fades immediately; it’s done well but it’s not really a song worth remembering. “Take A Friend” is similar to “Here Again,” and “Need Some Love” is a song that’s in the same vein  as “In The Mood” but, sadly, “In The Mood” is far better; “Before and After” is probably the fourth best song on the album, with a pretty workable change of pace between sections.

It’s a good initial effort for a new band. It’s got a lot of what would be rightfully considered as filler material over the band’s career; if you reduced it to a four-song EP you wouldn’t miss much (i..e, “Finding My Way,” “What You’re Doing,” “Before and After,” and “Working Man”), although then we’d be left with a three-and-a-half minute block of silence where the band used to play “In the Mood.”

The drums are workable; Rutsey was a bricklayer drummer, playing mostly caveman riffs and holding down the beat serviceably. 

Geddy Lee played with a decent amount of chutzpah on what sounds like a Fender Precision; I get the sense that locking into the rhythm on drums held him back a little in terms of what he might have done otherwise. Geddy’s vocals are workable and provide a distinct high tenor that isn’t always necessarily pleasant but sits in the mix pretty well; he’s not competing with the guitars or drums.

The real star of the album is Alex Lifeson; it’s not that Geddy didn’t play well, but the music was really designed to give Lifeson the chance to solo a lot, over songs with a lot of different feels. He shows a pretty decent mastery of rock guitar, with a lot of blues influence.

It’s a fun album to listen to, overall. Is it a good album? Hmm, well, in context it sure is. In the grand scheme of things it’s an okay album, probably rounding out the bottom quarter of the Rush catalog. Without the context of being their first album, it’d live with “Test for Echo” and sneer at “Feedback.”

Fly By Night

This is what’s probably rightfully considered the first album from “The Real Rush:” Neil Peart on drums, Geddy on bass and vocals, and Alex on guitars. 

Peart gave the band a lot of energy, being about the farthest thing you could think of from a “bricklayer drummer;” if you imagined Keith Moon given a lot of discipline and introspection, well, you’d… have Peart. 

Was there a way in which Fly By Night wasn’t a positive change from “Rush?” I… don’t think so, unless you valued having a shorter album name. The lyrics improved dramatically – from “Need some love! Yeah! Yeah!,” to “We marvel after those who sought/Wonders in the world they wrought.”

I suppose “Rivendell” might be considered a flaw, outside of the album’s context; more than anything else, it was evidence of a band that felt free to start experimenting with different forms. In “Rivendell” that wasn’t much of a success; it’s five minutes of blah on the album. In “By-Tor…” Wait, let’s look at the tracks.

First off, this is a stellar track list. Maybe not every song is a “hit” per se – and history shows this to be the case – but overall the entire album is fantastic. The outliers would be “Best I Can” – which had some flow issues, to my ears – “Making Memories,” and “Rivendell,” which was so down-tempo that it never really got started.

But of the rest? “Anthem” is the song that created Rush as we know it now; “Beneath, Between, and Behind” is a song with astounding political ramifications that still apply today as they did then, perhaps in greater measure; “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” was the first song that really showed off Rush having the chops to create true dynamics in a long-form song; “Fly By Night” is a concise and legitimate hit; “In The End” is another song with what we’d consider true light and shade in the Zeppelin vein, and it really shows a ton of potential. (Live, this song absolutely cooks.)

“Making Memories” is a good song, but doesn’t really stand out apart from a really nice vibe. It stands well with “Best I Can,” and is certainly better  than “Rivendell,” but being “Better than Rivendell” is a claim pretty much every song in Rush’s catalog can make, even “Need Some Love” and “Tai Shan,” even though Tai Shan tries to compete for “Worst Rush Song.”

The performances… well, Peart’s no Rutsey, that’s for sure. Peart brought a level of dexterity to the drums that Rutsey didn’t even seem to have tried. The mix is a little weak on the drums; thank the technology of the day, but at least they’re detailed. (This was pretty common; Moon’s drums weren’t recorded hot in the mix either, for example.) The actual playing of the drums? Stellar, especially for the band’s age. It’s a bigger kit than Rutsey played (I think Rutsey was on a five-piece and Peart was on a seven-piece kit, based on the Fly By Night video) and it shows – especially because Peart knew how to use the kit well.

Geddy had switched to a Rickenbacker 4001, which gave him a much better projection on bass. This is where listeners used to the first album would have said, “Oh, my – Lee really can play all those bits he more or less implied.” On “Rush” he sounded like a guitarist who was asked to play bass well; on “Fly By Night” he sounded like a bass player who had a clear idea of what he was about as a melodic player.

His vocals also improved; they’re still awfully high, pitch-wise, and still duck the other instruments quite well, while being potentially unpleasant for some listeners; however, his delivery was far less screechy, and had a lot more confidence than braggadocio.

Lifeson was asked to carry a lot less of this album than on “Rush.” The result was that he was able to fit in the mix and song construction much more capably; he feels relaxed and comfortable here, challenging himself musically and showing off different aspects of his style than he was able to on “Rush.”

I loved the guitar playing on Fly By Night. In fact, I think it’s a stellar album all around.  Ranking it is really difficult, because in a few short years, Rush would release a set of albums that can be considered absolute classics; in fact, with the exception of “Caress of Steel,” there really wasn’t anything less than a stellar offering for seven or eight albums (depending on taste). This album could be considered the first of the “golden era,” and if not for “Caress of Steel” would undoubtedly be considered in that set.

But compared to the “golden era” – the albums from 2112 to Signals, in my opinion – “Fly By Night” is an also-ran; in my opinion, every album in that group exceeds this one. In retrospect, that’s simply amazing.

Caress of Steel

Ah, poor Caress of Steel.

With Fly By Night, the band saw a direction it could go, and with Caress of Steel, they… tried to go there, and weren’t quite ready. It’s an odd mix of the goofiness of “Rush” and the approach of “Fly By Night,” and while it’s a good listen – being considered a favorite for a lot of Rush fans – it’s simply the red-headed stepchild of the band’s discography, fitting in well with “Rush,” “Test for Echo,” and “Feedback.”

Songwise, it’s actually a lot weaker than its constituent parts!  “Bastille Day” was a strong opener for the album and for the band, live; “Lakeside Park” has a sort of maudlin appeal that worked out pretty well live as well; “The Necromancer” evoked the feel of a suite while rounding out the story of By-Tor from “Fly By Night.”

And then there’s “The Fountain of Lamneth,” which tried to tell the story of life – or, well, a story of life – in a full side-long epic. 

All of those are worthy songs, and then they added “I Think I’m Going Bald,” a rather silly song poking holes into the “Rush is too serious!” meme. It and Lakeside Park are the weakest songs on the album, but people would miss Lakeside Park, while many would pretend “Bald” was never recorded.

(Not me: I actually think the song’s kinda funny.)

Songwise… like I said, I think it’s an album that ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t have a song that really unifies the effort, unless it’s “Bastille Day,” but that song isn’t strong enough to bring the album together; it’s like Led Zeppelin III, in that “The Immigrant Song” sets up an album that … never really gets delivered.

Playing-wise, you could probably copy the notes from Fly By Night across to Caress of Steel; everything’s played well, the mix is good, the production is good… it’s just that the song selection never really turns into a concrete whole for some reason.

2112

This album kicks off what a lot of Rush fans consider to be the “golden era,” a string of five (or six, or seven) fantastic albums, each one greater than the one previous.

2112 was the result of the label giving Rush one more chance after the relative failure of “Caress of Steel.” “Give us a pop album, lads,” was the call, and Rush said, figuratively, “right away, sir, we’re on it” while doing nothing like that at all. They saw the album as going out on their own terms, and created something that had the excesses of Caress of Steel with none of the half-hearted design.

And they never looked back. 

And what an album it is! Another side-long concept, of an individual in a world without music discovering a guitar – and being defeated by rejection; side two was eclectic and bizarre. It was a watermark album, one where listeners could actually sense what Rush’ values were, both musically and intellectually.

Is there a weak song?  Good question! If there was, it’d be “Lessons,” a song that didn’t really ever actually conclude itself very well. But everything else was stellar.

The title track – “2112” – was twenty minutes of fury. “A Passage to Bangkok” documented a figurative trial of some of the most famous marijuana in the world; “Twilight Zone” explored weirdness; “Something for Nothing” was a paean to earning your way; “Tears” was a downtempo song referencing the power of emotion.

Musically, it was a tour de force; it’s a little dated by modern standards (the drums are still a little “in the mix” even though Peart was playing with more confidence than ever – meaning that he was challenging giants like Bonham and Moon and Baker for ascendancy); the guitars were also a little tinny (i.e., the album lacks some midrange punch that more modern sensibilities would have desired).

So what? The bass was stronger than on Caress of Steel, and the playing… oh, the musicianship was off the charts.

The band also started integrating synthesizers; first was an ARP Odyssey (for the opening of 2112), a taped effect for the future, but you also had what sounds like a Solina on “Tears” (for strings and flute – or maybe a Mellotron? Or real flutes? A recorder? Wikipedia says a Mellotron.)

Hmm, what to say about the musicianship? There’s not much to say, I think; every member of the band was on point for every song (even “Lessons”) and this is one of those albums that’s so distinctive that I can’t really imagine changing much about it without essentially subverting its character.

It’s a worthy start to the “golden era,” and many rightfully consider this, or Moving Pictures, to be Rush’s best album. (I think you could make the same argument for any album from 2112 to Moving Pictures, but I think Moving Pictures and 2112 are the obvious candidates for most people.)

A Farewell To Kings

(Fair warning: there’s a lot of “squee!!!!” involved for the next few albums. I’m going to try to be honest, but… being honest, there’s a lot of “squeee!!!” involved.)

Rush’s fifth album was the first where they actually were granted creative freedom. (They exercised it with 2112, but that was against the label’s wishes.) Here, though, they’d demonstrated their ability to be marketable, now with three albums that had performed well: Fly By Night, 2112, and “All The World’s A Stage,” the live album they recorded during the tour for 2112.

They used their freedom by embracing the progressive music mindset. More of everything was involved: more synthesizers (Moogs this time, in pedal form and in keyboards: the Taurus and the Model D, everyone!), more guitars, more necks on the guitars, more drums, more everything except, well, songs.

The songs made up for the quantity with quality.

The album only had six songs… but what songs! “A Farewell to Kings,” the title track, opens up with a classical guitar (hello, prog!) and a beautiful trill on the Model D, followed up by a pretty self-aware social commentary that could hearken back to “Beneath, Between, and Behind” with faithfulness. Then we have “Xanadu,” a tour de force that many consider a candidate for Rush’s best song; “Closer to the Heart” is next, one of Rush’s early popular hits and a beautiful sentiment itself; “Cinderella Man” was much like “Closer to the Heart” in ballad form. After that, we have “Madrigal,” another representation of a particular socio-political mindset reflected in personal relationships… and rounding out the album we have “Cygnus X-1.”

Personally, I find “Cinderella Man” to be the weakest song on the album, partially because it’s so straightforward and partially because it echoes themes the rest of the album expresses in better form. That’s not to say it’s a weak song – if it had been on Caress of Steel it would have been the strongest song on the album. But here it struggles by comparison to the rest of the release.

This album sped up Xanadu slightly to allow for limited run length on vinyl; it also altered the nature of the song ever so slightly (as such tricks do). It’s an incredibly heavy song, but in its natural speed (as seen live) it’s actually even stronger

Closer to the Heart was probably the best synthesis of the new instrumentation on the album, though, and was incredibly appealing not only because of its sentiment but it’s construction; every verse of the song adds something new. It’s a “pop song” for Rush, but it’s the kind of pop song that even the most hoary prog rockers would be able to enjoy.

Cygnus X-1, though, was probably the most important song on the album, because it was the song that actually changed how the band sounded. For the rest of “A Farewell to Kings” you have a pretty gradual change from “2112”; sure, there are more instruments and they’re played with more confidence and creativity, but you could intersperse most of the songs and they’d sound like they were on a continuum.

But Cygnus X-1 … didn’t fit on the continuum at all. Geddy changed his amplification of the Rickenbacker 4001, as the most noticeable change, and the result was an incredibly muscular, distinctive bass sound. The effects of that sound ripple through the rest of the song, giving it a tone that allows it to stand sonically with any song from the next four albums, a claim that the other songs on “A Farewell to Kings” cannot make.

Hemispheres

“A Farewell To Kings” was a progressive rock album… but if it was put in a boxing ring for a progressive prize fight, “Hemispheres” would beat it to a pulp and leave it for dead. Hemispheres is Rush at their most progressive for an entire album; they never went for twee progressive like Yes did, but they were still all in.

It’s an incredible album. It only has four songs; three are freaking classics in the catalog, and the fourth is a… freaking classic.

Author’s note: this is the album that got me into Rush, although I didn’t know it was Rush at the time; a station in Leesburg played “The Trees” and I managed to have a cassette recording of it. I didn’t know the band. Didn’t know the name of the song, knew nothing of them at all, but it was an amazing song with an amazing sound and an incredible breadth of instrumentation, and I loved it.

So: the songs themselves. 

Hemispheres is Book II of Cygnus X-1, a rendering of Nietzche’s “The Birth of Tragedy”  in ballad form, telling the story of a god of balance being formed as he observes the war between Logic and Emotion (the “hemispheres.”) It’s a complex, constantly warping, always amazing bit of music.

“Circumstances” is a song referencing Peart’s time in London, reflecting on the passage of time and how – in Rastafarian terms – “time be time.” It’s got the first “lead section” Rush performed on synthesizer; prior art had been flourishes or harmonies.

“The Trees” is a rendering of a cartoon (according to Peart), with maples protesting the immutable characteristics of oaks. It has the second “lead section” on synths from Rush; I don’t know if this, or Circumstances, was written first.

Lastly, the album closes with “La Villa Strangiato,” Rush’s first instrumental. (They had instrumental sections of suites: “Overture” and “Grand Finale” from 2112, for example, and it’s arguable that “Didacts and Narpets,” a section from “The Fountain of Lamneth” was instrumental as well, but it wasn’t. It has actual lyrics.)

This album continues the sonic development from “A Farewell to Kings,” although the bass had some odd compression characteristics; it ends up being a bit “thumpy”, when compared to prior works. That said, the album’s incredibly clear on every instrument, and it’s played with an incredible amount of skill.

Vocally, this was the highest Geddy would ever stay – the band wrote the album without singing it in its final key, and by the time they realized it was awfully high it was too late to go back and change it. As a result, his pitch was a little… wobbly at times, but it’s not really a point of criticism worth making; the album sounds fantastic, and any minor pitch issues would be obscured by other elements. The biggest impact here is that Hemispheres was a slog to sing in concert, so we wouldn’t get a lot of it played live for long.

Hemispheres really is an amazing example of progressive rock, with an emphasis on the “rock” as opposed to a band like Yes, which emphasized “progressive.” It’s got the same hallmarks: amazing breadth of instrumentation, high concept lyrics, shifting time signatures and morphing keys, but as far as what people think of when they consider “progressive rock” it’s not only very heavy – with lots of distorted guitars used liberally and appropriately – but also accessible.

It was also apparently an incredibly difficult album to make, not just because of the complexity of making such music with only three members, but because of the actual circumstances of making the album, which was impacted by issues in the studio desk. Rush decided that Hemispheres was not indicative of a trend.

It was time for a change.

Permanent Waves

Hemispheres suffered from an attack of “more.” More guitars, more music, more length; it had a “short song” (“Circumstances”) but honestly everything on it was … a lot.

Influenced by the difficulty of recording (and performing) Hemispheres, and by New Wave in general, Rush decided to take a more song-oriented approach to the next album, along with focusing on shorter songs in general, without losing whatever it was that made them Rush.

The result was “Permanent Waves.” Like “Hemispheres” before it – and like “A Farewell to Kings” before “Hemispheres,” and like “2112” before “A Farewell to Kings,” it exceeded the previous album, although tastes obviously factor in.

Permanent Waves was not an album with short songs, but the songs were still accessibly shorter… and what songs! It’s a murderer’s row for the catalog, including songs that are easily candidates for Rush’s signature recordings.

The song list: “The Spirit of Radio,” “Freewill,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Entre Nous,” “Different Strings,” and “Natural Science.”

“A Spirit of Radio” included aspects of everything Rush had ever done, along with adding sections for sequenced synthesizers (during the chorus) and reggae, during the bridge.  It was about the influence of free music, as a poor summary.

“Freewill,” about refusing to accept the dictates of religion (while not judging others for accepting religion), was one of the two “progressive rockers” on the album, with a frenetic lead solo section that has to be listened to to be believed.

“Jacob’s Ladder” was about the inspiration of natural phenomena (a “Jacob’s Ladder” is sunlight shining through clouds). It’s the other “progressive” song, and has its own freeform elements.

“Entre Nous” and “Different Strings” are both “easier listens,” being about relationships; they demonstrate a comfort with the instruments that we really hadn’t seen from Rush up to this point, except perhaps in “Madrigal.” For most of the catalog, Rush seemed to feel like they had to live up to their reputation as stunning musicians; most of the music feels “up” because of it. With these songs, the band takes deeper breaths and lets the music relax. They’re well-written and well-performed; Peart plays “Different Strings” ‘straight’ and the song benefits from it.

“Natural Science” is the longest song on the album (at over nine minutes, with “Jacob’s Ladder” coming in at seven and a half), and is an expression of a synthesis of science and the humanities. Lyrically, it stands among Peart’s best work, with the third section (“Permanent Waves”) having some of the most beautiful and relevant lyrics in Rush’s entire catalog.

(Author’s note: quick, guess which track stands as the author’s overall favorite Rush song. Hint: It’s “Natural Science,” and your first two guesses don’t count.)

Musically, the album is really pretty dry overall, demonstrating a heavy influence by the Police’s production; the reggae influences, along with other minimalist elements, shine through as well. As a result, Permanent Waves is probably the hardest possible rocking version of the Police, to everyone’s benefit.

Geddy’s singing in a lower register, which made the album probably more appealing to a mass audience (and made it easier to perform live as well, I would imagine, apart from the absolutely brutal performances on guitars and drums).

Permanent Waves was Rush’ best release… but there was better on the horizon.

Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures is an industry tentpole. If there is a “perfect Rush album,” this would have to be the one, a syncresis of the band’s every aspect into a fantastic blend of lyrical proficiency, technical dexterity, purpose, production, songwriting… all of it.

Geddy switched to alternating between his Rickenbacker 4001 and his 1972 Jazz for the album, playing the Jazz on Tom Sawyer, Limelight, Witch Hunt, and Vital Signs, and the 4001 on Red Barchetta and The Camera Eye – although there’s some debate (even from Geddy) on which bass was used where; it really doesn’t matter, because his bass tone here is absolute boss.

Alex’ guitars – heavily overlaid – sound fantastically rich as well, and the album has some of his most elegant legato playing on it. He was heavily influenced by Allan Holdsworth, and it shows; his tone’s heavily compressed and it is absolutely ravishing to listen to, combined with some of the most precise playing in his career.

Neil’s Tama kit was also surprisingly on point; he played less of the kit than he did on, say, Hemispheres, but it sounds amazingly direct, very present. It’s like they took the kit sound from Permanent Waves and added just enough ambient reverb to make the drums come slightly more alive.

The synths here are the Oberheim OB-X (maybe an OB-8? I’m not sure) and a series of Moogs (Taurus and the Model D, probably). They’re actually not used that much, although a list of the synth sounds looks pretty long on paper… but where they are used, they’re iconic. The “growl” that opens Tom Sawyer, the sequence that defines Vital Signs, the sample and hold used in The Camera Eye, the pads in Limelight, YYZ, Red Barchetta… and the evil-sounding intro for Witch Hunt. The synths are pervasive, but not dominant.

The album itself uses a dominant theme of pathos. Everything is a source for reaction – Tom Sawyer’s independence, the glory of a morning ride, the thrill of returning home, the isolation of being a “star,” the wonder of some of mankind’s greatest cities, fear… theme-wise, Vital Signs is probably the most important song on the album.

Moving Pictures’ impact on Rush is difficult to overstate. Individual taste determines what one might think is the “best Rush album” – so “your favorite” might change from day to day, hour to hour. With that said, it’d be difficult to imagine that the “average Rush listener” wouldn’t have Moving Pictures at or near the top of every list; it would have to be in every discussion of “best Rush album.” It’s also the album of which the “average music listener” would be most aware.

It also freed the band from financial obligations. Up until Moving Pictures, the band owed advance money to the label, but Moving Pictures moved them (well, the band as a whole) into the black; they already had creative freedom (from the success of 2112) but now they had financial freedom as well.

They followed “Moving Pictures” with “Exit…Stage Left,” their second live album. Exit… Stage Left was heavily edited and selected “best of” performances from the Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures tours, but represents the band at the height of its youth and power.

Signals

Signals is an interesting album, catalog-wise. It feels like an album produced largely by a sense of “now what?” after Moving Pictures; when you’ve climbed the mountain, what do you do next? Some bands, like the Police, shatter after creating “Synchronicity”; others, like Pink Floyd, turn inside after “Dark Side of the Moon” (and then shatter under the weight of “The Wall”); some, like AC/DC, calcify after “Back in Black” and basically create albums under the same formula for the rest of their careers.

Rush didn’t want to follow any of these paths, unless it was the Pink Floyd model of “let’s find a new mountain to conquer.” The result was an album that tore down most of the values behind the production of Moving PIctures, retaining many – but not all – of the tools, and amplifying aspects of the songwriting process while diminishing others.

The result is a strange and fantastic album that ends up leaving room for improvement. That’s difficult to write, because it’s one of Your Humble Author’s favorite albums – and it’s the first album I got where I knew it was Rush and completely bought in. (Again in Leesburg: the radio station played “Analog Kid” and gave the name of the band and the song title. My response: “Er! Ma! Gerd! I LOVE THIS BAND! MUST ACQUIRE ALL OF IT.” When I found out this was indeed the band that had done “The Trees,” I was done for. I was all in. I’m still all in, close to forty years later.)

So: the album. Songwise, it’s … variable, the first album we’ve been able to say that about since Caress of Steel, really, with many really powerful songs and a few songs about which opinions vary. “Subdivisions” is a classic; “Analog Kid,” “Digital Man,” “The Weapon,” “Losing It” are all equals to Subdivisions (with “New World Man” being the band’s peak single!), and then you have “Chemistry” – the last song whose lyrics were written by the whole band – and “Countdown.”

“Countdown” is a ballad about the launch of the first Space Shuttle. It’s interesting in that it has no guitar solo to go with the synthesizer solo sections.

And that’s … a characteristic of the whole album. It’s drenched in synthesizers, with a few exceptions: Analog Kid and New World Man use the synths the way that the Moving Pictures album did, as backing instruments for the guitars. For every other song, the synths are very much forward in the songwriting process.

And they dominate the mix, too: one of the features of subtractive synths like the Oberheims and Moogs of the time is that they had very very broad frequency spectrums… a really big sound for the mixing board. As a result, the whole album tended to try to fit the guitars and drums around the synths; the drums ended up being muddy, the guitars fairly thin. The bass guitar escaped, because Geddy was playing either the bass or the synths, so the bass rarely had to compete with the synthesizers.

(A personal anecdote: I always saw myself as a guitarist and a drummer, and keyboards were always sort of what I wanted to have someone else play… until I listened to “The Weapon,” which stunned me. After that, I started getting into synthesizers, a fascination I carry with me to this day.)

Speaking of bass tone: Geddy’s bass tone on Signals is drool-worthy. Compressed to the dickens and back, with a beautiful distortion, the bass here is simply to die for.

But for every other instrument? Eh. The synths sound lush and warm, and that’s good – maybe even great – but the guitars and drums ended up suffering badly by comparison. The performances are wonderful, but much like Caress of Steel, the album ends up feeling slightly less than the sum of its parts. Those parts are so strong that Signals still feels like it’s part of the “Golden Era” of Rush, starting with 2112, but it’s also the misstep that closed the era.

It also represented the end of Terry Brown’s association with the band; Brown had stepped in to rescue their first album (the original producer apparently did jingles, normally, and the album was poorly produced as a result). But Brown objected (heavily, apparently) to “Digital Man,” and the band and he decided to represent their own creative visions separately after “Signals.”

In Your Humble Author’s opinion, Rush would struggle with the results of that decision for years, continually chasing producers who could help realize their vision. They would pair with producers who were quite accomplished, but until they finally matched up with Nick Rasculinecz, they’d never have an external producer who really seemed like they “got” the band and wanted to amplify what Rush could be.

Grace Under Pressure

This was a troubled production, as Rush had a producer back out due to overcommitment. That, plus the politics of the time, make this a really dark album, and Rush was also trying to redefine its sound to recover from Signals’ own difficult production.

This would be a trend, with varying results, for years to come.

Grace Under Pressure – P/G or GUP from here on out – was a giant change in nearly all ways from Moving Pictures, while being a logical progression from Signals in nearly every way.

So: the songs. It’s got a really strong track list, heavy with themes of isolation and oppression and loss: “Distant Early Warning” (about an impending nuclear holocaust), Afterimage (referring to the death of an associate of the band, Robbie Whelan), “Red Sector A” (about the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s) , “The Enemy Within” (part I of the “Fear” trilogy, rounding out “Witch Hunt” and “The Weapon” from the prior two albums, and yes, the parts were written and released in reverse order), “The Body Electric” (an android discovers it has a unique identity), “Kid Gloves” (about interpersonal relationships), “Red Lenses” (an odd song about media), and “Between the Wheels,” about the grind of ordinary life among all this terrifying technology.

Some of the songs are fairly ordinary. Unfortunately, they’re most of side 2 of the original vinyl release. The songs are done well – and “Kid Gloves” has an absolutely burning guitar solo – but “The Body Electric,” “Kid Gloves,” and “Red Lenses” all sound like they’re part of the album without really adding a ton to it besides that they’re there. 

That sounds more critical than it’s intended to be. They’re good songs! They’re done well! It’s just that if you took them out, you wouldn’t be left thinking there was a “Red Lenses”-shaped hole in the album; you’d just go on without having heard the song.

That can’t be said of the other songs; the rest of the songs have a lot of passion and impact that actually have a more transformative potential for listeners, much like every song on every album from 2112 on (apart from “Chemistry” and “Countdown”).  It’s because of this new trend that P/G starts the “down period” after the “golden era,” even while still being a stellar album as a whole.

Speaking of: if Signals and Caress of Steel were less than the sum of their parts, P/G fixed that. It’s a lot easier to criticize nearly every aspect of the album (like the songs, as above), but at the same time… it actually hangs together really well despite all of the potential issues with it. For example:

Geddy Lee switched to a Steinberger bass for the album, probably a Spirit. It was very tech-forward for the time (a trend he’d also follow for the synthesizers), but in Geddy’s hands, it’s … missing a lot of mid-range punch. On a good set of speakers, the bass sounds great, especially at volume… but on a regular sound system? It’s weak and emphasizes top end.

Geddy also switched to a more traditional bass role. On the prior nine albums – well, if we’re being really gracious to the first album – Geddy played bass very melodically, with a lot of riffs individualized for each section of the song. To play Rush on bass meant learning the structure of the song – verse, chorus, bridge – and then figuring out how Geddy played each verse individually (“first verse, he does X, Y, and Z, second verse, he does A, B, and C…” .. for every section.) On GUP he retained the structural complexity – I played Distant Early Warning incorrectly for years – but the parts themselves simplified. If you learned the structure properly, you could play that structure repeatedly and play the song correctly.

The drums sound better here than on Signals, but there’s a weird saturation that makes them all sound faintly electronic. (Peart started playing a legitimate electronic kit at this point, too; the criticism isn’t the equipment, it’s the mixing of both the acoustic kit and the electronic kit.) The drums don’t penetrate the mix like they did on Moving Pictures; that’s partially because the other instruments are different, but the end result is that comparing the drums on (say) Moving Pictures to P/G… ends up with P/G being a distant also-ran, although the playing itself is excellent.

Geddy also switched synthesizers, away from typical subtractive synths like the Moogs and Oberheims, to more tech-forward synths of the day, like the Waldorff PPG, a wavetable synth. Wavetables create different sonic profiles than subtractive synths; subtractives tend to emphasize a lot of low-end lush tones (at least, in Geddy’s hands!) and the wavetable synths tend to create more chime tones, with a lot more harmonic complexity. The complexity sort of works, but sort of doesn’t.

The guitars showed up again, but like the drums, there’s a saturated top edge to them that reduces their clarity. Because of the synthesizers’ tonal complexity, the guitars ended up working around the space the synths took up, just like the drums (and just like the bass). They’re a lot more audible than they were on Signals, and the playing is as good as could be asked for, though. This album also marks where Lifeson more or less abandoned the Gibsons he’d been using and switched to a single-coil, bright sound that could more easily cut through the mix.

Lee’s singing actually progressed here. He’d been getting a little lower and lower in pitch from album to album, but here his delivery was actually really strong and controlled. It meant he abandoned his deep vibrato a bit (itself a crutch to make up for a lack of “professional technique,” although Your Humble Author found it appealing) and it also tended to preserve his voice. As a vocalist, he more or less “grew up” here, with that being a positive (in that his delivery was more constant and predictable) and a negative (getting rid of the worst aspects of his vocal performance also meant getting rid of some of the best aspects of his vocal performance.)

Of the songs: for such a “down album,” the songs sure are good. 

So is P/G a great album? It’s really hard to say, honestly. My personal opinion is that it’s the beginning of the third chapter of Rush, with 2112 being the beginning of the second; P/G is a competitor to “the golden age” while not being part of it.

That isn’t to say that it, or the albums that followed it, aren’t worthy; they are! In fact, a lot of people suggest that the period following P/G was Rush’s best. There’s nothing wrong with that, and this period may be Rush’s best – it depends entirely on taste. The key takeaway, in my opinion, is that P/G represents a new chapter in the band’s development, one that would last for seven albums (through “Test for Echo”) – and include more songs that were “okay for Rush” than any other chapter in Rush’s history.

Power Windows

This album was dominated by technology even more than Grace Under Pressure was. It’s a lot brighter, a lot more technology-forward, and while it has some fantastic songs on it, it’s also an “ordinary Rush album,” a trend that Rush would hold for this and the next five albums. Each would progress the process of making music in various ways, each album would have its own unique zeitgeist, each one would end and you’d be waiting for the next one.

That’s not to say there aren’t fantastic songs on each one, or that a given album wasn’t a good album – for most musicians, having their best album be the equivalent of the worst album from Rush (“Test for Echo,” because “Feedback” doesn’t count and does not exist) would be a crowning achievement.

Let’s see: songwise, there’s a lot to love here, but the dominance of technology makes them impressive more than intriguing. The technology puts the band on equal footing with every other band relying on the same technology (which means: most other bands!) and thus an essential something was lost; you still had a world-class rhythm section and a guitarist who knew how to contribute to every song, because Rush was still Rush, but the environment around the music changed and it all feels slightly plastic while still retaining an essential heartbeat. There’s a lot of reliance on sequencers and samples, so anyone with a Fairlight could do what Rush did; since they were working around what the synthesizers could do there was a lot of “normal”-sounding drums and guitars to go with the sequencers. It creates a sameness one doesn’t really expect from Rush, and this dominates Power Windows and Hold Your Fire.

The song construction, musically, tended to emphasize transitions: for this kind of section, Geddy would play bass and the drums would focus on this tempo; for this other kind of section, Geddy would use the synthesizers and the drums would go to half-time (or full time, depending.) Meanwhile, Alex would play these giant chordal stabs so that he wasn’t trying to compete with how busy the sequencers were.

To the songs themselves! There’re some real gems here, especially lyrically, even if the songs themselves don’t always stand out. Highlights include “The Big Money,” “Middletown Dreams,” “Marathon,” and “Mystic Rhythms,” all of which represent a really good synthesis of music and lyrics; after that, well, the lyrics are fantastic and the playing of the instruments is great, but the songs really don’t stand out all that much.

Geddy switched away from the Steinberger to a Wal bass, which was … probably a lateral move. Wals are really nice basses, but for some reason Geddy never really could really get it to give him a ton of “meat” – it was a lot of the same problem the Steinberger had given him. He sure played it like a beast, though.

What other instrumental changes occurred? Well, Peart’s kit changed some, Alex’s rig changed too, but… realistically, from a technology standpoint the band morphed but didn’t really evolve.

Is Power Windows a good album, then? Heck, yes. Of course it is. And it’s got a unique organic feel; the album most similar to it in the catalog is “Hold Your Fire,” which feels sterile by comparison. It’s just yet another good example of “middle period” Rush.

Hold Your Fire

If Power Windows was dominated by technology, Hold Your Fire was … worse by comparison. Hold Your Fire basically took every attribute of Power Windows and amplified it somewhat; if you liked how many sequencers and synths went into Power Windows, then Hold Your Fire was fantastic… unless you also thought that maybe you were uncomfortable with how many synths went into Power Windows and maybe the band should shy away a little.

The biggest changes were in the quality of recording. Hold Your Fire (HYF from here on out) sounds amazingly pristine, although it has a very dated snare sound that stands out as probably the worst snare sound Peart’s ever used. (At the time, it was the snare du jour; now it’s…  if it’s your thing, that’s awesome. Otherwise it kind of sucks.)

The songs themselves are surprisingly strong: this is another one of those albums where the whole was less than the sum of its parts, even if you don’t count “Tai Shan.” Lyrically, it has a lot of strong songs with some decent songs thrown in for spice to help you appreciate what a good lyricist Peart really was. The great songs, lyrically: “Time Stand Still,” “Open Secrets,” “Second Nature,” “Prime Mover,” “Lock and Key,” Mission,” “Turn the Page;” the outliers, lyrically, were “Force Ten,” “Tai Shan,” and “High Water.”

Musically it felt like a really good pop album recorded by the members of Rush. It had songs that would be really awesome to listen to if they were put on other albums, but together … they really didn’t lend themselves to a cohesive whole. Musically, the standouts were “Force Ten,” “Second Nature,” “Prime Mover,” “Lock and Key,” “Mission,” and “Turn the Page;” the other songs were played really well but to me they’re kinda… eh.

And that’s sort of the whole album; if I listen to a single song on the album I’m left thinking “Wow! That was fantastic!” but put songs together and it’s very hit or miss, and if you play Tai Shan it’s … definitely a “miss.” This unfortunate song would be really pretty given any other band performing it, but from Rush it’s very much a sense of “They weren’t satisfied with Rivendell being their worst song, so they gave us this, too.”

I really wish I had more to say about Hold Your Fire. I want to love this album so much, but I don’t, because for the most part it drowns in its own technology. It’s a beautiful album to listen to if you’re being really selective, it’s just… not that great of a Rush album.

HYF was followed by another live album, “A Show of Hands,” and it’s performed brilliantly – but my first impressions on seeing and hearing it were mostly that the band didn’t seem to be having much fun playing the newer material, especially as it got closer to HYF’s material. It’s only my impression, but the sense I get was that it was a slog to play, and was more like a choreographed dance than playing in a rock band – and having recorded some of the songs myself, that’s certainly the impression I get running through the songs. The “no more synthesizers” meme you find on various Rush forums relates mostly to this period, and it’s not hard to understand.

Presto

Presto was a reaction to HYF’s excesses, in a lot of ways. Rush had become almost mechanized, over-reliant on technology, and Presto felt like a return to Rush’s power trio roots… mostly. There was a lot of momentum to the band; they had to play the songs from the “synth era,” which meant the synths weren’t going away (you can’t play “Subdivisions” or “Between the Wheels” without synths, after all, and synths made up a distinctive aspect of the band’s sound all the way back to A Farewell to Kings), and their songwriting process did nothing to isolate the music away from synths, either.

So while Presto was a slight reset back to emphasizing the “trio” aspects of Rush, the synths didn’t go away… at all.

It’s a good album, but like some before it, has a .. unique sound. Overall, it’s a thin sound. On a speaker system with good projection it sounds great, but on most other speakers it’s weird and missing a lot of midrange… midrange that the synths would have taken up on prior albums.

The theme of the album was the idea of things not being entirely rational… and reacting to it. The theme shows clearly in a few songs and is a stretch in others; it has some of Rush’s best lyrics on it (seriously!) buried among scherzos and other forgettable songs. It’s almost like every member of Rush exceeded any personal effort they’d made before, but forgot to do it in the context of the band.

The songs: as usual, they’re really strong, but as seen on some prior albums, the whole didn’t add up to the sum of its parts. (We wouldn’t see that repaired until Vapor Trails, IMO, although that sounds like I’m putting down a series of really good albums.) The biggest problem I think the songs have is that they dictate a lot of things; Peart made a lot of personal statements without imperatives on earlier albums, but this period used a lot of commands – not dictatorial commands, but imperatives nonetheless.

“Show, Don’t Tell.” “War Paint.” “Red Tide,” for example… are they good songs? Absolutely. (In fact, my email signature includes a quote from “War Paint.”) I’d say they’re all good songs, really; you don’t have a “Tai Shan” lurking here. Even “Scars” – which uses a sampled bass guitar through the whole song and has Alex doing all kinds of weird noodly things – is a good song.

But they’re songs that seem less accepting of open views; Peart’s not exposing his heart to us through a lens any more, he’s telling us his literal impressions (well, as literal as they can be through song lyrics, and through the lens of Peart’s own guarded point of view.)

Therefore: are they good songs? Absolutely. Are they great songs? Occasionally – “The Pass” is an amazing song, one that resonates as well as any other song Rush has done. But at the same time, there’s a formulaic feel here that doesn’t inspire; “Red Tide” is a good song, it’s the “Turn the Page” of “Presto.” “Available Light” is a good song, it’s the “High Water” of this album. Those statements couldn’t have been said about some earlier albums, and they’ll be a feature for a few albums left on the list.

The playing: Geddy’s still on the Wal. We have this and one more album of that bass. As a result, when he does “Geddy things” – like the “bass solo” section of “Show Don’t Tell” – he plays it really well and the bass sound just lets him down. (It’s telling that the best bass sound on the album comes in “Scars,” which uses a sampled slap bass.)

Alex is using an armada of guitars, and he’s using all of the toys he wants; that tends to mean the guitar feels a little like an afterthought (even when it’s front and center, like in “Show, Don’t Tell”), even though he’s doing amazing things. It’s almost like he’d built up habits of avoiding the bits the synths did on prior albums, and stayed in them… but the music purposefully tried to avoid relying on the synths, so their lack was significant.

Peart, as usual, does a fantastic job on this album. Did he push the art? Probably, but the album as a whole isn’t influential enough to make advances in percussion significant.

Presto’s a significant album not only because it’s good (I know I’ve been slagging it the whole section, but it really is a good album!) but because it marks a distinct and intentional return to values that Rush held early in the band’s history: it’s a killer power trio. They just hadn’t shed the weight of having added the shackles of technology, and it showed.

Roll the Bones

“Roll the Bones” is the completion of what Presto was trying to be: a synthesis of old Rush (a power trio) with the capabilities that all the technological wizardry made available. It also marked a return to a more “fun” album; Presto was more of a fun tour (with inflatable rabbits, of all things!) than a fun album, but on Roll the Bones (RTB hereafter) the band seemed to have fun finding adventure making the album.

It’s a really carefree album. It deals with heavy things – the impact of chance, and how one might react to it – but the playing feels free, like the band doesn’t feel like it has to measure up to expectations of what it might do. Therefore the first song – “Dreamline” – opens up with Geddy Lee playing a straight legato pedal on bass, instead of feeling like he has to dance all over the neck of the bass, to “be Geddy Lee.”

That’s all over the album: there are places where the band really cuts loose – RTB has some drum parts that take your breath away when you think about how they were played – but because the playing on the album’s so free, those high points have room to stand out and shine.

Geddy even does a rap – a “chat,” he called it, self-aware that his rapping wasn’t, like, a real thing. It sounds like it should be cheesy. It has every chance to be cheesy. It is cheesy… but it works.

The songwriting is as good as one might expect. High points on the album include “Bravado,” also a musical zenith, “Roll the Bones” – rap and all, the first instrumental we’ve had for a long time in “Where’s My Thing”, and “Heresy,” with “Ghost of a Chance” and “Dreamline” also being really well done. The other songs on the album – “Face Up,” “The Big Wheel,” and “You Bet Your Life” are decent, and then there’s “Neurotica,” which took the same chances “Roll the Bones” did and came up snake eyes. (“Neurotica” is not a particularly good song.)

The bass is still Geddy’s Wal; he gets a better sound from it on this album than any other, and he benefits from playing it less hard – which makes the moments where he chooses to play “out” even more impressive. The synths also don’t really factor in a ton here; they play effects at the edges of songs (and Peart would end up triggering a lot of them, live), and so they seem a lot less intrusive.

Peart also plays “back” – more of a bricklayer’s approach than he used on a lot of albums. It feels like he is wondering how much ground there is left to cover… for a lot of the album. Then he breaks out “Bravado,” and reminds listeners that this is Neil Freaking Peart; that outro is a testimony to dexterity and control that has to be listened to closely to be believed. It’s in two parts: the first is a symphony of alternating parts that sound like it would have had to have been recorded in multiple stages to keep straight… then he repeats the section, while adding in drum rolls. Without missing the original syncopation in any real way.

Alex Lifeson holds the rhythm section in place, as usual. It’s really easy to see him as the “forgotten player” here but that’s really unfair to him; he’s doing exactly what the music requires, and he’s doing it fantastically well. His tone is forward and clear; it also has more meat to it than it’s had since Moving Pictures, even though he’s still playing those single-coil guitars, from the sound of it.

Counterparts

Counterparts is Rush’s grunge album. It’s a difficult album to write about, for a few reasons.

One reason is that most of the things said about it could have been said (and were) about the previous albums: it’s a reaction to what went well and poorly about the previous album, as well as a reaction to the musical environment around it. (Thus: grunge.)

It’s also a weird album. Sonically, there were two things that stand out: one is that the engineer, Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, rigged everything up to really crank up the bottom end of the sound. Peart’s kit sounds beefier here than it might ever have sounded; it’s a monstrous, very present sound, probably the best sounding drums since Moving Pictures.

The other thing is that Geddy finally moved away from the Wal bass, back to his Jazz (last seen in the studio on Signals), along with a radical change in style and an emphasis on sound that hearkened back to the days of the late 70s as well.

On the Roll the Bones tour, Rush paired up with Primus, a choice that would affect Rush positively (for the most part, depending on perspective) for years, but particularly with Lee’s playing. Les Claypool, Primus’ bass player, had a… relatively unique approach to playing bass, involving a lot of ostinato and techniques one would associate with guitar, including tone. Lee integrated a lot of this approach into his own bass playing, with the result being a heavily distorted low end and a “flamenco” style of playing the bass, with lots of strumming, along with intervals (and chords).

Counterparts, then, ended up with a really, really heavy sound from the rhythm section, and Lifeson ended up filling the edges around that rhythm section.

The result is a “basics” album that ends up looking like what Presto and Roll the Bones had wanted to be, along with some experimentation that really works; it’s a “free” album, but has some hits and misses, depending on tastes.

Songwriting was generally really good, often paired with really good instrumentation. High points here include “Animate,” “Nobody’s Hero,” “Between Sun and Moon,” “Double Agent” – a fantastically odd song for Rush, the instrumental “Leave That Thing Alone,” “Everyday Glory” – the song that “High Water,” and “Available Light” had wanted to be when they grew up, and “Alien Shore,” the song that your author thinks might be the best of the entire era from “Power Windows” to “Test for Echo.”

Then you have good songs like “Stick It Out” and “Cut To The Chase” and “Cold Fire” and “Speed of Love,” all of which sound and feel vaguely the same, even though they’re all very different songs.

It’s a good album, but it really didn’t push Rush much; if anything, the band sounds like it’s on cruise control. It’s done really well, and it’s enjoyable – when I think of the “best song” from this “third period” of Rush, “Alien Shore” is the song that comes first to my mind, although it has a lot of competition from every album – but it feels like Rush is doing what Rush does, instead of growing.

Test for Echo

What do you get when you’ve done everything you know how to do, when you run out of new things to say, when you’re searching for relevance in a world that acknowledges the greatness you’ve been, but wants more?

You get “Test for Echo.” This album was a strangely lifeless attempt from Rush, and could very well have been Rush’s last album for various reasons – and let’s thank our respective dieties that it wasn’t Rush’s last album, because while it would dominate most bands’ catalogs, for Rush it was a low note. It was distinctive mainly for being not very distinctive; it’s “the one with ‘Driven’ on it”, with relatively little other merit.

Does that sound harsh? It probably does. It’s also probably deserved. Test For Echo has solid music, but nothing really stands out as “nobody else could have done that.” It’s good late-period Rush – again, that’d be fantastic for other bands – but for Rush, it’s only okay.

Let’s see, high points: “Driven” and “Time and Motion.” There’re a lot of other songs that are okay: “Test for Echo,” “Half the World,” “The Color of Right,” “Resist,” the instrumental “Limbo”… and then you have “Totem,” which is a fun song and I like it but… um… at least it’s better than “Dog Years,” which was written during a hangover and shows, and “Carve Away the Stone,” which tries to evoke “Available Light” and fails, and then you have… 

“Virtuality.” For a band that was so reliant on technology, Virtuality feels like a song written by a band that read about the Internet on a clay tablet and decided to tell those kids to get off it’s lawn.

The playing is fine. It doesn’t really push art, for guitars or vocals; Peart, trying to figure out where to go after being a dominant drummer for so long, started taking lessons from jazz great Freddie Gruber and changed his approach to drums (using a traditional grip instead of matched grip, as he’d used for decades). The drums feel different as a result, although a casual listen wouldn’t really identify how.

But apart from that? It feels like an album that’s trying to find something new to say when everything’s already been said. It feels tired. In surveys like “which Rush album is listeners’ favorite,” “Test for Echo” ends up tied with “Feedback” for the one that shows up least, generally speaking.

After the tour for Test for Echo, Peart’s daughter and wife passed away (in separate and tragic  circumstances) and Peart retired from everything.

Vapor Trails

Vapor Trails was released years after Test for Echo. Peart had taken a lot of time off from the band, but had recovered as well as a man might; he moved to Los Angeles to be with his new wife and rediscovered something he wanted to say about the unpredictability of circumstances. It was a theme he’d visited somewhat cynically on Roll the Bones, but life had given him a change in perspective.

When the band got back together, they rebuilt the entire sound and ethic of Rush. Almost every element of their music was considered; a lot of things were discarded. For every aspect of their sound, they asked, “Do we need this? Do we want this?” – and many characteristic elements were cast away, and others were added.

When you look at the progression from Signals to Test for Echo – eight albums! – you see a pinball effect: GUP was a reaction to Signals, Power Windows was a reaction to GUP, Hold Your Fire was an amplification of Power Windows, Presto was a reaction to HYF, and so forth and so on…

But Vapor Trails stands alone almost as an album created from whole cloth.

It was not without failure. The recording process was … not good, and the mixing process struggled as well, to the point where the production of the album was justifiably used as an example of “what not to do.” Everything was recorded very “hot” and thus the resulting sound lacks dynamics – a lot of listeners reported that they wondered if their sound systems were broken when listening to Vapor Trails for the first time, and the album was remixed a few years later to repair the sound to some degree.

But apart from the sound – which is, of course, an important aspect of a record – this album is filled with amazeballs. The songwriting changed dramatically; if Test For Echo felt tired, Vapor Trails felt like it was written by a man with Something To Say, who Knew How To Say it. There’s one “low point” – the outro, “Out of the Cradle,” which is still an excellent album closer – and there’s some weird stuff on the album – Nocturne comes to mind – but honestly? Lyrically this album is on fire, and that doesn’t do justice.

Musically, the sonic production makes the album feel like much less than it is. When you listen to the actual playing on the album, it’s just as ferocious as the lyrics are: “One Little Victory” opens up with a spondee rhythm that says, rather clearly, that Peart is back on the drums. There’s very little showing off – guitar solos are rare – and yet the instrumentation is incredibly dense, layering guitars (and the bass!) multiple times.

Vapor Trails is easily a return to the progressive elements that pushed Rush into the stratosphere, with an approach to the music that we really hadn’t seen since Signals. Most of it worked, and what didn’t was either due to the obedience to form (i.e., an “upbeat close to the album”) or a failure in production (the awful sound on the original release, unrelated to the performances of the music.) 

Vapor Trails begins the “fourth era” of Rush, the elder statesman era, and is a return to what made Rush great; they’re playing with confidence without feeling like they have to check off boxes, they’re unafraid to make mistakes, and they’re pushing the music in new directions.

It’s a fantastic album. It also took a lot out of the band to create (taking over a year to record), and it was followed by a CD that should never have existed.

Feedback

This album was released mostly to justify the R30 tour, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the band. It contains no original material from Rush, only songs from other bands that “influenced” the members of Rush. I refuse to admit the existence of this release, and I resent having included it at all.

You know what? That’s not fair.

In “Natural Science,” in part III – “Permanent Waves” – Peart wrote this:

Art as expression
Not as market campaigns

Will still capture our imaginations.

It’s a beautiful lyric, one of my favorites of all time covering all music everywhere, and it serves to capture precisely why I despise “Feedback.” It’s literally nothing but market campaign, a release to justify a tour. I wrote before that it’s like the band said “Hey, we need money! Let’s record ‘Feedback’ so we can get some!” … and succeeded.

I’m always glad to hear new Rush, but this wasn’t new Rush. It was Rush recording some really classic songs that I love, but it’s still just under the banner of raw marketing, and I hate that from Rush, of all bands.

Snakes and Arrows

This album matched Rush up with producer Nick Rasculinecz, probably the first producer since Terry Brown to fully “get” Rush (besides, of course, Rush itself). It was a good pairing.

The album itself was, like Vapor Trails before it, an expression of raw emotion on Peart’s part: it contains a lot of fire about political and religious division, probably the most judgemental album along those lines Rush had ever done.

It continued Vapor Trails’ progression musically as well. It’s generally an adventurous album, tempered with Rasculinecz’ awareness and awe towards Rush’s back catalogue; there’s a lot of new technique interspersed with callbacks to significant moments from Rush’s entire career, including the use of the “Rush Chord” from Hemispheres, for example.

For nearly every song, there are homages to earlier songs along with the new material. It’s an interesting, generally pleasing blend, and the album feels very much alive because of it. It’s a lot like Vapor Trails in all the good ways – the band’s incredibly invested in every line, every note – without having Vapor Trails’ flawed production, and thus it exceeds Vapor Trails.

The songs are incredibly strong, a symptom of Peart actually intimately caring about his subject matter. The only outlier, lyrically, is “The Larger Bowl,” written as a poetic exercise; it’s a good song, but lyrically, it’s probably the weakest on the album despite having a strong message. 

There are three instrumentals: “The Main Monkey Business,” “Hope” – a solo guitar piece, and “Malignant Narcissism,” featuring Geddy Lee on fretless bass for the first time I know of. The former was an actual “Rush instrumental,” written and designed for the album; “Hope” was apparently recorded as the producer was inspired by Lifeson noodling around on guitar (and it’s a ravishingly beautiful piece, a testament to how talented Lifeson is even when he’s just fooling around), and “Malignant Narcissism” was purportedly created from Lee playing around with a fretless bass, Peart joining in on a four-piece drum kit and Lifeson contributing his parts afterward.

The playing on the album is really strong. Probably the only outlier instrumentally is “Spindrift,” which has some odd dynamics that play well on the surface but somehow jangle with the intent of the song.

While opinions differ on the placement of the album in the overall catalog, to me it feels like this album can easily stand alongside any album from the “golden era” – the period from 2112 to Signals – and hold its own.

Clockwork Angels

And so we get to Rush’s swan song, the last studio release before the band retired for good.

Neil Peart died at the beginning of 2020 from a form of brain cancer, but even before it started affecting his life, age was affecting his ability to play. He could have coasted; Neil Peart half as good as he was is still better than most drummers’ best, but he didn’t want to look back on his playing with regrets.

But before the final tours, Rush gave us their first actual concept album. They’d done concept sides – “The Fountain of Lamneth,” “2112”, “Hemispheres” – but never an actual full album.

Enter Clockwork Angels, a story of a young man rebelling against an externally ordered life, a theme they’d sort of visited in 2112, but here written in the context of his entire life and spanning much more distance and time.

It’s a very encompassing theme; it embeds thoughts on government, totalitarianism, anarchy, religion, trust, faith, belief, honor, sufficiency, even perspective.

Musically, it relaxes a little bit compared to Snakes and Arrows; much like Test For Echo, it’s recorded by a band fully aware of what it knows how to do. Unlike Test for Echo, though, the band aggressively exploits its skills; the result, musically speaking, is that everything flows. It’s played frenetically and passionately (also a change from Test for Echo, where the band sounded like it was sleepwalking its way through the album).

If you imagined Rush playing Rush as hard as it could, you’d have Clockwork Angels.

And it’s an honorable way for the band to go out: having recorded a work that does honor to their entire legacy, intellectually and spiritually, and leaving no regrets about what could have been, other than the regret of not having that… one… more… performance to send us on our way.

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