Jacob’s Ladder, abandoning Virtuoso

I’m running out of convenient variations of “things I’m thinking about.”

  • Man, Rush’s Jacob’s Ladder is a great song.
  • Thoughts on Virtuoso: we needed to run a fairly large, fairly current data extraction from DBPedia, so we thought we’d be polite and run our own Virtuoso image with a mirror of the current dataset from DBPedia. This has proven problematic, as Virtuoso managed to corrupt its database through the process of ordinary synchronization, a step necessary because there are no current data dumps of the DBPedia dataset in the first place. I spent a lot of hours trying to be polite to DBPedia’s servers — and running a live pull from their servers took hours, but a lot fewer hours than I spent trying to mirror their data on our servers. Net loss. Lesson learned.
  • I have not written or recorded any music in days. This makes me unhappy.

Rush and the Passing of the “Golden Era”

Despite all the polls that dominate the Rush fan boards these days, I’m still thinking, and when it’s about Rush (and it’s not about how cool a given song/album/part was!) … it’s about the divide that I still place around Signals and P/G.

It’s not that the albums after Signals were lesser albums – you can find plenty of people who will say that HYF is their favorite album, and good for them, as long as it’s anything but Feedback, right?

But if you’re being serious, even those people who are heavy into the synth period or later would admit that Rush was made during the “golden era.”

Two things come from this:

  1. I wonder if Geddy ever preferred singing “Hey, baby, it’s a quarter to eight” to “Hit you in a soft place, a melody so sweet…”
  2. Did the songwriting being more introspective and poetic – driven by Peart having more freedom to write from his own perspective, as opposed to thinking “what would make a cool album for kids to buy?” change the perception of the music as a whole?

I listen to “My Favorite Headache” and Geddy’s words are a little more direct than Neil’s; I think there’s a lot of commonality, but Geddy’s lyrics have a different, more personal vibe than Neil’s writing. I can’t imagine Peart writing “Slipping,” or “Working at Perfekt,” for example… Peart wrote “Test for Echo” and Lee wrote “My Favorite Headache,” largely on the same topic. Honestly, the topic’s a little dead to me (although both are excellent songs) – if you really want to listen to an artist rant about television, check out Roger Waters’ “Amused to Death” on whatever free streaming service you can find. (Don’t send him money. It only encourages his anti-Israeli activity.) Waters is a much better ranter than Peart or Lee. Be happy with this.

But at the same time, watching video of Geddy after “A Show of Hands” and he kinda acts like he’s grinding through a lot of the post-Golden Era songs. The whole band is. It’s like “Okay, let’s play ‘Nobody’s Hero’ now.” They’re professionals so naturally they blow every song out of the water… but they look like it’s a job for them, where they’re each working with the guys they want to hang out with: an unpleasant job done with friends. Then they all come alive a little more (well, Lifeson and Lee do! Peart’s a machine behind the kit no matter what) for the older songs – the “Fly by Night” or “Red Barchetta” songs, you know – and the really new stuff (including stuff starting from “Vapor Trails.”)

I know it’s just my impression; chances are I’m reading body language on stage poorly, and the fact that they’re up there in the lights for hours makes a huge difference… but it’s still the impression I’m left with. I’m left wondering if Geddy didn’t prefer simpler, less intellectual songs sprinkled with intelligence, as opposed to mind-benders like “Anagram.”

What do you think?

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.

Rush and Religion

I recently read “Random Samples: Demystifying the Magic Music of Rush,” because I’m a giant Rush nerd. It’s a good book, for what it is; it’s actually more of a personal memoir of the author (Jude Joseph Lovell) and his recollections of a few specific albums (particularly Grace Under Pressure and Counterparts, although other albums certainly get mentioned as well.) However, one of the things the author struggles with is his Roman Catholic faith and Rush’s distinctively atheist lyrics.

While there’s some conflict between Rush and faithfulness, there’s a fundamental compatibility that I think Mr. Lovell is not comprehending.

I know a good number of Christians; I live near a Southern Baptist seminary, I went to a Christian high school (despite being Jewish), and I’m good friends with a number of faithful, honest pastors in my area. As a musician, I form bonds with Christians in worship teams… and I dare say I could take my guitar to nearly any church in the area, crank out a few bars of “The Spirit of Radio” or “La Villa Strangiato” and the bands would join right in.

So clearly the music of Rush is strong enough, and appealing enough, that their core message containing a strong brand of agnosticism (at the very least) isn’t so incompatible that the Christians I know struggle with it.

Rush is definitely not a band of believers – and based on the lyrical content, isn’t really seeking something to believe in. They have a number of songs about religion, where the core message is at the very least passive rejection (“Freewill“) and in many cases is active rejection (“Roll the Bones,” “Faithless“).

With that, though, Rush also has a core lyrical strain of independent thought: when Geddy Lee sings about agnosticism (or atheism, if you will) he tends to say “I will choose free will,” and rarely is it phrased in such a way that they’re dictating what others believe.

Of course, there is some atheistic declaration: in “Roll the Bones,” the lyrics read:

Faith is cold as ice
Why are little ones born only to suffer
For the want of immunity 
Or a bowl of rice?
Well, who would hold a price
On the heads of the innocent children
If there's some immortal power
To control the dice?`

In “Armor and Sword,” off of their “Snakes and Arrows” release, they also make the point that religion is dangerous:

We hold beliefs as a consolation
A way to take us out of ourselves

… Along with later observations that such faith, portrayed as shining armor, becomes a keen and bloody sword, and that conflict with the unbelievers seems almost necessary (my interpretation of the lyrics: “No-one gets to their heaven without a fight.“)

These lyrics, along with others, are difficult to misinterpret: they indicate a mistrust of religious faith itself, beyond a casual distrust of organized religion.

The implication is that information from others, that can’t be empirically verified by the individual, is untrustworthy at best and invalid and harmful at worst.

Personally, I don’t see that implication as being problematic. A person of faith is expected to question, in most religions; accepting on total faith is seen as silly. Most religions with which I am familiar have a basis for belief at their heart; none of them (again, that I am familiar with) say that acceptance must be without consideration of what is true and untrue.

So we have two concepts to consider: one is Rush’ stance that evidence must be examined, and the other is that most religions (that I’m familiar with) are more than happy to invite their adherents to consider their apologetics, their logical bases for validity.

I don’t find these stances incompatible whatsoever. They might clash in a given individual – a religious person might question their beliefs and find them wanting, and therefore “lose faith” because of it, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean that the conclusions are necessarily valid (or mandated) from either side.

Further, looking at the Vapor Trails album, you find the lyrics actually questioning dogmatic reason – even songs like “Sweet Miracle,” which denies the miraculous (“I wasn't walking on water; I was standing on a reef when the tide came in“), acknowledges that there are things beyond explanation (in the song’s specific case, love, but even so, the perception of miracles is left to the individual.)

I don’t see how Rush, despite clearly leaning agnostically, is proclaiming any statements or questions that simply cannot or should not be asked by a religious adherent.

After all, consider “Roll the Bones'” verse, quoted above: a religious person can (and probably should) ask how their God or how their faith resolves such things (in Christianity, it’s the study of theodicy, for example). That’s how one learns more. That’s how one grows more in faith, by being willing to accept the risk that the answers might not be there right now. And if the faith lessens, well… that’s a natural consequence of being willing to think on your own; there’s a risk that you might not like the answers you have. Maybe that means you’ll stop searching; maybe it won’t.

And that’s how I see Rush as being compatible with listeners of faith.

Rush’ signature song

One of the Rush groups on Facebook had an interesting question: “What is Rush’ signature song?” Naturally, I couldn’t just comment on the thread and say “Dog Years, obviously” – I had to write something up. So here it is.

The way I see it, Rush’ signature song got to be one of a fairly large set of songs – with that mere fact itself being an indicator of how great Rush has been over its career.

To me, the signature song has to demonstrate every aspect of Rush’ best characteristics: incredible chops, intellect, appeal across the fanbase, and appeal in popular music. It doesn’t have to cover everything – I don’t think whether the song features synths or not is entirely relevant, but I guess it might help (although synth skill isn’t what makes Rush what it is – it’d be more like the integration of the synthesizer more than the actual playing of it.)

So offhand the set of possibilities would might look like this: Working Man, 2112, Xanadu, Closer to the Heart, La Villa Strangiato, The Trees, The Spirit of Radio, Freewill, Natural Science, Tom Sawyer, YYZ, Red Barchetta, Limelight, The Camera Eye, Subdivisions, Distant Early Warning.

This is not to say that these are Rush’ only good songs; I’m just trying to think “If I offered you ____ as a ‘signature song’, would you wonder what was wrong with me?” I think all of these are understandable as ‘signature songs’ even though I don’t think some of them are.

So… Working Man. Great song, but it’s really too long, plus it doesn’t show off the virtuosity that we think of when we think of Rush; it doesn’t have Peart! A signature song, yes, but THE signature song, no.

2112: Great song, definitely, but too long; it’s a suite, not “a song,” so despite how awesome it is and how important it is to Rush overall, it’s out. I’d also say that 2112 lacks appeal in popular music; Rush people get it, non-Rush people… might.

Xanadu is a strong candidate, but I think it’s a little too niche for “signature song.” It’s also long for a signature song.

Closer to the Heart is a VERY strong candidate; it has simplicity, intellect, a great vibe, everyone plays deceptively well, and people like it even if they’re not into Rush. I think this is our best candidate so far.

La Villa… one of my favorite Rush songs, but no vocals. It’s an “exercise in self-indulgence,” for real. I don’t think an instrumental can be a “signature song” for a band that has fewer instrumentals than albums. Needs more cowbell- I mean, uh, Geddy, to be a “signature song.”

The Trees! Now here’s a song that really knocks on wood, if you know what I mean. Has synths, has fantastic motion, a deceptively simple message for the thinkers out there, rocks out really hard, has great dynamics… So far, Trees and CTTH are the best candidates in the catalog.

Now we hit a stretch where Rush seemingly could do no wrong… starting with The Spirit of Radio. It’s instantly recognizable (moreso than The Trees or Closer to the Heart), it’s short, it made it on the charts, it’s accessible, it’s incredibly hard to play well… it fits all of the characteristics I would think are necessary for a “signature song.” I think it edges out our earlier songs.

Freewill is on the same album, though, and it, too, is pretty popular. In fact, I think it has the same elements that make The Spirit of Radio so good… but it’s actually harder to play, I think (different musicians will feel differently, but the middle section is easy to pretend to play but really hard to actually do well.) However, I think the emphasis on virtuosity still gives the edge to The Spirit of Radio.

Natural Science is one of my favorite songs, but I think it’s too long and too intellectual to be a “signature song” – and it lacks that instant recognizability that The Spirit of Radio has.

Again, this is not saying that the “rejected songs” are bad in any way – I am just trying to think analytically about what makes a “signature song” for a band. In fact, a “signature song” doesn’t even have to fit the characteristics robotically – Led Zeppelin’s signature song is “Stairway to Heaven” and it’s long… but it has to be a song of Stairway’s caliber to violate the constraints. Luckily, Stairway to Heaven is a song of Stairway to Heaven’s caliber, so… there you have it.

Let’s get to Moving Pictures last, because it has a ton of candidates.

Subdivisions is fantastic – I don’t think it charted, though (I think “New World Man” did instead.) But while the guitar work on Subdivisions is perfect, it lacks the virtuosity I want in Rush’s signature song – and the emphasis on synths weakens the song overall.

Distant Early Warning has the same problem. Really hard song to play, but it lacks some essential edge that makes me think “Yeah, this is the stuff.” In fact, I would dare say that it’s the weakest candidate on my entire list. (Sorry, Grace under Pressure.)

So off we go to Moving Pictures, where we have a lot of candidates: Tom Sawyer, YYZ, Red Barchetta, Limelight, and The Camera Eye.

The Camera Eye is too long; fantastic song, but not a signature song. If you’re not expecting to hear a signature song played in every concert on every tour, it’s not a signature song. (Closer to the Heart didn’t show up in their later tours, but not only was that surprising, it was also well-overplayed. It deserved a rest. The Trees did, too. Those are examples of signature songs that you expect to hear every concert and every tour but you understand why you don’t.)

YYZ is an instrumental; like La Villa, I don’t think an instrumental has a fair shot at being a signature song. Rio de Janeiro adding vocalizations to the song doesn’t count.

That leaves us with Tom Sawyer, Red Barchetta, and Limelight as the front runners on Moving Pictures, to compete with The Spirit of Radio.

I wanted to say Red Barchetta, really badly – the song construction is so beautiful, the story is concise and well told, it’s got perfect production, everything… but no, Tom Sawyer and Limelight are just instantly more recognizable and, honestly, both have virtuosity that Red Barchetta does not.

I have a hard time picking between Limelight and Tom Sawyer, and I think both compete with The Spirit of Radio.

But the truth is, I think that while any of these three would be an excellent signature song, I think it has to be Tom Sawyer, because of how iconic it is in every way: shifting time signatures in the actual sections, every instrument (including the synths) is definitive. Talk to musicians about the “Tom Sawyer growl” and they know EXACTLY what you mean: an OB-X with all 8 voices using a really highly resonant filter, following the envelope down in varying rates by voice; mention the “Tom Sawyer lead synth” and they know exactly what waveform is used. The guitar is distorted but incredibly clear; the bass carries through everything; the drums sound perfect and are a fantastic example of what makes Peart who he is to drummers. Even the vocals are on point.

So there you have it: I think the signature song is “Tom Sawyer.” I wouldn’t argue against nearly ANY song, really (it’s a personal choice) but I think the most popular answer that can be justified would be “Tom Sawyer.”

And I’m happy with that.

Changes

I believe that art has to be a source of mutation to be any good. It has to change the person who’s viewing or listening to the artistic work; it has to change the artist; it has to change in form. If it fails in any of these, it’s not art any more, it’s just effort.

Art has to change the person who’s viewing or listening; otherwise, it’s muzak, or just a pretty picture on a wall. A true work of art makes one sit back and say “… whoa.” It transforms the viewer. It makes them evaluate something about themselves or the world they live in. Otherwise, we say it fails to grip the reader or viewer or listener, and we’re right. It’s just… there.

Art has to change the artist. When I write, I seek to explore something about myself, to transform myself through the act of creation into something better than I was, and I can’t imagine that I’m unique in this. Otherwise, my art is merely lecturing an audience; it is dead from its moment of creation, even though it might have innate quality even in death.

If art fails to change in form, then it’s the same thing it always was, even if the exact details might be different. If I take a black and white picture of a young child in a specific form of lighting and in a specific pose, you might see the balance of light and shade and say, “Well done…” but if I do it again and again, even with different children, eventually you’re going to expect me to do something new. Otherwise it’s just going back over the same old ground, again and again… and honestly? Chances are that an expression of this specific form is repetition anyway. Ansel Adams (and countless others) have done this kind of photography; this is no longer art. It’s been done.

Art is creation, art is mutation.

It’s all art, too. I don’t have a particular “sound” in my music – there are common factors, to be sure (in that I tend to prefer swirling, giant guitar sounds, and I like to be able to hear bass, and I can’t sing worth a flip so I tend to cater to my vocal weaknesses… and there are certain vibes to music that I prefer and target) but if you were to listen to track after track, you’d hear many different approaches to almost every aspect of my music.

This song emphasizes a rough sounding guitar, in your face; that one uses a synthesizer; this one uses a piano; that one, a hammer. (One of my old “liner notes” for a song had “Joseph Ottinger, keys” — and I meant keys literally. Like, a keyring. What can I say? I didn’t have a tambourine and the keyring fit the sound I wanted better anyway.) That one uses stereo vocals, this one has a vocoder, this one has a harmony line, that one uses only the harmony line…

I don’t like to repeat myself. I don’t mind going back over songs if I think I can do them better, but I don’t especially enjoy that process – I enjoy the knowledge that I’m happier with a particular recording. But rerecording isn’t art (not for me) and that’s usually what I’m going for.

The context of this goes back to music and literature.

I’ve been writing a lot lately – mostly fairly “meh” poetry, because I like the forms I’m coming up with. I’ve noticed a bit of sameness: I offer a thought, modify it, modify it, then change it with a related tangential summarization… but I’m still exploring that mechanism, and I’m not reusing it intentionally. There’s potential there that appeals to me, and I’m searching.

I almost wrote a new story a few days ago, but abandoned it because I recognized the roots of the story – my expression of the story would have been three parts “Bicentennial Man” and two parts “Frankenstein,” and I found that to simply not be good enough even though I know exactly why the formation is what it is. Mixing influences is fine, but I need it to have something essential, and it wasn’t there. (I may still write it but I need it to have a lever that it currently lacks. Right now I could read it, and write it, but it wouldn’t change me, therefore it ain’t Art.)

When I read, I expect the same thing. Maybe George R. R. Martin can get away with writing the Song of Ice and Fire as if it’s the same series with decades of effort – because it is the same series. But given how slowly he writes nowadays, I think he also is searching for the artistic endeavor at this point.

I can tolerate consistency in a series.

But when an author is done with a series, I expect him or her to change. I loved the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (the first trilogy) – and I loved the second as well, because they used the same characters but the author (Stephen R. Donaldson) didn’t stay the same. He pushed himself. Sometimes the direction wasn’t what I wanted, but that’s his vision, and by golly, it was effective. I respect that. It’s art.

Even if the words are from the same dictionary, the expressions have to change – the author, the reader, the form themselves – or it’s not art.

Musically, there are three things going on: Roger Waters, YYNOT, and my own recording efforts.

I’m looking forward to Roger Waters‘ new album, “Is This The Life We Really Want?” He’s released one of the tracks from it, “Smell the Roses,” and while I appreciate the song and I’m definitely going to get the album… I’m not truly impressed yet, because he also is saying the same things he’s already said (on multiple albums!) and he’s actually reusing musical forms, too.

Is Waters a better musician and writer than I am? You bet he is. But he’s not creating art; he’s regurgitating feeling and sound. Like I said, I’m going to get the album when it comes out… but if it sounds and feels like the track he’s already released, I’ll enjoy it and appreciate it but it won’t be art.

YYNOT is a Rush .. tribute band, I guess, where a set of musicians records themselves playing fairly live versions of Rush songs, usually centering on the earlier albums (i.e., albums before 1984, although they’ve done some later stuff too.) They had some drama where they decided to switch drummers from an amateur drummer to a working musician; the drama was because they removed all credit from the original drummer (he took it badly, and I can understand that) and “fired” him for inconsistent reasons (“We want to be West Coast-based, even though the bass player is still on the East Coast.”)

There are multiple ways of interpreting the sequence of events. I talked to both “sides” and made my own decisions; I thought both groups acted inefficiently, and told them so. But the guy who got fired listened and understood why I said what I said, and the YYNOT guys blocked all communication, even though I was more critical of the drummer than I was of them… and that convinced me that the guy who they’d “fired” had more of a point than YYNOT did.

So they’re still making the Rush covers, and that’s fine – that’s what they’ve always done, that’s more or less what they wanted to do (although they do have a few “Rush-inspired originals”) — but they’re covering the songs that they’d already done (basically replacing the original drummer for real.)

The originals are okay, they’re impressive in that they managed to do them, but they’re also kinda just there. There’s a lot of skill in having done them, because they’re trying to evoke Rush’ complexity, and that’s certainly not trivial to do… but they also lack something, maybe because they’re trying to evoke someone else’s feeling. (At the songs’ best, I’m thinking “That’s just like Rush might have done it on the album from…”)

But that’s not transformative. It ends up being kitsch, or effort… and ultimately neat but not good. They’re not pushing themselves. They’ve set their sights on being a Rush cover band, and they’ve succeeded, and that’s going to be their ceiling unless they break away from it. They’re certainly not changing me through listening to their songs – when I want that feeling of transformation from Hemispheres, I listen to Rush, not YYNOT. YYNOT just doesn’t have that power, even though they’re playing it very well (better than I could, certainly.)

What’s odd is that they’re “Rush-inspired” but the primary inspiration Rush has to offer musicians is the willingness to do their own thing. YYNOT isn’t doing that.

Oddly enough, neither am I, really; I’m recording some Rush covers as well. I already released “Analog Kid” and I’m working on two others – and it’s funny, too, because I’ve been recording music for more than thirty years and this is the first time I’ve ever actually recorded a cover of anyone else’s song. It’s fun; I’m trying to actually do more than play just the songs as written, by changing things where I think it expresses me more naturally…

But is it Art? I don’t think so. I think it’s more than what YYNOT is doing (even though they’re better musicians and they are produced better), because I’m not trying to be a slave to the original performances, but it’s not really art. It’s not a meticulous recreation, so it’s not quite as kitschy (or as popular, hey) but it’s still not art.

I can play Analog Kid a hundred times and appreciate the song (after all, it’s the song that finally got me into Rush) but it doesn’t change me to play it; the change from Analog Kid happened on the road in Leesburg where I first heard it. That was art. My recording is… not as artistic, by its very nature of being a cover. It’s effort.

My art is in my own writing, and my own performance of it. My art is in digging inside my soul and trying to find something new to show, something that changes me, and has the potential to change others.

That’s art.

Be an artist.

The Rush Political/Religious Survey Results

TL;DR Rush is awesome, and so is its fanbase. I put together a survey to try to figure something out about Rush’s career arc, but the author of the survey (me) didn’t get enough information and didn’t capture the right information to make the survey much more than pure entertainment.

Table of Contents

The Hypothesis

The survey was initiated by a shower thought: why, exactly, do people prefer the songs and albums they do?

To understand this question, let’s establish some basic information about how Rush’s albums are perceived. This is my view and isn’t necessarily the objective truth, so take it with a grain of salt; if you’re following along and ranting to yourself about how wrong I am, that’s okay.

Rush’s career can be thought of in terms of peaks (not valleys, unless you count “Feedback.”)

Rush, Fly By Night, and Caress of Steel are sort of foothills, with Fly By Night being a really good one, maybe a mountain. If it’s a mountain, then Caress of Steel is another one, but Caress of Steel’s “mountain” is full of potential avalanches and crevasses.

Then you hit an awesome stretch of albums: 2112, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures, and Signals, with two live albums thrown in for good measure. This is the “golden era of Rush,” if you like.

Grace Under Pressure is sometimes included in that golden era, but to me it seems more like a transitional album. It’s great – I love it – but it’s missing something essential that the six studio albums before it possessed.

Then you hit another stretch of albums: Power Windows, Hold Your Fire, Presto, Roll the Bones, Counterparts, and Test For Echo (with another set of live albums in there) – all really good albums, to be sure. The worst of them would be a proud accomplishment for most other bands.

After that you had a long stretch while Neil Peart dealt with family tragedy… and when he finally got back to Rush – which was by no means his duty to the fanbase, but something in his own soul, hopefully – they hit another peak period, with Vapor Trails, Snakes and Arrows, and Clockwork Angels, with an album of covers thrown in and a whole slew of recorded tours (more tours than studio albums!)

In my opinion, these three studio albums had the “it factor” that the “golden era” had, in most ways.

So…

What was the “it factor?”

It shouldn’t be musicianship; if anything, later Rush was even more musically accomplished than the early Rush was. (If you asked me to play bass and sing “Turn the Page” at the same time, from “Hold Your Fire,” I think I’d cry. And I don’t really cry.)

The production values might change – but Rush generally tracked the current best practices, and if the older production was “better” then the industry wouldn’t have changed how it produced music.

Geddy’s voice got lower (at least, he sang in lower registers) and they added the “chorus of Geddys” – but given how many people chose to dislike Rush because of Geddy’s falsetto, you’d think that the later Rush would appeal more. Maybe the chorus of Geddys hurt somehow, but … I doubt it had that much of a potential effect. (I found it annoying in a lot of ways, but … not enough to say “gosh, enough of this.”)

That leaves a few remaining areas: song construction (which stabilized around the time of Grace Under Pressure into a song form of guitar-driven verses and synthesizer-driven choruses, although much of it debuted on Signals) and songwriting (i.e., lyrics).

The song construction might be a significant factor; Rush certainly used standard verse/chorus/bridge construction in their songwriting, but they’d been pretty progressive even so, mixing time signatures and choosing sequences that were often difficult to predict and were musically interesting. In the “lesser period” this seemed to be a trope of the band, so while the playing might be intriguing during one section or another, listeners could easily predict the next time signature or “feel” in a given song.

To my mind, though, song construction wasn’t the problem. After all, popular music (using the term loosely to cover most genres) has used similar constructs for a long, long, long, long time. Hundreds of years, maybe thousands. Rush didn’t create a new song construction; they created art, yes, but not some new way of constructing songs. They still used intros, segues, outros, verses, choruses, bridges, instrumental breaks, etc.

The possible problem, as it seemed to me, was songwriting.

When I think about … say, Hold Your Fire, I think that Rush is telling me how I should perceive things. When I listen to Permanent Waves, I think Rush is telling me how they perceive things. It ends up feeling like the “valley” period – the “lesser” period between Signals and Vapor Trails – is more preachy.

That does not imply that it’s not great music – to the contrary, looking at the lyrics for the “valley” period is an amazing experience, as a writer. Peart is an amazing lyricist; sure, there are a few songs where his effort shines through to the song’s detriment (“Dog Years,” “Virtuality”) but you also have beauties like “Bravado” and “The Pass,” “Alien Shore,” and “Everyday Glory” (a good example of a “preachy song.”) Even “Tai Shan” is a beautiful song even if it’s an awful Rush song.

But to me it felt like I should feel a certain way when listening to much of the music. You could feel Peart’s disdain for some modes of thought, and that feels unusual, when compared with something like Limelight – which should communicate disdain but doesn’t.

So from there we see my hypothesis: Rush’ fanbase preferred music that was less preachy, being a bunch of independent thinkers with fantastic taste.

How to validate that? Well, a survey, of course!

The Survey

Making the survey was really pretty hard. I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to correlate what people wanted to listen to with their comfort at being told how they should think or feel.

But what does “comfort at being told how to think or feel” mean? How would I tell? And given the broad selection of songs in each era, how would I build a meaningful correlation?

Those are good questions, and I don’t think I answered them well.

What I did is obvious, if you’ve taken the survey; I collected information about “favorite studio album,” “favorite live album,” and political and religious leanings, as well as some very basic demographic data (i.e., educational level and geographical region). I wasn’t sure the latter questions would be worthwhile, but I thought they might be.

The problem is that I had to balance what I wanted to know with what people would be able to easily identify about themselves. If I asked what I actually wanted, then people might feel that I was being dismissive or intrusive, and they wouldn’t answer (or they wouldn’t answer honestly).

So I chose what I thought were neutral descriptions of political leanings, descriptions that I thought were pretty broadly understood: right, left, center, with right being concerned with upper class concerns and preservation of historical mores, left being concerned with lower class concerns and dismissal of historical mores in favor of change that favored the lower classes or minorities, and center being more independent or favoring middle class concerns.

Put in coarse form, right is conservative and Republican (if you’re in the United States), left is progressive or liberal (and Democrat), and center is more independent or Libertarian, choosing things on a more issue-by-issue basis.

This choice of representation was a mistake.

It’s far too coarse, and the truth is that the individual motivations about which I was concerned are simply too-fine-grained to be exposed through a “liberal/conservative” filter. My hypothesis centered around a core idea that said that the progressives were more willing to dictate and be dictated to, therefore more amenable to the “lesser” period, and the independents and conservatives were more willing to be more independent in thought.

While I was willing to happily concede that this isn’t necessarily a good mapping to political leanings, I thought that it would hold in the general sense, largely because of how I perceive the political parties in the US, which… don’t actually map well to “conservative” or “liberal” even though they might claim those labels.

So… let’s see the results, and then I’ll bore you with my conclusions.

The Results (i.e., the Fun Part)

I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to the Rush fanbase. I wanted 500 responses, and hoped for 100. I actually ended up with, at this writing, 436. That is freaking amazing.

However… the responses mostly confirmed how awesome Rush is, and how dominant the “golden era” is for the entire catalog.

298 of the 436 – a whopping 70% – chose an album from the “golden era” as their favorite. Moving Pictures dominated, with 81 (19%) choosing it; Hemispheres came in second place (with 65 votes, for 15%); the “least favorite” of the six albums was Signals (with 6%), and only two albums that were not in this period did better than the worst album in this period. Signals got 5.73% with 25 votes; Power Windows got 6.42% with 28 votes, and Clockwork Angels got 6.19% with 27.

I think it’s safe to say that the “golden era” was, in fact, dominant, despite people on r/java being willing to claim that Caress of Steel was their best album or whatever. The “valley period” only collected 86 total votes, for a whopping 20% of the overall votes despite having eight albums to choose from (poor Test for Echo got no votes at all!) – the “trailer period” starting with Vapor Trails got 49 (11%) votes all by itself despite only having three albums to choose from! (Feedback was the only other album to get no votes, which didn’t surprise me at all.)

(If you’re interested: Rush got two votes, Fly By Night got four, and Caress of Steel got nine.)

The live albums were more “interesting” than “relevant” for what I wanted to know, because I was trying to understand songwriting appeal. But with that said…

Exit… Stage Left is the clear winner. It got 113 votes (26%) for favorite live album; the two behind it in popularity (Rush in Rio and R40) got 50 and 52 votes, respectively. All the World’s A Stage was in fourth place, with 40 votes.

So even live, we see the dominance of the early “golden era,” with a resurgence around Rush’ return from Peart’s hiatus.

Now to the political leanings, where things fell apart badly…

First, the raw numbers. Most of the responding fan base was left-leaning with 43%. Centrists were close: 42%. Right-leaning and “other” were both pretty far back: right got 35 votes, and other got 28, with some identifying as “other” who might better have fit in other categories… but even then, most of the “other” would probably fit better in “left” or “center,” rather than as an even distribution.

The problem here is that everyone loves the golden era, regardless of their political self-identification. I needed to see larger trends, with something in the responses that said “someone who ticks this particular set of boxes is more likely to prefer songs from the later era to the songs from the ‘golden era.'”

I did not get that data; too many people preferred the golden era, regardless of political leanings.

Religion was interesting but not significant; that actually mapped pretty well to an actual cross-section of (primarily American) culture; 51% atheists, 17% other, 27% Christian, with a smattering of others sprinkled around. (I actually should have included agnosticism and “none” as choices here. I tried to add agnosticism, and “none” was wisely suggested by a survey participant, but it was too late at that point to change the survey.)

Education and region were red herrings for the survey as well. If you’re terribly interested in the results, I can write those up too, but honestly, they’re largely a cross-section as well and while it’s possible younger people would prefer the later stuff (with older people having more nostalgia for the ‘golden era’) there just weren’t enough people who liked the later albums to really generate correlations we could trust.

The Conclusion

The short form: Rush rocks.

My ability to write surveys… does not rock at all. It doesn’t even swing. Maybe it taps its feet out of time or something.

I don’t know if my hypothesis is necessarily wrong, because the data didn’t disprove it … but at the same time, my hypothesis received far too little data to actually be strengthened at all. So while it’s still my personal opinion that the songwriting got more “preachy” and that (along with nostalgia and a few other details regarding personal preferences) explains why I prefer the golden era to the more modern stuff. I think the bottom line is that Rush managed to resonate with people on a fantastic level during that period, with a noticeable dropoff afterward for a while, but got its groove back with Vapor Trails.

Rush is awesome, y’all, and so are you.

How I See Rush’s Albums from Ten Thousand Feet

This is how I think of Rush’s entire studio catalog, in short summaries.

Rush

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.

Fly By Night

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.

Caress of Steel

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.

2112

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.

A Farewell to Kings

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.

Hemispheres

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.

Permanent Waves

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.

Moving Pictures

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

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

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.

Power Windows

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.

Hold Your Fire

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.

Presto

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?

Roll The Bones

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.

Counterparts

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.)

Test for Echo

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.

Vapor Trails

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.

Feedback

“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.

Snakes and Arrows

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.

Clockwork Angels

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.

“I wish that I could live it all again…” – Rush concert!

Last week, my two oldest sons and I went to catch Rush in Greensboro, NC. It was a great show, and I wish that I could see more of them – both in terms of their careers and in terms of, well, this exact tour. If you’re a fan of Rush, get to this tour – they’re not likely to have any more tours after this one, if they do much at all.

There’s no album for this tour – it’s just a cruise for them, because the band’s 40th anniversary has passed and they’re celebrating it with their fans. Neil Peart’s shoulders are apparently showing some wear, so they’re saying this might be their swan song.

But if you had to have a swan song for a band, this would be the way to go out! The last few tours have been a struggle, because of set selection (to please fans who feel that certain parts of the catalog have been underplayed) and because of wear and tear on the band members themselves (Peart’s shoulders, and Geddy Lee’s voice, which has been audibly worn during the tours.)

This concert, though, saw the band in rare form. I felt fortunate that my sons were there with me.

The set was awesome. They opened with a minimized version of the Clockwork Angels stage (steampunk theme and equipment, although no string section) and played a set of killer Clockwork Angels songs. Then they started working backwards, including “Far Cry” from Snakes and Arrows, “How It Is,” off of Vapor Trails, which I’ve never heard live.

It was beautiful.

As the set progressed, the stage was deformed – amps were removed, or dressed differently (Geddy Lee’s Clockwork Angels amps were slowly reconfigured to be clothes dryers as stage placeholder, as he used for a few years.)

The first set was really, really well done, with my personal highlight being Grace Under Pressure’s “Between the Wheels.” “Subdivisions” was also very very well done, and watching Peart kill his drum kit was… memorable, as always.

The second set, though… that’s when everything got REAL. They opened with “Tom Sawyer,” cranking everything past eleven and up to twelve-and-a-half, and never really turned down from there.

Neil Peart used a new drum kit for the second half, a throwback kit based on the drums he played before 1981 or so. Instead of a wall of eight hundred drums, he was down to a wall of forty drums… plus bells… plus crotales.

Alex Lifeson struggled finding the key for some of “The Camera Eye,” which was a little surprising and not-surprising, but did that take away from the awe and glory of seeing it played live and in person? Not at all, because these guys are so professional that they covered for each other and picked everything up as they went.

Then they hit “Jacob’s Ladder.”

Look, I love the song – the original studio performance is beautiful, the version on Exit: Stage Left is one of my favorite songs to hear ever.

But to see it live? After 35 years of knowing it’s not been played at all?

That was just beyond everything. Incredible. Light show, performance, pacing… everything was awesome. I mentioned earlier that I was glad that I could be there with my kids… and this was the moment when that was solidified for me.

Then they played Cygnus X-1. And Xanadu. With the doublenecks… plural. Geddy Lee hasn’t played his doubleneck on stage in decades, but it is on tour now.

The show ended on a similar high note, with the band playing with amps mounted on chairs (and a backdrop of a school gym, just like when they started). Incredible stuff, well-played. Enjoyed. Fantastic.

The show was great… and I really wish that I could attend the same show multiple times, because the awe and glory of the show were so cool that it’s all fading for me, honestly – I remember bits, but what I really want to do is re-experience those moments, over and over again.