Rush Albums From Worst To Best
For a band that has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide, whose streak of consecutive gold and platinum records is topped only by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, trying to nail down the exact reason why Canadian trio Rush is so adored by so many is never easy. Reviled by critics — or worse, completely ignored — for a good portion of their career, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart have defied odds time and again, the music showing a remarkable amorphous quality, changing with the times yet never pandering, retaining an astounding level of popularity to this day.
Although the band’s groundbreaking combination of heavy metal and progressive rock was what made it famous in the first place, appealing greatly to the teenaged hesher crowd in the ’70s while the critical elite scoffed, to call Rush a “progressive power trio” today is like calling Bob Dylan a protest singer. There’s so much more to the band than that — more musical and thematic variety than many are willing to acknowledge. Rush has dabbled in new wave, electronic music, pop, reggae, and world music, the wide array of instruments all three employ redefining what a rock trio could accomplish onstage. The technical skill of the three musicians is staggering: Lifeson’s expressive, versatile guitar playing, Lee’s impressive dexterity on bass and keyboards — often at the same time — and not the least of which, the inimitable Mr. Peart, the only rock drummer alive for whom everyone remains in their seat when it’s time for his drum solo. Despite the musical chops on display, though, songcraft always comes first. Unlike so many progressive metal bands today, Rush has always known that even prog rock is pointless if it doesn’t have a hook. Not many bands can write an instrumental that compels a crowd of 40,000 people to sing along to it, but Rush have written several.
Additionally, Rush have always been incredibly grounded. Self-indulgent but always self-aware, a sense of levity has always served as a welcome undercurrent in the band’s work, whether making fun of their friends in KISS in a song in 1975, subtitling an instrumental “an exercise in self-indulgence,” the visual puns of the Moving Pictures cover art, or the band’s increasingly absurd and hilarious short films that precede each concert. The music can seem arch at times, but Rush always remember to laugh a little. It’s serious, but more importantly, it’s fun. It’s supposed to be.
Before Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Slayer attracted global popularity with little to no help from radio or mainstream music press, Rush set the standard. Not once did the band rely on music tastemakers to spread the word. Although the band received a couple mildly positive reviews from Rolling Stone, they were never given a proper feature in the 1970s or ’80s. Spin was always too hip for Rush. Goodness knows they never landed on the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll.
Rush might be what Lee whimsically describes as “the world’s biggest cult band,” but never has Rush ever been cool. It’s unapologetically nerdy music, but it’s also welcoming. Cool people need not apply, and there’s something immensely appealing about that. It’s for everyone. If you go to a Rush concert today, you’ll see one of the more convivial environments you’ll ever witness at a rock show. Everyone’s on the same level, three, maybe even four generations represented. A lot more women than you’d expect, shattering the myth that Rush is a boys’ club. During Peart’s solos you’ll see fathers hoist their awestruck children onto their shoulders to witness the mastery at hand. And when “Tom Sawyer” climaxes, people, no matter how hip they are, no matter what age, will be compelled to air-drum along to Peart’s legendary fills.
Whether your favorite album is 2112, Hemispheres, Moving Pictures, Grace Under Pressure, or, heaven help you, Roll The Bones, the unifying factor with all of those records is that Rush have always been uncompromising. When their third album flopped, Rush had a choice in 1976: to acquiesce to the demands of the record label, or to defiantly do their own thing. They chose the latter, achieved worldwide fame soon after, and were never again told what to do. Rush is the living embodiment of integrity in rock music, and it’s for that simple reason that we celebrate the Canadian legends’ vast, rich discography.
As a Rush fan since 1984, I have my own personal favorites — your favorite Rush album is often your first Rush album, so for me it’s Grace Under Pressure — but I took it upon myself to dispose of any trace of fandom and examine all 19 albums (and one mini-album) with as objective a critical ear as possible. Some rankings might be cause for debate, but that’s why I’ve written this piece: for folks to discuss, debate, and above all, celebrate this band’s wonderful, enthralling, and perpetually endearing body of work.
This July marks the 40th year that Dirk, Lerxst, and the Professor have been together. Boys, we wish you well, and thank you for the music. (Also, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy, where the Rush talk never ceases.)
Rush enthusiasts are nothing if not a little bit obsessive, yours truly included, and no discussion of the band’s discography would be complete without the inevitable comment, “But what about the live albums?” So just to be thorough, here’s a quick ranking of Rush’s live albums, from best to, erm, least worst.
01. All The World’s A Stage (1976)
02. Rush In Rio (2003)
03. Snakes & Arrows Live (2008)
04. A Show Of Hands (1989)
05. Exit…Stage Left (1981)
06. Clockwork Angels Tour (2013)
07. Grace Under Pressure Tour (2005)
08. Different Stages (1998)
09. R30: 30th Anniversary World Tour (2005)
10. Time Machine 2011: Live In Cleveland (2011)
Test For Echo (1996)
Rush has displayed incredible consistency over the course of the last 40 years, but the band is not above reproach. When it comes to the three albums in the discography that can be legitimately called failures, each misfired for completely different reasons. 1975's Caress Of Steel was a misguided attempt to expand the band's broadening progressive rock direction, and 1991's Roll The Bones was lost in a high-gloss rabbit hole of muddled, middling album oriented rock. Test For Echo, on the other hand, was much less excusable: a completely uninspired effort by a band that had been around enough to know better.
Even the mediocre Rush albums have a handful of great, memorable songs. Caress Of Steel has "Bastille Day," Roll The Bones has "Dreamline," "Bravado," and "Ghost Of A Chance." Test For Echo has nothing. It's actually extraordinary how Lee, Lifeson, and Peart push all the buttons and seem like Rush, a comfortable air of familiarity permeating the entire record, yet it is so empty, totally devoid of hooks. Everyone just goes through the motions. As a music fan, that's one of the most depressing things to hear; you try hard to make some sort of connection with the music, but it is so uninspired, so forgettable, that it all becomes a futile exercise.
"Test For Echo," "Driven," and "Half The World" try hard to continue the momentum that the very strong return to form Counterparts created three years earlier, but the melodies are hopelessly dour, lacking the vibrancy of the previous album. "Resist" is a desperate attempt to follow up successful ballads like "The Pass" and "Nobody's Hero," but it is awash in forced emotion and schmaltz. Peart's thoughtful lyrics are wasted as each subsequent song fails to deliver, but even he goes too far on a pair of cringe-inducing late-album duds. Nothing dates songs worse than writing lyrics about technology, and "Virtuality," which might have sounded contemporary nearly two decades ago, now feels as antiquated as a 28.8 dial-up modem ("Net boy, net girl/ Send your impulse 'round the world/ Put your message in a modem/ And throw it in the Cyber Sea"). Meanwhile "Dog Years," which bears a strange resemblance to late-'80s Hüsker Dü -- go figure -- is as clunky a metaphor as Peart has ever used. "A year is really more like seven/ And all too soon a canine/ Will be chasing cars in doggie heaven." Come on, Professor.
This being a Rush album, Test For Echo nevertheless peaked at number five in America, and the tour in support of the record was a successful one, which featured a performance of "2112" in its entirety. As mediocre as the album was, nobody could have expected Rush's show in Ottawa on July 4, 1997 would be its last show for a very long time, as personal tragedy would put the band's future in serious jeopardy.
Caress Of Steel (1975)
By mid-1975 all signs pointed toward a major commercial breakthrough for Rush. Fly By Night had turned into a minor hit, landing the band some plum tour slots, opening for KISS, Aerosmith, and Blue Öyster Cult. As was the custom in the music industry at the time, the iron had to be struck while it was still hot. The boys had some serious momentum happening, so why not have them crank out another album for a late-year release? They were young and full of ambition, and to make things even better, were given three weeks to record, which, compared to the previous two albums, was a luxury. That crucial, successful third album seemed like an inevitability. How could they mess that up?
Well, they did. Maybe a sign that Caress Of Steel was doomed was how the intended silver cover art was mistakenly rendered a murky copper color by printers instead. Either way, Rush's third album was a brutal misfire, both artistically and commercially. It starts off in very strong fashion with the boisterous, anthemic "Bastille Day," a spot-on encapsulation of the way Rush continued to perfect Zeppelin-sized riffs, progressive rock experimentation, and storytelling. However, it's all downhill from there. "I Think I'm Going Bald" is a lark, a funny poke at Max Webster frontman and friend of the band Kim Mitchell -- as well as a piss-take on KISS's "Goin' Blind' -- but is nothing more than a toss-off, better suited as a B-side. "Lakeside Park" is clearly "Fly By Night" Part Two, with Neil Peart waxing nostalgic for his St. Catharines home atop a pastoral-sounding arrangement, but lacking the grace, charm, and hooks of the single it tries so hard to mimic.
Caress Of Steel's most egregious mistake is cramming in two gigantic epics, neither of which succeeds at all. The 12 and a half-minute "The Necromancer" is bogged down by a horribly complicated, sleepy narration by Peart, whose voice is pitch-shifted to a comically low register. Only the final third of the song, a section called "Return Of The Prince," is worth noting for its shameless rip-off of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane." It's with the 20-minute "The Fountain Of Lamneth," though, where Peart, Lee, and Lifeson bite off more than they can chew. They have the right idea -- the wicked signature riff of "In The Valley" is reprised wonderfully in the closing movement "The Fountain" -- but the song quickly becomes muddled with song fragments that are awkwardly stitched together. It's a harsh lesson every progressive rock and metal band goes through at one point: you can be as experimental, as technically ambitious as you want, but even prog has to be catchy, and these two songs were unmitigated failures.
Needless to say, audiences were baffled by what they heard on Caress of Steel, and consequently sales plummeted. Things got so dire for the band that its tour in support of the record was jokingly dubbed the "Down The Tubes Tour," and Mercury Records in the United States was less than impressed, pushing the band to put out another proper "hit" single rather than all this self-indulgence. Rush's true turning point had arrived: either succumb to the demands of the label, or take a mulligan on Caress Of Steel and record the prog rock magnum opus they knew they had in them. The band opted for the latter option, and just six months later would have an all-time classic album under its belt.
Roll The Bones (1991)
Why did it happen? It shouldn't have happened.
But Roll The Bones did indeed happen, and it did startlingly good business, becoming Rush's biggest-selling album in America since Signals. Although it was wonderful to see Rush in the public consciousness in America more than usual, as mainstream rock music enjoyed its last days of fun before the miserable post-grunge wave washed it away, it's the one Rush album that has gone on to age the worst.
Like on Presto two years earlier, Roll The Bones saw Lee, Lifeson, and Peart recording with producer Rupert Hine, who had taken the high-gloss style the band had created with Peter Collins and molded it in a more guitar-oriented style that made it a little more palatable for classic rock fans. Interestingly, though, unlike Presto's wildly bipolar range from inspired to abysmal, aside from three legitimately good moments, Roll The Bones settles into a rut of complacent mediocrity.
To this day I don't understand why "Dreamline" became the band's biggest Stateside radio hit in years, but when it was released in the fall of 1991, the upbeat track swiftly ascended to the top of the mainstream rock chart. Granted, it is a very good little song, a propulsive road movie of a rocker, Peart's restless lyrics ("We're only at home when we're on the run") going well with the simple yet ominous driving riff that looms over the song like darkening clouds on the horizon. "Bravado" is structurally every bit the equal of "The Pass" -- so much so that both songs were played on alternate nights on Rush's 2012-'13 tour -- and it very nearly succeeds just as well, thanks to Lifeson's soulful guitar work and Peart's fluid drumming. "Ghost Of A Chance," meanwhile, might be a total lightweight compared to classic Rush rock tracks, but its robust groove is countered by a lovely, introspective chorus. All three songs would go on to be well liked by the band and its audience, with "Dreamline" being a longtime concert staple.
The rest of Roll The Bones, unfortunately, is a portrait of Rush sounding utterly lost. "Face Up," "The Big Wheel," "Neurotica," and "You Bet Your Life" are tepid, severely lacking something to ground them, whether guitars or keyboards. Instead is a milquetoast, sleek combination of the two, either afraid or unwilling to go in one particular direction. "Heresy" is as inexcusable as the similarly Midnight Oil-aping "Scars" was on Presto.
And the title track. Oh, the title track. "Roll The Bones" already flirts with disaster with its horn synth stabs, which already sounded passé in 1991, but the song will forever live in infamy for the mid-song rap, performed by a pitch-shifted Lee and cloyingly written by Peart. It's like a dad walking in on a teen basement party and rapping along to "Going Back To Cali" or "Fight The Power." He's not trying to lampoon the genre, he's just trying to come across as hip, and it only feels awkward and kind of sad:
"Jack, relax/ Get busy with the facts/ No zodiacs or almanacs/ No maniacs in polyester slacks/ Just the facts/ Gonna kick some gluteus max/ It's a parallax, you dig?"
Um…yeah. I, erm, dig. Please don't do that anymore.
Roll The Bones did monstrously in America, returning the band to the platinum echelon for the first time since 1985's Power Windows, but like every other band from the 1970s and 1980s, Rush would have to adjust with the most dramatic sea change in rock history thanks to a host of slovenly musicians from Seattle. Its dabbling in pop had pulled the band down a rabbit hole, rendering the brand out of date, and a serious adjustment would be needed if the guys had any hope of clawing out with integrity intact.
Once Rush returned to action in 2002, demand to see the band perform was at an all time high, and Lee, Lifeson, and Peart spent a good part of the next decade touring. Long, two-part "evening with" live sets were accentuated by stage presentations that pulled out all the stops, and the band took the opportunity to showcase its wry sense of humor even more with self-effacing video clips and Lee's new penchant for hilarious props that replaced his retired bass cabinets -- including dryers, chicken roasters, and vending machines. While Rush was never devoid of charm, their post-2002 run of concerts made them an even more likeable bunch than ever.
In the wake of the world tour in support of Vapor Trails, the band commenced another tour in 2004 to commemorate its 30th anniversary. In order to have a product to flog, the idea arose to record a short covers album featuring Rush-ified versions of classic rock songs from the band's teen years, and the resulting mini-album Feedback turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.
Covers albums are commonplace these days, especially in hard rock and metal, to the point where it's impossible to not view them with skepticism, but Feedback is a rare successful exception. Not only are these eight renditions performed very well, showing longtime fans how each song influenced the band in certain ways, but they show a side of Rush people hadn't heard before, one that's loose, groovy, and ebullient. "Summertime Blues" brilliantly combines Blue Cheer's raucous version and the Who's intense cover of the Eddie Cochran tune. The Yardbirds' "Shapes Of Things" and "Heart Full Of Soul" showcase a psychedelic side to the band, while Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and "Mr. Soul" are given considerably darker treatments than the originals. While the Who's "The Seeker" capably replicates the original's ferocious groove, Arthur Lee's "Seven And Seven Is" is more intense, performed with tremendous energy and joy, and Cream's "Crossroads" is a full-on rampager, proof that Rush could evoke the blues as well as any rock band.
In the end what Feedback does best is completely strip away any lingering façade the band might have had that linked it to arch, complex, pretentious progressive rock. They're not aging 50-something geezers on this record, but a trio of youngsters banging away on their instruments in their garage. Sometimes it's best for even the most established and famous rock bands to get back to their roots, and Feedback felt like a valuable, rejuvenating exercise for everyone involved, paving the way for a pair of outstanding late-career albums that would follow.
Vapor Trails (2002)
In 1997 and 1998 Rush's comfortable, relatively peaceful world was rocked by unimaginable tragedy. Neil Peart's daughter Selena was killed in a highway accident on her way back to university on July 4, 1997, and if that wasn't awful enough, his wife Jackie died of cancer ten months later, inconsolable after the loss of her daughter. At Selena's funeral Peart told his bandmates to consider him retired, and after Jackie's death he set off on a colossal, 55,000 mile motorcycle journey that would result in his bestselling memoir Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road. As long as Peart was out, Rush was no longer a band; it was as simple as that. It would only continue if he decided to return, and it wouldn't be years until Lee and Lifeson got a definitive answer. In the meantime, the pair kept up appearances at public events, and Lee kept the creative juices flowing, putting out his solo debut My Favorite Headache in 2000.
In 2001, Peart started to let his mates know he was ready to try to make new music again, and so began the long, laborious, 14-month feeling-out process that would result in Vapor Trails. As Lifeson would tell writer Martin Popoff, "The expectations were different. It wasn't the same band anymore, and we weren't the same people -- not just because of what happened to Neil. We had all grown and matured a lot. When you get to your mid-40s, you definitely go through a change, and I think that's reflected in the sound."
It's interesting how all this was going on at the same time as a lost and creatively stifled Metallica was trying to find itself again in exactly the same way. Although one could easily draw parallels between Vapor Trails and St. Anger -- both are brutally stripped down, feature looser and grittier-sounding recordings, dabble in atonality, eschew guitar solos, were overlong, and were agonized over -- what sets Rush's effort apart is the undeniable chemistry between the three musicians, which miraculously remains intact throughout. It was a new Rush people were hearing, but that old familiarity was there as well, and although it was far from a rousing success, it was a very encouraging sign, with a handful of songs that are a pure joy.
It's absolutely fitting for this album to be kicked off by Peart, and "One Little Victory" opens like a house on fire, featuring his most energetic drumming since 2112. Lee and Lifeson hold up their end with a nasty heavy rock groove, the darkness of the riff melody reflecting Peart's lyrics, which aren't so much optimistic as doggedly determined to get through tough times. And indeed, that's the prevailing feeling of Vapor Trails: therapy through creativity. It might not all work, but it's a necessary step for the band to take. "Ceiling Unlimited" is one of the album's brighter moments, made all the more potent by the band's simplified approach, this being the first album since Caress Of Steel to not include keyboards. The mid-album trifecta of "Vapor Trail," "Secret Touch," and "Earthshine" is especially strong, highlighted by Lee's vocal performances, his mature singing adding texture to the material. The key track, however, is "Ghost Rider," the closest Peart comes to directly addressing his hardships ("Pack up all those phantoms/ Shoulder that invisible load"), forming the album's heart and soul.
Complicating things are the differing mixes of the album that now exist. The original 2002 version of the album, for all its sporadic strengths, is marred by an unfortunately muddy, overly loud mix that reduces everything to sloppy-sounding sludge. Much superior, though, is the 2013 reissue, which was given a complete overhaul by David Bottrill. Although it doesn't make the inferior songs on the record any better, it makes the entire album much more pleasant a listen, bolstered by a much clearer, richer sound than the original ever had. If you're going to buy Vapor Trails, make it the remix, and ignore the 2002 version.
Vapor Trails was an experiment, and a necessary one at that. If it wasn't for that record, the world wouldn't have witnessed Rush's post-millennial renaissance, from the triumphant Rush In Rio live album, to the band's successful 30th Anniversary tour, to the late-career high water marks Snakes & Arrows and Clockwork Angels. "The greatest act can be one little victory," Peart writes at one point. Vapor Trails was such a little victory, a difficult, wrenching, modestly triumphant statement that Rush was back.
Some bands hit the ground running on their debut albums, and others still sound like a work in progress. Nobody could predict what Rush would be capable of three years after its first full-length, let alone 40 years later, which in a way makes this innocuous little record all the more fascinating. Its legacy is nowhere near as towering as 2112 and Moving Pictures, and it's often a forgotten album in the Rush discography because it's the only record to not feature the classic lineup of Lee, Lifeson, and Peart. Yet for all its flaws, there's a charm to it, and given time -- it took decades for yours truly to warm to it -- it turns out to be a very likeable album.
By the time they headed into Toronto's Eastern Sound Studios in 1973, recording on the cheap after hours, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and John Rutsey were veterans of the local rock scene, their many live performances honing their heavy rock sound, which translated very well on the self-titled album, which boasts the kind of robust tone that any aspiring heavy rock band hopes to pull off on its first effort. As confident as Rush is -- a good deal of credit goes to young studio whiz Terry Brown, who presided over the later recording sessions -- and as rare as it was for a Canadian band to explore the grittier, heavier side of rock at the time, it remains a very derivative album, the band shamelessly paying homage to Cream and Led Zeppelin, with Lifeson's riffs echoing Clapton and Page, Lee's chirpy voice coming across as a more polite, less cocksure Robert Plant. At its worst, which is nearly all of side one, its reliance on cliché is awkward: Lee's faux-American twang on "Take A Friend" is so obvious it's distracting, "Here Again" is tepid rather than slow-burning, while "Need Some Love" shows how badly the band needed a lyricist.
At its best, however, Rush is a scorching little rock 'n' roll record with surprising musical depth. With its marvelous, nimble fade-in intro by Lifeson, "Finding My Way" is a rambunctious way for Rush to introduce itself, its tone a lot more upbeat and optimistic despite the ominous, blues-derived lyrics. "What You're Doing" boasts a colossal groove, whose power would be amplified tenfold on the 1976 live album All The World's A Stage. Although hearing Lee sing, "Well-a hey now, baybeh," on "In The Mood" makes this writer smirk to this day, it remains a cute, quaint little garage rock tune. "Before And After," on the other hand, is an oft-overlooked highlight, bolstered by a gorgeous, pastoral first half that hints at musical territory Rush would explore on A Farewell To Kings three short years later.
The debut album's pinnacle is the final track, as "Working Man" swaggers in with a colossal heavy metal riff courtesy of Lifeson. Its lyrical simplicity ("I get up at seven, yeah/ And I go to work at nine/ I got no time for livin'/ Yes, I'm workin' all the time") is the one moment where it actually works. After all, blue-collar rock requires blue-collar lyrics, and it's rather fitting that the place where Rush got its first big break would happen to be working class Cleveland, who quickly embraced the track when it started spinning on WMMS radio. That popularity would in turn lead to the album's re-release in the United States, and better yet, loads of tour dates south of the border.
Unfortunately for Rutsey, the combination of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle and his diabetes contributed to his deteriorating health in early 1974, and with Rush's greatly increased commitments it quickly became clear he couldn't continue at that pace. The band needed a replacement, and they'd find one in the parts manager at a tractor dealer in St. Catharines, Ontario. Enter the Professor, and the rest, as they say, would be history.
When Rush's 13th album came out in late 1989, much was made about the band's purported return to the classic power trio hard rock of the early days. After a near decade of keyboard-centered forays into new wave and pop, this was Lee, Lifeson, and Peart's glorious return to rock, or as the press releases and interviews would lead folks to believe. And indeed, the band sounded a lot more robust on the lead-off single "Show Don't Tell" than they had in many years, the song kicking off with a quirky little groove that sounded lively and fun, and for many fans it was a joy to hear a new song that just had Dirk, Lerxt, and the Professor on bass, guitar, and drums. However, that brief little snippet, hyped as it was, was more of a red herring than anything else, as Presto would turn out to be yet another continuation of Rush's great pop experiment.
Replacing Peter Collins as producer was Rupert Hine, another British producer with a very strong pop/new wave background, having worked on albums by The Fixx, Howard Jones, and Tina Turner. Ironically, it would be Hine who would ease Rush out from under all the synths, resulting in an album that would make the arrangements more rock-oriented while still maintaining the strong pop sensibility of the band's musical direction at the time. However, what makes Presto such an anomaly in the band's discography is that despite bringing that traditional rock element back, it remains an oddly twee album.
Twee, but at its best, endearingly so. And the album does get off to a very strong start with four excellent tracks. "Show Don't Tell" is a prime example of Rush's skill at creating sly little prog rock suites in the pop milieu, balancing heavy rock, acoustic-tinged verses, and anthemic choruses. In lesser hands it would feel incongruous, but the way the band builds to the surprisingly graceful bridge -- with keyboards by Lee that enhance rather than overwhelm -- is masterful. "Chain Lightning" is much more conventional, perhaps a little beneath Rush, but they make it work, thanks to an affable little chorus accentuated by thin-sounding guitars by Lifeson that are so late-'80s they practically scream "Stephen Street." Equally rote is "War Paint," but the song offers a very good balance of pulsating rock and shimmering pop, culminating in a pleasing climactic chorus in its final minute. The real ace, however, is the majestic "The Pass." Prior to that song Rush's attempts at balladry always felt forced, but "The Pass" exudes grace, Peart eloquently musing about teen suicide ("Raging at unreachable glory/ Straining at invisible chains") and Lee turning in one of the best vocal performances of his career. It's a song the band remains immensely proud of -- Peart admits he gets choked up every time he plays it -- and one it still performs to this day.
After such an assured start, Presto quickly takes a turn for the worse. Featuring African-inspired rhythms by Peart and very ill-advised bass composed on sequencer, "Scars" goes awry almost instantly, the sound of a band more preoccupied with sounding like Midnight Oil than sticking to its own strengths. "Superconductor" is far too playful to work, coming across as an awkwardly assembled novelty, a shocking misfire by a usually reliable trio of songwriters, not to mention a horrible, horrible choice as a single. While "Anagram (For Mongo)" is a worthy mellow excursion, the closing trifecta of "Red Tide," "Hand Over Fist," and "Available Light" slips into pure schmaltz, as Rush and Hine reduce the music to bland AOR fodder.
After an astounding series of high quality albums, this was the first Rush record since Fly By Night where the difference from excellent to mediocre was that wide. Still, the popularity of "Show Don't Tell" and "The Pass" helped make Presto a modest success, enough to encourage Rush to continue its partnership with Hine. Only next time, the results would be far more polarizing, and, in the opinion of many, disastrous.
Hold Your Fire (1987)
So begins Rush's Great Pop Experiment. Having first joined forces with British producer Peter Collins on 1985's Power Windows, it was clear Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were interested in exploring the more accessible side of their music. Yet even on albums as radical as Signals, Grace Under Pressure, and Power Windows, there was enough of a dynamic edge to them that served as a reminder of their power trio past. However, they were a particularly restless bunch in the 1980s, much more interested in remodeling their sound rather than pandering to fans of their 1970s era. After all, what's progressive rock without actual progression? The trouble was, in the eyes of some -- especially critics with a stodgily rockist point of view -- Rush's musical output from 1987 to 1991 was and continues to be viewed as somewhat of a regression.
Hold Your Fire was the first such album, and remains the best of the three that Rush put out during this period. Unlike the counterbalance of U2/Big Country-derived rock and cutting-edge electronics that made Power Windows so unique, Hold Your Fire is much more streamlined -- the difference between the two sides much narrower and less jarring. In other words, meeting right smack in the middle of the road. It was happening all over progressive rock in the 1980s, from Yes to Genesis, and at its best Rush's album matches the crossover likeability of 90125 and Invisible Touch step for step.
The high points are positively stratospheric, starting with the shimmering single "Time Stand Still." Featuring a memorable cameo appearance by Aimee Mann, the song contains one of the best hooks the band has ever written, sung charismatically by Lee and featuring playful instrumentation by all three members. The band's mastery of the pop form is superb as the guitar, bass, and drums accentuate the track rather than dominate, with tremendous restraint shown. The lively pair of "Force Ten" and "Turn The Page" are the closest things to hard rock on the album, its edges buffed to a sheen, while "Prime Mover," "Lock And Key," and the ballad "Mission" form a very likeable centerpiece linking sides one and two. There are a few '80s pop sins committed that stick in the craw to this day -- the horn synth stabs in "Force Ten" are unforgivable -- but Peart's lyrics are typically erudite yet personable, the big '80s optimism of the arrangements and the more introspective lyrical themes coalescing well.
After an incredible run of seven consecutive albums where a foot was rarely if ever put wrong, Hold Your Fire shows serious kinks in the armor. "Second Nature" is a little too slick, its keyboard-drenched arrangement slipping into motivational anthem schlock. Even worse is the egregious "Tai Shan," an attempt to pay tribute to Chinese classical music but comes off as hollow. The band has since conceded that the track should never have been included on the album.
Despite its slight lack of consistency, Hold Your Fire maintained Rush's impressive commercial success in the 1980s, hitting the top ten in Canada and the UK, peaking at 13 in America. Four of the album's better songs would figure prominently on the 1989 live album A Show Of Hands, showing how well they translated live. While A Show Of Hands closed out Rush's deal with Mercury in America, it would be steady as she goes for Rush on the follow-up, which would be the band's first for Atlantic Records. There might have been the odd tweak or two to the music, but Rush's gaze would remain focused on the centerline of that road for a few more years yet.
Fly By Night (1975)
The difference between Rush's debut album and its follow-up Fly By Night is astonishing, and you hear it immediately in the opening bars of "Anthem." The blue-collar, Zeppelin and Cream-derived heavy rock is replaced by a clever blend of progressive rock complexity and heavy metal fire -- guitar and bass displaying flamboyance rather than groove, punctuated by cannonading bursts by the trio's gawky new drummer. And those verbose lyrics are a far cry from the "Hey now baby, I like your smile" of the previous album:
"Anthem of the heart and anthem of the mind/ A funeral dirge for eyes gone blind/ We marvel after those who sought/ The wonders of the world, wonders of the world/ Wonders of the world they wrought."
Indeed, Fly By Night is defined by Neil Peart, who joined Rush in mid-1974 when drummer John Rutsey was physically unable to continue touring with the band. Peart's unparalleled skill inspired Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson to step up their game, and the end result is a confident step towards a series of groundbreaking albums that took hard rock and heavy metal into strange, ambitious new territory. Additionally, it was clear the band was fully aware they needed a lyricist in a desperately bad way ("Hey, he reads books," is the famous line Lee and Lifeson cite as the reason to have Peart write the lyrics) and Peart's efforts on this album offer a glimpse at the rich science fiction and fantasy themes the band would immerse itself in over the next four or five years.
The way the band playfully tinkers with the art rock affectations of Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer in such an unpretentious manner is a big reason why Fly By Night is so charming to this day. Coming on the heels of the ferocious "Anthem," "Beneath, Between, And Behind" is an ebullient little three-minute electric romp that echoes English folk music, while "Rivendell" explores Tolkien themes by delving into much more restrained, acoustic fare, marking the first time audiences hear restraint from this power trio. The breezy title track echoes Yes at its most pastoral -- and a little Byrds, for that matter -- and Peart's wistful musing about leaving home for the first time has gone on to be an enduring classic rock single to this day.
"By-Tor And The Snow Dog," meanwhile, is the most important song on the album, anticipating the progressive metal epics that Rush would compose over the course of the following five albums. An eight and a half-minute suite that cleverly builds tension during a remarkable instrumental break -- led by a revelatory performance by Peart -- it also marks the first time listeners catch a glimpse of the band's uncanny knack for sly humor behind the experimental façade. Peart might have brought instrumental brilliance and literary ambition to Rush, but he also helped instill a sense of levity -- and you can't help but crack a smile upon learning that the epic fantasy tale of "By-Tor And The Snow Dog" is nothing more than a joke about how one of Rush's roadies was accosted by the two dogs owned by Anthem Records boss Ray Danniels.
As major a turning point as Fly By Night is, it's by no means perfect, and is still very rough around the edges. "Best I Can" feels like a leftover from the debut album, its pedestrian approach -- not to mention Lee's lyrics -- clashing with the ambition of the rest of the record. "Rivendell" carries on for twice as long as it should, and the seven-minute "In The End" doesn't coalesce nearly as well as "By-Tor" does. Still, Fly By Night remains a sentimental favorite of many Rush fans, the turning point where the band started to forge its own identity. The band's most definitive work was still off in the distance, but the boys were now well on their way.
It goes without saying that the rock music landscape was a lot different in 1993 than it was in 1991. With the post-grunge groundswell conquering mainstream radio and indie/alternative rock and Britpop flourishing as a direct response to such blandness, veteran bands were forced to make some serious decisions if they wanted to stay relevant. Including Rush. The sleek, middle-of-the-road, pop-driven sound that dominated the band's 1987-1991 incarnation had gone as far as it could, and with sullen, gritty guitar rock suddenly becoming de rigueur, such lightweight music quickly became yesterday's news. Although it was clearly time for a shift in Rush's musical direction regardless of what was trendy at the moment, Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were absolutely aware of what was going on around them, and if there was a perfect time to return to the heavy rock of their roots, it was then.
The choice of "Stick It Out" as the first single from Rush's 15th album stuck in the craw of many fans, and for good reason. With its thick, muddy, doomy riff, slight atonality, and prototypical alt-rock beat, its intentions were clear -- just like all other classic rock and metal bands "grunge-ifying" their sounds in the 1990s -- and such a move seemed beneath these three classy fellows from Canada. As a song it wasn't bad, but it felt as shallow as such previous missteps as "Tai Shan," "Scars," and "Heresy." But what do you know, the tactic worked marvelously, as "Stick It Out" became a significant hit in America, topping the mainstream rock chart. And to the relief of fans, the rest of the new album would turn out to be much, much better than that single led people to believe.
In a period where so many older bands sounded lost as they tried to adjust to rapidly changing times, Counterparts sees Rush embracing change with typical grace and charm. The band reunited with Peter Collins, who in the time since 1987's Hold Your Fire had built up his heavy metal pedigree considerably, producing Gary Moore's After The War and Queensrÿche's classics Operation: Mindcrime and Empire. However, the bigger influence on this record would be engineer Kevin Shirley, a dynamo whose effort and input on this album would earn a unique, Steve Albini-esque "recorded by" credit. Shirley encouraged the band to thicken its sound, imploring Lee to dust off his old Rickenbacker bass and Peart to embrace a grittier drum tone. The biggest beneficiary from Shirley's input was Lifeson, the focal point on a Rush album for the first time in a very, very long time. Consequently, he sounds reborn on this album.
Indeed, once you get past "Stick It Out," Counterparts is a surprisingly vibrant album despite that return to heavier tones. Keyboards are only used to subtly enhance the otherwise power trio-oriented tracks, but when it's done, it's done beautifully, as on the excellent first track "Animate," which combines a wicked groove -- what a joy it is to hear the guys coalescing like they do here -- with a soaring, catchy chorus. The ebullient "Between Sun And Moon" lets even more light in, thanks to playful rock riffing by Lifeson and a chorus that features Lee's best singing on the record. The nervous "Alien Shore" and "Cold Fire" bring welcome energy to the album, while the surreal "Double Agent" and the whimsical, Grammy-nominated instrumental "Leave That Thing Alone" both find the band flexing its progressive rock muscle again, for the first time in forever. Forming the emotional core of the album is the heartfelt "Nobody's Hero," Peart's most poignant ballad since "The Pass" four years earlier, which is accentuated beautifully by some uncharacteristically restrained orchestration by the normally bombastic Michael Kamen.
The initial success of "Stick It Out" -- yours truly has slowly warmed up to the song in the last 20 years -- played a big role in propelling Counterparts to a surprising number two placing in grunge-obsessed America, topped only by Pearl Jam's Vs. The band would end up voicing its dissatisfaction with the album's sound and Shirley's dominance of the recording sessions, but contrary to what Rush thinks, it has aged well, one of the most underrated albums in its discography. Still, after a steady pace of albums and tours, the band was tired. It was time for the guys to slow down, and it wouldn't be for another three years until the world would hear from Rush again.
Power Windows (1985)
After the debacle that was the making of Grace Under Pressure, in which producer Steve Lillywhite bailed on the project at the last minute and forced Rush to make a hasty decision it would regret, the band made a point of finding a true studio collaborator, one who could see eye to eye with the band, yet guide them and make sure all the experimentation served the song, not self-indulgence. Lee, Lifeson, and Peart would find the partner they were looking for in Peter Collins, a British producer with a strictly pop pedigree. With credits that included Nik Kershaw, Tracey Ullmann, and Musical Youth (yes, he was partially responsible for "Pass The Dutchie"), it was a very outside-the-box choice, but then again, left-field decisions were now the norm when it came to Rush, and this collaboration would serve both sides well, as Power Windows would be the first of four albums they'd make together.
Some folks like to consider Power Windows and Grace Under Pressure companion albums, claiming the heavy use of 1980s synthesizers and Peart's social commentary make them essentially the same kind of record, but in fact the two couldn't be more different. Sure, the band's new wave/post-punk predilections are at their zenith, but while Grace Under Pressure was cold and dystopian, Power Windows is much more wry and satirical, and at times hints at optimism, even utopianism. And with Collins at the helm, the band is able to offset any trace of cynicism with bright, vivid melodies and production. That contrast of Technicolor and shade is one some Rush fans can't come to grips with to this day, its mid-'80s sleekness a little too shimmering, but rather than sounding trendy, the album is far more inventive than it lets on.
Adorned with horn synths blasting away and featuring some of Peart's liveliest drumming in years, not to mention a tremendous solo by Lifeson, "The Big Money" is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the increased power of the extremely rich in the 1980s global economy. Better yet, though, it's a surprisingly ferocious rocker, and would become a live favorite for decades to come. "Grand Designs" nicks a lot from U2 and Big Country, which is ironic considering Peart's lampooning of mainstream music ("So much style without substance/ So much stuff without style"), but it's smart co-option rather than mere imitation. Lifeson's performance is vivid, the song's vocal hooks are glorious. "Marathon" finds the band benefiting from Collins's pop smarts, Peart's obvious yet endearing use of the marathon as a metaphor for life reflected very well in the streamlined song, which kicks into high gear thanks to some smart modulation near the end.
Power Windows does take on heavier subjects, with "Manhattan Project" being the most glaring example, but Peart does a splendid job injecting the theme of the hydrogen bomb with humanity and compassion. Meanwhile, the arrangement is not so much dark as elegiac, its sad beauty accentuated by a string arrangement and some lovely synth work by Lee. Both "Territories" and "Middletown Dreams" come dangerously close to repeating the "Subdivisions" theme too much, but the former's tribal beats and the latter's quiet optimism ("It's understood by every single person who'd be elsewhere if they could/ Life's not unpleasant/ In their little neighborhood") make them a couple of late-album charmers. The only misstep on an otherwise strong record is the tepid "Emotion Detector," but Power Windows quickly rights itself and comes to a graceful conclusion with "Mystic Rhythms." It's the first time listeners hear Peart's exploration of African drumming, which would become a real passion of his in the years to come, his unique electronic drum beats giving the understated ballad much more personality than a lesser drummer would be capable of.
What makes Power Windows somewhat of an anomaly in the Rush back catalog up to that point is that it marks the first time the band brought in outside help to enhance its music, which until then was made to be replicated live by the trio. But by 1985 sequencers and samplers were changing the landscape of what rock music could do, and the cutting-edge keyboard programming of Andy Richards would be triggered in concert via pedals. Also notable about the album is that it contains Lee's strongest singing to date, as he was becoming much more confident as a lead singer rather than shrieker. He starts to show some serious range and emotional depth on this album, especially on tracks like "Grand Designs" and "Middletown Dreams."
Interestingly, although Rush continued to be ignored by the critical elite, Power Windows garnered a good deal of acclaim. In fact, David Fricke raved about the album in Rolling Stone, so wrapped up in his fanboy sentiment he'd go a little overboard with hyperbole, declaring, "Power Windows may well be the missing link between Yes and the Sex Pistols." Well, not quite, Dave, but it's still a terrific little album -- despite the horn synths -- and the band's lasting pride in it would be reflected on its 2012-2013 tour, on which six Power Windows songs would be performed. After this album, which would be yet another top ten, platinum-selling success in America, Rush would begin a period of relative comfort as it would continue to see just how far into pop its music could go. The guys were still seven years away from going off the deep end, however, and the next album would feature some of their best blends of prog, rock, new wave, and pop.
Snakes & Arrows (2007)
By the 2000s, Rush had been around long enough for lifelong fans of the band to start making waves in the music industry, and it was with the coaxing and coaching of one such individual considerably younger than them that Rush discovered another gear. Nick Raskulinecz made a name for himself after working on best-selling albums by Foo Fighters and Velvet Revolver, and soon after his hiring both parties would discover just how perfect a fit he was. Raskulinecz brought his perspective as a fan to the band, insisting that it would benefit Rush more to honor its history than simply trying something boldly different for the umpteenth time. Not having a rear-view mirror had always worked to the band's advantage, but it was time to learn it was possible to evoke certain eras of Rush's history and still make vital, brave new music.
The end result would be the extraordinary Snakes & Arrows, which is every bit a pleasure as 2002's Vapor Trails was trying, and indeed, Lee, Lifeson, and Peart have gushed about how pleasant an experience it was making the record with Raskulinecz. From the opening bars of "Far Cry" through its 62-minute running time, it's an incredibly rich and vital record, whose tone echoes the brilliant use of force and texture on 2112 more than three decades before. In fact, the song is not only a brilliant choice as first single, but a fitting mission statement by the band. Atop an energetic arrangement, Peart muses in the stirring chorus, "One day I feel I'm ahead of the wheel and the next its rollin' over me/ I can get back on." They might have been down for a while, but buoyed by their success as a live draw and the sheer fun of the Feedback mini-album, this is a clear indication the guys are back, and mean business.
The focus might still be on Rush the power trio, but that guitar-centric sound is far more varied than anything heard on Vapor Trails, 1996's Test For Echo, and 1993's Counterparts. Although each member is an irreplaceable cog in the machine, Lifeson is the clear star of this show. Taking a hint from Pete Townshend and David Gilmour, his robust riffs are often underscored by acoustic guitar, which makes the songs sound less sludgy, giving the music more depth. "Armor And Sword" features a dazzling array of clean-sounding, undistorted guitars, hearkening back to Lifeson's work in the early-1980s, while the upbeat "The Larger Bowl (A Pantoum)" is highlighted by an inspired, shredding solo, which fans welcomed with open arms after the solo-deficient Vapor Trails. "Spindrift" plunges headlong into darkness, but like the more ominous moments of 2112 and A Farewell To Kings, Lifeson finds the right balance between heaviness and melody. "The Way The Wind Blows" sees him veering more towards a blues style, channeling his inner Stevie Ray Vaughan, while his playing on the underrated deep cut is more jazz-oriented. And if that wasn't enough, he gets a solo turn on the pretty acoustic instrumental "Hope."
Of course, the band's real strength, the undeniable chemistry between the three, can be heard from the get-go, and especially flourishes on two more instrumentals. "Malignant Narcissism" is a joy to hear, as the band lets loose on a wicked, funk-fueled jam, while "The Main Monkey Business" is far more subtle, allowing Peart, who otherwise puts in a tremendously taut and disciplined performance on the rest of the album, more than enough room to loosen up and tinker with rhythms, indulging his fascination with African percussion to beautiful effect as the song builds and builds in intensity only to climax with a heavy rock barrage reminiscent of Rush in the mid-1970s.
Coming to a rousing conclusion with the optimistic "We Hold On," with Lifeson fittingly steering the music skyward, Snakes & Arrows was a welcome breath of fresh air in a discography that was starting to get awfully stale. Charting in the top three in both America and Canada, fans were quick to embrace the new album, which only sustained Rush's post-2000 run as a major concert draw, which continues to this day. With the very successful 2010 documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage and the 2010-2011 Time Machine world tour that celebrated the 30th anniversary of Moving Pictures, it was easy to wonder if Rush was enjoying a bit of a late-career victory lap, but it so happened the boys had one more good idea up their sleeves, and it would yield one of their best albums ever.
Permanent Waves (1980)
By 1979 Rush was not the only band shattering myths about the musical limitations of a rock trio. The Police were also making a huge splash, both commercially and among the critical cognoscenti, as the debut album Outlandos D’Amour and its follow-up Regatta De Blanc dominated that year with their ingenious blends of rock, new wave, and reggae. The Police's rise was not lost on Rush, who quickly became great admirers of what its British peers were pulling off. Alex Lifeson was especially impressed by the lean, taut, minimalist guitar style of Andy Summers, and as the band commenced writing its sixth album in the summer of that year, that influence started to creep into the music.
Coming off the intense, highly intricate progressive rock of Hemispheres, Rush desperately needed a change of direction, a change of pace. The music, as well as the band, had to lighten up. They found the perfect recording location in Le Studio in Morin Heights, Quebec, nestled in the pretty Laurentian Mountains, and according to the band, the making of Permanent Waves was as fun as Hemispheres was torture. Indeed, when you listen to both albums back to back, as exceptional as Hemipheres is, Permanent Waves feels like someone threw open the shades and let sunshine and a pleasant breeze in. The music was still as experimental as ever, only in markedly different ways: some tentative steps, the odd regression, as well as a few moments of pure genius.
Permanent Waves will, first and foremost, always be about "The Spirit Of Radio." Not only was the song Rush's big "Eureka!" moment where the band learned it didn't have to stretch a song past the ten-minute mark to get its point across, but it remains a brilliantly constructed pop song. Wryly lifting its title from an advertising slogan used by Toronto radio station CFNY, "The Spirit Of Radio" simplifies the arrangement to an alarming degree, letting the hooks -- and there are several -- carry the music rather than the riffs. Unlike "Closer To The Heart," which was ornate to the point of rigidity, this song opens up and moves. Lee no longer felt obligated to scream and shriek, instead singing in a more measured lower register, instantly making the music more personable. And best of all, it sounds like the guys are simply enjoying themselves for the first time in ages.
You can never take the prog fully out of Rush, though, and as catchy and breezy as "The Spirit Of Radio" is, it's still a clever little suite, comprised of four distinct sections: a swaggering heavy rock groove, shimmering verses highlighted by Lifeson's chiming notes and Peart's lively ride cymbal, bridges accentuated by (then) modern-sounding synthesizers, and a clever reprise of the intro riff, only done in whimsical, reggae style -- that Police influence rising to the surface. Tying it all together are some of Peart's finest lyrics, which are as subtle a savaging of the music industry as that's ever been written. "One likes to believe in the freedom of music," he opines, "But glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity," capping it off with an hilarious play on "Sounds Of Silence": "For the words of the prophets were written on the studio wall/ Concert hall/ And echoes with the sounds of salesmen."
If there's a fault to be found on Permanent Waves, it's that the rest of the record can't quite measure up to that lead-off track, a good example being "Free Will," which attempts a similar formula, executes it nicely, but with Peart's wooden lyrics to Lee's unfortunate regression into upper-register singing, sorely lacks depth in comparison. Still, there are several exciting moments to be discovered, such as the beautiful "Entre Nous," which anticipates the more melodic, restrained approach the band would focus on over the next dozen years. On that track keyboards become more prominent than ever, as does the eccentric yet enthralling closing track "Natural Science," which starts off feeling like a rather conventional Rush epic until whooshes of synth interrupt the proceedings and steer the song in a much more adventurous direction involving stuttering syncopation and darker musical themes, predating the first progressive metal wave of the late-1980s. Like on "The Spirit Of Radio," that new wave element is ever present, as well as those Police-style reggae nods, a hint that this might not be a whim but a sign of things to come.
Elsewhere, "Jacob's Ladder" isn't as big a revelation as "Natural Science" but holds its own as a murkier mood piece, the album's one concrete link to its heavy rock past. Meanwhile the ballad "Different Strings" employs acoustic guitar and piano, and although it doesn't click as well as Rush's best pop moments on 1989's Presto, you can now sense those seeds starting to germinate.
Not only did Rush fans immediately embrace the band's surprising new musical direction, but plenty of new listeners did as well. "The Spirit Of Radio" had mild success in North America but was a significant hit in the UK, peaking at 13. Meanwhile Permanent Waves did extraordinarily well, becoming Rush's first US top five album, the first of six consecutive top ten releases. At the end of "Natural Science" Peart tosses in another comment about those disturbing bedfellows art and commerce, one that can easily be seen as a statement on Rush's own determination to do things their way:
"Art as expression/ Not as market campaigns/ Will still capture our imaginations."
Mercury Records had, by then, long given up telling Rush what to do. The band was afforded a chance to do things their way, and it was paying off better than the label could ever have dreamed. By the beginning of the 1980s it was one of the biggest rock bands in the world. However, with its next album a year later, Rush would become legendary.
Clockwork Angels (2012)
When it came to a potential follow-up to the excellent 2007 album Snakes & Arrows, Rush seemed on the cautious side as word spread that they were tinkering with ideas for new songs. Those ideas became a handful of songs the trio was genuinely excited about, so much so that they released two tracks in 2010 -- the exuberant "Caravan" and the heavy "BU2B" -- long before the album would ever be finished. Then came reports that not only was a new album, titled Clockwork Angels, being written and recorded, but it was going to be a full-on concept album. A steampunk themed concept album, complete with a novelization of the story and a companion comic book series. Before anyone knew it, Rush's 19th full-length was shaping up to be its most ambitious work since 1982's Signals. It was an exciting prospect, but one that had many, including yours truly, seriously wondering if they could pull it off.
At 66 minutes, there's a lot to take in on Clockwork Angels, so much that it requires several listens for it all to start to settle in. "Caravan" and "BU2B" immediately elicit comparisons to the mid-1970s when they power trio sound was at its most robust, but the melodies, be they from Lee's singing or Lifeson's guitar, lend the tracks so much more dynamism. At seven and a half minutes the title track is a suite-like composition that careens from shimmering to thunderous, Lifeson showing great dexterity, his guitar work lively and unpredictable. A sense of defiance permeates "The Anarchist" as the threesome play insistently and forcefully, while "Carnies" sees them veering from slow, massive grooves to upbeat, melodic choruses. "Seven Cities Of Gold," meanwhile, is built around a central riff that sounds straight from the first Rush album, simple, bluesy and heavy.
The last third of the album, though, turns out to be the most rewarding, the protagonist in Peart's remarkably vivid story growing from innocence to experience reflected beautifully in the music. Aside from the bracing, "Bastille Day"-referencing "Headlong Flight" the compositions start to become less throttling and more introspective. "The Garden" hearkens back to the more pastoral touches of the A Farewell To Kings album and climaxes with a wrenchingly pretty coda, and "Wish Them Well" benefits hugely from its more textured arrangement, Lifeson's chiming, upbeat riffs complementing Lee's layered vocals and Peart's optimistic lyrics. Topping those songs and turning out to be the best song on the entire album is the gorgeous "The Wreckers," which starts off with a blatant, Byrds-referencing opening riff that segues into the kind of iridescent, mature work the band wrote during their Presto period. With its ascending string arrangements and Peart's worldly lyrics ("All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary/ Of a miracle too good to be true/ All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary/ Everything in life you thought you knew") it's a good enough song to declare it the best "mellow" Rush song since "The Pass."
While Peart's lyrics are always a highlight for fans, there's more focus on his writing this time around because of the whole concept album angle. And it's quite a concept, described as, "a young man's quest across a lavish and colorful world of steampunk and alchemy as he attempts to follow his dreams, [featuring] lost cities, pirates, anarchists, an exotic carnival, and a rigid Watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life." Make no mistake, though, this is no rock opera, with songs frantically trying to provide exposition along with hooks. Instead, each song is a chapter in the protagonist's life, with Peart simply painting a vivid portrait of that moment in the story's time. In doing so Peart is able to stick with the central themes while making each vague enough to not detract from the appeal of individual tracks, not to mention giving author Kevin J. Anderson a lot of creative freedom as far as the novelization goes. Just as the songs grow more musically mellow as the record progresses, the lyrics become more thoughtful and reflective, to the point where the line between the character and Peart himself starts to blur. By album's end you could easily assume he's writing from his own point of view, looking back on his own life: "The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect/ The way you live, the gifts that you give/ In the fullness of time/ It's the only return that you expect…It's a measure of a life."
Although Snakes & Arrows was an excellent album, Clockwork Angels is even better, thanks in part to the thematic and musical focus of Peart, Lifeson, and Lee. At times the band rocks as hard as they did on 2112, and others they sound as soulful -- that's right, even prog nerds have soul -- as they ever have, and they do so with supreme skill and confidence. With the perspective of time, Neil Young's notion of burning out versus fading away seems outdated and foolish now. Instead, with Rush hitting a stunning creative peak as its career comes closer to its end, there's another Young phrase that seems even more fitting: "Long may you run."
A Farewell To Kings (1977)
Touring hard in support of the hard-earned breakthrough 2112 album, with a live album put out as a stopgap release, it took a year and a half for the follow-up to see the light of day. When it hit stores in September of 1977, the Rush fans heard on A Farewell To Kings was a transformed band bursting at the seams with new ideas. The band could have milked the prog-meets-heavy metal formula of 2112 successfully, but Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were all showing incredible growth as musicians, and A Farewell To Kings was the first tentative step towards the full-on experimentation that would come into full bloom in the 1980s.
Significant changes were afoot, which you can immediately sense on this album. Peart's drum kit was expanding as he started to explore keyboard percussion such as tubular bells and orchestra bells. Lifeson started incorporating more non-hard rock/metal elements into his guitar work, while Lee was discovering keyboards, using Minimoog and bass synthesizer pedals on the record. In addition, the band headed to England to record the album, hoping to draw inspiration from the flourishing progressive rock scene there, and that pastoral element dominates the entire record -- from Lifeson's acoustic interludes, to the emphasis on lilting, folk-derived melodies, to the marked emphasis on atmosphere over sheer force.
Hearing the three members step completely outside their comfort zones on the title track that kicks off the album -- Lifeson on classical guitar, Lee on synthesizer, Peart on glockenspiel -- the prevailing sense on the track is one of elegance, even during the heavier power trio parts. It's uplifting, downright pretty, even. "Cinderella Man" and "Madrigal" would continue into this decidedly English direction, as would an innocuous little ballad that would be the band's biggest-charting single in North America, and more significantly, its first breakthrough in the UK. With its instantly memorable melody and uplifting lyrics by Peart and his friend Peter Talbot, "Closer To The Heart" finds Rush utilizing the same formula as "Fly By Night" three years earlier, but streamlining it. The band was learning to blend its quirky style within the pop milieu, and that song is a perfect example, one of the band's most enduring singles and now regarded as one of the best Canadian songs of all time.
Make no mistake, however, Rush was still very much ensconced in its epic progressive rock direction on A Farewell To Kings, only compared to 2112 there's a great deal more nuance, thanks in large part to the band's newfound mastery of program music. Utilizing the time-honored classical tradition of creating atmosphere via musical instruments -- albeit in the rock genre -- the album's two lengthy tracks show remarkable depth and growth, with one in particular going on to be one of Rush's greatest compositions of all time.
As mildly intriguing as the sci-fi epic "Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage" is, it's dwarfed by the towering "Xanadu." Opening with a gorgeous, abstract intro of synth drones, playful guitar notes, wood blocks, bells, and chirping birds, the Coleridge-referencing "Xanadu" transports the listener into fantasy territory, and when Lifeson's repeated arpeggio riff kicks in, the feeling is positively cinematic. When the song kicks into gear at the three-minute mark, it's clear the band has never sounded this musically complex and concise. Lifeson's guitar playing is multihued, Peart's fills are increasingly busy, and Lee's synths become a focal point for the first time in the band's career. Yet as instrumentally challenging it is, as unorthodox in structure, it's a relentlessly catchy piece of work, matching "2112" step for step, albeit in half the time.
Even more impressive would be how Rush pulled off a song like "Xanadu" in a live setting, with Peart behind his increasingly elaborate kit, Lifeson on double-necked 12 and six-string guitar, and Lee on double-necked four-string bass and 12-string guitar, not to mention his Minimoog synth and bass pedals. And indeed, demand for this now firmly established live band grew a great deal after the release of A Farewell To Kings, especially in the UK in the wake of the success of "Closer To The Heart." Contrary to popular opinion today, progressive rock was doing just fine in punk-dominated 1977, thank you very much, and A Farewell To Kings would influence a generation of young British musicians who would soon comprise the equally epochal New Wave of British Heavy Metal a couple years later.
By late 1977 Rush was in full flight, a resounding commercial success despite near-total apathy from critics ("The most obnoxious band currently making a killing on the zonked teen circuit," opined Robert Christgau that year). A Farewell To Kings was certified gold in America two months after its release, with 2112 and the All The World's A Stage live album achieving similar status shortly after. There was no looking back now, and Rush would pull out all the stops on an astounding follow-up, one that many fans claim is one of the band's pinnacle achievements, but one the members would say nearly came at the cost of their own sanity.
Grace Under Pressure (1984)
If there's one era of Rush's long history that causes the most division among fans and critics, it's the band's new wave years, from 1982 through 1987. Traditional rock elements were eschewed in favor of experimentation with electronic music. The classic heavy guitar riff was no longer a factor, replaced by strong emphasis on hooks and texture. Lee, who had switched from his old-timey Rickenbacker bass to a more streamlined and contemporary Steinberger, was becoming cooped up behind his massive bank of keyboards and sequencers, while Peart was discovering electronic drums. Unlike some fans who don't want change and crave only "the old stuff," the trio didn't want to become dinosaurs. They were changing with the times: they wore more fashionable clothes onstage, Lee grew a mullet, Peart a rat tail, Lifeson a snappy short new wave haircut. Considering a huge portion of their Canadian fanbase was still the teen hesher type, clad in scruffy plaid flannel, denim, and Cougar boots, it was understandable that some screamed bloody murder that their favorite band dared to look different.
Now that 30 years have passed since the release of Grace Under Pressure, it's high time to acknowledge with the benefit and perspective of hindsight that not only is it a lot better than baby boomer critics were willing to admit in 1984, but it ranks as one of Rush's finest albums, period.
Although the experimental, keyboard-driven Signals was a platinum-selling triumph, a clear indication that audiences were willing to embrace the band's departure from heavy rock, Rush began to regret how that album turned out sounding. Lee, Peart, and Lifeson especially have spoken about how Signals lacked edginess and heaviness, thanks in large part to Lifeson being nudged out of the picture. Part of the blame was placed on producer Terry Brown, and after a decade of working with the imaginative producer the band felt it was time for a change, instead opting to hire Steve Lillywhite to helm the new album, who, having worked on acclaimed albums by Peter Gabriel, U2 and Big Country, was one of the hottest producers in the business. Much to the band's chagrin, however, Lillywhite bailed on the project at the last minute, and a replacement was found in Supertramp producer Peter Henderson. Instead of hiring a studio leader, however, the band found itself with a person who was a better engineer than producer and wound up with the added stress of making production decisions themselves. Consequently, the making of Grace Under Pressure was a lot longer and more arduous than the previous three albums.
If anything, the added burden had to have helped create Grace Under Pressure's distinct mood. Although it remains defiantly lacking in distortion and bombast, it remains one of the heaviest albums in Rush's history, especially thematically. Written in the middle of the conservative Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney era -- a time of inflation, unemployment, and societal strife -- the state of the world in 1983-'84 had a huge influence on Peart, whose lyrics delved into very dark motifs. Mortality, paranoia, the Holocaust, dystopian future, and the Cold War are all subjects that keep cropping up on a very bleak yet thoughtful album.
What sticks out most on Grace Under Pressure, however, is how the balance between synthesizers and guitar is a lot more even, as Lifeson is given more room to shine than on Signals. As a result there's a better sense of dynamics on this album than on Signals -- more of a push-and-pull between rock and electronic -- which only adds to the tension on a very nervous-sounding album. Although he's not in full rock god mode, Lifeson is a dynamo on this record, providing brilliant counterbalance and lean melodies on "Afterimage," wicked ska riffing on the propulsive "The Enemy Within," and great richness to "Kid Gloves."
Three songs in particular play a large role in making Grace Under Pressure such a strong album. Named after the Distant Early Warning Line of missile-detecting radar stations in Arctic Canada, "Distant Early Warning" is an eloquent state-of-the-world address circa 1984, referencing nuclear fallout ("no swimming in the heavy water"), acid rain, communism, and an anguished cry of "Absalom," chosen by Peart as a play on the words "absolute" and "obsolete" and a reference to King David's grieving for his son in the Old Testament ("Absalom, Absalom. My son, my son. Would God I had died for thee"). "Between The Wheels" closes the album on a very ominous and bleak note, discordant synth stabs countered by Lifeson's heaviest guitar tones since "Witch Hunt" three years earlier. The beautiful and heartbreaking "Red Sector A" brings welcome emotion and humanity to a very frigid album, inspired by the experience of Lee's mother in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and backed up by a propulsive, ironically dance-infused arrangement of sequencer and pulsating electronic drums.
With its catchy melody and Dr. Strangelove-referencing video, "Distant Early Warning" became a surprise MTV hit, helping make Grace Under Pressure another platinum-selling top ten album in America. In addition, the band was touring relentlessly with a cutting-edge stage show, proving to be one of the most consistent live draws in rock music. While the next four albums would start to slip into more stereotypical sounds that would date the music in some people's eyes, Grace Under Pressure is an impeccable balance of timelessness and being completely of its time. It's a valuable time capsule, a spot-on portrait of the world in 1984, yet at the same time rather prescient, laced with the wise sadness that things would only become even more surreal and dystopian than they already were.
It's always interesting how a record can be so dear to audiences while the artists who made it will always see it as a reminder of a very difficult time. After all, the creative process can be like pulling teeth sometimes, and by 1978 Rush had one hell of a wisdom tooth that badly needed extraction. 2112 and A Farewell To Kings established the band as a force in progressive rock, and as always is the case with ambitious young bands, the temptation to make each follow-up bigger and better was irresistible. Little did Lee, Lifeson, and Peart know before they booked time to write their fifth album in a farmhouse near Rockfield, South Wales, however, that they were perilously close to self-indulgence, self-parody, and overbearing pretension.
So where do you go after putting together a seminal, iconic heavy rock classic and a richly varied, pastoral follow-up? For musicians as skilled as these three, it was obvious: make the music even more complex and challenging than ever. Much has been made of how difficult the threesome and producer Terry Brown made things for themselves during the making of Hemispheres. It took a long time to write, record, and mix, and costs quickly spiraled out of control. The songwriting process continued right through the recording of the album, songs being constantly tweaked. Even worse, by the time Lee recorded his vocals, he found out that the songs required him to sing in a register outside his comfort zone, and it was too late to make the necessary adjustments. Consequently, not only did it make for brutal stress in the studio, but it would prove to be just as difficult to perform the material live. By the time the album was finished and on store shelves, the guys were less enthused in subsequent promotional interviews. Instead was a prevailing sense of relief by a very exhausted band.
The incredible thing about Hemispheres, though, is despite the complexity of the material and the strife surrounding the making of it -- they famously remarked that one song took longer to record than the entire Fly By Night album -- Rush is in absolute peak form, the music shockingly accessible, effortless sounding, and best of all, fun. Yes, fun. Even the sprawling, 18-minute "Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres" that comprises all of side one. Lushly produced -- you can hear how expensive the damn thing was -- there's so much more texture on this track compared to the hard-driving "2112" and the experimental "Xanadu," thanks to Lifeson, who doesn't rely on heavily distorted riffs anymore, making room for cleaner melodic lines to breathe. In addition, although Peart sounds as taut as ever, there's a grooviness to his drumming that was never heard on a Rush album before. Whether or not his sixteenth beats on the hi-hat are derived from disco, they lend liveliness to Lee's playful vocal melodies. It's the moment Peart learned to relax a bit, and that restrained approach would lead to some fascinating experiments with minimalist drumming in the years to come. Although Peart's mythical sci-fi storyline, which continues where the first "Cygnus" track left off at the end of A Farewell To Kings, is nowhere near as concise and interesting as "2112," the natural flow of the music more than makes up for it. It's a surprisingly beautiful, commanding suite by a band at the peak of its game.
As strong as that song is, the second side is where Hemispheres' true greatness lies, featuring three songs that have since gone on to become enduring fan favorites, not to mention some much shorter songs. "Circumstances" is the heaviest, snarliest Rush song in years -- Peart's bilingual lyrics ("Plus ça change/ Plus c'est la meme chose") and more straightforward, philosophical theme a welcome change from all the arch fantasy narratives. One could criticize "The Trees" as being painfully blunt hesher metaphor -- "The trees represent society, man!" -- but Peart embraces the idea, and in in his own verbose way, has a little fun with it: "The trouble with the maples/ (And they're quite convinced they're right)/ They say the oaks are just too lofty/ And they grab up all the light." Besides, the arrangement on the song is tremendous, Peart adding to the whole woodsy theme with his temple block playing during the subdued bridge midway though.
It might come as a surprise to some that it took Rush five albums to record an instrumental, but it finally happened on Hemispheres, and "La Villa Strangiato" is not only the first, but it's the band's greatest. Self-deprecatingly subtitled "An Exercise In Self-Indulgence" -- again, one of this band's great characteristics is its sense of humor -- the song is a lively and playful musical depiction of a surreal dream Lifeson had, consisting of a series of movements that range from soulful to cartoonish. One section even dares to quote Raymond Scott's legendary "Powerhouse," and as the story goes, despite his not taking legal action against the band, Rush were still good Canadian boys and sent Scott monetary compensation anyway. It's as fun a progressive rock instrumental as you will ever hear and for years was a highlight of many Rush live performances.
It's amusing how Hemispheres would be criticized for its self-indulgence, yet at only 36 minutes it's an incredibly economical progressive rock album. That can be seen also as a by-product of the band being completely out of ideas, unable to stretch things out to a more conventional 45 minutes. But the shortness of the album works in its favor, making it easy to absorb the four songs. Still, it was on this album that the members of Rush knew they'd hit a creative wall. They'd taken their blend of progressive rock and heavy metal as far as it could possibly go, and it was time for a change, and although the series of albums that would follow would be a direct result of avoiding the headaches that dominated Hemispheres, it would be the smartest, most financially rewarding decision Rush would ever make.
Because of the creative freedom Rush was afforded, especially in the wake of its breakthrough commercial success in 1980, complacency never set in. Lee, Lifeson, and Peart might have been overjoyed with how the smash success Moving Pictures turned out, but they were so restless, so eager to branch out stylistically, that it never even occurred to them to make a Moving Pictures Part Two. Still, despite a few clues at the end of that record, there's no way fans could have anticipated what the follow-up would sound like. Although in retrospect it is a logical extension of what Rush was doing on Moving Pictures, Signals is nevertheless the most audacious album of the band's career, which would dare the staunchest rock fans to follow the trio into more synthetic, electronic territory.
Ironically, just as heavy metal was on the verge of exploding worldwide thanks to a new generation of bands and young fans, Rush, a band that influenced many if not all those bands, was heading in a completely different direction. Instead, the band was drawing from such artists as Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, and U2, learning that stripping down the music to near skeletal form, exploring texture rather than power, can be just as creatively liberating as creating complex progressive rock. And indeed, Signals would be a liberation of sorts.
Nothing in the Rush discography sounds like Signals, but at the same time it fits so naturally alongside Moving Pictures and 2112 that it hardly feels like an anomaly. But make no mistake, the band's dynamic was undergoing a serious shift, thanks primarily to Lee's growing preoccupation with cutting edge electronics. His arsenal of keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers was becoming as huge as Peart's now legendary drum kit, and as that was happening, Lifeson's role in the band was becoming less of a focal point than before. Instead of leading the way with riffs, Lifeson was now playing more of a supporting role, still contributing solos but now, like Andy Summers of the Police and U2's Edge, exploring new, subtler guitar techniques to complement the increasingly synthetic sounds Lee was creating. In addition, Peart's lyrics were now ditching straightforward narratives and philosophizing for more contemporary themes: suburbia, the growing digital culture, control via fear, space travel.
"Subdivisions" not only kicks off Signals but to this day marks the creative high point of Rush's new wave era. Lee always humbly claimed he was no Keith Emerson, but the keyboard line he comes up with on this song is extraordinary in both its minimalism and its gravitas, gorgeously underscoring Peart's heartbreaking and compassionate depiction of adolescent isolation in the dull suburbs. "Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone," he writes. "Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth, but the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth." Although Lee's synths dominate, Lifeson makes valuable contributions, his rhythm riffs adding needed weight, his sinewy solo showing just how far his technique had changed in such short time. As for Peart, his own turn toward the minimalist yields arguably his greatest drumming ever on a Rush song. As he demonstrated on "Tom Sawyer" a year earlier, it's much more effective to serve the song rather than overwhelm it and to pull out the powerful drum fills for dynamic effect, and his quirky syncopation on "Subdivisions" is extraordinary in its expression. Rush always had a particular appeal to social misfits, but "Subdivisions" and its accompanying video would win over a new generation of adolescents. Poll the band's Generation X-aged fans, and many will say this song is among their favorites.
That's far from the album's sole highlight, however. Two songs on Signals in particular are tremendous examples of Rush's creative peak during this era, yet couldn't be more different. "The Analog Kid" whips in like a breath of fresh air, upbeat and full of optimism and shameless romanticism. The mood is pensive, sentimental, and rosy-hued, Peart's depiction of a lovestruck young dreamer echoed beautifully in the music, which shifts gracefully from nimble hard rock to ethereal, warm synth-based passages. Conversely, as "The Analog Kid" exudes warmth and humanity, "Digital Man," as its title implies, is taut, nervous, and chilly -- for the third consecutive album that Police influence rears its head -- and Peart's protagonist is a worker reduced to an automaton, living for his work, incapable of interacting with humanity, knowing it's all going to come to an empty, unfulfilling end ("He's got a date with fate in a black sedan"), but all he can do is lose himself in his work ("He won't need a bed -- he's a digital man").
The second part of the "Fear" quadrilogy kicked off on Moving Pictures, "The Weapon" is a tour de force for Lee, who builds the song with layers of sequencers and synths, Peart providing a propulsive kosmische musik pulse that slowly morphs into a Moroder-style dance beat, Lifeson adding faint traces of accents and melodies via guitar. "Countdown" is a stirring album closer, an evocative musical recount of the band's firsthand experience witnessing the launch of the space shuttle Challenger's first orbital flight in April 1981, complete with NASA communication recordings from the launch. Originally started as a last-minute attempt to even out both sides of the cassette version of the album, "New World Man" might have been more rushed ('scuse the pun) than usual, but its delightful, sprightly hooks connected with radio listeners, topping the chart in Canada, peaking at 21 in America and 36 in the UK.
Two deep cuts never get as much attention as the more popular Rush classics, but nevertheless help elevate Signals to the upper echelon of the discography. The last song (thus far) to feature lyrics written collaboratively by all three members, "Chemistry" is a sublime marriage of rock, new wave, and electronic music. Even more underrated, though, is the gem "Losing It," a surprisingly tender ballad highlighted by beautiful electric violin solos by Ben Mink of Toronto prog band FM. The song has never been performed live, which, considering the string section that toured with Rush in 2012 and 2013, now feels like a blown opportunity.
As is often the case with an album that refuses to be compartmentalized, Signals was misunderstood by many critics, with J.D. Considine of Rolling Stone going as far as to write, "Signals is chockablock with state-of-the-studio gadgetry, ranging from the requisite banks of synthesizers to the latest in digital recording and mixing, none of these electronic add-ons enhances the group's music. If anything, Rush emerges from this jungle of wires and gizmos sounding duller than ever." The band, too, voiced its dissatisfaction with the album, saying it veered too far into keyboard territory, and typically as fidgety as ever, it would continue to tweak that ever-evolving sound on the next album, which, as they'd soon find out, would be nearly as strife-ridden as 1978's Hemispheres.
After a promising start to its career, Rush was flagging. Sales of the third album Caress Of Steel were stagnating, audiences didn't know what to make of the band's lengthier, more complex new material, and Mercury Records in the United States was none too pleased. They wanted something more commercially viable -- not science fiction epics that took up an entire side of a record. When Rush's fourth album in two years was released on April Fool's Day 1976, however, the joke was on Mercury. Lee, Lifeson, and Peart risked their careers sticking to their guns: there was no hit single, and half the record was a colossal 20-minute suite. Yet unlike the previous album, it all came together in beautiful and spectacular fashion.
Everything about 2112 is iconic. The succinct title. The minimalist album cover. The Ayn Rand-derived plotline about an individual standing up against oppressive government, with Hugh Syme's classic accompanying "naked man" image. And most importantly, that timeless title track, which raised the bar for both heavy metal and progressive rock.
With its opening whooshes of synthesizers performed and assembled by Syme -- who was better known in Canada at the time as the keyboardist for the Ian Thomas band -- "2112" immediately lets the listener know that the album will be a full-on excursion into fantasy and sci-fi. However, the Rush people hear on the song's "Overture" is more assertive, aggressive, and -- crucially -- economical than ever before. Lifeson's immediately catchy riffs have a bite to them, and Peart's thunderous drumming is the most forceful he's sounded on record to date. Lee, meanwhile, gives voice to the album's antagonists with an ungodly shriek, spouting lines about computers, hallowed halls, and Temples of Syrinx. Even for a genre as uncool as progressive rock, this was particularly, unapologetically nerdy.
Yet Peart makes the story work, and the plot is reflected exceptionally well by the instrumental arrangements. Listen to the "Discovery" movement, when the protagonist finds a guitar. Lifeson's own playing at first sounds curious and awkward, then gradually learns chords, slowly metamorphosing into a pretty little song, with Lee abandoning vocal histrionics for more innocent singing ("What can this strange device be?/ When I touch it, it gives forth a sound"). The song careens gracefully from optimism ("I've found an ancient miracle/ I thought that you should know") to crushing disappointment ("Forget about your silly whim/ It doesn't fit the plan") to a searing solo break that reprises the "Temples of Syrinx" hook. As soon as the young hero expresses his despair over an equally tortured sounding arrangement, the song blasts off to its incendiary conclusion, a raucous jam that, as Peart would explain years later, represents the defeat of the oppressive Temple by invaders: "Attention planets of the Solar Federation: we have assumed control." Whether that liberation is for good or ill is up to the listener to decide -- Peart asserts he meant the conclusion to be positive -- but either way it's a scintillating denouement for one of the greatest progressive rock/metal epics of all time.
If there's one minor criticism of 2112, it's that side two is a virtual afterthought compared to the title track. That said, all five songs are very strong, the best of which being "A Passage To Bangkok," a wry little poke at drug tourism by Peart that's bolstered by a wicked, exotic lead riff by Lifeson. "Twilight Zone" is fittingly low-key and dreamy, the more robust "Lessons" is a rare solo composition by Lifeson, and "Tears" is a maudlin but rather effective ballad written by Lee. "Something For Nothing" has gone on to become a somewhat underrated song despite being on an immensely popular album, the hardest rocking song on the second side, closing the record with one of the first of many ruminations on life that Peart would explore in song.
Upon the release of 2112, all the pieces fell into place for Rush. Progressive rock and album-oriented rock were at an all-time peak. The band's fanbase was now in the hundreds of thousands, a direct result of relentless touring in support of Caress Of Steel. Knowing they had a much better album to promote, Lee, Lifeson, and Peart hit the road even harder, and as a result 2112 peaked at number 61 in America, their first album to crack the top 100. Rush had also graduated from opening act to occasional headliner, and a three-night stint in Toronto would yield the much-loved live album All The World's A Stage, which would be released six months later. Most importantly, 2112 would see Rush completely come into its own, kicking off a series of eight landmark albums over the course of the next decade, and including a pair of live releases, a whopping ten consecutive platinum albums. Second in sales only to 1981's Moving Pictures, 2112 is, justifiably, universally beloved by fans. It's one for the ages.
Moving Pictures (1981)
Neil Peart likes to think of Moving Pictures as Rush's proper first album. Up until 1980, Rush's career trajectory, while yielding several excellent records -- and the odd important one -- was a gradual process of discovery. Like every other band, the trio started off sounding derivative, then came the smart combination of progressive rock and heavy metal, and when they were finished with that, they attempted to find a perfect balance of prog, rock, and new wave. As great an album as 2112 is, as wonderful as epics like "By-Tor And The Snow Dog," "Xanadu," "Cygnus X-I Book II: Hemispheres" are, as pretty as "Closer To The Heart" is, as badass as "Working Man" is, Rush was never at a place where it wanted to be in the 1970s. It wasn't until "The Spirit Of Radio" in 1980 where things started to feel truly right, and with the resultant Permanent Waves album in 1980 Lee, Lifeson, and Peart collectively realized yes, this is the music we want to make.
Released in the middle of a period where Rush completely changed what a rock trio could do with eight significant albums, Moving Pictures was the moment where all aspects of the band's now rich musical palette achieved a perfect balance. Heavy rock, yet with pop sensibility. Guitar-driven, yet utilizing cutting edge electronics. It sounds warm and crystalline, yet leaves room for ambiguity. Experimental, literate, poetic, catchy, accessible. Timeless.
Moving Pictures opens with a bang, or more specifically, the ominous, commanding whoosh of Lee's Oberheim OB-X synthesizer, as the esoteric "Tom Sawyer" makes an immediate impression. The most unlikely of crossover hits, "Tom Sawyer" was, and remains, a fascinating oddity. Musically its tone is more menacing than anything Rush had released before, yet dynamically brilliant, the deep growl of keyboard and the snarl of Lifeson's seminal riff offset by moments that range from playful (Lee's quirky repeated six-note synth melody) to the avant-garde (Lifeson's free-form solo), all the while anchored by Peart's precise, understated beat, which is just as catchy as the keys and guitars. Meanwhile, the lyrics, written by poet and Max Webster lyricist Pye Dubois and refined by Peart, are refreshingly vague for a hard rock song, a fascinating portrait of a modern day rebel, tapping into the theme of individualism that Peart always liked to do. Culminating in one of the greatest climaxes in rock history, Peart's restraint giving way to a spectacular series of drum fills and cymbal crashes, "Tom Sawyer" is Rush's most celebrated song, one the band -- especially Peart -- says is a joy to perform to this day.
It's from one classic song to another, and another, and another, as side one of Moving Pictures refuses to let up. "Red Barchetta" is a gorgeous blend of wistful recollection and fantasy storytelling, Peart's futuristic tale of a pleasant drive in an illegal sports car that turns into a high-speed pursuit mirrored impeccably by the arrangement, quickly building speed and momentum. Cleverly constructed around the Morse code syncopation for the airport identification code of Toronto's Pearson Airport, "YYZ" is just as complex and playful an instrumental as "La Villa Strangiato" from three years earlier, but is far more concise, not to mention wickedly catchy and half as long. The much more straightforward "Limelight," meanwhile, boasts one of the best vocal hooks in the band's history, Lee singing Peart's musings/confessions about fame in the modern age: "Living in a fisheye lens/ Caught in the camera eye/ I have no heart to lie/ I can't pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend." Especially noteworthy in that track is Lifeson's lonely and forlorn solo, one of his most expressive pieces of work on record.
Compared to side one, which is as perfect a first half of a record as you will ever encounter, side two is much subtler, but ultimately those deep cuts are just as rewarding as the previous four concert staples. Inspired by the work of John Dos Passos, "The Camera Eye" might be 11 minutes, but it's far from the Rush epics that dominated the 1970s. It's understated throughout, the band's arrangement clearing space for Lee to sing Peart's lines about New York and London, the thrumming and buzzing synthesizers very similar to what Laurie Anderson would explore in more detail that same year. The first in what would eventually be a quadrilogy that explores various aspects of fear, "Witch Hunt" sees Lifeson cleverly shifting his dominating riff to menacing and metallic to more elegiac new wave melodies. In contrast to that somber track is the vivid "Vital Signs," which not only revisits the reggae-tinged new wave sounds inspired by the Police, but anticipates further exploration in minimalist, electronic territory, which would result in the nearly-as-great Signals album a year later.
If that wasn't enough, Hugh Syme's cover art for Moving Pictures is just as wonderful as the music inside, its inspired use of triple entendre an apt reflection of the band's own collective sense of humor. Movers are hauling paintings in front of the Ontario Legislature -- literally moving pictures -- while a camera crew films them, creating moving pictures of their own. If that wasn't enough, bystanders are witnessing the proceedings and weeping, visibly moved by the pictures before them.
The surprise success of "Tom Sawyer" -- peaking at 44 in America, 25 in Canada, 24 in the UK -- would help catapult Moving Pictures up the album charts, peaking at number three in both America and the UK. It's Rush's biggest-selling album, and for good reason. In a career that's seen constant experimentation and evolution for more than 40 years, Moving Pictures was the one moment where all factors crystallized perfectly. Never content to rest on its laurels, Rush would continue to break new ground in the 1980s and beyond, but this will always be the band's defining moment, an unmitigated, undeniable classic.