The prematurely senile man’s guide to Rush, Part VI

(Spurred on by a link from my high school buddy medic8r, we’re back …)

After a prolific decade, Rush was ever so slightly slowing down — almost two years elapsed between these two.

Perhaps that’s because Rush was busy polishing their sound into a bright ’80s sheen that would make Howard Jones envious. Neil Peart was trying to work every conceivable electric drum sound into each album, and the synthesizers were cranked to 11.

The results were hit and miss. Power Windows in particular has its fans, including medic8r and a now-defunct tribute band. But the days in which every song on a Rush album deserved some sort of response were fading. For here on, we’d talk mostly about great songs, not great albums.

Both of these were produced by Peter Collins. Remind me to bring him up again in Part VIII because he plays a surprising role in another change of direction.

Power Windows(1985)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

Rush was big enough to get MTV exposure in the early days, which surely helped in the short term. But their videos just added to the “geek” factor — remember, “geek” was an insult in those days.

They tiptoed into video with Subdivisions and Countdown, and you may see some clips from Moving Pictures of the guys in Le Studio. The big push had come on Grace Under Pressure, particularly the memorable imagery on Distant Early Warning (kid riding the missile, Strangelove-style). They also made a compelling video for The Body Electric, and a performance clip for the haunting Afterimage was on an old video compilation if not on MTV.

Then there’s The Big Money. Embedding is disabled, perhaps so it doesn’t freeze-frame on some goofy shot of Geddy singing in Alex’s face like they’re dueting. Or that little rat-tail on Neil’s hair. Or the dorky laugh Neil gives after tossing and catching his drumstick. Or Alex giving some guitar grimaces that would embarrass Aldo Nova. (At least Geddy had ditched the Steinberger (headless) bass — it looked like a broom, which made Geddy look, well, like a witch.)

A little more interesting is the more abstract Mystic Rhythms. The Peter Gabriel-style video does well to capture the intrigue of the song, propelled by the best of Peart’s electric-drum experiments and Lifeson’s mysterious arpeggios.

The Cold War is still lurking here, with Peart again fretting over nuclear arms on the well-researched and urgently presented Manhattan Project. The overlooked Territories is a ripping anti-war anthem that would probably be shredded in the right-wing blogosphere if it were released today. (“Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world / Than the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled.”)

The album title is also the concept (the songs are “windows” in the examination of “power”), and it’s the last time one concept would echo so strongly throughout a Rush album. But Peart gets personal, effectively reaching out to the powerless (the dreary but poignant Middletown Dreams and the inspirational Marathon) and ineffectively expressing the power of love (Emotion Detector, every bit as clumsy as the title).

It’s not a bad album at all. But the sound was starting to wear out its welcome, and a couple of weak songs were encroaching into the mix as Rush entered the CD era.

Hold Your Fire(1987)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

This is the Rush album to clock in at a CD-length 50 minutes instead of the usual 35-40 from the vinyl/cassette era. But they don’t have enough songs to make it work.

From checking the reviews, this is a minority opinion. But this one was a relative flop. It didn’t hit the top 10 (granted, these were the pre-Soundscan days, so the horde of Rush fans who buy each album on day of release couldn’t give it a strong debut). And it broke the streak of platinum albums dating back to 2112.

It’s a strong start. Force Ten is one of the classic Rush openers, with Lifeson’s guitar and the synth effects creating a maelstrom behind Peart’s lyrics on resilience and riding the waves in this turbulent world. Time Stand Still, with guest vocalist Aimee Mann, hits a familiar Peart theme of trying to cherish the good times.

Then, thanks to the new technology of CDs, you can skip Open Secrets and Second Nature, neither of which make much of an impression.

The next four are blustery, as if all trying to outdo each other as a mix of frenetic bass lines, guitar riffs and drums. They’re all powerful and intriguing, but you won’t often hear someone walking away from a Rush show saying, “Dang, I wish they’d played Lock and Key.” They’d be an interesting change of pace, like the resurrected Between the Wheels, but nothing you’d necessarily demand.

Prime Mover would be a prime candidate for a remake without the goofy synthesizers, Lock and Key lacks a definitive hook, and Mission overreaches with a guitar and glockenspiel break (yes, I said glockenspiel) that doesn’t fit. The best of this bunch is Turn the Page, a high-energy effort that builds dramatically throughout.

Then skip Tai Shan, which isn’t about the panda. The closer High Water drowns solid work from Peart and Lifeson in a morass of synthesizer nonsense.

Cut out a couple of songs, tone down the synths here and there, and you’d have a perfectly good Rush album. In yesteryear, it’d be a tough call whether or not to purchase it. Today, if you don’t have Force Ten and a couple of favorites in some sort of compilation, just go to iTunes and you’re set.

That’s another set of four studio albums, and we know what that means …

A Show of Hands (1989)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Review)

Rush would have to work really hard to make a bad live album — you’d need to have some act of sabotage. There’s nothing at all wrong with this one, and Peart’s drum solo is particularly playful. The only downside is that the flurry of live releases in the last couple of years has made this one a little redundant. That makes this another album worth a few picks at iTunes — Peart’s The Rhythm Method and perhaps Marathon or Turn the Page, neither of which would survive much longer on the Rush set list.

While Rush had been sliding slowly through the decade since Moving Pictures, they found a plateau here. The next couple of albums would continue in the same vein — heavy synthesizers and strong but inconsistent releases. Yet we’re not far from the best latter-day Rush album.

New York stories

Apologies to the New York readership of Mostly Modern Media for failing to alert you before the fact, but I passed through your densely populated neck of the woods yesterday. I was only in the city itself for about an hour while transferring from Amtrak to NJ Transit, but between that and a subsequent stint in Secaucus, I think I had a good stereotypical New York experience.

First, I saw not one but two people talking emphatically to no one in particular. One just seemed to be narrating harmlessly. The other was making specific threats about how the black man isn’t going to stand for this and so forth. For a minute or two, I thought he was talking with customer support of some kind, but then I noticed he had no phone.

After venturing out to Montclair State, I wound up in Secaucus. That was fine, but everything ran a little long, and I wasn’t sure how I’d get back to Penn Station in time. After the cab company listed on the hotel kiosk bailed out (“We’re actually in Teaneck, so we’d have to go all the way to Secaucus to get you …”), I waited desperately at the front desk and scaled back my request from the Penn Station in Manhattan to the Penn Station in Newark. (Gotta love Amtrak’s flexibility.)

Enter a cab traveling maybe 60 mph in a hotel driveway. I made my train with enough time left to have my first snack of the day.

Along the way, we were stopped alongside a car with an attractive young Hispanic woman. The taxi driver: “Mmmm … Spanish p—-.”

He quickly realized the voice in his head had connected with the voice in his mouth, and he deftly shifted into a public-service announcement on the diversity of Newark.

My day was certainly productive. After writing this story Tuesday night, I wrote the bulk of this one on the train. All that while working on another story I hope we’ll see next week.

The hairspray-eating-into-brain guide to Rush, Part V

Things you can do when you’ve released a massive hit …

1. Spend about five years holed up in a studio with Mutt Lange trying to expand ever so slightly on what you did last time so you can have an even greater hit. See Leppard, Def.

2. Annihilate your image with something experimental. See Dylan, Bob. Or Morissette, Alanis. Maybe even Reed, Lou (sorry, Jason), though it’s hard to say he ever got that huge outside New York.

3. Quit. See Bruford, Bill, who didn’t want to do “Close to the Edge II” with Yes and instead embarked on making weird noises under the strict gaze of Robert Fripp in King Crimson. Killjoy.

4. Keep refining your music as if nothing ever happened.

Rush went for option 4. And though it meant they’d never again hit the artistic or commercial peak of Moving Pictures (barring a sudden avalanche of interest in Snakes & Arrows, which so far hasn’t even hit gold), the roller-coaster ride since then has been far from boring.

Quick personal tangent: These albums fell just as I went through my musical awakening. Until 1982-83, I just had a couple of pop albums — Blondie, Go-Gos, Village People (my first concert!). Then the cable company got MTV just as I switched schools, got a boombox and started spending evenings in my room fiddling with an antenna to pick up Atlanta’s 96Rock. That’s why, in my mind, these two albums are lumped together as a trilogy with Moving Pictures.

In retrospect, that’s not true. This was the start of something new.

Signals (1982)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics)

Let’s come right out and say this: Following up your biggest hit with a synth-laden song about teen outcasts is a strange career move for what was then one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

The song is Subdivisions, accompanied by the first Rush video (to my knowledge) that isn’t simply a few shots of the guys at Le Studio or on stage.

It’s a good song, still warmly received at live shows. But only a courageous band would reach out to lonely geeks after the band has become wildly popular and well before lonely geeks have become wildly popular. I could identify just fine with the kid in the video, though I was better about doing my homework and didn’t wander downtown streets alone. Most kids my age did not.

You could say Rush either went out to alienate everyone with this album — popularity-conscious kids weren’t going to crank up Subdivisions, guitar aficionados had to grimace over Alex Lifeson’s subdued presence, prog-rock snobs couldn’t have enjoyed the pop/reggae influence on Digital Man and those who enjoyed the mythic tales of previous works may have been surprised by Neil Peart’s more direct lyrics here.

Or maybe Rush figured it had built an audience that would follow it through new directions. Going by Wikipedia’s figuring, this album sold less than any album since Caress of Steel and one-fifth as many copies as Moving Pictures. Yet that’s still enough to go platinum, and that’s the fan base that continued to buy everything Rush released through the ’80s and ’90s.

And I, for one, will defend Signals as an intriguing album that showed Rush could find some gold (platinum, technically) down this new path.

Lyrically, perhaps it’s not Peart’s best work, with the abrupt shift from abstract to concrete pushing him into a few cliches — “excitement so thick you could cut it with a knife” is one clunker from Countdown, the homage to a space shuttle launch. Yet it’s not a total loss — The Weapon is a compelling take on fear as a means of controlling the masses.

(Peart also contributed a couple of good yearbook quotes. One of my classmates took a line from The Analog Kid — “When I leave, I don’t know what I’m hoping to find, and when I leave, I don’t know what I’m leaving behind.” Another dug back to Xanadu. Here’s the spooky part — another classmate said “I can resist everything but temptation,” which would show up on a Rush album nine years later.)

Musically, this album should be praised, not buried. I recall reading a review from a few years later that said Lifeson had recovered from the “creative nosedive” he took with Signals, and that’s completely unfair. While it’s true Lifeson doesn’t contribute many memorable solos other than the poignant harmonics of Subdivisions, he quickly masters the new sound. Think about that transition — you’ve been playing your whole career with just a bass occupying a lower register and the occasional synth effect. Now you’ve got synthesizers all over the place, occupying the frequencies you used to have to yourself. To see how Lifeson fares, listen to The Weapon, where he plays a sharp counterpoint against Geddy Lee’s synth.

My favorite here, musically, is Digital Man, though Wikipedia tells us that caused a fallout between the band and longtime producer Terry Brown. It’s built a subtle polyrhythms — it’s might be written as 4/4, but at times it’s 12/8 and 6/4 simultaneously, with Lee’s bass and Peart’s ride cymbal sometimes playing against the prevailing pattern. (I know I’ve lapsed into music geekspeak, but I’m almost done.)

While Signals isn’t the bad’s biggest commercial success by any stretch, it provided the band’s only top 40 hit in New World Man. With years of retrospect, the song is a little flimsy. That’s the pop chart for you.

Grace Under Pressure (1984)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia)

Rarely has an album cover captured the music so well. This is Rush’s bleakest album.

I reviewed this one for my high school paper and said it was fine if you didn’t mind depression. To give some idea — the two standout tracks here are the Cold War-inspired “oh crap, they’ve launched the missiles” Distant Early Warning and a stirring tale of concentration-camp life called Red Sector A. Sandwiched by those two is Afterimage, a song about being haunted by the memory of a recently deceased (in real life) friend of the band.

Par-TAY!

So is it worth the descent into despair? To an extent.

The sound is so dated. Funny story behind that — the tour book details their search for a producer, which took a few twists as people backed out. (One guy not named in the book was, according to the Wikis, Steve Lillywhite, and I didn’t realize until just now that he was the father of the kids Kirsty MacColl died saving. If you ever want to get angry but can’t think of anything, just read the account of MacColl’s death.) Peter Henderson did a fine job, but listening 20 years after the fact, it often sounds like someone banging on a Casio.

Yet the songs stand up. Distant Early Warning may have seemed like a Cold War relic 10 years ago, but in this age of fear, it’s powerful. For the last couple of tours, Rush resurrected Between the Wheels, a strong mixed-tempo song with the typical Peart treatment, using one word (“wheels”) in several metaphors, mostly having to do with the breathtaking speed of progress and hoping it doesn’t run right over us pathetic humans.

Grace Under Pressure kept up Rush’s streak of platinum albums, and the band had successfully adapted to the MTV and synthesizer age. The next transition would be to the CD era, and that’s where the band started to run into trouble producing consistently interesting work.

Guitar heroes, ’80s video style

Apologies to Captain Video, Aldo Nova, Chevy Nova … heck, just about everybody.

“Greetings, Mr. Nova. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to star in a video convincing viewers of a new network called MTV that you are a guitar god.

“You will be given a low budget for this video, most of which will be spent on the helicopter.

“The rest of the budget will be spent on the laser you’ll shoot from your guitar to open the warehouse.

“You will be joined in the mission by a nerd carrying that guitar …

“… plus a big-haired emoting drummer …

“… a keyboardist who seems surprised by his five seconds of screen time …

“… and a generic guitarist, generic bassist and maybe 10 people gathered in the warehouse.

“Be warned that you may be attacked by a crazed woman following director’s orders to, quote, go nuts, unquote.

“We suggest that you attempt to escape using the following methods. First, go out into the street to pontificate on material excess. To demonstrate the bling-bling lifestyle, we have procured one bad-ass Pontiac.

“You may also use the famous Nova disappearing act …

“… or you may simply dissolve into what we call the pre-Photoshop vortex.

“If that fails, we suggest you misdirect the attacker with a single-entendre lyric mimicking the timing of Krusty the Klown’s ‘Tonight, I’m going to suck … (pause) … your blood!’

“Oh, wait, we’re sorry. That’s Heather Nova.

“Good luck with the mission. Or whatever — hey, do you have her number?”

Enjoy …

The evolved human’s guide to Rush, Part IV

The R30 DVD set has an interview with Rush in Le Studio from sometime in this era, and it reminds you how young these guys really were. Heading into the studio after the Hemispheres tour, these guys were 26-27 years old and already had six albums to their credit, getting steadily bigger throughout.

Then they got huge.

Permanent Waves (1980)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia)

A transitional effort of sorts, and yet it was their biggest album to date. Sure, 2112 has sold more over the years, but Waves made it into the Billboard top five (#4). And frankly, the people buying 2112 and NOT getting this one are a little misinformed.

This was a slightly more condensed Rush, with no song clocking in over 10 minutes. The longest, Natural Science, is an abstract take on circles of life built on a dizzying riff that has been a live favorite over the years. (Now’s a good time to plug the source on set lists — the comprehensive fan site Cygnus-X1.net)

It’s all but impossible to imagine a live set without the opener, The Spirit of Radio. It’s your prototypical riff-rock song with a few unexpected twists — a reggae-style bridge with lyrics giving a shoutout to Paul Simon. Rush realized by this point that its fans were willing to follow through a few experiments, particularly when they turned out as well as this one.

Freewill also was a live favorite, with some live recordings capturing a strong roar after Lifeson’s searing solo. It’s another good riff-rocker, though it alternates between a 6/4 and 7/4 beat. By this point, Rush — unlike some bands we could mention — could flip through different time signatures without making it sound too precious. The lyrics are another stone tablet in Neil Peart’s philosophy of the individual, featuring a direct shot at organized religion. (“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice / If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice / You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill / I will choose a path that’s clear, I will choose free will.”) Maybe not a song I want to have cranked up in the car when I pull into church, but it’s an eloquent statement against mindless faith at the very least.

While Freewill caught Rush in a philosophical mood, they were also getting sentimental. For all the Ayn Rand bluster, these guys are family men. Entre Nous, offered an intriguing take on relationships (“the spaces in between leave room for you and I to grow”), has finally re-emerged on the set list after decades of absence.

Only one of the six songs never appeared on a set list, and that’s the second love song here, Different Strings, featuring one of many terrific classical-style intros that I picked my way through in high school. Probably a bit too soft for a live show but a fine ballad to mix things up on the album.

The other mini-epic is Jacob’s Ladder, which is probably what they meant to do with Side 2 of Caress of Steel. It’s ominous, with a slow beat, but it gives way to a hopeful finale, mixing natural and supernatural.

Six songs, nary a weak one. This would be Rush’s masterpiece, if not for …

Moving Pictures (1981)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia)

You’ve probably heard a few songs from this one. It distilled the best of Rush’s first eight albums into digestible radio-friendly pieces (plus one last 10-minute epic). It’s by far Rush’s biggest seller, and you won’t hear many fans whining that they sold out. No preposterous duet with Ann Wilson, no dipping into the Diane Warren well, no videos about making videos.

Sure, they were still dabbling with new-fangled synthesizers, but in the process, they created one of the strongest synth hooks in history.

When you see the guys singing Tom Sawyer on the late, underrated show The Knights of Prosperity, you may forget what a dazzlingly complex song it is. Prog rock has cranked out all sorts of complicated music, and it has given us a few simpler radio-friendly hits (think Owner of a Lonely Heart). I can’t think of a song that fits both descriptions better. From the spare opening over Neil Peart’s backbeat, it revs up through a couple of dramatic guitar hooks into a synth-and-guitar call-and-response over a rhythm that shifts through time signatures like a car on a winding race track.

Lyrically, it’s a series of intriguing abstractions. He knows changes aren’t permanent, but change is. What you say about his company is what you say about society. You can puzzle over them for a while or just think “that’s cool” and move on.

Red Barchetta is a guitar player’s dream, with Alex Lifeson showing off his gifts for coming up with winding arpeggios and some melodies on harmonics. (Explaining “harmonics” for non-guitarists — this is a technique in which you lightly touch a string over the 12th, 7th, 5th or 4th fret, then release just as you strum. Do it well, and it rings for a while.) Good story, too — it’s another tale of individual freedom sure to satisfy the Ayn Rand devotees, but it’s a bit more accessible than the older songs because it’s the story of a driver defying some sort of anti-car ban.

YYZ is a worthy successor to La Villa Strangiato, an instrumental that revs through several unusual yet memorable riffs. All three guys have space to show off, particularly in an entertaining bridge with Geddy Lee and Neil Peart alternating fills.

With Limelight, Peart manages to tell his fans that he’s uncomfortable with his celebrity without being an ass about it. (Ahem … did you notice, Billy Corgan?) Lifeson contributes a solid riff, Peart drops a Shakespeare reference and the shifts between 7/4 and 6/4 flow easily.

So that’s Side 1. It’s hard to imagine a stronger collection of four songs on one album side.

Side 2 isn’t as deeply ingrained in the general public’s ears (ouch!), but it’s more of the things Rush fans love about Rush. Lee’s synthesizers take their biggest role yet in Vital Signs, with a sequencer sounding like a fast heartbeat in the background. Witch Hunt, the first part of the Fear trilogy (later expanded to four), is a vivid depiction of vigilante justice and mob politics gone awry, set to an ominous riff and a few synth-and-percussion effects.

The epic is The Camera Eye. It’s not really fair to call it the “weakest” song on this album, but it is indeed overshadowed by the other songs on this album and by Rush’s other epics (2112, Xanadu, Natural Science). It’s an amiable bit of ear candy — you’ve never heard synths sound this good. Wikipedia tells us it frequently tops Internet polls of songs that ought to be restored to a live set at some point.

So that’s how strong this album really is. Rush could show up for a three-hour set and play six of the seven songs, yet fans will say they wish they’d heard the seventh.

Speaking of live sets, Rush wound up establishing a pattern of releasing a live album after every four studio albums. And so they were due for …

Exit … Stage Left (1981)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia)

AllMusic’s normally reliable Greg Prado misses the boat here, saying this is the probably the weakest of their live sets. The sales figures would beg to differ. This album had a strong chart showing even though Rush fans were required to fork over money for a double album released a mere eight months after Moving Pictures. It’s recognized as one of the definitive live albums in rock.

The songs sell themselves, of course. The track listing is heavy on the golden period of the four most recent albums, with only a brief interlude of Fly By Night‘s Beneath, Between and Behind interrupting the flow on the original CD release. (A remaster restores A Passage to Bangkok, dropped in the transition from album to CD.)

Two band members get solos. Neil Peart, not yet incorporating electronics into his sizable drum kit, makes creative use of his toms and picks out some melodies on a set of cowbells that would make Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken drool. Lifeson gives an extended classical guitar intro to The Trees, called Broon’s Bane after producer Terry “Broon” Brown, that is a pleasing listen and a terrific piece for aspiring guitarists (like me, circa 1985-87) to learn and study.

So what next? Would Rush do what Def Leppard did a few years later and get even bigger with the next album? Would they implode in search of Moving Pictures II? Neither. This was Rush’s peak, but the path back down was neither steep nor boring.

Almost live from Antarctica

No idea why these guys aren’t getting more play, but I really liked Nunatak, the Antarctic band at Live Earth. So much so that I’m including a link here to MSN’s dubious Live Earth site so you can see them in their official video glory.

I’m being polite. The MSN site is utter shit, about as easy to navigate and about as functional as a big mud pit.

Which is why I’m saving you the trouble and going to YouTube for Spinal Tap’s truly excellent performance. Hello, Wimbledon!

That clip stops before they bring out about 20 bass players for Big Bottom, so check this clip if you haven’t already seen that.