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.

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

  1. Captain Miller says:

    O.K., first off I have changed my blogger name from “Ed” to “Captain Miller” (long story). On to the assessment; great breakdown of these albums…you’re definitely on a roll. I was cracking up over your comment that you’d never hear a RUSH fan bummed out that they didn’t play “Lock and Key”. I do however take exception with your comment regarding the Steinberger bass. I have played a Steinberger for over 20 years and think it’s a great sounding and cool looking instrument. Minor point in the scheme of things. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say about Presto.

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