Reviewed on this page:
2112 - A Farewell To Kings - Hemispheres - Permanent Waves - Moving Pictures - Signals - Grace Under Pressure - Test For Echo - Vapor Trails - Snakes & Arrows - Clockwork Angels
It's almost too easy to make fun of this Canadian prog-rock power trio: bassist Geddy Lee has a thin, high voice that sounds helium-induced, drummer Neil Peart takes himself (and his umpteen-piece kit) soooo seriously, and they really did set an Ayn Rand novel to music. Plus, their fans (who've bugged me for years to review the band) are really annoying. But here at Wilson & Alroy's Record Reviews, it's all about the music, and Rush has cranked out more than their share of classic tunes over the years, making innovative use of complex riffs, unusual time changes and tight instrumental jams. And you have to give them credit for balancing the scales of album cover nudity, uncovering male buttocks on a series of 70s LPs. Oh, wait, forgot it was supposed to be all about the music. Drat.
In 2004, Rush went out on a 30th Anniversary Tour: saw it, reviewed it, didn't buy the $30 T-shirt.
Geddy Lee, vocals, bass, keyboards; Alex Lifeson,
guitar; John Rutsey, drums. Rutsey left 1974, replaced by Neil Peart, who also wrote nearly
all the lyrics from that point on.
My brother used to have the first three albums, and according to my recollection this is pretty straightforward hard rock: the minor hit "Working Man" is based on a heavy, slow riff that could easily be Sabbath or Led Zep.
Produced by the band with Terry Brown, who would stay on board through the group's rise to mainstream success.
Fly By Night (1975)
The title track, a bouncy light rocker, was their first radio hit. New drummer Neil Peart took over as lyricist, and immediately delved into sword-and-sorcery on "By-Tor And The Snow Dog" and "Rivendell."
I remember liking "Making Memories" too, but unfortunately I don't remember why.
Caress Of Steel (1975)
The move to prog-rock started right here.
After the hard rocker "Bastille Day" and jokey tossoff "I Think I'm Going Bald," the band focuses on two lengthy conceptual suites: the endless "Necromancer" and the even longer "Fountain Of Lamneth."
Side One is another lengthy narrative suite ("2112"), but this time instead of sword-and-sorcery, Peart is drawing on ultraright icon Ayn Rand. I'd like to say that Peart boils down her impenetrable prose into an alarming dystopic vision, but I'm afraid it's just turgid, simplistic anticommunist ranting. Musically it's better but not much: seven simple pieces ranging from the "Rain Song"-clone "Discovery" to the one-riff "Grand Finale" (yeah right), though there is one fine, bombastic power ballad buried in the middle ("Presentation").
The trio format - with no backing vocals, a minimum of overdubs, and some silly sound effects - locks them into a sound that's too thin to get across the requisite drama and expansiveness. And that's speaking as a longtime proponent of minimalism.
Side Two contains five standard-length rock songs: the absurd "A Passage To Bangkok" (with that pseudo-Oriental pentatonic riff you probably remember from Warner Brothers cartoons); the slight, loping "The Twilight Zone"; a sappy love song ("Tears"); and a couple more power ballads ("Something For Nothing")... nothing very memorable.
All The World's A Stage (1976)
Yep, a live album. (DBW)
A Farewell To Kings (1977)
Best known as the source of the power ballad and concert favorite "Closer To The Heart," with Peart adding some dramatic bells.
The sound is still thin ("Madrigal") and there are several blah tunes ("Cinderella Man"), but the arrangements are much improved, with the band developing its signature style of unusual syncopation (the almost uncountable overture of "Cygnus X-1") and sudden rhythmic breaks highlighting Peart's virtuosity (title track), and memorable guitar licks, often doubled by Lee's bass (the line 2/3 of the way through "Xanadu").
Keyboards are occasionally in evidence, though so far only as a special effect ("Xanadu").
The longest tracks run ten minutes apiece (the apex of brevity compared to "2112"): "Xanadu" (based on the Coleridge poem) and "Cygnus X-1" (based on god knows what).
All the techniques on display here - and some of the riffs: the end of "Xanadu" sounds like a rehearsal for the opening of "Spirit Of Radio" - were used to better effect later, but if you dig their classic sound, you'll want to hear this.
Similar to the previous record in form, but the execution is better: Lifeson has figured out how to construct propulsive licks out of fractured arpeggios, Lee's agile bass is more prominent in the mix, and the synths, where they appear, sound organic instead of arty ("Cygnus Bringer of Balance").
Side One picks up where we'd left off, with the six-part "Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres" telling a pseudo-mythological story about achieving balance between Heart and Mind. Whoa. The opening "Prelude" cops a bass line from Steely Dan's "Reelin' In The Years," and the subsequent sections aren't particularly inspired compositions but they develop enough to hold your interest ("Dionysus Bringer Of Love").
Then there are two short numbers - the introspective rocker "Circumstances" and the Rand-inspired elitist parable "The Trees" (with the same soft/loud structure as "Closer To The Heart" but a less engaging melody).
The concluding multi-part instrumental "La Villa Strangiato," despite its subtitle "An Exercise In Self-Indulgence" is a lot more focused and entertaining than most of their extended works, with mellow sections and mean metal riffs passing by so quickly you feel like you're on one of those ten-cities-in-four-days package tours.
Permanent Waves (1980)
Not the great leap forward I used to think it was, it's really a continuation of the previous record's advances, only broken into shorter tunes.
Starts off with two of the band's best songs: the multipart anti-corporate rock anthem "The Spirit Of Radio" (with its unforgettable phased guitar intro) and the hard rocking atheist anthem "Freewill," featuring a bizarre warp-speed guitar solo. Sure, the lyrics are a bit self-righteous, with the band setting themselves up as standard bearers for artistic integrity and personal responsibility, but who needs false modesty anyway? They haven't completely abandoned extended works, but they do keep them under control: "Jacob's Ladder," with a smokey synth opening before finally kicking some butt, wraps up in under eight minutes; "Natural Science" is a bit longer and, alas, far less interesting. But the most embarassing moment is brief: the (gasp) love song "Entre Nous."
Moving Pictures (1981)
Another notch up, resulting in their best album. The synth-shrouded anti-fencepainting anthem "Tom Sawyer" and the casually meter-shifting "Limelight" (with a self-promoting "most rock stars aren't sincere but WE ARE DAMMIT" theme) are AOR staples. But don't overlook "Red Barchetta" (the best of their many quiet/loud tunes, with a memorable harmonics-based opening) and the frantic instrumental "YYZ," which packs a suite's worth of themes into four and a half minutes.
The eleven-minute opus "The Camera Eye" takes forever getting started, but once it does it doesn't let go, thanks to powerful hooks and arresting soloing from Lifeson.
And the group experiments with reggae on the closing "Vital Signs," though the song isn't terrific - the only track with nothing much to recommend it is the mournful anti-witchhunting anthem "Witch Hunt (Part III of Fear)."
Exit... Stage Left (1981)
Another live album. (DBW)
Lee's synths started to drown out all the other instruments right about here, from the opening suburban individuality anthem "Subdivisions," which adds an absurd spoken voiceover for extra annoyance value. But the bigger problem is the compositions: where the previous albums had two or three great songs, two or three good ones, and two decent ones, this one has six bad ones and two decent ones...
I have no idea what kind of anthem "New World Man" is, but it's the best song on the record, with a reggae verse, a minimum of keyboards, and some energy; "The Analog Kid" does have a memorable main riff, though it never develops. Otherwise, it's one simple chord progression after another ("The Weapon (Part 2 of Fear)"), with no noteworthy melodies or any of their usual syncopation and dynamics changes. One bright spot is the wild electric violin contributed by Ben Mink - the only high profile guest appearance on a Rush album, as far as I know - on the otherwise drab "Losing It."
Grace Under Pressure (1984)
I bought this right when it came out, and then I didn't buy another Rush album for twenty years, so you can probably guess I wasn't too impressed. For one thing, Peart must've been obsessed with the Cold War or Mars or maybe Santa Claus, because the word "red" appears in the title or lyrics of three different songs, making it hard to remember which is which. More importantly, the synths have gone way out of control: laying down a succession of simplistic 4/4 vamps (the addled three-note line on the Faulkner-quoting single "Distant Early Warning"),
and drowning out the guitar and bass on nearly every track ("Between The Wheels," which sounds like an even slower rewrite of Tom Petty's "You Got Lucky"). Lyric-wise, Peart pulled back from sweeping narratives and socio-political pronouncements in favor of obscure ciphers ("Kid Gloves").
The only moment of more than cursory interest is the opening of "The Body Electric," with stuttering drums opposite a funk bass lick.
As had become customary, there's a reggae section on one track ("Afterimage"), and the band even ventures into disco on the "I Was Made For Lovin' You"-sounding "Red Sector 'A'."
For those of you keeping score at home, we finally get Part One of the "Fear" trilogy: "The Enemy Within."
Brown had jumped ship, and was replaced by Peter Henderson.
Power Windows (1985)
Apparently this album and the next went even deeper into programmed synthesizer madness. Henderson was replaced by Peter Collins, who also produced the following album. (DBW)
Hold Your Fire (1987)
Show Of Hands (1988)
Can't have too many live albums. (DBW)
Supposedly a return to the guitar-based approach of albums past; the first of two discs produced with Rupert Hine. (DBW)
Roll The Bones (1991)
The title track mixes brutally loud guitars with a computer-generated rap middle that dares you not to laugh. (DBW)
Collins returned for this record and the next. (DBW)
Test For Echo (1996)
I never thought I'd be nostalgic for the side-long conceptual suites, but those at least had the potential to surprise.
There's plenty of energy - the title track is perhaps the loudest I've heard from the band, and the guitar hook of "Driven" wouldn't be out of place on a heavy metal record - but it's never invigorating because it's so predictable: an assembly line of formulaic four- and five-minute tunes,
with each band member doing the same things he'd done on the one million previous albums.
Odd meters? Check ("Time And Motion"). Lengthy guitar phrases? Check ("Virtuality"). Overlong power ballad? Check ("Resist"). Vague social comment? Double check ("Half The World"; "The Color Of Right"). Intense boredom? Undecuple check ("Limbo").
The second half of the record is so heavy on midtempo 4/4 tracks with indistinct melodies that, aside from the annoying repeated chorus of "Dog Years," I can barely tell which song I'm listening to.
Different Stages (1998)
A 3-CD live set, with two discs from a recent tour and one disc from a 1978 performance.
Vapor Trails (2002)
I guess I wasn't the only person who thought Test For Echo was a stagnant cesspool:
this is an abrupt about-face, as the band drops all its mannerisms to embrace mainstream rock trends. Lifeson's arpeggios and lengthy phrases are abandoned in favor of tinny repeated eighth notes (like mid-80s The Edge) and blunt power chords;
Peart doesn't indulge in any of his usual pyrotechnic fills or time signature shifts; Lee doesn't play any keyboards and his voice is often thickened by double-tracking, particularly on the choruses ("One Little Victory"). So the disc often ends up sounding like any random hard rock offering ("Secret Touch," with a one-chord chorus reminiscent of Godsmack), and since the simplistic riffs are depressingly ordinary ("Peaceable Kingdom" is an exception), it's not particularly good random hard rock. It's sure
better than Echo, though.
Produced by Paul Northfield without the band.
An EP of covers, primarily 60s rockers like "Heart Full Of Soul" and "Seven & Seven Is."
Snakes & Arrows (2007)
Supposedly Feedback reawakened Rush's love of straightforward rock and roll, and whatever the reason, the band does sound much more focused on the basics ("We Hold On").
Leadoff single "Far Cry" encapsulates the approach: it's loud and fast, but rather than the deadening sameness of Vapor Trails, it incorporates memorable riffs, tempo and dynamics shifts, and a committed vocal from Lee.
Keyboards are still minimal, but there is some acoustic guitar to broaden the horizon ("The Larger Bowl"), as well as three instrumentals: "The Main Monkey Business" is a thrilling cavalcade of licks, along the lines of "YYZ"; "Malignant Narcissism," with a very funky bass line, is about as much fun as Rush has ever had on record.
Peart's lyrics are his usual mix of vague social comment ("The Way The Wind Blows") and direct social comment ("Faithless," another atheist anthem).
A big improvement on the previous discs, particularly sonically, but there are enough forgettable tunes - "Armor And Sword"; "Workin' Them Angels" - that the album doesn't match up to their finest work.
Produced by Nick Raskulinecz.
Snakes & Arrows Live (2008)
A double-CD containing live versions of almost everything on the previous studio release, plus hits ("The Spirit Of Radio") and offbeat material ("Witch Hunt"; "Passage To Bangkok").
Clockwork Angels (2012)
Produced with Raskulinecz, and as on their previous collaboration, this year's Rush is a streamlined machine that means business ("Caravan," released two years ahead of the full album; "Carnies"), but still has time for idiosyncracies (the title track's mellow interlude; bluegrass bits and a string section on "Halo Effect"). And again, there are several of the acid rock riffs the band had rarely explored post-"Working Man" ("Seven Cities Of Gold," which even has Purple organ).
Lee's vocals sound better than ever, which may reflect studio trickery of some kind but is still impressive for a guy who's been recording for four decades. Meanwhile, Peart's lyrics tell some sort of steampunk story (there's an accompanying novelization), though I confess I didn't follow it.
The album runs out of juice by the end, with the soggy "Wish Them Well" into the sentimental "The Garden," but by then you'll probably be willing to cut them some slack. So it's as good as anything the group has released in decades, but no better: the record is propulsive and enjoyable, but none of the tunes burrow into your head the way so much of their late 70s/early 80s work did.
I really am going bald, but enough about me.