(My) best of RUSH: Canada’s gift to planet Earth

90s_bandWhy the devil, I hear you ask, is this blogger who writes about obscure ambient music and Germans who go bleep in the night writing about Rush, every geek’s favourite progressive rock band? Well, the fact that I am Canadian has a little to do with it. The fact that I’m a geek also has a little to do with it. The fact that Rush’s music, story and vibe are totally 100% wonderful has everything to do with it. At some point I was going to have to address this undying love, so here I go!

Rock fans should need little introduction. Starting as a slavishly Zeppelinesque power trio in the early seventies then morphing into a thunderous prog/metal fusion band in the late seventies, featuring lyrics that ranged from profound to hilariously bad courtesy of drum god Neil Peart, in the eighties Toronto’s own Rush matured into an intelligent, intellectual rock band that utilized hard rock elements but also the latest in musical technology and absorbed the best aspects of emerging styles. I used to be a member of some prog forums where “fans” would regularly slag Rush’s post-1981 efforts as being “pop”. Those people were fools, for there were few bands who could add heart and soul to the synthetic sounds of the new komputer welt of the eighties. And Rush was one of those bands, taking on the challenge of technology (and often singing about the challenges) while still rocking pretty hard. Since the early nineties the band has mixed harder rock with synths and stuff in an expert way. Every album is worth owning. And the lyrics have never reached the nadir of 1975’s “The Necromancer” again.

Rush-007Completely uninterested in keeping up with what was cool and hip, Rush has retained its massive fan base by staying the course. Three nice, normal-ish, funny guys making moving, smart, melodic rock music. Sounds simple, right? Well then, how come hardly anyone else can achieve it? Rush concerts are a gathering of people from all over the social and economic spectrum (including women, yes), as well as of all different ages. What do we have in common? We like smart music with good tunes. You think smart music with good tunes is all over the place in this benighted age? Yeah, right.

So, well, if you don’t like or are disinterested in Rush you probably won’t be too interested in the following list. If you are, then you will disagree in places. That’s the joy of being a Rush fanboy (or girl!). Live albums have not been included.

Rush_Test_for_Echo10. Test for Echo

This 1996 release is unspectacular but very solid, which basically summarizes Rush’s nineties output. None of these albums really outranks any other and each contains a few classics, so I guess this album is standing in for the decade. Each album contains a classic or two, like “Nobody’s Hero” from Counterparts or “Bravado” from Roll the Bones. The formula had been perfected: hard rock elements combined with subtle use of synth and Lifeson’s inventive space-age guitar wizardry. The title track expertly combines the hard rockin’ energy of an early power trio (Cream, say) with an advanced lyrical and melodic sense. That spirit pervades the album in songs like “Driven”, which also introduced a new element: folk-inspired melodies. This is better shown in the surprising “Resist“, which uses the sustained bagpipey guitar and Scottish rhythms pioneered by Big Country and Runrig. It showed that these old dogs had a few more tricks still left up their sleeves. Not an album that would win over many new converts, but a reassuringly solid and enjoyable record.

Rush_Clockwork_Angels_artwork9. Clockwork Angels

We talk about “comebacks” and “returns to form” a lot in music writing, and some considered this 2012 release to be such for Rush. In truth, the chaps’d been putting out damn fine albums consistently, but there was some perception that this did represent a true return to form, perhaps because there appears to be a definite effort to acknowledge the band’s sonic history. This album is as heavy as Rush has sounded since the seventies, at least since A Farewell to Kings. It’s also a concept album (there was an accompanying fiction book to to go with it!), which made proggers happy. And the songs are dark and complex, with raging numbers “The Anarchist” and “Carnies” sounding positively Zeppelinesque. Alex Lifeson’s in top form with his walls of riffery and melodic lead lines, and Geddy Lee’s voice has never sounded better. Yet for all this exultant rockingness, the album’s highlight is a melodic, poppier song that combines sixties jangle-rock influences with the heartfelt sentiments typical of the band’s second heyday in the eighties: “The Wreckers” is such a good song, and so moving, that it almost surprised me. But then I remembered this is Rush.

Rush_Presto8. Presto

This 1989 album followed Rush’s synthiest album of all time, Hold Your Fire. Having taken that path as far as they were comfortable (and no doubt their fans weren’t comfortable either), they brought back the rock quite unexpectedly. Perhaps they felt grunge on the horizon; Rush was always pretty good at predicting musical trends and has not been properly recognized for its ability to do so. I remember seeing the video for “Show Don’t Tell” and being fascinated by its herky-jerky riff, bass, guitar and drums locking in this weird groove. Did I say that Geddy Lee is a mind-blowing bass player? Not due to his dexterity per se, but due the fact that half the time he’s singing while playing these fancy licks! Anyway, the rationalist lyrics demonstrate Peart’s greater mature ability to universalize his intellectual concepts without resorting to high (or low in the case of Ayn Rand) philosophy. Other classics on this album are “Superconductor” and the very underrated “The Pass” (now a fan favourite), which, like other melodic, softer nineties songs such as “Nobody’s Hero” and “Bravado”, ably shows off Peart’s gift for expressing moving compassion through his lyrics, and Lifeson and Lee’s ability to match that delightful humanism with inspiring, cinematic music. “The Pass” is a very lovely song.

Rush_A_Farewell_to_Kings7. A Farewell to Kings

This is a fun album, basically a funner version of 2112, musically speaking (see below). The tunes are really just straightforward bitchin’, despite the complexities and the clear influence of bands like Yes and Van der Graaf Generator (the latter on the cosmic “Cygnus X-1“). At this time Peart wasn’t exactly giving Peter Hammill a run for his money, though. He would later. This is sort of over-the-top hard rock of the kind that no doubt inspired the Spinal Tap concept, giving us choice lines like “Tonight I dine on honeydew and drink the milk of paradise” from the historical epic “Xanadu” (which I assume has something to do with Marco Polo). That song also provided a great slow-burning intro that has graced many’s the sporting event. The title track’s classical guitar opening is pure seventies prog, and of course this album contains the famous anthemic single “Closer to the Heart“, which, while having some silly, self-important lyrics of its own, is a fun good-time song. And fun is what this album is. Makes me wish I was old enough in 1977 to go to concerts with a lighter to wave and lots of weed. I was, however, three years old at the time. I saw Rush live finally in, I think, 2011.

Rush_Grace_Under_Pressure6. Grace Under Pressure

On this 1984 album, the boys basically tossed hard rock under the bus, so to true “proggers” (bah) it’s anathema, the one where they went “pop”. In fact, this album has a ton of depth and some very interesting ideas. Alex Lifeson had a whole range of effects and guitar synthy things on the go by this point, so don’t get any ideas about him being under-represented here. Geddy Lee’s voice was becoming more refined (and an octave or three lower) and expressive, a mellow and reassuring guide to Peart’s lyrics, which were paradoxically becoming increasingly intellectual but more down-to-earth at the same time. What other band could make a tuneful pop song out of a story of the Holocaust (“Red Sector A“)? On the whole the album is pretty space-rocky, given the ethereal nature of Lifeson’s guitar sounds and the increased use of synths. Considering the occasional incorporation of ska/reggae types of rhythms, it’s sort of like if The Police was as smart a band as Sting thought it was. Yeah, that’s it. There was also a cracking single in “Distant Early Warning“.

Rush_21125. 2112

This is a silly album, really, sort of a Styx-ian cornerstone of the kimono rock era. Geddy’s aluminum croon on this 1976 album, hitting notes that only Schnauzers can hear, is the stuff of legend and ridicule. This is also one of the most melodic hard rock albums of the seventies. And one of the catchiest. And one of the heaviest. The album’s rep is predicated mainly on the epic title track, a futuristic tale of collectivism crushing individuality. I do not identify with this premise, though I understand it. For I too, like Neil Peart, fell for a while (only for a few months at 18 in my case) under the spell of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, which held in essence that the rights of smartypants Nietzschean superpeople should supercede those of the masses, meaning these naturally gifted people should be free to do whatever they wanted, to whomever, in some kind of utopian free-market superpeople rampage. I get where she was coming from (she’d seen the nastiness of nascent Leninism first-hand), but the world is so much more complex than that, and at some point she should have realized it. So should Neil and so should I. In any case, in this context, who cares? The opening riffs of this song are about the heaviest thing ever! Litttt-erally, as people like to say these days. The way the middle of the story is told via acoustic guitar is very clever. The other tunes are pretty good, especially “A Passage to Bangkok”.

Rush_Permanent_Waves4. Permanent Waves

This 1980 album is sort of Moving Pictures part one. Rush had given up, as most prog bands did, on writing epics, instead trying to get the ideas across in catchier, bite-sized packages that could get some serious radio play as well. Cagily, the first single of this era is “Spirit of Radio“, a celebration of an underground radio station and of the innovative drive of underground music in general. Ironically, that station probably would have refused to play Rush’s music, and post-punk types probably had little respect for Rush’s musicianship. So it was really a rather generous song when you think about it. The song also has a bit of reggae, which must have shocked the rockers, and one or two of rock’s most memorable riffs. Geddy Lee at this point had perhaps realized he’d snap his vocal cords for good if he didn’t stop singing like a dog whistle. The album also contains “Freewill”, good tune but too Rand-ian for my liking, the underrated “Entre Nous” and the mind-blowing guitar solo of “Jacob’s Ladder”. There are still plenty of hard rock traces here on a fine album, but it’s on the two following albums that Rush would perfect its modern new sound.

Moving_Pictures3. Moving Pictures

This is the album for Rush, the one that everyone acknowledges as their clear best. Except me. But I love this album very, very much. If Permanent Waves took the band further away from melodic hard prog-rock, this one was a statement that Rush would be part of the future of rock, not a relic. They mixed sleeker arrangements of shorter songs with a heavier use of synths to create a futuristic sound, all ready for the brave new world of the eighties and beyond. And the songs, oh, the iconic songs. The lyrics of “Tom Sawyer” may be a spot more of Rand-influenced Objectivist silliness, but the music is so dang catchy. “Limelight” is as melodic and uplifting as a song can get, and oh yeah, the new Lifeson is revealed here: a man who should be recognized as changing the use of the electric guitar for good. No longer a bluesy disciple of Jimmy Page, instead he deftly blends open strings, repetitive little licks and an array of effects to create solos that are almost ambient in effect rather than showing off. If The Edge could play guitar, he might make such solos. And when Geddy Lee started using synths a lot, he was an instant master, as the dramatic “Witch Hunt” demonstrates, with its monolithic synth pad progression. Lyrically, the album is forward-thinking, concise, but super intelligent. This truly is one of rock’s greatest classics.

Rush_Hold_Your_Fire2. Hold Your Fire

Some fans will (or would if they happened to read this) proclaim me crazy as a bedbug for declaring this the second-best Rush long player. Well, hear me out. If Rush’s eighties trajectory took them gradually toward synth-pop (but not all the way), there had to be an ending point, right? And that point is either going to please you as a listener, or it’s not, right? Well, it pleases me — greatly. This album drips with cutting-edge synths, and I suppose it could be said that Lifeson’s role is restrained a bit, but the wonderful closing solo in the inspirational “Mission” would suggest otherwise. The other thing this album has is several incredible songs on par with the band’s best ever, particularly, of course, the majestic “Time Stand Still“, which is about three super-melodic songs in one, with those sad/sweet and oh so wise lyrics on the subject of aging — the best lyrics, by the way, ever written on that topic. I’m really starting to understand them now. What a fucking song. Then there’s a track like “Tai Shan“, about Peart’s trip to China, like nothing the band had done before with its faintly Oriental feel and full-on ambient/new age vibe. Or the rockers “Force Ten” and “Lock and Key“, or the uplifting glory that is “Mission”. This album is so great.

Rush_Signals1. Signals

There’s not really much you can say in defence of your favourite, is there? The reasons why a particular piece of art appeals so strongly to a particular person are mysterious, a combination of character, life experience and an inborn response to melody and meaning. In this case, I guess I would say this album crystallizes what Rush is all about to me. There are still harder rocking elements from the seventies — just enough. There are new space-age sounds and sentiments — just enough. There’s a new greater lyrical sensitivity, as found in the heartbreaking and universally identifiable lyrics of “Losing It” or the empathy of “Subdivisions“, which describes a repressed suburban childhood just like my own (and in practically the same place, actually). There’s the yearning of the bridge of “The Analog Kid” and those sky-high synthesizers combined with new wave riffing. This album may sound like 1982, but so what? Those were good times. A glorious future for humankind seemed certain, if the Cold War could be licked. It was, eventually, but the world it’s left in its wake is anything but a utopia. In those optimistic future-oriented sounds and ideas that Rush was putting forward in its music of the time, though, you could sure dream of one. And you still can.

 

Oh, I forgot to mention that Neil Peart is a really good drummer.

Rush discography

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17 responses to “(My) best of RUSH: Canada’s gift to planet Earth

  1. This is great. I just finished a two day Rush marathon after having taken at least a fifteen year break. While Caress of Steel is still my favorite, I really enjoyed re-listening to Permanent Waves and found “Entre Nous” to be rather moving in my middle-age. It is nice to read your perspectives and, I agree, Signals is amazing. Thanks!

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    • Ok, well, let me say that “Bastille Day” is probably my favourite early Rush track — especially the live version from the first live album. So I do have some love for that album too. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  2. Great list. And Signals, yes, absolutely. But speaking of Signals, please, right now – go and listen to “Countdown” – and tell me that it isn’t an absolutely fantastic finish to the album, and I dare you to tell me that you didn’t get chills listening to the song through the end. Simply brilliant.

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  3. I was a big Rush fan in high school (around Moving Pictures time). Glad to see somebody else was a fan of their synthy period. When I got to high school I dove deep into new wave and Rush was right there. I appreciated their broadening their sonic palette. Which is why they kind of lost me toward the end of the 90’s when they went back to being more or less hard rock.

    The 5.1 surround version of Moving Pictures is pretty amazing.

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  4. Wow, I did not expect Signals at #1, but very pleased to see it there. Funny that it contains “Digital Man”, the song that did their relationship with Terry Brown in… but “Subdivisions” is the best, not to the mention the fantastic sequencing of putting “Analog Kid” after it.

    And interestingly, no Power Windows even though GUP & HYF made the list?

    Moving Pictures and 2112 will always be in my top 2 slots because they are the first Rush albums I ever heard.

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  5. Great synopsis. I first heard Rush in ’76 and saw a lot of their shows between ’78-’81. Their live sound was huge for a three-piece band, and they are such great musicians. My favourite albums are from the “Kings” to “Moving Pictures” period, but I still listen to all of them when I can. I think “Power Windows” is also up there with my favourites. My favourite track has to be “La Villa Strangiato”

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  6. ‘Hemisphere’s is unequalled, Lifeson’s guitar playing was totally unique.
    Even though somewhat derivative, his soloing on ‘Working Man’ was tremendous too.

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  7. My first Rush album was “Power Windows”, but my favourite has to be “Moving Pictures”. When my friend and I were on holiday in Florida, we frequented the same bar most nights and their jukebox had a copy of it in there. Popped a couple of bucks in, programmed all the tracks (yes, even “YYZ”) and had a sing-a-long with the barman 🙂

    … though “Signals” is a damn fine record too.

    I used to have almost every album but, due to low funds or worn-out vinyl, it now consists of just Presto, HYF and a red vinyl 10″ of “Body Electric”. I really should do something about that.

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