Rush’s Hemispheres: 36 Years Ago Today

hemispheres-2-s

Wow, 1978 was a long time ago, eh?

I still vividly recall procuring this one on compact disc (!) on the last day of school, in 1987 (!) back when CDs were still trickling out, one by one. And at the time, it was already a “classic”; not even a decade old. Yikes.

But let’s give it up for a band who, while Disco raged and Punk roared, and Prog Rock was already deep into its death-spiral, was just getting started. Indeed, Hemispheres represented at once a summation and a point of departure for what Rush had been trying to accomplish throughout the ’70s.

Check it:

This was the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s 2112, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

(The last words on all-things-Rush, according to me:

In the final analysis, most bands—for better or worse—conjure up a time or mood or era (if they are even capable of doing that much). Even bands that have staggered past their expiration dates (say, The Rolling Stones) are more like drunken grandfathers out after last call. Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense. They adapted, and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day. And one reason, aside from merely making excellent music, that they endure, and remain so popular is that their audience has grown with them—in most senses of the word. Rush has mirrored, and described that journey, so they are never a nostalgia trip; it’s very much about the here and now.

From 1974 through 2013, and counting: Rush went from good to very good to great to as perfect as a band can be to, arguably, very good and good (your mileage may vary). Put yet another way, and perhaps the most important way: Rush has never been less than good. By all accounts they have never turned in a live performance that was less than competent (you don’t attract—and retain—lifelong fans unless you show, every night, that you care).

Regardless of whether the results, Moving Pictures aside, produce universal consensus, there is this bottom line: somewhere along the line Rush reached a different stage wherein they are the only band they can measure themselves against. This is something exceedingly few bands, in the history of rock music, can ever claim.)

For a lot more on what they had done, check this out.

For a lot more on what they did next, check this out.

For a lot more on their masterpiece, check this out.

For a lot more about why the band was rightly inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, check THIS out.

For more about what makes Hemispheres so amazing, all these years later, stop, look and listen to what is right below these words…

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Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength: Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves’ (Revisited)

How unbelievably appropriate that Permanent Waves was released on January 1, 1980?

In virtually every regard, this album ended the ’70s (literally) and foreshadowed the fertile grounds (reggae, pop elements, concise arrangements) the band would spend the next decade expanding upon.

Even though it will forever be overshadowed by the masterpiece that followed, Permanent Waves is, in many regards, the most important album Rush made. Looking back on their career, Rush was not unlike Pink Floyd: each album built upon the last one and, in hindsight, one can easily see where certain ideas and obsessions –executed with varying degrees of success– came to full fruition on the eventual, inexorable tour de force (Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures, respectively). We can hear how “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” was a test run of sorts for the longer pieces from Caress of Steel, which of course set the stage for “2112″.

With the confidence and conviction the breakthrough success of 2112 provided, Rush began painting with strokes that managed to be at once broader and more refined. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” (from Hemispheres) was a triumph Rush could not –and did not need to– trump: it’s the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s “2112”, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

In a longer piece that details what happened before and during the recording of Moving Pictures, HERE, I assess the ways Rush grew as quickly and forcefully as any band of their time, making their unrelenting progress practically inevitable:

Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.

The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems predictable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.

Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, instinctive. There is also a palpable sense of assurance infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and King Crimson’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.

The centerpiece of the album is the sixth and final song, “Natural Science”: it does not grab you by the ear the way 2112 does and it does not have the immediate, irresistible appeal of “Limelight”, but it’s, quite possibly, the band’s most perfect achievement. Neil Peart’s lyrics, which tackle ecology, commercialism and artistic integrity (without being pretentious or self-righteous) are, in hindsight, not merely an end-of-decade statement of purpose but a presciently fin-de-siècle assessment that still, amazingly, functions as both indictment and appeal. “Natural Science” endures as the last document before Moving Pictures triangulated math rock, prog rock and the fertile new soil of synth-based popular music and did the inconceivable, making Rush a household name.

If the Snow Dog seemed a million miles in the aesthetic rear-view, “Tom Sawyer” was just around the bend. The band was seldom as tight, focused and unfettered as they would be on this outing, while the myriad elements that make Rush so unique and organic are fully manifest. Lee’s vocals were never more expressive or emotional; Lifeson’s guitar solos were rarely as succinct yet devastating. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can –and should– remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for these sessions. Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last thirty-three years. His love of language (consider the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art, a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. In the final analysis, Rush had already made history; they were finally prepared to produce work that remains relevant and enduring.

Art as expression,
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations.
Given the same
State of integrity,
It will surely help us along.

The most endangered species,
The honest man,
Will still survive annihilation.
Forming a world
State of integrity,
Sensitive, open and strong.

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If I Could Wave My Magic Wand… (Revisited)

 

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Idiot

(Editor’s note: Rush’s last great album (in my opinion), Presto, was released this week, in 1989. Almost a quarter-century ago. Yikes. Here is a piece I wrote in October, 2009)

***

It was twenty years ago today…

No, seriously. Twenty years. Fall semester (because the world was still measured in summers and semesters), sophomore year. Out of all the indelible memories amassed during that four year odyssey, the concentrated experience of ’89/’90 contained a little bit of everything: the good, bad and ugly –and that was just my wardrobe. Things I did and things I saw still impact my waking hours; things I recall and things I couldn’t control still influence my subconscious and work themselves out in novels, poems and blog posts.

So, among many other things, autumn ’89 was a fortuitous time for legendary bands creating stunning and defiant statements of purpose. Neither burned out nor ready to fade away, these artists defiantly informed the world that they were not all washed up, and quite capable of making some of their career-best work. Jethro Tull, Rush and Neil Young all had ups and downs in the ’80s: all relying too much, at times, on the synthesized sounds that were de rigeur (along with laughable music videos). Rush always found their audience, but Jethro Tull and Neil Young seemed to be on the ropes. Then, as summer vacation slipped into a new school year, the first salvo was fired by a one-legged flutist.

rock is

Tull came seemingly out of nowhere (particularly after the snyth-drenched period piece Under Wraps and Ian Anderson’s well-documented throat issues, leading some to wonder if the band was a spent force) with ’87s Crest of a Knave. The album was a minor revelation and led to the very controversial Grammy award (oh poor misunderstood Metallica!). So while ’89s Rock Island caused less waves and sold less copies than its predecessor, it is in some ways the superior album. There are a couple of throwaway tunes and a couple of mediocre moments, but this one also contains some of Anderson’s finest compositions. The band remains in fine form, as you can tell here, and here. The live performances of these songs were also remarkable, and of all the times I’ve seen Tull, this was by far the most impressive (an experience enhanced by a certain fungus, and a story that shall be revisited another time…).

As it happened, this late ’80s renaissance was a last gasp of sorts: Tull made a few more albums throughout the ’90s (each worse than the one before) and things were never the same. There is enough tolerable material on 1991′s Catfish Rising and 1995′s Roots To Branches to avoid wishing the band had called it quits altogether, but it is more than fair to proclaim that Rock Island was the last time they made truly relevant music (Ian Anderson still had one more masterpiece in him, the mostly ignored, but very worthwhile Divinities: Twelve Dances With God). I believe what I wrote earlier this year holds up as a generous enough assessment:

As some may be surprised to know, Jethro Tull still roams the earth, and while new albums aren’t being produced at the former pace (based on their post-’95 output, this is a good thing for all involved), they are still playing to crowds who happily pay to see them. If Pete Townshend decided he did not, in fact, want to die before he got old, it seems fair play for Jethro Tull and their fans to keep living in the past.

freedom

Now Neil Young is a different story. Crazy as it may sound twenty years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music during that decade. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) time warp the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how iconoclastic Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.

All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before (more on that, HERE): utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. (Young, alas, is one of those artists whose work is systematically policed on YouTube, so samples from Freedom are scarce, but here’s an acoustic version of the great El Dorado and he made some noise (literally) on Saturday Night Live. I remember watching that, on campus, and thinking how cool it was that there were still some hippies from the ’60s who scoffed at convention and attracted an audience.

Neil has continued to have his hits and misses, but there is no debating the fact that Freedom served as a defibrillator for his creative juices, and he has been riding that recharged heart of gold ever since. Long may he run!

presto

September brought Tull and October brought Neil; what on earth could November deliver?

Well, Rush started off en fuego in the ’80s (Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals can stand alongside any tri-fecta any rock band has delivered in the last thirty years) and while Power Windows suffered from the excesses of the time (too many keyboards and heavy-handed, inhuman production), Hold Your Fire was arguably the band’s first lackluster effort. It’s far from a failure (in spite of the grief the group took for this video, “Time Stand Still” is a tremendous song and it was a daring idea to include the delectable Aimee Mann) but it raised questions about where the band was going and what it had left to say. Plenty, as it turned out.

Presto is, like Rock Island and Freedom, an album that stopped even fanatic and longtime fans in their tracks and made them shake their heads in happy disbelief. I remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room on a Sunday night, listening to the “pre-release” broadcast on a crappy boombox. For whatever reason, the DJ played side two (perhaps because it leads off with the title song?) and I still recall the immediate reaction: Holy shit, this is incredible! For one thing, the employment of acoustic guitars…how refreshing. But more than that, the band sounded focused and locked in; they seemed hungry. This was when CDs still sold more poorly than cassettes (in other words, they were still somewhat of a novelty and a very expensive one for destitute college kids), and I was staggered by how great the sound quality was on this new disc. The content cops have been cracking down on Rush songs previously available at YouTube, so here are some great live versions here here and here.

Peart was assailed, sometimes understandably, for a decade of lyrics that relied a tad too heavily on themes liberally borrowed from Sci-Fi, Classical Literature and the high priestess of Objectivism, the insufferable Ayn Rand. For the Dungeons & Dragons circuit, this was biblical scripture; for older or less…imaginative fans the lyrics are occasionally embarrassing and have not exactly aged like a single malt scotch. However, the intelligence and unquenchable curiosity always existed, and Peart increasingly harnessed his considerable prowess with the pencil in the ’80s.

Starting with Permanent Waves he turned his attention (as most adults invariably do) to the world we live in and the ways it shapes us and vice versa. In hindsight, it is more than a little remarkable that the same person who penned the lyrics to “Natural Science” and “Freewill” also contributed “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “The Necromancer” (which are both excellent songs in their way, but about 99% of their redeeming value is musical). His lyrics for the rest of the decade are on par with the work Roger Waters did during the ’70s: pound for pound, nobody was coming close to being this consistently engaging and erudite.

In many regards, then, Presto found him at the height of his skills and confidence and the results are extraordinary. But more than that, this particular album seemed written especially for sensitive, inquisitive and occasionally confused young adults. Sophomores in college, say.

Hope is epidemic
Optimism spreads
Bitterness breeds irritation
Ignorance breeds imitation

All my nerves are naked wires
Tender to the touch
Sometimes super-sensitive
But who can care too much?

Pleasure leaves a fingerprint
As surely as mortal pain
In memories they resonate
And echo back again

I’m not one to believe in magic
Though my memory has a second sight
I’m not one to go pointing my finger
When I radiate more heat than light

Static on your frequency
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains


Twenty years. More time has passed since these albums came out than had passed at that point in my life. But any 39 year old who has learned anything understands –and accepts– that the chain lightning of youth comprises both the pleasure and pain (and everything in between) that made us what we became, and are becoming. Some days we can’t believe how far we’ve come, other days we would give anything to get even an hour of that magic back. Or, as Peart writes, The moment may be brief, but it can be so bright…

If I could wave my magic wand, would I do anything differently? I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, and each passing year fuels a sporadic nostalgia that is at times so overpowering it unnerves me. Other times I marvel at what I learned and saw, and feel fortunate to have been a wise fool at the end of one decade, incapable of imagining we might all live to see the year 2000. Mostly, I hope I did my best to get it right the first time. Then and now.

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RUSH HOUR

4/18/2003: today is the day mein froinds!

Rush is officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tonight.

I’ve written quite a bit about one of my favorite bands, most recently HERE and, in chronological order, HERE, (a deep dive into 2112) HERE (a deep dive into Moving Pictures) and HERE, (a deep dive into Permanent Waves) and they are appreciated several times in this long piece HERE! (a look at the best progressive rock songs of all time).

Here are some tidbits that make a case for their greatness, and elucidate why this coronation is sorely overdue:

Based on any number of criteria, including albums sold, influence cited (recall the range of artists who stood up to be counted in the excellent documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage), and by virtue of creating one of the seminal albums of the modern era, Moving Pictures, Rush has always been a no brainer. And that has long been the sticking point: brains have never been the strong suit of the style-over-substance crowd holding the keys to the proverbial kingdom.

There are few folks who can claim, at least with any credibility, that Lee, Lifeson and Peart are not amongst the most musically proficient players in rock history. Indeed, their craftsmanship was too often used against them, especially in the early days. Like certain bands that prospered in a certain decade, they made too much music. The so-called critics who did—or do—refuse to acknowledge the compositional brilliance and execution of tracks like “La Villa Strangiato” or “Xanadu” are not unlike the clueless emperor in Amadeus, who complained that there were simply too many notes.

One consistent and irrefutable observation of prog-rock bands is that there is little or no levity. The bands seldom smile, have no sense of humor, and don’t even put their faces on album covers! If ever a band could be credited with not taking itself too seriously, it’s Rush. Anyone who has been to a concert, heard an interview, or read any lyrics (at least post-1980) understands that Rush has self-effacing wit to spare, and are downright silly compared to virtually any other prog-rock band (and by silly we mean the intentional sort). If recent, visual evidence is necessary, get a load of THIS. These guys are amazing human beings and, after four decades, they still clearly love each other.

And for all the ridicule some of Peart’s lyrics rightly receive (The Necromancer! Snow Dog!), his body of work stands proudly alongside anyone (yes, anyone) who has put ink to paper in the service of pop songs. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” as the band’s first decade wound down and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can—and should—remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for the aforementioned “holier” trinity . (In fact, for the balance of the ‘80s Peart’s lyrics were seldom less than impressive and more than occasionally incredible).

Perhaps the best way to measure, and appreciate Rush’s credentials is to consider how far they came from where they started. Like an athlete honing skills each season, Rush evinced remarkable improvement each year, leading to those “all-star” years commencing with 1980’s Permanent Waves. Afterward, as much as any act, Rush capably bridged the chasm between prog-rock’s flameout and the onset of MTV. (To see where they went in less than a decade, check THIS and then THIS.)

In the final analysis, most bands—for better or worse—conjure up a time or mood or era (if they are even capable of doing that much). Even bands that have staggered past their expiration dates (say, The Rolling Stones) are more like drunken grandfathers out after last call. Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense. They adapted, and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day. And one reason, aside from merely making excellent music, that they endure, and remain so popular is that their audience has grown with them—in most senses of the word. Rush has mirrored, and described that journey, so they are never a nostalgia trip; it’s very much about the here and now.

From 1974 through 2013, and counting: Rush went from good to very good to great to as perfect as a band can be to, arguably, very good and good (your mileage may vary). Put yet another way, and perhaps the most important way: Rush has never been less than good. By all accounts they have never turned in a live performance that was less than competent (you don’t attract—and retain—lifelong fans unless you show, every night, that you care).

Regardless of whether the results, Moving Pictures aside, produce universal consensus, there is this bottom line: somewhere along the line Rush reached a different stage wherein they are the only band they can measure themselves against. This is something exceedingly few bands, in the history of rock music, can ever claim.

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Time Stand Still: Why Rush Belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

First things first. Just because Rush is finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it doesn’t mean that institution is not still problematic for reasons too numerous—and obvious—to require elaboration (Hint: Look who’s not in. Now look at who is in. Draw some conclusions).

Put another way, it’s not necessarily the bands, like Rush, that have thus far been denied so much as so many of the middling acts that have been admitted that made this particular delay such an affront.

Based on any number of criteria, including albums sold, influence cited (recall the range of artists who stood up to be counted in the excellent documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage), and by virtue of creating one of the seminal albums of the modern era, Moving Pictures, Rush has always been a no-brainer. And that has long been the sticking point: brains have never been the strong suit of the style-over-substance crowd holding the keys to the proverbial kingdom.

Rush’s induction will spare us the spectacle of so many uncool and cast out acolytes storming the Hall like By-Tor on Bastille Day. Think of all the time and energy this simple act of justice has freed up now that veterans of the chat-room wars no longer have to rail against the power windows that be.

Full disclosure: I once wrote a college paper analyzing the Utopian impulse in Rush’s late-‘70s albums (the “Holy Trinity” that comprised 2112, A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, which was in turn followed by the holier trinity that includes Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals). (See “Emotional Feedback on a Timeless Wavelength: Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves”, and “Drag the Dream Into Existence: Reassessing Rush’s Masterpiece”.)

Assuming there will be haters and party-poopers who reserve the right to protest any kudos coming Rush’s way, let’s evaluate the evidence. There are so many angles to attack this from, that fact alone makes a fairly credible case. For starters, Rush tops a very short list of bands that have managed to stick together for 40 years.

Conversely and, for my money, compellingly, had Rush happened to be a short-lived band that put out Moving Pictures bookended by Permanent Waves and Signals—before a tragic toboggan incident claimed Geddy Lee’s life—Rush would have been first ballot material. Certain acts do themselves no favors by sticking around, just as certain acts get idolized all out of proportion based on a furious combination of potential, wistfulness and what-ifs (Exhibit A: Nirvana).

True, for most objective fans, it has been a long series of inconsistent efforts since (insert album here). For this writer, the last album that fully satisfied was 1989’s Presto. On the other hand, there are people not even born in the ‘80s who have jumped on the bandwagon upon hearing one of the albums released during the last quarter-century.

Their most recent effort, 2012’s Clockwork Angels has generated the most positive press the band has received in ages, proof positive that they can have a meaningful impact even as they approach sexagenarian status. The point being, Rush has continued to create new work and convert new fans over the course of multiple decades. In terms of longevity and relevance, this fact is more than slightly astounding, and all but a rock ‘n’ roll anomaly.

Perhaps instead of listing more of the pros, we could consider the alleged cons, many of which apply to prog-rock bands in general and are, not surprisingly, epitomized by Rush.

There are few folks who can claim, at least with any credibility, that Lee, Lifeson and Peart are not amongst the most musically proficient players in rock history. Indeed, their craftsmanship was too often used against them, especially in the early days. Like certain bands that prospered in a certain decade, they made too much music. The so-called critics who did—or do—refuse to acknowledge the compositional brilliance and execution of tracks like “La Villa Strangiato” or “Xanadu” are not unlike the clueless emperor in Amadeus, who complained that there were simply too many notes.

One consistent and irrefutable observation of prog-rock bands is that there is little or no levity. The bands seldom smile, have no sense of humor, and don’t even put their faces on album covers! If ever a band could be credited with not taking itself too seriously, it’s Rush. Anyone who has been to a concert, heard an interview, or read any lyrics (at least post-1980) understands that Rush has self-effacing wit to spare, and are downright silly compared to virtually any other prog-rock band (and by silly we mean the intentional sort).

Incidentally, and ironically, U2 take themselves much more seriously (and are much more insufferable) than any prog-rock sourpuss—with the possible exception of ELP. Naturally, Bono and the boys are worshipped by Rolling Stone, the same publication that until 2008 couldn’t be bothered to put Rush on a single cover.

But… Ayn Rand!

Okay. For the first few albums after Peart assumed writing duties (Fly By Night through 2112) the lyrics range from earnest to embarrassing, but it’s the fleet fortune hunt with Rand that, somewhat justifiably, dogged the band forever after. Acknowledging “the genius of Ayn Rand” in the liner notes is never going to win over many literate or discerning listeners (much less critics), so Rush became guilty by self-inflicted association.

Never mind that the accusations of being reactionary (misguided) or fascist (ludicrous) did not sensibly apply to a song cycle based on a future without music. Indeed, Peart & Co. have spent decades pointing out (quite credibly) that the material of 2112 had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements.

And for all the ridicule some of Peart’s lyrics rightly receive (The Necromancer! Snow Dog!), his body of work stands proudly alongside anyone (yes, anyone) who has put ink to paper in the service of pop songs. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” as the band’s first decade wound down and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can—and should—remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for the aforementioned “holier” trinity . (In fact, for the balance of the ‘80s Peart’s lyrics were seldom less than impressive and more than occasionally incredible).

Let’s go to the audio tape: Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last 33 years. His love of language (the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art are a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. As one decade ended Rush had already made history: as another one commenced they were fully prepared to produce work that remains resilient—and relevant.

But…that voice!

Okay. Even if one concedes that the music and the lyrics are top-notch, there is still Geddy Lee’s voice to get around. It seems to be a love/hate proposition (not unlike what many people experience with Neil Young and Tom Waits, to name two of the more popular polarizers in rock circles). Is it that upper register that throughout the ‘70s often escalated to a shriek what repels people (especially women)? Is there something to be said about a band whose songs and attitude could not be less “alpha male”, and whose singer sounds like a woman, having the smallest female fan base of any prog-rock entity?

Perhaps the best way to measure, and appreciate Rush’s credentials is to consider how far they came from where they started. Like an athlete honing skills each season, Rush evinced remarkable improvement each year, leading to those “all-star” years commencing with 1980’s Permanent Waves. Afterward, as much as any act, Rush capably bridged the chasm between prog-rock’s flameout and the onset of MTV.

Discussion of Rush’s catalog calls to mind the way entirely too many people talk when (or if) they talk about jazz: strong opinions abound, and it’s soon revealed that the dissenter has listened to little (if any) of the work in question. For every skeptic who employs some or all of the objections listed above, it’s seldom acknowledged that the same band singing about necromancers and the Tobes of Hades went on to address decidedly un-prog issues ranging from AIDS (“Nobody’s Hero”), to bullying (“Subdivisions”), to suicide (“The Pass”). In fact, it may be the persistent positivity (of the band; of its material) that rankles the cynics and naysayers more than anything else.

In the final analysis, most bands—for better or worse—conjure up a time or mood or era (if they are even capable of doing that much). Even bands that have staggered past their expiration dates (say, The Rolling Stones) are more like drunken grandfathers out after last call. Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense. They adapted, and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day. And one reason, aside from merely making excellent music, that they endure, and remain so popular is that their audience has grown with them—in most senses of the word. Rush has mirrored, and described that journey, so they are never a nostalgia trip; it’s very much about the here and now.

From 1974 through 2013, and counting: Rush went from good to very good to great to as perfect as a band can be to, arguably, very good and good (your mileage may vary). Put yet another way, and perhaps the most important way: Rush has never been less than good. By all accounts they have never turned in a live performance that was less than competent (you don’t attract—and retain—lifelong fans unless you show, every night, that you care).

Regardless of whether the results, Moving Pictures aside, produce universal consensus, there is this bottom line: somewhere along the line Rush reached a different stage wherein they are the only band they can measure themselves against. This is something exceedingly few bands, in the history of rock music, can ever claim.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/170071-time-stand-still-why-rush-belongs-in-the-rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame/

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Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength: Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves’

How unbelievably appropriate that Permanent Waves was released on January 1, 1980?

In virtually every regard, this album ended the ’70s (literally) and foreshadowed the fertile grounds (reggae, pop elements, concise arrangements) the band would spend the next decade expanding upon.

Even though it will forever be overshadowed by the masterpiece that followed, Permanent Waves is, in many regards, the most important album Rush made. Looking back on their career, Rush was not unlike Pink Floyd: each album built upon the last one and, in hindsight, one can easily see where certain ideas and obsessions –executed with varying degrees of success– came to full fruition on the eventual, inexorable tour de force (Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures, respectively). We can hear how “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” was a test run of sorts for the longer pieces from Caress of Steel, which of course set the stage for “2112″.

With the confidence and conviction the breakthrough success of 2112 provided, Rush began painting with strokes that managed to be at once broader and more refined. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” (from Hemispheres) was a triumph Rush could not –and did not need to– trump: it’s the last side-long “suite” Rush attempted, and it remains the last necessary one any prog-rock group ever did. Not as incendiary or influential as 1976’s “2112”, it will have to settle for merely being flawless, and the pinnacle of the band’s output to this point. By 1978 the trio was truly hitting on all cylinders, musically: arguably the most ambitious of all the progressive bands (which is really saying something), Rush had spent the better part of the decade trying to make a cohesive statement where all elements came together. Interestingly, if not ironically (since irony is anathema to prog-rock) this album/song that studies, and then celebrates the separate hemispheres (of our left/right brains, of our organized/emancipated natures) matches the smarts and technical proficiency with the ingredient that would play an increasingly obvious and vital role in the band’s subsequent work: soul.

In a longer piece that details what happened before and during the recording of Moving Pictures, HERE, I assess the ways Rush grew as quickly and forcefully as any band of their time, making their unrelenting progress practically inevitable:

Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.

The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems predictable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.

Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, instinctive. There is also a palpable sense of assurance infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and King Crimson’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.

The centerpiece of the album is the sixth and final song, “Natural Science”: it does not grab you by the ear the way 2112 does and it does not have the immediate, irresistible appeal of “Limelight”, but it’s, quite possibly, the band’s most perfect achievement. Neil Peart’s lyrics, which tackle ecology, commercialism and artistic integrity (without being pretentious or self-righteous) are, in hindsight, not merely an end-of-decade statement of purpose but a presciently fin-de-siècle assessment that still, amazingly, functions as both indictment and appeal. “Natural Science” endures as the last document before Moving Pictures triangulated math rock, prog rock and the fertile new soil of synth-based popular music and did the inconceivable, making Rush a household name.

If the Snow Dog seemed a million miles in the aesthetic rear-view, “Tom Sawyer” was just around the bend. The band was seldom as tight, focused and unfettered as they would be on this outing, while the myriad elements that make Rush so unique and organic are fully manifest. Lee’s vocals were never more expressive or emotional; Lifeson’s guitar solos were rarely as succinct yet devastating. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can –and should– remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for these sessions. Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last thirty-three years. His love of language (consider the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art, a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. In the final analysis, Rush had already made history; they were finally prepared to produce work that remains relevant and enduring.

Art as expression,
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations.
Given the same
State of integrity,
It will surely help us along.

The most endangered species,
The honest man,
Will still survive annihilation.
Forming a world
State of integrity,
Sensitive, open and strong.

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Drag the Dream Into Existence: Reassessing Rush’s Masterpiece (Revisited)

Every band, if they are lucky, is able to create a definitive work—a document that embodies their unique qualities. Most great bands, at some point in their career, successfully produce an enduring statement. Some artists, like The Beatles or Pink Floyd, are able to capture—or create—the Zeitgeist on more than one occasion On the other hand; there are plenty of worthwhile and beloved bands who have never quite been capable of distilling the necessary ingredients of a classic recording. Finally, there are those almost unfathomable works that only a handful of bands can claim credit for. These exceptional albums are wholly original yet fully accessible and remain influential and imitated long after their release.

Moving Pictures is, without any question, not only Rush’s masterpiece, but one of those rare albums that epitomizes an era. It represents both a culmination and a progression: the peak of the band’s development as well as the blueprint for Rush’s subsequent work. More, it is a template of sorts for the way rock albums were made in the early ‘80s.

Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.

The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems inevitable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.

Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, inevitable. There is also a palpable sense of confidence infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.

Moving Pictures is the first (and, most fans would concede, the last) time the band produced a record that fulfills not only the band’s considerable purpose and potential, but stands on its own as the consummate Rush album, and one of the great rock albums. There is not a second of wasted or ill-spent space to be found: each moment contributes to the individual songs which add up to an ideally programmed and cohesive statement. It is impossible to imagine an alternate running order; it flows but does not ebb and never builds to a climax because the entire album functions as a continuous epiphany.

Considering other albums that would make the short list for all-time status, it is difficult to isolate ones that don’t have a weak link or a song that, no matter its merit, sounds slightly out of place. For an example of the former, even The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper has some fluff (“Lovely Rita”) and the almost-immaculate Abbey Road has the love-it-or-hate-it “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and the (almost) universally reviled “Octopus’s Garden”. For an example of the latter, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is quite difficult to quibble with on any level, but “Money” has always seemed like the song that could—or should—have been released as a single. There are probably many other excellent examples, just as there likely more than a few rock music aficionados who would insist there is no such thing as perfection, much less a perfect album. Finally, as previously discussed, perfection and how to define it is, at best, a dicey and ultimately futile endeavor. Put another way: who cares? Do we need to debate the parameters of a perfect album or, worse still, which albums are “more perfect” than others? Ultimately, all that matters is why the music works and why it warrants consideration.

One of the few words more loaded and problematic than perfect is timeless. Moving Pictures definitely sounds like it was made in the early ‘80s (the opening seconds of “Tom Sawyer” practically scream “meet the new boss!” and the new boss, circa 1981, was a synthesizer), but it manages to sound unsullied and exhilarating thirty years later. And not for nothing does it represent the first time Rush’s music was fully accessible. For instance, there is no getting around the fact that Geddy Lee’s vocals are…more restrained. Throughout Moving Pictures his upper register (lovingly or loathingly referred to as his “shriek”) is conspicuously not a factor in the equation. Coincidentally, or not, it is the songs on this album that even professed haters of the band can tolerate and acknowledge.

For the millions of converted, Moving Pictures is sui generis; one of the pivotal components belonging on any Mount Rushmore of modern rock. Why? Is it the fact that, despite a very solid second half, the first four songs comprise one of the ultimate side ones (remember those?) in all of popular music? Is it the way these songs were, arguably, the first by Rush you could imagine listening to in your car, during the day, with other people present? Is it because this was the first time everything connected, from the music and lyrics to the cover art to the almost unbelievable fact that several of the songs could (and did) receive significant radio play? Is it because, at long last, after making so many albums—no matter how unique and convincing—Moving Pictures indicates the first time there was no discernible influence of other bands? All of these questions can unequivocally be answered in the affirmative. After Moving Pictures Rush was, finally, a band that other bands would begin to emulate and envy. And three full decades after its release, the songs themselves make the strongest case for their significance.

“Tom Sawyer”, of course, is the signature tune (of this album and in the band’s catalog); the song that single-handedly transformed Rush from cult heroes to mainstream act. It remains a crowd-favorite in their concerts and epitomizes the unique appeal of the band itself. Featuring words (co-written with Max Webster lyricist Pye Dubois) that are evocative but, in the end, somewhat opaque, the song invites multiple interpretations. By name-checking Mark Twain’s famous rebel and giving him a cold war sensibility, Rush were now officially adults making music that could resonate with a younger as well as a mature audience. They also pulled off the improbable trick of creating a successful, if inscrutable song after being criticized for making too-obvious and obscure music. As a rallying cry for individualism (something Peart would specialize in for the next several albums) that has more to do with resistance than cynicism, “Tom Sawyer” is in many regards the penultimate ‘80s anthem. The astute observation that “changes aren’t permanent, but change is” could aptly summarize the four-decade trajectory of the band.

“Red Barchetta”, an adrenaline rush set to music, is less about the lyrics (inspired by Richard S. Foster’s short story “A Nice Morning Drive”) than about the feeling. This is another example of the band’s evolution and increased confidence: they are now able to harness and convey the same type of emotion and effect that they spent an entire album side developing and condense it into six minutes. Listening to anything before Permanent Waves, it would have frankly been improbable to anticipate Rush creating a song like this. And as much as any of the tracks on Moving Pictures, “Red Barchetta” is one you can imagine the nerds, jocks and stoners (to sardonically pick three random stereotypes) all breaking out the air guitars for.

“YYZ”, the title a tribute to the identification code for Toronto International airport, is another fan favorite and fixture in their live set. This instrumental is likely the song that initially caused scales to fall from the eyes of sleeping listeners and critics. Again, little if anything the band had achieved to this point could have prepared anyone for the dexterity and flair Rush could now conjure up, seemingly at will. The playful interaction—a “dueling banjos” of sorts—between the bass and drums signifies another unique element the band had added to its arsenal: their virtuosity is unabashed, almost celebratory, but the humor and mirth are now unmistakable; this is a band having fun. Then there is Lifeson’s short but scorching guitar solo that sounds less like a nod than a gauntlet being thrown at the feet of Eddie Van Halen, the then-reigning guitar god.

“Limelight”, while not quite as universally worshipped as “Tom Sawyer”, is arguably Rush’s most important song to this point. At a time when the band was poised to break through in momentous fashion, Peart writes the ultimate ode to independence from inside the glare of the “fish eye lens”. Peart articulates his growing alienation with the dubious trappings of fame, which he largely considered intrusions on his personal space. At the same time he crafts a manifesto of sorts for the persona he would cultivate over the ensuing decades: the brilliant, aloof and uncompromising icon in one of the world’s most popular bands. “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend” is a line that continues to cause controversy all these years later, but Peart was writing from the heart, and he needed to convey that message. His wariness, of course, was justified, since the fans who complain the loudest about lyrics like these are often the people for whom they were intended.

Did someone say sci-fi and fantasy? The two prominent allusions on Moving Pictures are from Shakespeare (“all the world’s a stage”, from Shakespeare’s As You Like It—which was also utilized as the title for their first live album) and novelist John Dos Passos (“The Camera Eye”; Dos Passos would be referenced again on “The Big Money” from 1985’s Power Windows). In fact, the outward glance and engagement with the so-called real world Rush demonstrated on Permanent Waves is further fleshed out all through Moving Pictures. “The Camera Eye” (the last time the band would record a song lasting more than ten minutes) updates the macro view of ecological concerns from “Natural Science” and focuses on the uneasy harmony of frenzied urban existence. A recurring theme on both Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures—and one that would resurface in most of their later work—is the struggle for human beings to connect in a hyper-modern society.

“Witch Hunt”, while invoking the hysteria of both the Salem trials and the McCarthy hearings, functions as an austere reminder that “the more that things change, the more they stay the same”. Serving as the first installment of Peart’s trenchant “fear trilogy”, the messages from “Witch Hunt” endure in large part because successive generations remain incapable of learning from the past. Condemning the mob mentality that vindicates violence, Peart laments that “ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand…” Rush, as previously noted, had gradually cultivated the status of a band that could endorse individuality and advocate for the underdog. Now, Peart was introducing a sociopolitical element into his lyrics, and Rush would increasingly give voice to an ongoing critique of the apathy and avarice that sustain the status quo.

Last, but definitely not least, is the ideal album closer that keeps one foot in the present and the other stepping audaciously into the future, “Vital Signs”. Although arguably the least “popular” song on Moving Pictures, it remains, in some ways, the most impressive or at least multi-faceted. As Peart has noted, this song was the result of Rush’s penchant for attempting to create one semi-spontaneous, studio-created piece per album. It is (literally) forward-looking in its playful use of what Peart called “Technospeak”. The lyrics, which mention “short circuits” “crossed signals” and “warm memory chip(s)”, are not a catalog of trendy terms so much as an ingenious commentary on how humans were (and would) increasingly becoming machine-like. If anything, Peart’s reflections seem prescient considering the ways our electronic “toys” have become indispensable parts of our daily routine. “Everybody got mixed feelings about the function and the form,” he observes with neither complaint nor approval. The proposition, which remains an unassailable call to arms for artists and fans alike, is attempting to “elevate from the norm”. Most striking is the actual sound the band achieves, which certainly anticipates the direction they would head for the next several years. “Vital Signs” recalls the reggae rhythms first heard in “The Spirit of Radio”, but also incorporates the more central role the synthesizer would play (for this song the perfect message of music and lyrics). Also, and most astonishing, this song manages to rock and groove: Rush, the whitest band in the history of music, is convincingly funky here.

Moving Pictures is, in every regard, a “quantum leap forward” where new wave meets hard rock; the rarest of albums where all elements mesh together. Looking back, this postmodern period piece endures as a reflection of how intriguing music had begun to seem and sound at the beginning of the ‘80s. Rush would capitalize on this artistic momentum and continue to craft significant albums that helped define the sound of a decade.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/148647-drag-the-dream-into-existence-reassessing-rushs-masterpiece/P0

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2/1/12

2/1/12.

2112.

Get it?

Since none of us will be around a century from now to celebrate the official day all planets of the solar federation may rest easily with the knowledge that control has been assumed, today seems an appropriate occasion to bust out the air guitars.

I have tangled happily, lovingly, with this album’s legacy in the past. A full analysis can be found here. (But be careful, reading that could lead you here, which might in turn lead you here and down the rabbit hole you go…)

Highlights (or, depending upon your tolerance of ancient school prog-rock with a capital Pretense, low-lights) below:

It’s difficult to imagine how music might have sounded in the ‘70s and, by extension, today, if Rush had not made 2112. If Rush had never made 2112, they certainly would never have had the opportunity to make their masterpiece, Moving Pictures. While few bands can boast about creating two genre-defining statements, the reality—almost impossible to believe today—is that Rush almost never got the chance to make the first one.

Considering the first, 2112, led to the next, Moving Pictures, it makes plenty of sense for Eagle Rock’s Classic Albums to focus on both as the alpha and omega of Rush’s slow (and in hindsight, inevitable) ascension to superstardom. Rock fans and Rush fanatics could, and perhaps should, immediately ask why each album does not merit its own feature. It’s a fair question, and the simple answer is that they do. But the 50-minutes of bonus material mitigates the concerns and, in a sense, each album is ultimately given about an hour of loving examination.

For anyone not familiar with the Classic Albums series, the segments feature interviews and input from actual band members, which makes them equal parts compelling and imperative acquisitions for casual as well as hardcore fans. This one begins, appropriately, at the beginning, when bassist/singer Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson are teenagers in the Great White North, emulating late ‘60s legends like Cream and Led Zeppelin. Along with original drummer John Rutsey (who later left the band due to health reasons, which were exacerbated by concerns of an exhaustive touring schedule), the band released their eponymous debut on their own label, and it may have disappeared into the Great White Nowhere, except a disc jockey in Cleveland (that great rock and roll city!) began playing it. After Rutsey exited, stage left, the band fortuitously auditioned an unknown Neil Peart, who became principal lyricist and eventually established himself as the premier drummer on the planet.

Rush’s follow-up, Fly By Night, fared well but their ambitious third album, Caress of Steel sold poorly. After an endless and thoroughly depressing series of gigs, which they not so fondly referred to as the “down the tubes” tour, there was genuine concern that their label might drop them. At this point, as Lifeson recalls, “there were one of two directions (to go): give in to the pressure or go for it.” The band all agreed that despite admonishments (and/or insistence) that they create a commercial-minded, radio-friendly effort, they were going to do it their way and feel good about it, no matter what the outcome.

After putting the finishing touches on their fourth album the band, and producer Terry Brown, strongly suspected that they’d captured something special. They were right. 2112 went straight to #1 in Canada and broke into the Top 75 in the US. Just over halfway into the decade, when many of the old guard progressive rock bands were out of ideas or on hiatus, Rush delivered one of the genre’s definitive anthems. 2112 is a harder edged music combining the proficiency of their influences with an aggression that captured the actual urgency attending the sessions. This album sounded—and still sounds—at once familiar and forward-looking, putting Rush somewhere on the sonic spectrum in between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision.

The band, and Brown, reminisces about the music, how it was created, and the way(s) it was received. The rock media, which had not paid Rush much attention, now took notice and generally found the Ayn-Rand inspired storyline (the multi-track suite, filling up all of side one, updates Rand’s early novel Anthem and places the narrative in a dystopian future where music has been outlawed and long forgotten) unfashionably right-wing — an indictment the band found perplexing, and continues to be amused about. In these interviews, each member (particularly Peart, who wrote the lyrics and undoubtedly regrets his youthful shout-out, in the liner notes, to Rand’s “genius”) makes a convincing case that the inspiration had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements. Of course, plenty of pundits (then, now) find Rush –in general—and prog rock –in particular—pretentious, but the sentiment informing this particular album has more in common with the much celebrated punk rock ethos, with the added bonus that the band are actually quite capable musicians.

Curiously, the songs “Tears” and “Lessons” are skipped, although some welcome time is spent on the lighthearted ode to herb, “A Passage To Bangkok”. Likewise, the dated but not quite embarrassing “Twilight Zone” (which manages, all these years later, to sound almost charming in its way) is discussed while actual clips from the episodes referenced in the verses are shown. 2112 remains important as much for what it enabled as for what it did: it is no exaggeration to claim that we would never have gotten to Moving Pictures without it. The band agrees with the assessment that 2112 was the effort where they found their sound which they perfected over the course of their next several albums.

2112 remains the album that made possible what Rush would become, and it inspired both peers and pretenders to emulate their purpose and passion, if not their scarves and kimonos.

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Drag the Dream Into Existence: Reassessing Rush’s Masterpiece

Moving Pictures, Thirty Years On

Every band, if they are lucky, is able to create a definitive work—a document that embodies their unique qualities. Most great bands, at some point in their career, successfully produce an enduring statement. Some artists, like The Beatles or Pink Floyd, are able to capture—or create—the Zeitgeist on more than one occasion On the other hand; there are plenty of worthwhile and beloved bands who have never quite been capable of distilling the necessary ingredients of a classic recording. Finally, there are those almost unfathomable works that only a handful of bands can claim credit for. These exceptional albums are wholly original yet fully accessible and remain influential and imitated long after their release.

Moving Pictures is, without any question, not only Rush’s masterpiece, but one of those rare albums that epitomizes an era. It represents both a culmination and a progression: the peak of the band’s development as well as the blueprint for Rush’s subsequent work. More, it is a template of sorts for the way rock albums were made in the early ‘80s.

Rush evinced growth and improvement (musically, lyrically, and compositionally) with each successive album, ending the ‘70s with two efforts that functioned as touchstones and points of transition. Hemispheres is the pinnacle of that decade’s prog-rock formula, a convincing balance of ambition and achievement. “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” is their most successful side-long anthem; “The Trees” is a worthy follow-up to the radio-friendly “Closer to the Heart” and “La Villa Strangiato” is a stunning display of virtuosity, harnessing Rush’s musical skills, quirky humor and chemistry.

The carefully crafted sonic landscapes of A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres are entirely suitable for the material, even if the songs and subject matter now seem more than a little calculated and self-conscious. It was apparent to the band, then, and seems inevitable, with the benefit of hindsight, that Rush had gone pretty well as far as they could (and should) go on Hemispheres. In this regard, it represents a culmination of a certain sound and type of record that Rush spent five studio albums working toward. One can clearly detect elements, up through Hemispheres, of each preceding album: the guitar solo on “Working Man” led to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which led to “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”, and then “2112”, and in turn “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book One”, and finally “Cygnus X-1, Book Two” which connected all the dots.

Permanent Waves, their first album in the new decade, signifies a tremendous stylistic shift and showcases a refined sound. It was, according to the band, a relatively painless and pleasurable record to make, certainly in comparison with Hemispheres. The arrangements are typically complex (“Free Will”, for instance, employs 13/4 time), yet the songs sound organic, unforced, inevitable. There is also a palpable sense of confidence infusing practically every note. Certainly this can be attributed to the persistent progress the band had made, both artistically and commercially. But more, there is increased evidence that Rush was increasingly in tune with the sounds and trends playing out all around them. “The Spirit of Radio”, in addition to the novel, and remarkable approximation of reggae rhythms, also suggests Lifeson was aware (if not necessarily influenced by) the FM-friendly shredding of Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young, among others. If Rush had existed, regardless of their actual intent, somewhere on the aesthetic continuum between Led Zeppelin’s adventurous, riff-laden workouts and Pink Floyd’s deliberate, almost chilly precision, they were now using those elements in the service of shorter, snappier songs that seem fully formed and not stitched together (however inventively). Permanent Waves is, on multiple levels, an unblinking stride toward the future, while it effectively shuts the door on the ‘70s.

Moving Pictures is the first (and, most fans would concede, the last) time the band produced a record that fulfills not only the band’s considerable purpose and potential, but stands on its own as the consummate Rush album, and one of the great rock albums. There is not a second of wasted or ill-spent space to be found: each moment contributes to the individual songs which add up to an ideally programmed and cohesive statement. It is impossible to imagine an alternate running order; it flows but does not ebb and never builds to a climax because the entire album functions as a continuous epiphany.

Considering other albums that would make the short list for all-time status, it is difficult to isolate ones that don’t have a weak link or a song that, no matter its merit, sounds slightly out of place. For an example of the former, even The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper has some fluff (“Lovely Rita”) and the almost-immaculate Abbey Road has the love-it-or-hate-it “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and the (almost) universally reviled “Octopus’s Garden”. For an example of the latter, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is quite difficult to quibble with on any level, but “Money” has always seemed like the song that could—or should—have been released as a single. There are probably many other excellent examples, just as there likely more than a few rock music aficionados who would insist there is no such thing as perfection, much less a perfect album. Finally, as previously discussed, perfection and how to define it is, at best, a dicey and ultimately futile endeavor. Put another way: who cares? Do we need to debate the parameters of a perfect album or, worse still, which albums are “more perfect” than others? Ultimately, all that matters is why the music works and why it warrants consideration.

One of the few words more loaded and problematic than perfect is timeless. Moving Pictures definitely sounds like it was made in the early ‘80s (the opening seconds of “Tom Sawyer” practically scream “meet the new boss!” and the new boss, circa 1981, was a synthesizer), but it manages to sound unsullied and exhilarating thirty years later. And not for nothing does it represent the first time Rush’s music was fully accessible. For instance, there is no getting around the fact that Geddy Lee’s vocals are…more restrained. Throughout Moving Pictures his upper register (lovingly or loathingly referred to as his “shriek”) is conspicuously not a factor in the equation. Coincidentally, or not, it is the songs on this album that even professed haters of the band can tolerate and acknowledge.

For the millions of converted, Moving Pictures is sui generis; one of the pivotal components belonging on any Mount Rushmore of modern rock. Why? Is it the fact that, despite a very solid second half, the first four songs comprise one of the ultimate side ones (remember those?) in all of popular music? Is it the way these songs were, arguably, the first by Rush you could imagine listening to in your car, during the day, with other people present? Is it because this was the first time everything connected, from the music and lyrics to the cover art to the almost unbelievable fact that several of the songs could (and did) receive significant radio play? Is it because, at long last, after making so many albums—no matter how unique and convincing—Moving Pictures indicates the first time there was no discernible influence of other bands? All of these questions can unequivocally be answered in the affirmative. After Moving Pictures Rush was, finally, a band that other bands would begin to emulate and envy.  And three full decades after its release, the songs themselves make the strongest case for their significance.

“Tom Sawyer”, of course, is the signature tune (of this album and in the band’s catalog); the song that single-handedly transformed Rush from cult heroes to mainstream act. It remains a crowd-favorite in their concerts and epitomizes the unique appeal of the band itself. Featuring words (co-written with Max Webster lyricist Pye Dubois) that are evocative but, in the end, somewhat opaque, the song invites multiple interpretations. By name-checking Mark Twain’s famous rebel and giving him a cold war sensibility, Rush were now officially adults making music that could resonate with a younger as well as a mature audience. They also pulled off the improbable trick of creating a successful, if inscrutable song after being criticized for making too-obvious and obscure music. As a rallying cry for individualism (something Peart would specialize in for the next several albums) that has more to do with resistance than cynicism, “Tom Sawyer” is in many regards the penultimate ‘80s anthem. The astute observation that “changes aren’t permanent, but change is” could aptly summarize the four-decade trajectory of the band.

“Red Barchetta”, an adrenaline rush set to music, is less about the lyrics (inspired by Richard S. Foster’s short story “A Nice Morning Drive”) than about the feeling. This is another example of the band’s evolution and increased confidence: they are now able to harness and convey the same type of emotion and effect that they spent an entire album side developing and condense it into six minutes. Listening to anything before Permanent Waves, it would have frankly been improbable to anticipate Rush creating a song like this. And as much as any of the tracks on Moving Pictures, “Red Barchetta” is one you can imagine the nerds, jocks and stoners (to sardonically pick three random stereotypes) all breaking out the air guitars for.

“YYZ”, the title a tribute to the identification code for Toronto International airport, is another fan favorite and fixture in their live set. This instrumental is likely the song that initially caused scales to fall from the eyes of sleeping listeners and critics. Again, little if anything the band had achieved to this point could have prepared anyone for the dexterity and flair Rush could now conjure up, seemingly at will. The playful interaction—a “dueling banjos” of sorts—between the bass and drums signifies another unique element the band had added to its arsenal: their virtuosity is unabashed, almost celebratory, but the humor and mirth are now unmistakable; this is a band having fun. Then there is Lifeson’s short but scorching guitar solo that sounds less like a nod than a gauntlet being thrown at the feet of Eddie Van Halen, the then-reigning guitar god.

“Limelight”, while not quite as universally worshipped as “Tom Sawyer”, is arguably Rush’s most important song to this point. At a time when the band was poised to break through in momentous fashion, Peart writes the ultimate ode to independence from inside the glare of the “fish eye lens”. Peart articulates his growing alienation with the dubious trappings of fame, which he largely considered intrusions on his personal space. At the same time he crafts a manifesto of sorts for the persona he would cultivate over the ensuing decades: the brilliant, aloof and uncompromising icon in one of the world’s most popular bands. “I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend” is a line that continues to cause controversy all these years later, but Peart was writing from the heart, and he needed to convey that message. His wariness, of course, was justified, since the fans who complain the loudest about lyrics like these are often the people for whom they were intended.

Did someone say sci-fi and fantasy? The two prominent allusions on Moving Pictures are from Shakespeare (“all the world’s a stage”, from Shakespeare’s As You Like It—which was also utilized as the title for their first live album) and novelist John Dos Passos (“The Camera Eye”; Dos Passos would be referenced again on “The Big Money” from 1985’s Power Windows). In fact, the outward glance and engagement with the so-called real world Rush demonstrated on Permanent Waves is further fleshed out all through Moving Pictures. “The Camera Eye” (the last time the band would record a song lasting more than ten minutes) updates the macro view of ecological concerns from “Natural Science” and focuses on the uneasy harmony of frenzied urban existence. A recurring theme on both Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures—and one that would resurface in most of their later work—is the struggle for human beings to connect in a hyper-modern society.

“Witch Hunt”, while invoking the hysteria of both the Salem trials and the McCarthy hearings, functions as an austere reminder that “the more that things change, the more they stay the same”. Serving as the first installment of Peart’s trenchant “fear trilogy”, the messages from “Witch Hunt” endure in large part because successive generations remain incapable of learning from the past. Condemning the mob mentality that vindicates violence, Peart laments that “ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand…”  Rush, as previously noted, had gradually cultivated the status of a band that could endorse individuality and advocate for the underdog. Now, Peart was introducing a sociopolitical element into his lyrics, and Rush would increasingly give voice to an ongoing critique of the apathy and avarice that sustain the status quo.

Last, but definitely not least, is the ideal album closer that keeps one foot in the present and the other stepping audaciously into the future, “Vital Signs”. Although arguably the least “popular” song on Moving Pictures, it remains, in some ways, the most impressive or at least multi-faceted. As Peart has noted, this song was the result of Rush’s penchant for attempting to create one semi-spontaneous, studio-created piece per album. It is (literally) forward-looking in its playful use of what Peart called “Technospeak”. The lyrics, which mention “short circuits” “crossed signals” and “warm memory chip(s)”, are not a catalog of trendy terms so much as an ingenious commentary on how humans were (and would) increasingly becoming machine-like. If anything, Peart’s reflections seem prescient considering the ways our electronic “toys” have become indispensable parts of our daily routine. “Everybody got mixed feelings about the function and the form,” he observes with neither complaint nor approval. The proposition, which remains an unassailable call to arms for artists and fans alike, is attempting to “elevate from the norm”. Most striking is the actual sound the band achieves, which certainly anticipates the direction they would head for the next several years. “Vital Signs” recalls the reggae rhythms first heard in “The Spirit of Radio”, but also incorporates the more central role the synthesizer would play (for this song the perfect message of music and lyrics). Also, and most astonishing, this song manages to rock and groove: Rush, the whitest band in the history of music, is convincingly funky here.

Moving Pictures is, in every regard, a “quantum leap forward” where new wave meets hard rock; the rarest of albums where all elements mesh together. Looking back, this postmodern period piece endures as a reflection of how intriguing music had begun to seem and sound at the beginning of the ‘80s. Rush would capitalize on this artistic momentum and continue to craft significant albums that helped define the sound of a decade.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/148647-drag-the-dream-into-existence-reassessing-rushs-masterpiece/P0

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If I Could Wave My Magic Wand…(Revisited)

muff

It was twenty years ago today…

No, seriously. Twenty years. Fall semester (because the world was still measured in summers and semesters), sophomore year. Out of all the indelible memories amassed during that four year odyssey, the concentrated experience of ’89/’90 contained a little bit of everything: the good, bad and ugly –and that was just my wardrobe. Things I did and things I saw still impact my waking hours; things I recall and things I couldn’t control still influence my subconscious and work themselves out in novels, poems and blog posts.

So, among many other things, autumn ’89 was a fortuitous time for legendary bands creating stunning and defiant statements of purpose. Neither burned out nor ready to fade away, these artists defiantly informed the world that they were not all washed up, and quite capable of making some of their career-best work. Jethro Tull, Rush and Neil Young all had ups and downs in the ’80s: all relying too much, at times, on the synthesized sounds that were de rigeur (along with laughable music videos). Rush always found their audience, but Jethro Tull and Neil Young seemed to be on the ropes. Then, as summer vacation slipped into a new school year, the first salvo was fired by a one-legged flutist.

rock is

Tull came seemingly out of nowhere (particularly after the snyth-drenched period piece Under Wraps and Ian Anderson’s well-documented throat issues, leading some to wonder if the band was a spent force) with ’87s Crest of a Knave. The album was a minor revelation and led to the very controversial Grammy award (oh poor misunderstood Metallica!). So while ’89s Rock Island caused less waves and sold less copies than its predecessor, it is in some ways the superior album. There are a couple of throwaway tunes and a couple of mediocre moments, but this one also contains some of Anderson’s finest compositions. The band remains in fine form, as you can tell here, here and here. The live performances of these songs were also remarkable, and of all the times I’ve seen Tull, this was by far the most impressive (an experience enhanced by a certain fungus, and a story that shall be revisited another time…)

As it happened, this late ’80s renaissance was a last gasp of sorts: Tull made a few more albums throughout the ’90s (each worse than the one before) and things were never the same. There is enough tolerable material on 1991′s Catfish Rising and 1995′s Roots To Branches to avoid wishing the band had called it quits altogether, but it is more than fair to proclaim that Rock Island was the last time they made truly relevant music (Ian Anderson still had one more masterpiece in him, the mostly ignored, but very worthwhile Divinities: Twelve Dances With God). I believe what I wrote earlier this year holds up as a generous enough assessment:

As some may be surprised to know, Jethro Tull still roams the earth, and while new albums aren’t being produced at the former pace (based on their post-’95 output, this is a good thing for all involved), they are still playing to crowds who happily pay to see them. If Pete Townshend decided he did not, in fact, want to die before he got old, it seems fair play for Jethro Tull and their fans to keep living in the past.

freedom

Now Neil Young is a different story. Crazy as it may sound twenty years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) decade the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how iconoclastic Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.

All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before: utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. (Young, alas, is one of those artists whose work is systematically policed on YouTube, so samples from Freedom are scarce, but here’s an acoustic version of the great El Dorado and he made some noise (literally) on Saturday Night Live. I remember watching that, on campus, and thinking how cool it was that there were still some hippies from the ’60s who scoffed at convention and attracted an audience.

Neil has continued to have his hits and misses, but there is no debating the fact that Freedom served as a defibrillator for his creative juices, and he has been riding that recharged heart of gold ever since. Long may he run!

presto

September brought Tull and October brought Neil; what on earth could November deliver?

Well, Rush started off en fuego in the ’80s (Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals can stand alongside any tri-fecta any rock band has delivered in the last thirty years) and while Power Windows suffered from the excesses of the time (too many keyboards and heavy-handed, inhuman production), Hold Your Fire was arguably the band’s first lackluster effort. It’s far from a failure (in spite of the grief the group took for this video, “Time Stand Still” is a tremendous song and it was a daring idea to include the delectable Aimee Mann) but it raised questions about where the band was going and what it had left to say. Plenty, as it turned out.

Presto is, like Rock Island and Freedom, an album that stopped even fanatic and longtime fans in their tracks and made them shake their heads in happy disbelief. I remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room on a Sunday night, listening to the “pre-release” broadcast on a crappy boombox. For whatever reason, the DJ played side two (perhaps because it leads off with the title song?) and I still recall the immediate reaction: Holy shit, this is incredible!For one thing, the employment of acoustic guitars…how refreshing. But more than that, the band sounded focused and locked in; they seemed hungry. This was when CDs still sold more poorly than cassettes (in other words, they were still somewhat of a novelty and a very expensive one for destitute college kids), and I was staggered by how great the sound quality was on this new disc. The content cops have been cracking down on Rush songs previously available at YouTube, so here are some great live versions here here and here.

Peart was assailed, sometimes understandably, for a decade of lyrics that relied a tad too heavily on themes liberally borrowed from Sci-Fi, Classical Literature and the high priestess of Objectivism, the insufferable Ayn Rand. For the Dungeons & Dragons circuit, this was biblical scripture; for older or less…imaginative fans the lyrics are occasionally embarrassing and have not exactly aged like a single malt scotch. However, the intelligence and unquenchable curiosity always existed, and Peart increasingly harnessed his considerable prowess with the pencil in the ’80s.

Starting with Permanent Waves he turned his attention (as most adults invariably do) to the world we live in and the ways it shapes us and vice versa. In hindsight, it is more than a little remarkable that the same person who penned the lyrics to “Natural Science” and “Freewill” also contributed “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “The Necromancer” (which are both excellent songs in their way, but about 99% of their redeeming value is musical). His lyrics for the rest of the decade are on par with the work Roger Waters did during the ’70s: pound for pound, nobody was coming close to being this consistently engaging and erudite.

In many regards, then, Presto found him at the height of his skills and confidence and the results are extraordinary. But more than that, this particular album seemed written especially for sensitive, inquisitive and occasionally confused young adults. Sophomores in college, say.

Hope is epidemic
Optimism spreads
Bitterness breeds irritation
Ignorance breeds imitation

All my nerves are naked wires
Tender to the touch
Sometimes super-sensitive
But who can care too much?

Pleasure leaves a fingerprint
As surely as mortal pain
In memories they resonate
And echo back again

I’m not one to believe in magic
Though my memory has a second sight
I’m not one to go pointing my finger
When I radiate more heat than light

Static on your frequency
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains


Twenty years. More time has passed since these albums came out than had passed at that point in my life. But any 39 year old who has learned anything understands –and accepts– that the chain lightning of youth comprises both the pleasure and pain (and everything in between) that made us what we became, and are becoming. Some days we can’t believe how far we’ve come, other days we would give anything to get even an hour of that magic back. Or, as Peart writes, The moment may be brief, but it can be so bright…

If I could wave my magic wand, would I do anything differently? I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, and each passing year fuels a sporadic nostalgia that is at times so overpowering it unnerves me. Other times I marvel at what I learned and saw, and feel fortunate to have been a wise fool at the end of one decade, incapable of imagining we might all live to see the year 2000. Mostly, I hope I did my best to get it right the first time. Then and now.

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