A Retrospective: Rush – Clockwork Angels

(This article was originally published to the now-defunct Polyphonic Music Blog)

The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect.

Following the conclusion of their tour in support of Snakes & Arrows, Rush decided to take another extended break, until December 2009. During this break, they released two live albums – the official Snakes & Arrows Tour recording, and a compilation, Working Men, comprising recordings from all three of their live albums since 2002. When the band met again, they discussed their plans for a new endeavour.

While eating and drinking and laughing a lot, as we do so well, we discussed all the possible projects we could launch in 2010. We could start working on a new album, or we could launch a major tour. Fools that we are, we ended up doing both.

– Neil Peart

During this meal, Peart brought forth an idea for an album based around a suite of songs that would tell an overarching story. Though previous albums had been built around themes, this would be their first album since 2112 to feature an extended narrative, and the first to exclusively focus on it.

Peart’s initial concept was heavily influenced by his friend Kevin J Anderson, a prolific writer in the genre of steampunk. Peart appreciated the genre’s more idealistic outlook, as opposed to the more pessimistic cyberpunk. Anderson and Peart would later adapt the album into a novel, Clockwork Angels, and a further sequel, Clockwork Lives.

Influences were inevitable, but still unexpected to me – a lifetime of reading distilled into a dozen scenes, and a few hundred words. The plot draws from Voltaire’s Candide, with nods to John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, Michael Ondaatje and Joseph Conrad for “The Anarchist,” Robertson Davies and Herbert Gold for “Carnies,” Daphne du Maurier for “The Wreckers,” Cormac McCarthy and early Spanish explorers in the American Southwest for “Seven Cities of Gold.”

– Neil Peart

With a course set, the band got to work on writing their next album, Clockwork Angels. While the process was carried out as normal, they decided to try to further build on and utilise the spontaneity found in their live performances. To that end, Lifeson made a conscious decision to avoid multi-tracking his performance.

It’s really about the basic rockiness of the songs, so it was a lot of double-tracking and beefing things up. No six tracks of guitars, no rhythm guitar and solos – simple little changes that made the sound more impactful.

– Alex Lifeson

As the writing process went on, it became clear that the record was taking shape as a concept album. Though Lifeson had denied in interviews that the band were working on a concept album (stating that the band had no interest in repeating themselves), a compromise was made – it would indeed be a concept album, but each track would make its own statement.

Progress on the album was halted when the band embarked on their Time Machine Tour, which featured “Caravan” and “BU2B” – released as a single in June 2010 – as part of its setlist. When they returned to work after the first half of the tour the band experienced some difficulties, finding their sessions somewhat unproductive (though they would produce a few ‘furious jams’ which would form the basis of “Carnies” and “Headlong Flight”). Lee and Lifeson also had some trouble matching Peart’s lyrics with their music – though they noted that he never once complained, and always came through with their requested edits.

Recording took place initially in Nashville, Tennessee at Blackbird Studios, before being completed at Revolution Recording in Toronto. For Clockwork Angels, Rush decided to end their partnership with Atlantic Records (who they had worked with since 1989’s Presto), instead opting for hard rock label Roadrunner Records. Nick ‘Booujzhe’ Raskulinecz returned as co-producer, a decision which pleased Peart.

I would attack the drums, responding to his enthusiasm, and his suggestions between takes, and together we would hammer out the basic architecture of the part. His baton would conduct me into choruses, half-time bridges, and double-time outros and so on—so I didn’t have to worry about their durations. No counting, and no endless repetition. What a revelation! What a relief!

– Neil Peart

Though the group intended to release Clockwork Angels in 2011, the decision to extend their Time Machine Tour precluded this. It was instead released on June 8, 2012.

The album begins with “Caravan,” a song which evokes imagery found on the band’s previous albums, notably “Middletown Dreams” from Power Windows – the story of a protagonist who, tired of their boring life, wants nothing more than to abscond to the big city. The difference here, the song being steampunk-themed, is that their method of transportation is a ‘steam-liner’ caravan. While the band’s previous two albums were hard-rocking classics, “Caravan” restores some of their lost progressive structures, with complex time signatures and evocative lyrics.

“BU2B,” (standing for “Brought Up To Believe”), characteristic of Peart’s writing, takes a shot at blind belief. While “Caravan” painted a picture of the protagonist’s world, “BU2B” brings things to a more personal level, showing his own perspective of the world and disdain for authority figures pressuring people into conformity. More importantly, the song introduces the concept of the Watchmaker – a god-like figure who rules from Crown City. Where “Caravan” focused on a groove-influenced sound, “BU2B” is a heavier beast, with a driving guitar riff and chant-like chorus.

It’s huge in the old Zep way—it’s got that big, blues-oriented riff. The chorus is very energetic, and the sentiment of the lyrics really sets it up for what’s coming.

– Alex Lifeson

In the title track, “Clockwork Angels,” the protagonist finally reaches Crown City and witnesses the titular Angels, idols created to reassure and mystify the populace, reinforcing their propagandised vision of a world protected by higher beings. The song features a driving yet nuanced drum beat backed up by Lee’s smooth vocals, and also features an unexpected bar band-like blues section representing the Angels’ message.

Lean not upon your own understanding
Ignorance is well and truly blessed
Trust in perfect love, and perfect planning
Everything will turn out for the best

“The Anarchist” switches up the narrative, this time sung from the perspective of the titular Anarchist. The Anarchist represents pure evil and chaos, the antithesis of the Watchmaker and Angels. Peart was inspired partially by the works of Joseph Conrad, who explored man’s capacity for evil in his novel Heart of Darkness. “The Anarchist” is a boisterous, in-your-face track primarily driven by Lee’s bassline, which he acknowledged was extremely challenging to play while singing.

When I wrote the vocal melody it really had more to do with how those lyrics needed to be expressed… It’s the syncopation—or the lack of syncopation. Rhythmically, the way the bass drives and the way the vocal sits on it are really quite different.

– Geddy Lee

With “Carnies,” we return to the protagonist, who has found work with a travelling carnival. Unfortunately, the Anarchist appears and tosses a clockwork detonator into a crowd of civilians. Without thinking, the protagonist catches it just as the crowd turns to look at him. They mistake him for an anarchist himself, and he flees. This song features an incredibly mean riff by Lifeson, conveying both a fun carnival atmosphere and the Anarchist’s evil intent.

“Halo Effect” takes a gentler approach, with an acoustic guitar-based ballad. The protagonist reveals that he had fallen deeply in love with one of the carnival performers, but was rebuffed, The titular halo effect is a real-life phrase referring to a judgement discrepancy – we may see someone who is well-groomed and attractive and assume their personality will match, but this often turns out not to be the case. The protagonist’s pain and frustration are quite evident in Lee’s vocals, echoed by Lifeson’s forlorn guitar work.

What did I care?
Fool that I was
Little by little, I burned
Maybe sometimes
There might be a flaw
But how pretty the picture was back then

“Seven Cities of Gold” follows, detailing the in-universe legend of the Seven Cities of Gold. Our protagonist decides to attempt to reach the Cities, passing through a tough port town named Poseidon. The song’s composition reflects both the protagonist’s ambition and the danger of Poseidon, with a swaggering rhythm driven by Lee’s bass and Lifeson’s growling guitar.

The next track, “The Wreckers,” has a very different feeling than “Seven Cities of Gold,” with a much more sombre composition. This change may also have been influenced by the members’ performances – for this track, Lee and Lifeson swapped instruments during the writing process, leading to an unfamiliar style that lends itself well to the song itself. In “The Wreckers,” our protagonist is shipwrecked by the titular Wreckers, in a story inspired by true events.

This Daphne Du Maurier novel Jamaica Inn describes these people called ‘The Wreckers’ on the coast of the Cornwall in Britain. They would not only plunder shipwrecks, but they would actually put up a fake light and attract the ships in a storm to crash on their shores so they could loot them. It’s just a shocking example of inhumanity, and it happens to be a true story. I wove it, all of that, into the story of this album.

– Neil Peart

“Headlong Flight,” a bombastic rocker, finds our protagonist reflecting on his life’s adventures, stating that despite his hardships, he would do it all again. The liner notes of this song feature a cheeky reference to ‘Friedrich Gruber’ – a nod to Peart’s drumming mentor Freddie Gruber, whose perspective on life is reflected in the protagonist’s. Interestingly, Peart has stated that he does not share his protagonist’s zeal for his past life.

I remain glad that I don’t have to do it all again. While working on the lyrics for “Headlong Flight,” the last song written for Clockwork Angels, I tried to summarize my character’s life and adventures. My own ambivalence colored the verses, while Freddie’s words inspired the chorus ‘I wish that I could live it all again.’

– Neil Peart

“BU2B2” provides a minimalist interlude before launching into “Wish Them Well,” a song that celebrates moving past one’s problems – forgiving and forgetting those who wound us. “Wish Them Well” strides onward with a genuine sense of warmth and optimism, though it was apparently one of the most difficult songs on the album to compose.

We felt the lyrics were strong and were important for the story. The music just was not happening, so we developed a completely different thing and lived with that for a little while, and that was still not getting us off…
The approach we settled on is a very classic, traditional sounding rock song. The drums are really strident and marching along and the nature of the chords and the chord progressions makes for a classic rock sound.

– Alex Lifeson

The album concludes with “The Garden,” a heartfelt ballad, driven by Lifeson’s acoustic guitar, delicate bass playing and singing by Lee, and a subdued drum beat from Peart, before exploding into a heart-wrenching electric guitar solo. Peart references Voltaire in the liner notes, using a quotation from Candide – ‘Now we must tend to our garden’ – to summarise the protagonist’s journey of self-realisation. The song also features a string and piano arrangement by David Campbell, lending a sense of moving majesty and finality to the track – and ultimately, Rush’s album career.

We put down keyboard, sample strings, and we really liked the piece. But we thought, rather than use sampled strings we’d bring in a real orchestra and Geddy and I were the catalysts for that. He’s a real sucker for those sorts of things. We decided to bring the strings in and David Campbell did a great job on the arrangement. That really tugs at your heart. I think there’s something that’s really classic about that arrangement and really heartfelt. The song works really well as a closer, the final chapter of the story. That single cello note at the very end is very poignant.

– Alex Lifeson

Clockwork Angels was released in June 2012, its accompanying tour beginning in September. Following the tour, the band agreed to take at least a full year off from music.

Behind the scenes, Peart had expressed his desire to make the Clockwork Angels Tour Rush’s last large-scale tour, as he had been suffering for some time from chronic tendinitis. However, Lifeson came to Peart asking him to commit to one more tour – R40 – as he feared he would be unable to effectively perform in the future due to his own psoriatic arthritis. Reluctantly, Peart agreed.

On August 1, 2015, at the end of their final concert at The Forum, Los Angeles, Neil Peart stepped out from behind his drum kit for the very first time. After sneaking up behind Lifeson and Lee, the three shared an embrace before exiting the stage for the final time.

In an December 2015 interview, Peart stated he was officially retiring from music. Though Lifeson and Lee maintained he was taken out of context, by January 2018 it became clear that he was, indeed, finished – and thus, so was the band.

We have no plans to tour or record anymore. We’re basically done. After 41 years, we felt it was enough.

– Alex Lifeson

In many ways, Clockwork Angels, and especially “The Garden”, marks the perfect ending to the band’s legacy. After forty years of emotional and physical exertion dedicated to entertaining their millions of fans, it was time for Lee, Lifeson and Peart to tend to their own gardens.

As an album, Clockwork Angels is an exceptional experience, pairing a richly textured story with an eclectic blend of musical genres and inspirations to create a tremendous concept album. As Rush’s final album, it stands as one of their most emotional, well-realised tales – and one that will surely be remembered for years to come.

By Tom Irvine

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A Retrospective: Rush – Snakes & Arrows

(This article was originally published to the now-defunct Polyphonic Music Blog)

I believe in love, and that’s faith enough for me.

After the release of their comeback album and two successful tours – one culminating in the legendary Rush In Rio concert, and the other the popular R30 Anniversary TourRush decided to take a step back from recording original material and released a cover EP, Feedback, in 2004, comprised of tracks that inspired them in their youth.

Feedback was made with a focus on simple, direct songs that the band could perform live in the studio, rather than rely on multi-tracked arrangements. This emphasis on live play would extend to their next album, Snakes & Arrows.

The first stages of the album’s production started as normal, with Lee and Lifeson working apart from Peart. However, this time Lee and Lifeson worked out of Lee’s home, using a click track as a temporary drum guide. Peart, who had been living in California since 2000, also worked from home and collaborated with his comrades online.

This time around, there was a lot more pre-production, and Geddy and I took a more casual approach to writing. I’d go over to his house in the morning – he lives just a few blocks away from me – and we’d get started around noon and work until about five o’clock, three days a week. And in a lot of ways, I think we were more productive in those 15 hours a week than we ever were working in a studio for 10 or 12 hours a day, five days a week.

– Alex Lifeson

Unexpected inspiration came from Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who Lifeson met in Toronto during a tour stop. Gilmour explained that he liked to compose on acoustic guitar to give him an indication of how strong a melody is, and Lifeson decided to try it for himself. As a result, a large component of the guitar parts on Snakes & Arrows were composed acoustically, and many were left that way rather than being converted to electric guitar. By late 2006, the band had an album’s worth of material.

It is always a thrill to hear my words sung for the first time, when those dry, printed lines I’ve labored over finally become charged with life. ‘Prize every time.’ Plus, there’s a sense of affirmation in knowing that Geddy found those words worth singing.

– Neil Peart

Snakes & Arrows was recorded at Allaire Studios in the Catskill Mountains. Peart convinced Lee and Lifeson to pick Allaire over anywhere in Toronto due to his experience with the studio, having previously recorded an instructional DVD – Anatomy of a Drum Solo – there in 2004. The band selected Rush fan Nick Raskulinecz to co-produce. Raskulinecz had previously worked with Foo Fighters and Velvet Revolver, and personally asked his management to approach Rush so that he could produce their new album.

The band nicknamed Raskulinecz “Booujze” due to his impassioned way of communicating drum ideas to Peart through sound effects and gesticulation. Through Booujze and Richard Chyki, the album’s engineer’s, encouragement, the band attempted to recapture the complex arrangements that characterised their 1970s output, as well as letting loose with a fair amount of spontaneity.

In my opinion, the combination of that wonderful room at Allaire, those great-sounding DW drums and Paragon cymbals, and Rich’s discriminating ears, gave me the best drum sound I’ve ever had. The day we finished my drum tracks, I said to Rich and our co-producer, Nick Raskulinecz, ‘I have never enjoyed the recording process so much, nor been so satisfied with the results.’
After these many years, and these many recordings, that is saying a lot.

– Neil Peart

Snakes & Arrows begins with “Far Cry”, a track that immediately shows that Rush had not lost one iota of the aggressive, energetic sound they regained with Vapor Trails. Peart’s drumming in the opening beat is audibly powerful, with a noticeable ‘whipping’ sound caught on the recording. Lyrically, the song is about the surprising changes undergone by the world over the years, with some verses also resembling concepts found in “Between The Wheels”. “Far Cry” feels fresh and modern, and provides a riveting introduction to the album.

It was almost like we already knew the song when we wrote it. We just played it. And that was really cool. That doesn’t happen very often. We were high-fiving and the whole thing, because it’s a relief when something like that happens, for sure.

– Alex Lifeson

Armor and Sword” follows up with a more sombre track, alternating between sophisticated choruses and intense verses. The song discusses the use of religion and spirituality as a weapon to attack others, a concept that Peart saw as extremely problematic. He was inspired to write the song during his motorcycle travels in the US, after seeing a church sign using the H.C. Bailey quote ‘Faith is a higher faculty than reason.’

Even if the voice of reason is increasingly drowned out by the evangelical crowd, that is all the more reason to speak up. Spiritual yearnings are natural to many people and may give them solace or hope, but extremists of any kind are not content with faith as armor, they must forge it into a sword.

– Neil Peart

“Workin’ Them Angels” is an autobiographical song for Peart, about living life on the edge and pushing oneself. The track features a rich, warm instrumentation – including an impressive mandolin solo by Lifeson – and stirring vocals by Lee. Originally appearing as an early draft in Peart’s book, Traveling Music, he recounts that the phrase ‘workin’ them angels’ was inspired by a couple he observed in a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Tennessee during the Test For Echo tour.

A black couple came in behind us, the woman large with a flowered dress and hat, the man small and skinny in a suit and tie. He was smiling kind of sheepishly as she harangued him with a pointing finger, presumably about his driving: ‘You workin’ them angels overtime—you workin’ them angels overtime.’
From then on, Brutus and I often used that line on each other, to describe the way we lived, on and off the bikes, and it had continued to be a metaphor for my life. I didn’t think I was foolhardy or irresponsible, but a certain level of risk in life seemed worthwhile for the promised return—excitement and treasured experiences—and though I didn’t really believe in ‘them angels,’ if I had them, I guessed I kept them pretty busy.

– Neil Peart

The Larger Bowl” again takes a darker stance, lyrically a musing on the nature of fairness and the different fortunes and fates of the people of the world. The song is described in the liner notes as ‘a pantoum’ – a series of quatrains, where the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first. The melody is primarily performed on an acoustic guitar, interspersed with wailing electric guitars to add texture. Peart came up with the song during a ‘dysentery dream’ while travelling in West Africa, where he imagined hearing a song about ‘loneliness and the misfortunes of life.’

Waking in a sweaty tangle of twisted sheets, I only remembered the title, but I knew I had to write that song. Make a dream come true, as it were.

– Neil Peart

Spindrift” begins with an ominous guitar riff, before launching into a dissonant jam reminiscent of tracks on Vapor Trails, using their distinctive layered guitar and vocal looping and tortured lyrics – here telling the tale of a man arguing with the world in a manner suggestive of a lover’s quarrel. Lifeson’s guitar crashes like the waves, followed by a lighter arrangement to signify the lover being carried by the wind, as described in the lyrics.

A little closer to you
Where is the wave that will carry me
A little closer to you?
Where is the wind that will carry me

The Main Monkey Business” is the first of three instrumentals on Snakes & Arrows. The band played this piece together in the recording studio to emulate a live atmosphere. As with most Rush instrumentals, the extremely complicated composition took the group several days to perfect, and was apparently based on a turn of phrase used by Lee’s mother.

The Main Monkey Business” was certainly the most painstaking song of all to write, arrange, and record (it took me three days just to learn it). Its title comes from a conversation Geddy had with his Polish mother. Talking about a cousin of theirs, she said, ‘I have a feeling he’s up to some monkey business.’ Geddy laughed, saying, ‘What kind of monkey business?’ ‘You know,’ she said, with Old World wisdom, ‘The main monkey business.’ Everybody knows about that.

– Neil Peart

The Way the Wind Blows” begins with a distinctively bluesy riff which recalls elements found on Rush’s early records and Feedback, before following up with a folksy ballad sound. Appropriately, the song compares the way trees are bent by the wind to how we are shaped by our life experiences. Peart pays special attention to nurture theory, believing extremism will be passed down to children of extremists.

Children brought up in a certain environment can only grow the way the wind blows…
I thought of that as a larger metaphor that all of us grow up in a certain environment where the wind’s blowing in a certain direction, and inevitably we get bent that way, so if you want to be different, and if you want to try to survive against that very militant wave of wind, it’s the stone in the river: you might have to roll a little bit, you might get some rough edges…
These are the kinds of ways that, I thought, that’s how you can still be you and still not have to be hypocritical, but at the same time, still not have to stand up, a little pencil, against a whole army of swords.

– Neil Peart

Hope” is another instrumental, a beautiful two-minute solo by Lifeson on a 12-string guitar. Having no distractions from Lifeson’s impassioned playing lends itself well to the piece’s emotional impact, and the track serves as a lovely interlude at this point in the album.

In a single, inspired performance, Alex recorded his eclectic and poignant solo guitar piece, “Hope,” which also [like “Far Cry” and some others on the album] has qualities of spirituality, and raw sophistication. He chose the title from the line in “Faithless,” ‘I still cling to hope,’ and like that song, “Hope” is a kind of secular prayer.

– Neil Peart

Faithless,” as the name suggests, is a song about living without following an organised religion. Like many tracks on the album, it reflects Peart’s discomfort with the idea of using religion as a tool for hate rather than love, brought about by his travels through deeply religious states in the US. Driven by a deep, resonating bassline, Lifeson’s emotional guitar work and Lee’s defiant singing accompanied by soaring strings (performed by Ben Mink), “Faithless” perfectly compliments “Hope” as the emotional core of the album.

There are many people who find their own road, find their own spirituality in themselves, and find things to believe in that relate to the way they live. And that’s what the song is really about. You know, believing in hope, believing in love: those are two things you can count on believing in, and there aren’t many things you can count on in this world. Others find it great comfort to find religion and get their strength from that, and that’s fine. And many people don’t. I think the song is about those that don’t.

– Geddy Lee

In the song, I wanted to express, first of all, that you don’t need that kind of faith to have a moral belief and to have, as I describe it, a moral compass and a spirit level—those were the two metaphors I looked at there. I thought, well, I have those sorts of things: I have a strong sense of right and wrong and a sense of compassion and a sense of charity, and all those weren’t contingent on being punished for them or being rewarded for them.

– Neil Peart

Bravest Face” reflects upon the fact that we can never truly see below the surface of the world, but that we should still accept this and face it with our ‘bravest face.’ Again, Lifeson provides a contrast of acoustic guitar, building to hard electric sections, reflecting the conceit of the song itself.

In the softest voice there’s an acid tongue
In the oldest eyes there’s a soul so young
In the shakiest will there’s a core of steel
On the smoothest ride there’s a squeaky wheel

Good News First” utilises the same concept of a lover’s quarrel used in “The Way The Wind Blows”, with the narrator talking with an unknown other party (Peart states that this is meant to represent people who disagree with him). While melancholic, the song has a distinct driving force behind it that prevents it from becoming too bogged down in sadness. It was originally composed as an underwhelming acoustic piece, but was extensively rewritten to become one of Lifeson’s favourite tracks on the album.

It’s a common thing you hear—well, I have some good news and some bad news, and I always say, give me the good news first. You know, to me that’s self-evident, of course. Give me the ice cream, then give me the medicine, not the other way around. So, that was a kind of humorous twist that I wanted to get across in there, and address a certain mentality that I was quarrelling with: …[people who say] they never fear a thing. First, I get kind of tired of that, because it’s such empty bravado to say you’re not afraid of anything. If you’re not, you have no imagination. That’s the way I put it. Unfortunately, you can have too much imagination and be too afraid, but there’s a line you can walk, where you’re sensibly afraid of things. So, I took it to the other extreme, and said… I’m afraid of enough for both me and you.

– Neil Peart

Malignant Narcissism,” the third and final instrumental on the album, came out of an improvisation session and was partly inspired by a piece of dialogue in the film Team America: World Police. Booujze saw Lee experimenting on a fretless bass – a Jaco Pastorius signature – and encouraged him to transform the riff he was playing into a brief, quirky track. “Malignant Narcissism” earned the band another Grammy nomination.

The final track, “We Hold On”, ends the album with another ‘lover’s quarrel’ – this time a self-confrontation, about how most of us yearn for a clean break from our daily routine, but our responsibilities give us the strength to hold on and push through this irresponsible urge. The song’s instrumentation evokes a force rocketing forward, as the lyrics suggest but ultimately reject.

Upon release, Snakes & Arrows received positive, if not effervescent critical reception. It was named one of Classic Rock magazine’s essential progressive rock albums of the 2000s, but has gone on to become somewhat underappreciated.

Retrospectively, it may well be one of their greatest triumphs – a rollicking, consistent album packed with emotional and philosophical integrity, representing more than thirty years of craft.

With another album came more touring, and further expectations for a followup. Little did fans know, this next album would potentially become the crowing achievement of their career – and their last.

By Tom Irvine

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A Retrospective: Rush – Vapor Trails

(This article was originally published to the now-defunct Polyphonic Music Blog)

There is never love without pain.

Note: At time of writing there exist two different versions of Vapor Trails: the original 2002 release, and the 2013 remix. This article was written primarily using the 2013 remix as a reference.

After a long period of uncertainty, in 2001 Rush were back together and ready to make new music.

During their hiatus, Lee had been busy maintaining his and the band’s presence in the music world, producing the live album Different Stages and his own solo album, My Favourite Headache. When Peart returned, Lee wanted to make sure their next recording experience was a low-pressure, cathartic experience.

This project is about so much more than us making a record. It is about us coming back together. It is about the psychological health and welfare of all the people who have gone through a very difficult time … I want it to happen, and I want it to happen in a very positive and natural way.

– Geddy Lee

Initially the band spent three weeks simply discussing what they wanted to achieve with their next album. They chose Reaction Studios in Toronto as their rehearsal space due to its comfortable, accommodating environment, and agreed not to work under any time constraints.

This proved fortunate, as Lee and Lifeson took much longer to come up with their contributions than usual. When Peart initially presented his ideas, comprising six songs, they were still working on the first stages of their compositions. Peart decided to take some time to work on his book, Ghost Rider, while they tackled their own labours.

Eventually it was decided that their first draft of what would become Vapor Trails was too forced, and the band decided to take a few weeks off. This break proved essential, and they returned refreshed and focused, quickly completing several songs through jam sessions.

Vapor Trails was Rush’s first album to entirely omit keyboards since 1975’s Caress of Steel, Lee finally agreeing with Lifeson not to use them after many years of convincing.

During recording the band worked with producer Paul Northfield, who had previously engineered many of their albums during the 1980s and co-produced Different Stages with Lee. While the band intended to record thirteen tracks and pick the best ten or eleven, they decided to include all of them, resulting in an album close to an hour in length.

The final album was mastered by Howie Weinberg, who Rush chose due to having liked the sound of other albums he had worked on. However, this would prove to be a controversial choice. Vapor Trails was heavily criticised for its overuse of dynamic range compression, resulting in a distorted, muddy sound.

That record was a very emotional record for us, and it was very fragile. From the heavy stuff to the more melodic stuff, it was a very fragile representation of the band, in the way it was recorded.
…It was mastered too high, and it crackles, and it spits, and it just crushes everything. All the dynamics get lost, especially anything that had an acoustic guitar in it.

– Alex Lifeson

The album was later remixed in 2013 by David Bottrill, though this remix also proved divisive among fans due to alterations to several tracks’ component parts.

Vapor Trails begins with the aggressive “One Little Victory”, a song which loudly announces that Rush are back. Appropriately, the song is driven by Peart’s intense drumming, and reflects his journey of healing with lyrics about weathering personal storms and pushing through, celebrating every small triumph along the well.

Ceiling Unlimited” is a song about looking past the ugly elements of the world we live in to the wonder beyond. The title refers to an aeronautical term for the lowest level of cloud cover – if the ceiling is unlimited, pilots can see vast swathes of land due to lack of cloud cover. Accordingly, the song has an upbeat, inspirational feel brought about by Lifeson’s bright, bouncy guitar riffs and Lee’s pumping bassline.

Ghost Rider”, as the title suggests, revolves around Peart’s motorcycle journey through North and South America. Despite the obvious difficulties he suffered through during the journey, the song is overwhelmingly optimistic, and ends with a stirring affirmation – ‘Nothing can stop me now.’ The line ‘from the lowest low to the highest high’ refers to Telescope Peak, the highest peak in Death Valley, California.

I hiked to that 11,049-foot summit. The next day, I rode on to Los Angeles, where I met Carrie, and my whole life changed completely (and needless to say, positively). An irresistible metaphor seemed to arise there—that I had climbed to the highest point in Death Valley from the lowest, then descended to travel onward and find Life again.

– Neil Peart

Peaceable Kingdom” is a song about terrorism and the violence threatening people who long for peace. The track is driven by a crunching, heavy bass riff which builds to an explosive chorus that inspires copious amounts of headbanging.

The Stars Look Down,” possibly the bleakest song ever written by Peart, reflects his attempts to justify the terrible events that befell him – lashing out at the uncaring universe while simultaneously crying out for answers. Lee’s vocals bring across this anguish perfectly with tasteful use of his upper range, while Lifeson alternates between heavy riffs and gentler acoustic interludes.

Like the rat in a maze who says,
Watch me choose my own direction”
Are you under the illusion
The path is winding your way?
Are you surprised by confusion
When it leads you astray?
Have you lived a lifetime today –
Or do you feel like you just got carried away?

How It Is” covers a relatable topic – the feeling of being in a slump, no matter how well your life is going at that moment. Where other artists might verge towards the pessimistic, Lee and Lifeson bring out the life in the song, by once again alternating between catchy rock rhythms and gorgeous acoustic sections, highlighting the optimistic undertones of Peart’s lyrics.

In “Vapor Trail,” Peart adapts lines from W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues (which was read at his daughter Selena’s funeral), to create a nihilistic musing on the fading of memories. Though the song is about memories, it reads more like a recounting of the apocalypse – not surprising given Peart’s trauma. Lee’s poignant vocals and a tastefully restrained guitar line by Lifeson (playing the distinctive double-necked Gibson he used to record “Xanadu” and “Something For Nothing”) preserve and enhance Peart’s lyrics to create a genuinely affecting track.

Atmospheric phases make the transitory last
Vaporize the memories that freeze the fading past
Silence all the song birds
Stilled by the killing frost
Forests burn to ashes
Everything is lost

Washed away like footprints in the rain
In a vapor trail

Secret Touch” discusses Peart’s feelings of detachment after the loss of his family – the ‘secret touch’ of the title referring to the scars left by life experiences on one’s heart. Lee described the track as ‘hypnotic’ and related that in order to make the song punchier, they had to experiment during their recording process.

When we were jamming originally, we could hear the sound of my fingers slapping against the string-but when we played it back it didn’t have the same ‘smack’. So we put up a mike and recorded the sound of my fingers while we were laying down the parts, and we used it subtly in the mix. I don’t know how much of it survived under all the guitars, but it’s there.

– Geddy Lee

“Earthshine” was one of the first songs written for Vapor Trails, and was the most affected by its unhurried production schedule – around five months into the process, the instrumentation was entirely rewritten as the band felt it did not do the lyrics justice. The lyrics describe the titular earthshine, where the light of the Earth is reflected on the dark side of the moon. Peart uses this phenomenon as a metaphor of being present but apart from the world, continuing the theme started in “Secret Touch.”

Sweet Miracle” is a simple, pointed song that is directly tied to Peart’s trauma and recovery – the story of a man who has lost all hope, only to be saved by something wonderful with the same force as experiencing a miracle – presumably referring to his second wife Carrie.

I think “Sweet Miracle” was the second song we wrote for Vapor Trails. This came from the very earliest parts of the writing sessions, and it just happened. The lyrics I felt were very moving, and the melody just came out of me.

– Geddy Lee

In “Nocturne,” Peart explores dreams and our subconscious, specifically the way our dreams can inform us of things we do not realise in our waking life. Peart’s cited influences include an article where the writer had a series of vivid nightmares and began to suspect something was terribly wrong in his body – upon consulting with a doctor, he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in his thyroid gland. This article is also the origin of the phrase ‘the way out is the way in’, from “Secret Touch”.

Once we had a few songs finished that we liked, the newer ones started to get weirder. Daring grows out of confidence (or what the ancient Greeks called ‘hubris’ I guess), and from this combination came “One Little Victory,” “Ceiling Unlimited,” and “Nocturne.”

– Neil Peart

Freeze” marks the unexpected return of the Fear series, listed as “Part IV”. While perhaps not quite as strong as the preceding Fear entries, it still stands as a remarkably capable song, with a consistent energy, driving drum beat and impressively performed lyrics by Lee. Lyrically, it discusses the fight or flight impulse.

Coiled for the spring
Or caught like a creature in the headlights
Into a desperate panic
Or a tempest of blind fury
Like a cornered beast
Or a conquering hero

Out of the Cradle” ends the album with a high-energy, optimistic rocker. Reminiscent of tracks like “Chemistry”, there are definite parallels to the band and Peart’s will to carry on no matter what comes their way, and the resolution that they will continue ‘endlessly rocking’.

It’s a hand
That rocks the cradle
It’s a motion
That swings the sky
It’s method on the edge of madness
It’s a balance on the edge of a knife
It’s a smile on the edge of sadness
It’s a dance on the edge of life

Vapor Trails was always going to be a difficult album for Rush. Between Peart’s tragedy and the band’s five years of inactivity, there were surely doubts that Rush would be welcomed back into the fold by fans and music critics.

Despite this, Vapor Trails is an absolute triumph – a raw, emotionally devastating record that both breaks down and rebuilds in equal measure, mirroring the band’s own struggles to create a consistent, engaging album that stands as one of their absolute best.

After five long years in hibernation, and an overwhelming confirmation that everything was going to be okay, it was time for Rush to get back to work.

By Tom Irvine

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A Retrospective: Rush – Test For Echo

(This article was originally published to the now-defunct Polyphonic Music Blog)

I can learn to co-exist with anything but pain.

During their 18-month break after the Counterparts tour, the members of Rush kept busy. Lee used this time to see the first year of his daughter’s life, Lifeson released his solo album Victor and Peart dedicated effort toward improving his traditional grip technique with the help of jazz drummer Freddie Gruber. Peart also produced and performed on a Buddy Rich tribute album, Burning For Buddy.

The group reunited in October 1995. While the break had been refreshing, Lifeson still harboured doubts about the future of the band, and questioned whether their next album, Test For Echo, would be their last. Having been able to exercise complete creative control on Victor, he worried that he would be unable (or unwilling) to collaborate with Lee.

However, such concerns proved unfounded. When the band returned to Chalet Studios and began the writing process, they found the experience to be overwhelmingly positive, buoyed by motivtional signs they had hung on the walls.

The key one, of course, was ‘Individually we are a ass, together we are a genius’, which you have to take in the right light. And stuff like, ‘If you want something done right, just forget it.’

– Geddy Lee

The process was so efficient, in fact, that Lee and Lifeson had written six songs before ever presenting their ideas to Peart (who was, as usual, sequestered in a quiet part of the building), and finished their booked session three weeks early during a period of heavy snowfall which would lead into the 1996 North American Blizzard.

Rush once again recruited Peter Collins to produce the album, as well as recording engineer Cliff Norrell. Norrell was a fan of the group and had performed cover versions of their songs in his own band, which Rush saw as the perfect combination of an outsider and someone very familiar with their sound.

Recording took place at Bearsville Studios, New York, chosen due to its size and suitability for Peart’s kit. The band wanted to capture a more powerful drum sound and more aggressive guitar parts, while also enhancing their more nuanced qualities.

Conceptually, I wanted to develop the guitars in such a way that the acoustics played a much more important role in the overall guitar sound. So we developed that aspect of it.

– Alex Lifeson

Test For Echo begins with the title track, “Test For Echo”, another collaboration with Pye Dubois. The song begins with a tense guitar riff punctuated by alliterative lyrics, before launching into a hard-hitting rock number. Lyrically, the song is a musing on the exploitative nature of instant media outlets.

The lyrics give a video-view of this wacky world of ours and offers this tacit response: ‘Excuse me, does anybody else think this is weird? Am I weird?’ While the answer to those questions might be ‘Yes!’ it’s good to know that you’re not the only one, that you’re not alone.

– Neil Peart

Though it can perhaps simply be seen as tapping into the contemporary cultural zeitgeist, the lyrics feature oddly tactless verses on ‘tough-talking hood boys’ and clumsy references to ‘perp walks’. Nevertheless, “Test For Echo” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock chart.

“Test For Echo” leads neatly into another hard rock track, “Driven”, a song about taking control of ones life without losing control. “Driven” is an energetic addition to the album, with galloping choruses and an exceptional performance by Lee – the song was written entirely by bass guitar, using three separate bass tracks.

I brought it to Alex and said, ‘Here’s the song; I did three tracks of bass, but I just did that to fill in for the guitar,’ and he said, ‘Let’s keep it with the three basses.’ So, I said, ‘I love you.’

– Geddy Lee

“Half The World” discusses the difference between the two hemispheres of the Earth. While a relatively basic song in terms of lyrics, it has an elegant simplicity that works in its favour, with an inoffensive structure and catchy chorus. It may not be a bonafide classic for the band, but it sits well as a radio-friendly entry for the album.

“Half the World” is one of our finest moments as songwriters as far as writing a concise song without being wimpy or syrupy. It’s got a little bit of everything: nice melody, and yet it’s still aggressive. It’s hard for us to write that kind of song, really. You’d have to go back to “Closer to the Heart” to find an example of that.

– Geddy Lee

“The Color of Right”, a reference to the legal term (inspired by Peart’s daughter’s law homework), appears to be Peart’s philosophical outlook on the nature of arguments between couples. Despite the subject matter, the song is fun enough, with a bouncy melody and pleasant instrumentation.

“Time and Motion” provides some welcome complexity, showcasing a darker, eerier side of the band. Odd time signatures and heavy guitar riffs remind the listener of tracks by alternative and grunge artists like Soundgarden, and couple well with the song’s enigmatic lyrics.

Time and motion
Flesh and blood and fire
Lives connect in webs of gold and razor wire

Spin a thread of precious contact
Squeeze in all that you can find
Spontaneous relations
And the long-enduring kind

“Totem” is another interesting track, providing a catchy, quirky look into Peart’s opinions on religion. While “Freewill” looked at religion with a dismissive eye, “Totem” explores the concept with a more balanced approach.

For me, spirituality is a personal belief and I think it’s up to each person to choose a road that’s comfortable for them. I think it’s really an individual viewpoint. Having grown up in a very religious home, I find the dogma and constrictions of organized religion not appropriate for my belief system. But I’m not so arrogant as to believe that I have the answers to these questions.

– Neil Peart

“Dog Years”, undoubtedly the most maligned song in Rush’s career, is a strange beast. While generally seen as featuring woeful lyrics (penned by Peart while recovering from a hangover), it somehow manages to be built around some of the strongest instrumentation on the album, and uses deceptively clever metaphors to get across its central point – the impact of time and responsibilities on our lives. Lifeson’s aggressive guitar work in the verses is headbang-worthy, and Lee’s bass is, as always, on point.

“Virtuality” discusses the effects of the internet on relationships. Unfortunately, due to being written in the early days of the internet it comes across as tremendously dated, with quaint lyrics about ‘net boys’ and ‘net girls’, somewhat salvaged by some sweet verses and another intensely rocking rhythm.

Like a pair of vagabonds who wave between two passing trains
Or the glimpse of a woman’s smile through a window in the rain
I can smell her perfume, I can taste her lips
I can feel the voltage from her fingertips

“Resist” takes the chance to settle down for a while, with a heartfelt ballad about overcoming injustice. Paired with beautiful guitar work by Lifeson, Peart’s simple but effective lyrics take the listener on a satisfying journey. Rush would later perform an acoustic version of this song on their Vapor Trails and R30 tours, and Lifeson regards it as one of the band’s best.

I can learn to resist
Anything but frustration
I can learn to persist
With anything but aiming low

I can learn to close my eyes
To anything but injustice
I can learn to get along
With all the things I don’t know

“Limbo”, the album’s instrumental track, was recorded, Lifeson admits, at the last minute. Though an instrumental, it includes ethereal background vocals by Lee and soundbites from Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett’s “Monster Mash”. Lee introduced the song on the Test For Echo tour as “not a song about a dance or a fat guy”, a reference to both the limbo dance and Rush Limbaugh – the band simply liked the way ‘Rush Limbo’ sounded.

“Carve Away the Stone” ends the album with a pleasant track about coming to terms with guilt. While the song’s smooth production makes it sound a little out of place on this album (it would perhaps be more fitting on Presto or Roll The Bones) it provides an optimistic, inspiring close to Test For Echo.

Test For Echo is a slightly frustrating experience. While the album features some of Rush’s tightest instrumentation and genuinely enjoyable hard rock tracks, some of the songs are remarkably dated or, worse yet, preachy. That said, no song is truly unlikable, and tracks like “Resist” hold up as genuine classics.

Regardless, the experience of recording Test For Echo undoubtedly had a positive effect on Rush’s morale and outlook. Lee and Lifeson were able to reconcile, and all the members were enthusiastic about their future.

Sadly, this enthusiasm would not last. On August 10 1997, Peart’s daughter Selena passed away following a car accident. His wife Jaqueline succumbed to cancer less than a year later.

At Jaqueline’s funeral, Peart told Lee and Lifeson to ‘consider him retired’. He decided to undertake a long motorcycle journey, which would take him across North and Central America before finally returning home to Canada, having travelled more than 50,000 miles.

Peart wrote about his experiences on this journey in the travel memoir Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. In 2000, he married photographer Carrie Nuttall, and in early 2001 reunited with Lee and Lifeson, announcing that he was ready to continue performing as a member of Rush.

With the team reunited, battered but not beaten, their next album would be their most emotionally complex release to date.

By Tom Irvine (with assistance from Reddit user /u/Bluefunkt)

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A Retrospective: Rush – Counterparts

(This article was originally published to the now-defunct Polyphonic Music Blog)

Trust to your instincts.

The year is 1993, and Rush face an interesting situation. After decades spent as “the world’s biggest cult band”, a new wave of fans are beginning to openly admit their love for them. But why this sudden change, nearly twenty years after their debut album?

The origins of this revival can probably be traced back to 1991, and the band Primus. That year, Primus released their seminal alt-metal album Sailing the Seas of Cheese, which proved to be extremely popular and influential. Buoyed by this success, Primus would go on to headline the 1993 Lollapalooza music festival, but in between these events they would become a supporting act for the band that influenced them – Rush.

The members of Primus and Rush quickly became friends, and their presence during Rush’s Roll The Bones tour not only drew in countless new fans, but also influenced the band’s own output.

We used to jam with them every day for an hour and a half before they went on. We got a whole assortment of instruments that we couldn’t play — accordion, clarinet, flute — and we had so much fun just trying to make music that it planted a seed that that’s what it’s all about.

– Alex Lifeson

Aside from Primus, Rush were enjoying albums by other contemporary musicians such as Pearl Jam and absorbing the new techniques, sounds and attitudes brought about by the grunge movement.

All of these bands on the West Coast were doing really interesting things, and to us it was a real positive explosion. The five or six years previous were such a dull, boring time for rock music. But this was a kind of rock music we could relate to because some of it is so weird and unconventional. It had an inspiring effect on us.

– Geddy Lee

Accordingly, the band once again made a pact to focus on a guitar-oriented sound for their new album, which pleased Lifeson. However, despite its harmonious title, Counterparts prompted fractious debates within the group.

Tensions between Lifeson and Lee began quickly, after Lee brought his keyboards into the recording studio. Lifeson had been more and more irked by their presence over the last decade of the band’s work and this created an “immediate atmosphere” (Lee). While Lee maintained they were only there to embellish finished songs, Lifeson insisted there be no keyboard at all on the album.

We’re at that period in our lives where we’re starting to question our relationships with each other. You start to ask ‘Why am I still hanging around with these guys?’ To some extent Counterparts is a recognition of how the three of us have grown in different ways of the past few years.
Almost every Monday morning Alex and I would have a full-blown, in-your-face argument. It was probably a good thing.

– Geddy Lee

With a new guitar-focused direction came the desire for a more powerful sound. Lifeson noted that Roll The Bones’ songs sounded ‘tougher’ live, and the band wanted to capture that feeling in the studio. Ultimately, they felt Rupert Hine would be unable to facilitate this change. As such, Peter Collins returned as producer – the band were good friends with him, and felt his production skills had grown since their last collaboration. Following Hold Your Fire, Collins had produced albums for hard rock artists like Queensrÿche and Alice Cooper, so his return seemed appropriate given Rush’s new objective.

In order to achieve a raw sound, the band performed their parts as directly as possible under the guidance of experienced engineer Kevin “The Caveman” Shirley. Shirley recommended that Lifeson record his guitar parts in the studio room instead of separately – an idea Lifeson was initially resistant to.

It’s not a particularly efficient environment, but that’s the whole point why you should do it. You get out there and the guitar is vibrating, and it’s tough to control the feedback. And it’s really loud, and your headphones sound terrible, you can’t hear anything because the guitar’s so loud – it’s fantastic!

– Alex Lifeson

“Animate”, the first song on Counterparts, introduces itself with ruthless aplomb, starting with a count-in courtesy of Peart. Such a small aspect of the track could be overlooked, but it adds a human, raw quality that is matched by the ensuing song. Lee’s deep, resonant bass tone was performed using an old amplifier found in the studio garbage. Peart’s lyrics contain themes of anima and animus inspired by Carl Jung and Camille Paglia in an attempt to define the ‘modern man’. He noted that during the 1980s, men pretended to be more sensitive than they actually were, and women more aggressive.

So, it was basically pleading for a balance of that; I feel that, yes, men do have a large female component to their characters, as it can only be. It’s natural, again as counterparts we are both duplicates and opposites… in the song I was trying to get at the idea of that you can be both strong and sensitive; you can be both ambitious and soft, really, but not to deny either and to keep them in balance.

– Neil Peart

“Stick It Out” is the most obviously grunge-influenced track on the album, with an aggressive, almost discordant guitar line. While not the most innovative track on the album, its refreshing rawness and heaviness gives the track more than enough energy to forgive any shortcomings.

“Cut To The Chase” calms things down a little. While still featuring raucous choruses, the quieter clean verses build a palpable tension that explodes into a brilliant solo by Lifeson (directly taken from his demo tapes).

In “Nobody’s Hero,” Lee’s agonised vocals lend themselves well to a deeply emotional track discussing heroism and role models, using unconventional examples based on people in Peart’s life: a homosexual friend who died of AIDS-related illness, and a woman who was murdered in his hometown of Port Dalhousie.

We seem to care for these people who appear to us on screen and in books, and yet we don’t know much about them apart from this fake image we idolize. Yet we live amongst people who live heroic but quieter lives, and we dont pay much attention to them until they are gone.

– Neil Peart

“Between Sun and Moon,” noted as being inspired by The Who and The Rolling Stones, features lyrics by frequent collaborator Pye Dubois. As a tribute to 60s musicians, this song functions quite well, with a fun, bouncy rhythm and enigmatic lyrics, but feels a little out of place on this record.

“Alien Shore” begins with perhaps the first studio example of Lifeson’s distinctive sense of humour – the introductory vocals are him saying “out of my nose” with his nostrils held shut. The track is one of the most obviously tied to the central conceit of the album: though oddly constructed, the lyrics explain that race and sex do not exist as polar opposites, but as counterparts.

You and I, we are pressed into these solitudes
Color and culture, language and race
Just variations on a theme
Islands in a much larger stream

For you and me — Race is not a competition
For you and me — Race is not a definition
For you and me — We agree

“The Speed of Love” is a mid-tempo, more sensitive rock song, most reminiscent of tracks on Presto. While certainly not a ‘bad’ song, after the high-octane, brutish songs preceding it “Speed of Love” comes off as a little limp. Lifeson is the main attraction of this track, though the heavy use of reverb on his guitar takes away from the rawness of the album. Lee, then, steals the show a little with his increasingly nuanced bass playing, further developing his improved style.

Rush acknowledge “Double Agent” as ‘a complete exercise in self-indulgence’. It was the last song written for the album, and was created as a way to unwind after weeks of carefully planning the rest of the album. This gung-ho attitude is captured perfectly by the song, with an infectious, giddy energy and dreamlike lyrics punctuated Lee’s atmospheric monologues.

It’s one of the goofiest songs I think we’ve ever written, but I’m quite happy with the result. In its own way, I think it’s an interesting little piece of lunacy.

– Geddy Lee

“Leave That Thing Alone,” another instrumental track, is a sequel of sorts to “Where’s My Thing?”, and was also nominated for a Grammy – again losing out, this time to Pink Floyd’s “Marooned”. The track features an incredibly funky bass riff by Lee and Peart’s pummelling drumming before giving way to a textured, ethereal guitar solo by Lifeson, while still retaining the attitude displayed by other tracks on the album.

Where “Leave That Thing Alone” provided a welcome groove break, “Cold Fire” leaps back into the energetic feel of earlier tracks on the album, but with a more nuanced composition. Hard rocking choruses lead to sincere verses, to which the band credits Peter Collins’ input.

It wasn’t until he got there, I think, that we finally locked in on a feel for those verses that enabled Alex to play those great kind of steel guitar lines… and enabled me to open up harmonically. I was having trouble with the verses, you know, it’s a tough song, when you’re dealing with this issue of male/female relationships, which is such a foreign subject for us to deal with, in a song. You want to make sure it doesn’t sound trite or hackneyed or you’re not just doing yet another — who needs another song about relationships?

– Geddy Lee

Counterparts ends with the rousing “Everyday Glory.” While undeniably a good song – with a Bryan Adams-like heartland rock sound – it suffers somewhat due to its treading of much of the same ground explored on “Nobody’s Hero”, albeit with a more detached approach. It still feels like its own distinct entity, though it may have benefited from inclusion on a different record. Still, as an album closer it performs exceptionally, ending the experience with an uplifting message.

If the future’s looking dark
We’re the ones who have to shine
If there’s no one in control
We’re the ones who draw the line
Though we live in trying times —
We’re the ones who have to try
Though we know that time has wings —
We’re the ones who have to fly

Counterparts’ hard-edged sound brought attention to the band from alternative rock listeners while continuing to build on their own hard-earned fanbase. It released to commercial success, peaking at #3 on the Billboard album charts and earning gold certification in both Canada and the US. Due to the aforementioned creative differences between Lifeson and Lee, the band decided to take an extended break after their supporting tour and pursue their own creative projects.

During this time, Lifeson released his first solo album, Victor, in 1996, which utilised much of the hard rock sound heard on Counterparts and earned him a Juno Award nomination for Best New Group. Upon Rush’s reunion, Lifeson decided to take more creative control of their next project.

The resulting album would prove to be one of their most divisive releases.

By Tom Irvine

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A Retrospective: Rush – Roll The Bones

(This article was originally published to the now-defunct Polyphonic Music Blog)

A tiny moment of truth.

Following the release of Presto, Rush embarked on their customary supporting tour. This time, however, the tour was much shorter than previous ones – having been burned out by their Hold Your Fire tour, the band were cautious not to overextend themselves.

In a way, their strategy paid off – though not in the way they expected. The band actually had so much fun during the tour that they were thirsty for more, and used this surplus energy to launch headlong into production on their next album, Roll The Bones, forgoing a post-tour break.

Writing began in the usual way, at the secluded Chalet Studios in Claremont, Ontario, where the band stayed for around ten weeks. Lee had seemingly absorbed some of Peart’s environmental inspirations, giving a special thanks to ‘birds’ in the album’s liner notes.

I’ve become a birdwatcher in the last few years. Outside of our window at the rehearsal hall, there were some dilapidated bird feeders, and I made sure we fixed them up, and started putting feed in them. It was just a glorious thing to look at, as you’re writing.

– Geddy Lee

Another unexpected inclusion in the liner notes is broadcast company CNN, which often distracted the band due to the various newsworthy events happening at the time, such as the end of the Gulf War.

Recording of the album was completed in eight weeks. Rush once again worked with producer Rupert Hine, whose input and songwriting ability were highly valued by the band. They also acknowledged that Peter Collins’ production influences were also present on the album – Lee recorded the album using two Wal basses, which Collins had recommended to him.

Peart’s made a conscious decision to avoid using electronic drums for Roll The Bones as much as possible, as well as intentionally not rehearsing sections of songs to bring a sense of spontaneity to the recording process (though Lee notes that he was impressed by Peart’s ability to perfectly perform his parts, usually on the first take).

It seems obvious that we have a long time creative partnership ahead of us. Maybe we’re growing up a tiny bit; I’m not sure; but I do know that we are excited about this band in a whole new way. Each of us feels it, and Roll the Bones was the catalyst – this record was so enjoyable to make, and the process was so satisfying through each of its stages that suddenly we feel a new conviction, a sense of rebirth.

– Neil Peart

Roll The Bones begins with “Dreamline”, a driving, fresh track about the feeling of wanderlust and invincibility that comes with youth. The song’s underlying guitar riff keeps the tempo and energy high, and Lee’s twanging bassline keeps things moving along nicely. “Dreamline” marked a triumphant commercial return for Rush, peaking at #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.

“Bravado” takes a different approach. Rather than another bombastic rock song, it is instead an atmospheric, emotional track urging the listener to persevere after failure. This track is a striking example of the band’s synergy with each other – everyone plays at their best in this track, and the mix allows each member their chance to shine. Lee’s overlapping vocals during the final chorus provide a rich, deep soundscape, which Peart and Lifeson ably match on drums and guitar respectively.

“Roll The Bones” is another of Rush’s controversial songs. Peart notes the track as a ‘lyrical experiment’ – after listening to popular rap artists like LL Cool J and Public Enemy, he decided to add a rap verse to the song, a decision which has proven divisive among fans. The inclusion of the rap verse was a matter of debate within the band as well, as they had trouble deciding how humorous to make it. Musician Robbie Robertson and actor John Cleese were both considered to perform the rap, but inevitably opted for Lee’s own voice, pitched down. Lyrically, the song explores the randomness of the universe, likening it to a roll of the dice.

Why are we here?
Because we’re here.
Roll the bones
Why does it happen?
Because it happens.
Roll the bones

“Face Up” returns to an uptempo rock format with a tastefully light use of synthesizers. A song about facing up to your problems, this track has a groovy rhythm reminiscent at times of the band’s origins, but with a modern twist. It was never performed live, and the band acknowledges it as something that never quite came together the way they wanted.

“Face Up” rolls smoothly into “Where’s My Thing?” (comedically subtitled “Part IV: ‘Gangster of Boats’ Trilogy”), Rush’s first instrumental since Moving Pictures’ “YYZ”. The track was nominated for a Grammy award, but lost to Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover”. Johnson would later open for Rush during their tour in support of the album.

“The Big Wheel” is a lively, inoffensive pop-rock track with bright synthesizer trills and rockabilly-like vocals from Lee. While not a standout by any means, it’s a nice middle-tier song to fill out the album. The song is another in Rush’s catalogue that addresses the problems experienced by disenfranchised youth, this time taking a fictionally autobiographical approach.

I want to find universal things that others can relate to, and that’s a thing that’s part of everyone’s life, so I think that’s probably one reason why I’m drawn to it. And then so much of it is drawn from observing people around me, too, so that becomes a factor in it too; how they responded to life, and how they take to it. How they adapt to that innocence and experience thing.

– Neil Peart

“Heresy” is a warm, rich synth and bass driven track, with elements resembling those of contemporary tracks by artists like Simple Minds (e.g. Street Fighting Years) The drum beat of this song was based on drumming Peart heard while staying overnight in the village of Assohoum in Togo. Lifeson’s guitar work is light and ethereal, with a chorus designed to give the impression of several players who are slightly out of tune. The track was written in response to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and intimates Peart’s frustration with the ‘wasted years’ of Communism.

The song expressed my angry disbelief over the effect on my own life: ten years old and hearing about atomic bombs that the Russians might drop on nearby Niagara Falls, and how for most of my life, the world had lived under the shadow of nuclear war. Now we were simply to accept that the twentieth century’s ‘noble experiment’ had been reduced to failed ideology.

– Neil Peart

“Ghost of a Chance”, a unique take on the ‘love song’ formula, uses Peart’s observations on the randomness of the universe to illustrate how special love is. Lee’s vocal work on this track is sublime, giving the track a sensuous, enticing feel. Lifeson’s alternately hard and emotional guitar work rounds out the song nicely, making it one of the standout tracks on the album.

I don’t believe in destiny
Or the guiding hand of fate
I don’t believe in forever
Or love as a mystical state

I don’t believe in the stars or the planets
Or angels watching from above
But I believe there’s a ghost of a chance
We can find someone to love
And make it last

“Neurotica” is an odd track about neuroses, and the most reminiscent of weaker tracks on Presto. The song follows disappointingly repetitive instrumentation the whole way through, and generally ends up being a bit dull, especially following the superlative “Ghost of a Chance”. As a result, it lacks the distinctive ‘Rush’ feeling, something Lee himself recognises.

Just recently I listened to the song Neurotica” and I thought, what the fuck was that? It’s just a strange tune. I feel we’ve had a very up-and-down career as songwriters, but one thing that’s always held true is our honesty about what we’re doing. Like it or not, this is what we are.

– Geddy Lee (2015)

“You Bet Your Life” rounds out the album with a fun, jangly track which discusses living with the random nature of the universe. The song includes interesting bridge sections of Lee’s synthesised voice dispassionately listing contradictory phrases:

anarchist reactionary running-dog revisionist
hindu muslim catholic creation/evolutionist
rational romantic mystic cynical idealist
minimal expressionist post-modern neo-symbolist

Roll The Bones marked a return to commercial success for Rush. It became their highest charting album in the US since Moving Pictures, reaching #3, and rose to #10 in the UK. The experience of making the album reinvigorated the band, and they found themselves eager to tour and record their next work.

From a listener’s perspective, Roll The Bones is an encouraging step in the right direction for Rush, and stands as their most consistent album since Power Windows. While not every track on the album is a classic, the sheer variety of sounds and enthusiastic performances of the band members is infectious, and easily makes up for any shortcomings.

With the 1990s now underway, what Rush needed was to finally complete the return of their harder rock sound. As it happened, a certain subgenre of rock music was becoming more and more popular among the disenfranchised youth the band catered to.

Grunge had arrived, and now it was time to see if Rush could once again rise to the occasion and compete with the new kids on the block.

By Tom Irvine

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A Retrospective: Rush – Presto

(This article was originally published to the now-defunct Polyphonic Music Blog)

Don’t ask me, I’m just improvising.

January, 1989.

Having finished touring in support of Hold Your Fire – and releasing a Top 40 live album, A Show of HandsRush decided to take a drastic step in order to change musical direction yet again. After a fifteen-year-long partnership, they would no longer be working with Mercury Records. Lifeson cited a staleness in their working relationship as the root cause for their departure, and with their contract up, Atlantic stepped in to offer a deal.

Over the course of the 1980s, Rush’s overall sound had relied heavily on synthesizers. Despite several attempts to balance things, Lifeson’s guitar continued to suffer, reaching its ultimate nadir on Hold Your Fire. With their next album, the band wanted to make a concerted effort to bring their classic guitar driven sound back once and for all, though by Lee’s own admission the group didn’t quite achieve their goal.

This album was a real reaction against technology in a sense. I was getting sick and tired of working with computers and synthesizers… We made a pact to stay away from strings, pianos, and organs—to stay away from digital technology. In the end, we couldn’t resist using them for colour.

– Geddy Lee

Now free of restrictive obligations to Mercury, the band took a six month break, before beginning work on their next album, Presto. They rented a studio in the country and adopted their usual method of working: Lee and Lifeson working on melodies while Peart wandered off to write lyrics in a secluded spot. Unlike previous writing processes, the band members returned home on weekends.

When the time came to start producing music, Peter Collins was unfortunately unable to collaborate with Rush due to a desire to produce other bands. Consequently, the album was produced by Rupert Hine, who had worked with artists such as Howard Jones, Thompson Twins and Bob Geldof, and was himself an accomplished musician. Ten days were assigned for pre-production work, but the partnership was so efficient that the work was completed in only one and a half. The album itself was finished four weeks ahead of schedule.

The album begins with “Show Don’t Tell”, and a quiet synth/drum intro. This intro is just a ruse, however, as the song quickly launches into muscular guitar-driven funk rock. As a statement, it’s extremely effective – the classic Rush is back, but they’ve evolved.

While the album does not follow a rigid theme, several of the song titles refer to phrases related to practical magic. Here, however, the phrase “Show Don’t Tell” refers to supporting hard facts rather than rhetoric.

How many times do you hear it?
It goes on all day long
Everyone knows everything
And no one’s ever wrong
Until later

The second track, “Chain Lightning”, is a powerful progressive rocker. With its alt-rock sounding verses and incredibly catchy chorus, it perfectly keeps up the tempo initiated by “Show Don’t Tell”. The lyrics relate not only to Peart’s love of natural phenomenon, but also to his maturing desire to share experiences.

It’s not enough just to travel and see things. You have to respond to them—you have to feel them, and a lot of the thrust of that song is how things are transferred, like chain lightning or enthusiasm or energy or love are things that are contagious, and if someone feels them, they are easily transferable to another person, or in the case of watching a meteor shower, it’s made more special if there is someone else there. ‘Reflected in another pair of eyes’ is the idea that it’s a wonderful thing already, just you and the meteor shower, but if there’s someone else there with you to share it, then it multiplies, you know, it becomes exponentially a bigger experience.

– Neil Peart

“The Pass”, noted by band members as one of their favourites, discusses teenage suicide and the impact it leaves on friends and family members. It’s easy to see why the band enjoys the song so much – its lush instrumentation and heartfelt lyrics relay a positive message as well as an emotional impact.

I wanted to de-mythologize it, take the nobility out of it. Let’s not pretend it’s a hero’s end. It’s not a triumph. It’s a tragedy. It’s a personal tragedy for them, but much more for the people left behind. I really started to get offended by the samurai kind of values that were attached to it, like here’s a warrior.

– Neil Peart

“War Paint”, a song about self-image, returns to more pronounced synth elements. Rather than overtake the mix, however, here they instead add texture to the track. Sadly, even with this added texture, the track is one of the weakest on the album – partly due to the lofty task of following such excellent opening songs, but also simply doing little to stand out, with conventional instrumentation and writing. It’s a fine track, but ultimately a tad forgettable.

“Scars” ups the tempo with a rapid synth bass-line introducing a drum-driven track. Once again, however, this track just isn’t all that interesting – the synth bass-line is repetitive and the lyrics don’t produce much satisfaction. Lifeson provides some nice atmospheric guitar interludes, but once again the track simply fails to live up to the impact of the first few songs on the album.

Thankfully, “Presto” brings things back around with infectiously optimistic guitar work by Lifeson and an energetic, bouncy rhythm. In this song, Peart muses on what he would do if he possessed magical powers. A little silly, then, but Peart’s inspiring lyrics handily maintain the song’s atmosphere.

I am made from the dust of the stars
and the oceans flow in my veins
Here I hide in the heart of the city
like a stranger coming out of the rain

“Superconductor” plays like a modern reinterpretation of the band’s previous smash hit “The Spirit of Radio”, with lyrics about the hostile, confusing world of mainstream music. Likely the most divisive song on the album among fans due to its tongue-in-cheek chorus and weaker verses, “Superconductor” is certainly a cacophonous song, but quite fun nonetheless.

“Anagram (For Mongo)”, like “Red Lenses”, is an interesting experiment in songwriting – the lyrics are written around anagram wordplay. While not exactly cerebral (and let down by a thin mix), this playful structure leads to a pleasingly cheery sound.

Sometimes you want it to be jarring and disjointed and nonsensical. I think “Anagram” did work, even though it’s a game. The choruses are quite smooth and interesting, and they have a nice sound to them and they kind of mock the whole song itself.

– Geddy Lee

“Red Tide”, an environmental protest song, is built around verses with subtle guitar and piano interplay before exploding into high energy choruses punctuated by blasts of synthesizers. Sharp, staccato lyrics and a heavy guitar solo make the whole song feel aggressive – as it should, considering the subject matter.

I wanted to get a lot of tension in that solo because the song is quite intense. There’s a kind of disturbing feeling about that solo, which I think ties it all together well. The song is angry. Neil is basically a very ecology-minded person, and he wrote this song dealing with the destruction of our environment. So I wanted the music, and especially my solo, to reflect that anger.

– Alex Lifeson

“Hand Over Fist” marks an interesting change in outlook to many of Rush’s previous songs. While tracks like “Freewill” and “Circumstances” celebrate individuality, “Hand Over Fist” does the same for mutual interdependence. While the song features some awkward lyrical metaphors, the instrumentation is catchy and inoffensive leading to a decent, if unremarkable track.

“Available Light” ends the album with a bang – an optimistic piano-driven ballad with Santana-esque guitar interludes that give way to percussive, bright choruses. The track features some of Lee’s strongest vocals to date, as well as an on-point piano melody.

On a tune like “Available Light,” where the bass just provides some simple, low-end support, I’d rather play the keyboards and sing. It’s just a question of what instrument will be rewarding to play from a player’s point of view. If the keyboard is simply playing a strict, four-chord repeating pattern, then I’d rather just program it into some MIDI pedal and have some fun playing bass.

– Geddy Lee

Taken as a whole, Presto can be a frustrating experience. Though the album features some of Peart’s strongest lyrics and the band’s usual excellent musicianship, both are let down by a weak mix that fails to take advantage of their return to hard rock. As a result, much of the album doesn’t feel quite like Rush at all.

However, it would be unfair to judge the album too harshly – moments of brilliance do shine through, and many of the tracks stand as firm classics in Rush’s oeuvre. Some of the weaker tracks on the album are vastly improved by subsequent live performances where the issues of album mixing are absent.

In the end, Presto is a flawed diamond – filled with potential, but struggling to meet the lofty expectations set out by fans and the band themselves. As the 1990s began, Rush would have to continue refining and experimenting to perfect their sound.

The question is, would it be enough? Or worse yet: would they perhaps go too far?

By Tom Irvine

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A Retrospective: Rush – Hold Your Fire

(This article was originally published to the now-defunct Polyphonic Music Blog)

We can rise and fall like empires.

After their latest tour in support of Power Windows, Rush decided to take the summer off to spend time with their families. In an unusual move, the band members began composing their next album, Hold Your Fire, largely on their own.

Peart began writing lyrics in a lakeside mountain cottage, while Lifeson made demo tapes at his home. Perhaps reflecting Rush’s trajectory over the course of the 1980s, Lee composed his contributions electronically.

He played me a few things he’d been working on with his new keyboard setup – entirely controlled by a Macintosh computer! It was an amazing thing. After working out what he wanted to play in the conventional way, he could program it all into the Mac and assign different parts to any number of separate keyboards. This proved very valuable to us, both in the songwriting and recording stages of the album.

– Neil Peart

The band came together to finalise their writing in late 1986. Combining each member’s input with soundcheck recordings (noted by Peart as a common source of song ideas), they composed eight songs, but felt this was not enough to provide sufficient musical variety.

We decided we’d go a bit further this time. We were aware of the fact that only a small percentage of people actually buy records any more, the vast majority choosing cassettes or CDs. Thus, we figured, why should we worry about the time limitations of the old vinyl disc? We thought we’d like to have ten songs, and go for fifty minutes or so of music. So we did.

– Neil Peart

This brought the total to nine songs. Peter Collins, who once again produced the album, provided some input in the songwriting process, including a suggestion for a tenth song – this would become the album’s opening track, “Force Ten”.

“Force Ten” begins with a synthetic choir, before Lifeson cuts in with booming, growling guitar chords. Lee launches into a driving bass riff and is soon joined by Peart after a brief electronic jackhammer sample. Tasteful use of synthesizers add to the song’s overall atmosphere and effectively build anticipation for the rest of the album. “Force Ten” was another collaboration with Pye Dubois (who had previously contributed to “Tom Sawyer”) and showcases Lee’s new interest in using bass chords.

Not so much in the sense of strumming them as using my thumb more, almost like a finger-picking style of playing, which is something that I’m still working on. Just plucking with my thumb and going back and forth between the thumb and the first two fingers and pulling. Almost like a snapping technique. It’s opened up a bit more range for me.

– Geddy Lee

“Time Stand Still”, the second song on the album, marks Rush’s first song to feature a non-member’s vocals: ’til Tuesday lead vocalist Aimee Mann. The resulting track is one of the most ‘pop’ songs the band would produce but maintains their trademark thought-provoking lyrics – a further reflection on Neil Peart’s discomfort with the fast-paced life of a rock musician.

I let my past go too fast
No time to pause
If I could slow it all down
Like some captain,
Whose ship runs aground
I can wait until the tide comes around

All through the ’70s our lives were flying by; we spent so much time on the road that it became like a dark tunnel. You start to think about the people you’re neglecting, friends and family. So the song is about stopping to enjoy that; with a warning against too much looking back. Instead of getting nostalgic about the past, it’s more a plea for the present.

– Neil Peart

Perhaps more famous – or infamous – than the song itself is the accompanying music video directed by Zbigniew Rybczyński (director of Academy Award-winning short film Tango). In the video, an incredibly uncomfortable-looking Rush and Aimee Mann drift around superimposed backdrops, awkwardly spinning in general perplexity. Rybczyński had notably used chroma-keying techniques in other music videos, such as Simple Minds’ “All The Things She Said”, to equally bizarre effect. Despite the video’s dated cheesiness, it is still impressively edited – requiring multiple shots layered on top of one another without making backup copies.

“Open Secrets”, another song the band never performed live, is a deceptively enjoyable track. As with the rest of the album, it is relatively soft compared to Rush’s previous songs, but makes up for this with increased nuance and melody. The song is another of Peart’s musings on relationships – this time a denouncement of repressing one’s feelings.

I find no absolution
In my rational point of view
Maybe some things are instinctive
But there’s one thing you could do
You could try to understand me —
I could try to understand you…

“Second Nature” begins with a decidedly ‘un-Rush‘ keyboard melody, feeling more akin to contemporary soft rock courtesy of the likes of Bruce Hornsby. While not a terrible song, it marks the most obvious example of Rush’s straying path during the 1980s. As with many tracks in the band’s ’80s output, it is saved somewhat by Peart’s musings – in this case, lyrics calling for humans to simply be good to one another. Perhaps a little obvious, yes, and very much in line with 1980s activism, but enjoyable nonetheless when absorbed in the right mood. This song, too, was never played live but was considered for the R30 Tour as an acoustic performance.

“Prime Mover” gets things back on track, with a more cohesive track that manages to create an optimistic atmosphere through a subtler approach. Lee’s bassline shines in this track, perfectly mixing with Lifeson’s cheery guitar chords and Peart’s wonderful lyrics.

From the point of ignition
To the final drive
The point of the journey
Is not to arrive
anything can happen

“Lock And Key” opens side two of the album with an atmospheric synth intro and Lee’s agonized vocals, before launching into a driving, catchy rocker. Equal parts forlorn, heartwrenching and explosive, this track is easily one of the strongest on the record and a brilliant showcase of Rush’s 1980s sound.

“Mission”, unlike the previous track, is a much more subdued affair, an ode to those seeking their purpose in life inspired by a conversation between Lee and Peart.

It relates to the creative process, the burning desire to do something and how important it is to keep your fire lit regardless of what you have to do.
We knew we would always play music in some way. “Mission” also looks sadly at the people who have never really been sure what they should be doing and have never really had a clear-cut idea where to put their creative abilities.

– Geddy Lee

Despite its heavy pop ballad feeling, the song features an unexpectedly chaotic bridge section featuring a synth xylophone and snarling guitar solo, before dropping back into its previously relaxing demeanour.

“Turn The Page”, a song about how people remain detached from grim news, is the next track on the album. Noted as an exceptionally difficult song to perform live by Lee, requiring complex bass patterns as well as out-of-step lyrics, it returns to a high-energy rock format, with catchy lyrics but a very subdued guitar part – most of the melody comes from Lee’s bass and synths, but Lifeson still gets a chance to shine with a bridging guitar solo.

The next track, “Tai Shan”, is widely regarded as one of the worst songs in Rush’s career. Both Lee and Lifeson have expressed their disdain for the track, mainly due to its close relation to Peart’s personal experience – unable to relate to the song, they did not perform it live.

Peart had climbed to the top of Mount Tai in China, where native folklore dictates that anyone who summits the mountain will live a full century. Unfortunately, Peart’s lyrics in this track suffer from overbearing sentimentality, while the instrumentation features several musical cliches, such as a Shakuhachi sample (used famously in the intro to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”). That said, the lush synthesizers do create a relaxing atmosphere that is reasonably listenable given the right mood.

“High Water” ends the record on a slightly higher note. While still a softer, more relaxing track, it feels more distinguishably ‘Rush’ than songs like “Tai Shan” and “Second Nature”. However, it is not as strong an ending song as “Turn The Page” might have been (perhaps a symptom of the larger number of tracks allowed by the CD format). While certainly not unpleasant to listen to – Peart’s drumming, in particular, has infectious momentum – “High Water” feels fairly unremarkable, with rote synthesizers and no real stand-out moments.

Upon release, Hold Your Fire was initially deemed a commercial disappointment, the first time a Rush album had missed the Billboard Top 10 since Hemispheres in 1978. While several songs from the album appeared frequently in live performances and fan reception has become more favourable in recent years, the album nonetheless marks a stumble in the band’s history – a point where they lost their seemingly unstoppable momentum, if only for a short moment.

Something needed to change, and it would take a drastic move to set this change in motion.

By Tom Irvine

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A Retrospective: Rush – Power Windows

(This article was originally published to the now-defunct Polyphonic Music Blog)

We break the surface tension with our wild kinetic dreams.

Following a tour in support of Grace Under Pressure, Rush began work on their next album, Power Windows, in early 1985. While critical reception of their work remained positive, some detractors still disliked the band’s focus on synthesizers and “becoming commercial”.

Well, if we were trying to be commercial, we failed… We think that the face of our music is changing from having been progressive to not being progressive. For us, we’re progressing. That’s all that progressive music can be, and it’s just as difficult for us to think of and play. To us, it’s totally satisfying and progressive. Perhaps from the view of an outsider who judges only on the superficiality of technique, it might seem simpler.

Believe me, it’s not.

– Neil Peart

Nonetheless, with a synth-driven sound something had to give, and in Rush’s case it was Lifeson’s guitar, which had not satisfied the band on Signals or Grace Under Pressure.

From Signals onwards… we tried to change the perspective a bit and I think we went too far with the keyboards. The guitar – which has always been an important instrument in this band – was pushed too far into the background, we know that now.
Grace Under Pressure was reactionary to Signals in the sense that the guitar came screaming to the front, but with this record I think we’ve finally found a good combination – the keyboards are more interesting now, but the guitar doesn’t suffer at all.

– Alex Lifeson

To help them with balancing their sound, Rush enlisted the help of Peter Collins, a producer who had previously worked with pop artists like Nik Kershaw and Blancmange. Power Windows would once again follow a running theme – power.

The album begins with “The Big Money”, named after the John Dos Passos novel, which discusses the influence of ‘big money’ in the 1980s economic boom. Despite being a relentlessly upbeat track, the lyrics, true to form, are consistently negative, listing off the many ways ‘big money’ uses and abuses the unfortunate.

Sometimes pushing people around
Sometimes pulling out the rug
Sometimes pushing all the buttons
Sometimes pulling out the plug
It’s the power and the glory
It’s a war in paradise
It’s a Cinderella story
On a tumble of the dice

Musically, “The Big Money” is a chaotic mix of stabbing synth effects and a breakneck twanging bassline. Lifeson’s guitar sound is much cleaner than in tracks on Grace Under Pressure, but still retains some echoing effects. The instrumental bridge on this track is a highlight of the album, bringing Peart’s creative drumming to the forefront.

“Grand Designs” returns to a classic Rush theme – a critique of conformism and the superficial nature of modern music. It hits hard and fast, driven by a bright synthesizer riff. Counteracting the synth sound, Lifeson’s guitar stabs through to distinguish itself among the mix without becoming overpowering.

The third track, “Manhattan Project” takes a more atmospheric approach, recounting the story of the titular World War II project that created the first atomic bomb. Despite being a song about something so destructive, the composition of the track is surprisingly upbeat – potentially reflecting Neil Peart’s awe towards the subject matter. Peart made sure to do extensive research on the subject to ensure the lyrics were accurate, but once again the interplay between Lifeson’s guitar and Lee’s synths are the star attraction here.

“Marathon” is an optimistic track about the perpetual cycle of personal accomplishment – of reaching the summit of one peak and seeking another. This song also serves as proof positive that Rush’s attempt to create a ‘best of both worlds’ album was successful – Lifeson, Lee and Peart all get their chance to shine, with one of the hardest drum beats on the album, and an impressive 7/8 instrumental section featuring a distinctive Lifeson solo.

With “Territories”, Rush skewer the concept of jingoistic nationalism. Peart adopts a tribal beat for much of the track, echoing the sentiment of clans warring over a “piece of dirt”. It comes as no surprise that, though proudly Canadian, he prefers to consider himself a citizen of the world.

The opening line about the Middle Kingdom, that’s still what China calls itself today. The reason for the Middle Kingdom is because it’s a middle between Heaven and Earth. In other words, it’s slightly below Heaven, but still above everybody on Earth. Some people look at patriotism or nationalism as being the next best thing to loyalty to your family.

I don’t buy it.

– Neil Peart

“Middletown Dreams” is another atmospheric track, opening with moody lyrics about dreams and leaving one’s boring day-to-day behind. The song’s lush mix and heart-wrenching synth sections effectively serve the central theme and make this one of the best tracks on the album.

The middle-aged madonna
Calls her neighbour on the phone
Day by day the seasons pass
And leave her life alone
But she’ll go walking out that door
On some bright afternoon
To go and paint big cities
From a lonely attic room

“Emotion Detector” is perhaps the most notably ‘pop’ track on the album, with a synthesizer intro that feels like a preview to Hold Your Fire. While it is likely the most dated sounding song on the album, it has a stirring quality reminiscent of 1980s action film soundtracks. This song proved the most difficult to write, remaining a sore point with the band. It was never performed live.

We thought “Emotion Detector” would be a breeze but it was the killer. It was very difficult to get the mood right. I’m still not really sold on the song. It never ended up sounding the way I hoped it would.

– Alex Lifeson

The final track, “Mystic Rhythms”, appropriately features stellar drumming by Peart and yet another brilliant bassline by Lee, who refers to this song as ‘probably the most synthetic track on the record’. Like “Territories” and some sections of “Emotion Detector”, “Mystic Rhythms” contains influences of Asian and African music, specifically Peart’s tribal beat and some ‘Oriental’ passages on keyboard. Lyrically, the song plays on Peart’s fascination towards astrology.

I’m agnostic, but curious, and romantic enough to want [astrology] to be true.

– Neil Peart

Power Windows continues to showcase Rush’s evolving 1980s output, with perhaps their most balanced album since Permanent Waves. Peter Collins’ influence pushes the record dangerously close to pop territory, but Rush’s carefully considered writing and musicality allows them to toe this line without sacrificing their individuality.

1985 was another successful year for a band that had consistently gone from strength to strength for nearly a decade. All they had to do now was keep that momentum going and release another killer album.

What could possibly go wrong?

By Tom Irvine

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A Retrospective: Rush – Grace Under Pressure

(This article was originally published to the now-defunct Polyphonic Music Blog)

Not giving up on implausible dreams.


With Signals serving as a successful experiment in the evolution of their sound, Rush decide to seek a new producer to replace Terry Brown and further reinvent themselves.

Because this change did not come about as a result of any animosity, both Rush and Brown were placed in an uncomfortable position. While the band were loath to dismiss him, his guiding hand for almost ten years meant that he was too familiar with their style. What they wanted now was someone with a fresh perspective.

That someone was Peter Henderson, a producer who had previously worked with Supertramp. Henderson was dismissed after completion of the album – he was far more experienced as an engineer, and his occasional indecisiveness during the production process resulted in the band making most of the creative decisions themselves.

Regardless, these creative decisions resulted in Grace Under Pressure, an album which, in a first for the band, was built from songs following a common theme – in this case, showing grace under pressure, tackling issues such as dealing with loss, imprisonment and war. As a result, the album has a far darker feel than their previous output.

This was the time of the Korean 747 murders, the on going cruise missile controversies, acid rain (one of my pet protests) was large in the Canadian news, wars raged everywhere – and we, our families, and our friends were trying to cope with economics, death, illness, stress, romantic problems, unemployment, and depression.

– Neil Peart

The album begins with “Distant Early Warning”, a very new-wave track, with bright synths and Lifeson’s echoing guitar chords. The song immediately introduces the primary conceits of the album, with Lee’s staccato lyrics effectively portraying a sense of anxiety and tension. The song ends with a curious reference to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which Peart had read and liked the sound of when combined with the repetition of “obsolete, absolutely”.

When I learned the real story, and its Biblical roots, I decided that it was still appropriate, as it was the ultimate expression of compassion, which is what the song was really about. ‘Absalom, Absalom. My son, my son. Would God I had died for thee.’ (Now don’t anyone go reading any religion into that!)

– Neil Peart

“Afterimage”, the second track, deals with a particularly sensitive topic – the death of a loved one, in this case Robbie Whelan, a close friend of Peart’s and engineer at Le Studio, where Rush had recorded all their albums since Permanent Waves. Rather than wallow in sadness, however, the song takes an aggressive, hard-hitting approach. “Afterimage” is angry, mournful, and confused, accurately reflecting the process of grief, and despite all this is still able to provide a catchy, entertaining song on top of its dark subject matter.

“Red Sector A” also deals with a topic close to one of the members of Rush – in this case, however, it was Geddy Lee. Lee’s mother – a Jewish Pole – had been imprisoned in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (his father had also been interned, in the Dachau camp). Both were liberated within weeks of each other but had seen unimaginable horrors. Though the lyrics remain ambiguous with regards to specifics about the Holocaust, the song paints a painful picture of a broken protagonist seeing some semblance of hope for the first time in a long time.

I hear the sound of gunfire
At the prison gate
Are the liberators here —
Do I hope or do I fear?
For my father and my brother, it’s too late
But I must help my mother
Stand up straight…

Are we the last ones left alive?
Are we the only human beings
To survive?…

While previous songs on the album explore external troubles, “The Enemy Within” is instead about anxiety itself, and having the strength to push through it, using fear to symbolise an enemy that must be conquered. The composition of this track is heavily reggae influenced, giving the song a bouncy rhythm which, when combined with the urgency of the subject matter, coalesces to make a memorable experience.

“The Body Electric” is a markedly different song, returning to Rush’s older style of songwriting to portray a story rather than a concept. Telling the story of an android on the run – partially based on George Lucas’ THX 1138 –“The Body Electric” features a thoroughly infectious chorus:


In distress

Translated into ASCII, this comes out as “I” – appropriate for a song about a robot achieving sentience, echoing Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. The track is also an excellent example of Lifeson’s brilliant guitar sound on this record – its dense use of reverb and echo create a texture that lends itself well to the album.

“Kid Gloves” is an energetic, purposeful song dealing with personal growth and responsibility. It appears to highlight the benefits of positive discourse over fighting, controlling one’s anger and celebrating emotional development. “Kid Gloves” was written as a result of pressures on Rush during their hunt for a new producer after scheduling conflicts with Steve Lillywhite (producer for U2).

“Red Lenses” discusses the paranoia surrounding Russia in the 1980s. While it doubtless features the most divisive lyrics on the album – some may argue the rhyming is insipid and obvious – the instrumentation on this track is some of the best on the album, with a gorgeous instrumental interlude and jazz-influenced verses.

[“Red Lenses”] was probably the hardest song I ever worked on, in spite of the pleasure it gave me. It went through so many rewrites and changed its title so many times. Each little image was juggled around and I just fought for the right words to put each little phrase and to make it sound exactly right to me, so that it sounded a little bit nonsensical. I wanted to get that kind of jabberwocky word game thing happening with it, and also there are little things going on that your mind sort of catches without identifying, like a lot of poetic devices.

– Neil Peart

Album-closer “Between The Wheels” begins with discordant synths, setting up the heaviest track on the album. Lifeson’s guitars stab out at the listener, accompanied by Peart’s oppressive drumming and Lee’s intense bassline, before bursting forth into the song’s chorus.

The wheels of time pick up some people and carry them forward; other people, without being too melodramatic about it, are crushed by these wheels. But in the middle, there are people who are untouched by the wheels, and that was what I was getting at: the fact that these people are neither hurt nor helped by them.

– Neil Peart

With Grace Under Pressure, Rush fully committed to their new synth-driven sound, building upon the foundation of Signals to create a more balanced, accessible album that could compete with the best of the rock and pop worlds. While not quite as commercially successful as Signals, Grace Under Pressure stands as one of the band’s strongest albums, featuring no shortage of catchy melodies and lyrics without sacrificing intellectual or emotional appeal.

It would not take long for Rush to find a new producer, a new theme to explore, and a new album on store shelves.

By Tom Irvine

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