Friday, November 2, 2012

RUSH: A Fanboy's Guide Part IV: 2002-2012

Vapor Trails (2002)

Coming after the darkest period in Rush history, the release of Vapor Trails seemed a small miracle in and of itself, and initial reviews definitely benefited from five years’ worth of concentrated goodwill. With the luxury of hindsight, it’s clear the trio were still finding their sea legs; once past the full-throttle rush of “One Little Victory,” there’s little worth recommending here. Even worse, the mix of Vapor Trails fell victim to the last decade’s so-called “loudness wars,” its overly compressed sonics nearly unlistenable today. Until that long rumored remix arrives, skip it.

Rush In Rio (2003)

“Event” live albums are a mixed bag, and Rush In Rio is no exception; after the novelty of hearing 40,000 South Americans sing along with “Tom Sawyer” wears off, you’re left with a fairly by-the-numbers setlist and below-average sound (by Rush standards, anyway). Points for enthusiasm and the first-ever unadulterated setlist on disc, though.

Feedback (2004)

Most artists celebrate their longevity with a lavish box set or expensive reissue campaign. Leave it to Rush to mark their thirty-year milestone with… an EP of cover songs?? Coming from a band who’d never released a single cover version before, Feedback is an obvious anomaly, but not an unwelcome one; tackling time-worn touchstones like “Summertime Blues” and “The Seeker,” Rush sound looser than they have on record since… well, possibly ever. If you’re wondering how the trio shook off their late-period studio malaise to craft Snakes & Arrows, the rejuvenation begins here.  

R30: 30th Anniversary World Tour (2005)

A victory lap in audio/visual form, complete with crowd-pleasing opening medley (“R30 Overture,” AKA “Songs Geddy Doesn’t Like To Sing Anymore”) and a nice run through the highlights of “2112,” “Xanadu,” and “Working Man.” Beyond that, no real setlist surprises, and with two live albums in as many years, even the faithful were afraid Rush might be running on creative fumes at this point in their career. How wrong we were…

Snakes & Arrows (2007)

Don’t call it a comeback, indeed. Arguably the finest Rush album in nearly two decades, Snakes & Arrows finally weds the songwriting of old with the sonics of right now. Credit secret weapon Nick Raskulinecz for being the first producer since Terry Brown to accurate capture the trio’s sound in the studio, or simply marvel at the way Rush effortlessly roll back the years on “Far Cry,” “Armor And Sword,” and not-one-but-two fantastic instrumentals (“Malignant Narcissism,” “The Main Monkey Business”). At thirteen tracks, a few parts sag, but it scarcely matters; against improbable odds, Rush suddenly found themselves back in fighting form once again.

Snakes & Arrows Live (2008) 

The cure for Live Album Overload? How about a double-disc set with one-third of the songs pulled from the last studio album? Proving that Snakes & Arrows was no fluke, the trio double-down on their cult status with a fantastic mix of new material and the kind of deep album cuts (“Entre Nous,” “Circumstances,” “Digital Man,” “Between The Wheels,” “Witch Hunt”) that make true believers salivate. As a tour document alone, this is possibly their best since Exit… Stage Left; coming on the heels of its studio counterpart, Snakes & Arrows Live might as well be subtitled How Rush Got Their Groove Back.  

Time Machine 2011: Live In Cleveland (2011)

Never before has the gap between tour and souvenir been more pronounced. The Time Machine tour itself? Easily one of Rush’s best. Time Machine 2011? Disappointing, especially when you consider the amazing setlist or the near-frightening level of musicianship on display here. But there’s no disguising the flaws in Geddy’s vocals; mixed way out in front, his singing sounds flat and tired in a way it never did for the bulk of this tour. Cooler heads should’ve prevailed—or at least picked a different night to release. Instead, a missed opportunity all around.

Clockwork Angels (2012)

Raise your hands if you saw this one coming. Nearly forty years in, Rush release their first “proper” concept album, and damned if it isn’t the best thing they’ve done since Signals. With Raskulinecz back on board, Clockwork Angels is a focused, gutsy masterwork, as sonically varied as it is structurally sound. “The Wreckers” and “Wish Them Well” recall the anthemic surge of Power Windows without that record’s synthesized glop; “The Anarchist” and “Caravan” snarl with the heaviness of a band decades younger. And then there’s “Headlong Flight,” a seven-minute instant classic that sounds more like 1970’s era Rush than any track they’ve recorded since the actual 1970s. Clockwork Angels marks not just Rush’s highest American debut to date, but also a moment when their future seems more limitless than ever. Can’t wait to see what they conjure up next.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

RUSH: A Fanboy's Guide Part III: 1989-1998

Presto (1989)

New label? New producer? New decade? Whatever the reason, Presto found Rush eager to shake up their approach once more, abandoning layers of keyboards and feats of "look-at-me!" instrumental prowess in favor of a sparse, streamlined sound. If the intent was to shift focus towards the songs, the trio couldn't have picked a better batch; this is Rush at their most melodic and pop-friendly, veering between hard rock ("Chain Lightning," "Show Don't Tell") and moody balladry ("The Pass," "Presto") with effortless ease. The album's biggest flaw? A terrible production job from Rupert Hine that turns the band's attack thin and toothless. Fortunately, the songs have aged much better than their sonics, making Presto a lost gem and a reinvigorating comeback at a time when Rush needed it desperately.

Roll The Bones (1991)

The sea change initiated with Presto reaped dividends almost immediately, as Roll The Bones became the group's first Top 5 album in a decade and their biggest seller since Moving Pictures. Certainly the album's opening one-two punch doesn't disappoint, with the surging "Dreamline" (a setlist mainstay for six straight tours) finding perfect counterpoint in "Bravado," a composition as straightforward and haunting as anything in the band's catalog. But too many of the remaining eight tracks fall victim to rote riffs and the continuing curse of thin production, and when the trio does decide to experiment... well, that's the elephantor, more precisely, the rapping skeletonin the room. For a huge segment of fans, "Roll The Bones" marks a line in the sand; intentional joke or not, the song remains the most grievous example of Rush choosing to follow a trend, rather than chart their own path independent of pop culture. Unfortunately, that same philosophy would muddy the waters even further on the next album.

Counterparts (1993)

Rush were certainly not the only heritage act to view the surging "grunge" movement as an open invitation to crank up the guitarset tu, R.E.M.'s Monster?and after nearly a decade of fading into the background, hearing Alex Lifeson front-and-center for an entire record ain't entirely bad. But it comes at a price: Counterparts sounds less like Rush than any album before or since. The best tracks ("Stick It Out," "Animate") are heavy as hell but far too beholden to then-current radio trends; the weaker ones ("Nobody's Hero") betray an uncomfortable sentimentality that rarely surfaced in Peart's earlier lyrics. Interestingly enough, Counterparts' most enduring number completely breaks the guitar-centric mold, with the funky (by Rush standards, anyway) instrumental "Leave That Thing Alone" adding badly-needed levity to one of the trio's most leaden efforts.

Test For Echo (1996)

At least there's one solid takeaway from Test For Echo: "Power trio" Rush finally return for good. (Need a new Geddy bass workout? Try "Driven"! Wanna hear Neil navigate a million time changes without breaking a sweat? Enjoy "Time And Motion"!) Too bad the thrill of hearing the classic sound in action dissipates so quickly; for the first time in ages, there's no joy anywhere in these tracks, no spark of experimentation or creativity. Echo is simply Rush-by-the-numbers, plodding and predictable. Terrible circumstances would soon force the group into an extended hiatus; years later, their eventual return-to-form would make this record and Counterparts seem like momentary stumbles on the road back to greatness.

Different Stages (1998)

The "four studio, one live" album trend continues, and with a stopgap release to bootbut what a stopgap! With Different Stages, Rush offer a complete live show for the very first time, and while the setlist leans a little too heavy on inferior recent efforts (while shortchanging Presto in the process), the trio still find room for a few jaw-dropping revivals: "Natural Science," "The Analog Kid," and, unbelievably, the only full concert performance of "2112" to date. But for diehards, Discs One and Two are merely a two-hour warm-up to the main event: a previous-unreleased 1978 show from the Hammersmith Odeon, with the band at the peak of their prog-rock powers. "Cygnus X-1," "A Farewell To Kings," and "Cinderella Man" in brilliant live quality? One can only imagine what other Holy Grail artifacts Rush are still hiding in their heavily-fortified vault...

RUSH: A Fanboy's Guide Part II: 1980-1989

Permanent Waves (1980)

Neil Peart declares Permanent Waves the album where Rush was truly born, and who am I to argue? Certainly it's the beginning of their most accessible period to date, signaled with the very first electrifying notes of "The Spirit Of Radio"; the technical proficiency is still 100% Rush, but the mainstream touchesnods to new wave, actual chorusesbroaden the music in ways that longer epics never could. "Radio" remains the album's calling card (and the other Rush song everyone knows after "Tom Sawyer"), but it's far from the only highlight, as Permanent Waves finds the trio charting its clearest statement of purpose ("Freewill"), hitting new levels of emotional directness ("Entre Nous"), and yes, still acknowledging their prog-rock roots ("Jacob's Ladder"). All that, plus album closer "Natural Science," quite possibly the quintessential Rush song of all time: nine flawless minutes of everythingfrom IQ-level lyrics to stop-on-a-dime time-signaturesthat makes Rush so singularly unique.

Moving Pictures (1981)

The watershed, both in critical and commercial terms, as Rush found themselves in the enviable position of reaching their widest audience with (arguably) their best album. Side One alone is the stuff of legend, its sequence of four tracks"Tom Sawyer," "Red Barchetta," "YYZ," and "Limelight"now all staples on classic-rock radio and cornerstones of every Rush concert since. And without the worry of overexposure, the second half might hold up even better now than it did in 1981, with the trio shifting from the space-age reggae of "Vital Signs" to the brooding "Witch Hunt" and, finally, "The Camera Eye," their glorious farewell to extended epics. (It would be the last Rush studio track to top ten minutes.) Other albums have their supporters, but practically every true fan agrees on Moving Pictures: a hands-down classic, and justifiably so.

Exit... Stage Left (1981)

Even after the release of an additional half-dozen live platters, Exit... Stage Left remains the gold standard for Rush concert recordings, which only makes sense: how could a recording of one of the best live acts around playing songs from their best albums not be anything but astounding? As opposed to, say, Kiss Alive!, Exit... Stage Left didn't so much create Rush's reputation as solidify it, although one suspects countless new fans have still been converted over the years thanks to the playing of Side Onecoupled with variations on the phrase, "These guys sound just like the record live." Plus, you can credit (or blame) Exit for now-standard crowd singalongs to "Closer To The Heart," not to mention the constant level of godlike worship cast in Neil Peart's general direction. His solo on "YYZ" remains the most famous percussion workout this side of "Moby Dick"; listen close, and you can almost hear an entire generation of drummers having their minds collectively blown.

Signals (1982)

Following up Moving Pictures was bound to be an impossible task, and it's to the trio's credit that they made a conscious shift in direction rather than going for the easy sequel. Much maligned at the time, Signals holds up surprisingly well in hindsight, thanks to Rush now fully embracing the new-wave influence of bands like The Policeespecially on the "Man" cuts ("Digital Man," "New World Man")without abandoning any of their hard-won idiosyncrasies. Keyboards, while more prominent than ever, actually retain some genuine muscle in this context ("Subdivisions," "The Weapon"), and only the wet-balloon closer "Countdown" betrays any hint of the synthesized glop to follow on future albums. One dud aside, Signals is ever bit the equal of its more lauded Eighties brethren; perhaps more than any other title in the Rush canon, it's long overdue for reassessment.

Grace Under Pressure (1984)

Not like any Rush release before or since, Grace Under Pressure polarizes. Some love the dark, dystopian flavor of Peart's lyrics (Nuclear war! Death! The Holocaust! And that's just the first three songs!), while others suffocate under the record's remorseless bent. Either way, the music of Grace suits the overriding theme perfectlyagain, one might argue, perhaps too perfectlyfor this is one chilly album, all icy keyboards and spiky guitars, with nary a hint of the band's earlier, analog warmth to be found. When it works, it works well ("Between The Wheels" and "The Body Electric" in particular), but it also locks Grace Under Pressure into a particular mid-Eighties moment, making it a unique entry in the Rush catalogand an equally hard one to fully embrace.

Grace Under Pressure Tour 1984 (1985/2006)

Before the chronology complaints get too loud, a quick clarification: Grace Under Pressure Tour 1984 appeared on VHS and laserdisc in 1985, which puts its corresponding soundtrack in the same musical eraeven though more than two decades elapsed before a proper release. (It's been available in a box set since 2006, and as a standalone CD since 2009.) For the diehards, Tour 1984 marks the only official live performance of the "Fear" trilogy in order, along with the earliest airing of "Vital Signs." For all others, this is a much better summation of Rush's "synth period" than the cruddy Show Of Hands, although the truncated setlist greatly dilutes its impact.

Power Windows (1985)

Here's where everything goes off the rails. Whereas Signals and Grace were taunt, muscular records despite the heavy influx of keyboards, Power Windows is simply bloated, with nearly every spark of magic over-produced and over-sequenced within an inch of its life. There are still a few solid numbers"The Big Money," "Manhattan Project," and possibly "Marathon" before the choir kicks inbut even those have to fight through extra layers of studio polish just to resonate. Uniformity finally wins out on Side Two, which basically amounts to one very long, very synthetic song. Naturally, in the perverse spirit of the times, Power Windows became a big hit on rock radio and even MTV, meaning things would have to get worse before they got better...

Hold Your Fire (1987)

Imagine a sequel to Power Windows, but with more synths and fewer decent songs. Small wonder Hold Your Fire now feels like Rush's lowest point since Caress Of Steel, minus that earlier record's youthful charm. "Time Stands Still," miraculously, emerges relatively unscathed; every other track points to a band running on Auto Pilot. The only upshot? Hold Your Fire would spur Rush towards a period of drastic reinvention, with a new label and sound within the span of two years.

A Show Of Hands (1989)

The Rush formula of "four studio records, then a live album" finally bit them on the ass with A Show Of Hands, easily the weakest of the trio's numerous concert recordings. This is what happens when you spotlight a tour in support of the worst Rush album in over a decade: Eight songs (of fourteen) from Power Windows and Hold Your Fire, two songs total that predate Signals, and one drum solo (of course). Oh yeah, and uniformly flat sound throughout. Rush currently has nine official live CDs available; do yourself a favor and get the other eight first.

RUSH: A Fanboy's Guide Part I: 1974-78

Last year, in the wake of watching Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stagean excellent two-hour documentary detailing the history of Canada's premiere power trioI was once again reminded of just how consistently great these guys have been for well over three decades now. Most of the artists who knocked me sideways in high school are either ancient history (Zeppelin, Floyd) or coasting off past glories (The Cure, Prince), yet Rush continue to thrive, turning out solid new releases and playing to packing amphitheaters without the slightest drop-off in their monstrous musicianship.

And after years of willful media ignorance (if not outright hostility), maybe society is finally ready to give the band its due. I Love You Man used Rush as an entire secondary plotline. In May 2010, Beyond The Lighted Stage won the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Best of all, Steven Colbert trotted the band out for their first American television appearance in decades and, despite a few jokes, actually wound up treating them with outright reverence. Which only proves that, for men (and occasionally women) of a certain age, Rush will always be a rite of passage. Somewhere, in a suburban bedroom or band practice space, hordes of teenagers are still geeking out to Neil Peart's drum wizardry or Geddy's galloping Rickenbacker lines... and honestly, I can't think of a better musical legacy for any artist.

The brief summaries below were started last year, then abandoned... then re-assessed and re-written again in the last few days. Treat them as less a summation of all things Rush, and more a handy overview for those curious about the music or simply ready to move beyond the compilations (Retrospective I-III, Chronicles, and The Spirit Of Radio: Greatest Hits). As always, argue and enjoy...

Rush (1974)

The red-headed stepchild of the discography, Rush is an inauspicious debut, with little hint of the future greatness to come. Geddy's banshee wail already stands out, but with no Peart to handle drum duties or lyricsthe late John Rutsey covers the former, Lee and Lifeson split the lattermost of the material comes off as woefully generic, the words to early single "In The Mood" in particular now reading like a bad parody of '70s boogie-rock. "Working Man," a live staple to this day, remains thrillingly epic, but the rest is easily skippable.

Fly By Night (1975)

A huge artistic leap forward, Fly By Night is best remembered for the timeless title track and "Anthem," a Peart-penned ode to Ayn Rand and a pivotal song in Rush history. (Witness the band's own label, Anthem Records.) With producer Terry Brown on board for the first of seven studio albums, the trio begins to lock down its signature sound: instrumental precision fused to distinctly non-rock subject matter, best exemplified by the four-part, eight-and-a-half-minute "By-Tor And The Snow Dog." The album loses steam towards the end, but the building blocks were in place, and Rush were about to produce their first classic...

Caress Of Steel (1975)

...But not quite yet. Caress Of Steel marks the moment when the band's reach exceeds their grasp, resulting in a record of big ideas marred by half-baked execution. The label almost dropped them, the live trek became known as the "Down The Tubes Tour," and 35 years on, it still takes an iron will to make it through all twenty minutes of "The Fountain Of Lamneth." Only "Bastille Day" and "Lakeside Park" stand out, compact gems on an otherwise bloated album, and the casual fan would be better served grabbing both via compilations instead.

2112 (1976)

The breakthrough. Against all odds, 2112 mines the same territory as Caress but this time everything works; the side-long title suite, a sci-fi version of the band's own battle for artistic freedom, is easily the defining moment of Rush's early career, with the opening movements ("Overture" and "The Temples Of Syrinx") making regular live appearances to this day. The rest of the album, while naturally overshadowed by the epic on Side One, kicks with a newfound passion, especially "A Passage To Bangkok" and "Something For Nothing." With 2112, Rush turned a corner, and the next five years would find them firing on all cylinders.

All The World's A Stage (1976)

A decent, if not incredibly essential, summation of the early era, with surprisingly strong focus on the first two albums at the expense of then-widely-popular 2112 (save "Something For Nothing" and an abbreviated take on the suite itself). Rush would produce many many more live discs over time, but this is still the first, and the rawest, which makes it a nice listen for fans of the formative years.

A Farewell To Kings (1977)

Now comfortable in their own skin, Rush continued to push the boundaries of songwriting with A Farewell To Kings: "Xanadu" stays remarkably linear over the course of eleven minutes, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, future anthem "Closer To The Heart" is simplicity itself. Both would actually blossom further in a live setting, but that's about the only real knock on an album that also includes lesser-known classics like the title track and the knotty, mind-blowing "Cygnus X-1." Along with 2112, this is the pinnacle of the trio's 1970s output.

Hemispheres (1978)

What could've been another breakthrough turned out to be the end of the line, at least for the densely-layered prog-rock Rush had been pursuing over the course of four successive albums. The title track delivers more of everythinglook! another side-long epic!which makes it a favorite in certain circles; personally, I find the result more exhausting than exhilarating. No quibbles with the record's second half, though, a near-flawless hat trick that moves from the heavy rock of "Circumstances" to lyrical standout "The Trees" before closing with the 9:35 workout "La Villa Strangiato," the latter finding Peart, Lee, and especially Lifeson locking together with near-telepathic clarity. Still the finest of the trio's many instrumentals (sorry, "YYZ"), "La Villa" ends Rush's first decade on an incredibly high note, perhaps to foreshadow the next record to come...