Deep Dive: Rush

Welcome to the fourth installment of Deep Dive, where I take an in-depth look at the studio discographies of some of the giants of progressive rock and progressive metal.

For those who don’t feel like reading this massive entry, I’ve included a TL;DR and ranking of albums at the end. I’m opting to explore albums chronologically, as opposed to a ranked-list format. The context in which albums were made is important, and that is an element often missed in a ranked list.

Rush is a band I’d always planned to eventually cover in this series. I’d made no firm plans as to when, exactly, but they were undoubtedly on the docket. Originally, this Deep Dive was slated to be a look at Genesis, but Neil Peart’s unfortunate passing earlier this year prompted me to push off the Genesis entry for a later date.

In the early 1970s, acts like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Atomic Rooster had demonstrated that trios could produce excellent progressive rock, but Rush pushed the capabilities of that limited format to its extreme with complex suites containing massive tonal variation. Even once Rush moved past their prog rock heyday, their music was mostly inventive, energetic, and—above all—distinct. Over the years, Rush became one of the best-known and most-successful rock acts of all time, particularly in their native Canada.

Subdivision I: The Early Years (1968-1974)

Rush formed in 1968 and originally consisted of guitarist Alex Lifeson (born Zivojinovich; “Lifeson” is an English translation of his Serbian name), bassist/vocalist Jeff Jones, and drummer John Rutsey. These early years saw a high degree of volatility in the band’s lineup, with Lifeson remaining the one constant. Jones left shortly after the band formed, soon replaced by Geddy Lee, and even Geddy was briefly out of the band in 1969.

By 1971, the lineup had stabilized as Lee, Lifeson, and Rutsey. Their early sound drew heavily from blues, hard rock, and classic rock ‘n’ roll, as demonstrated in their 1973 debut single, a cover of the Buddy Holly song “Not Fade Away” (b/w “You Can’t Fight It”). It’s an unimpressive, by-the-books cover of an early rock standard, but Geddy’s aggressive bass stands out.

Rush-coverIn 1974, Rush released their self-titled debut album. Rush is firmly in the same musical lane as early Led Zeppelin: high-energy, melodic, bluesy hard rock. While the individual musicians in Rush may have been flashier than many of their contemporaries in the blues-rock world, structurally, most of the songs are straightforward.

“Finding My Way” is a strong opener; “Here Again” is the first instance of some of Lifeson’s distinctive clean guitar tones; and “Working Man” is an unassailable classic. However, outside some instrumental flashiness, there’s not a lot to mark this record as distinct. Much of this record could have easily been recorded by any number of early hard rock acts, to no appreciable difference.

Rutsey left the band in mid-1974, due to health reasons and a distaste for touring, and Neil Peart was brought on as his replacement. This would be the last lineup change the band ever went through.

Subdivision II: Finding Their Way (1975-1976)

(Look, I know “Finding My Way” is off their debut, but the wordplay was too obvious not to go with.)

In addition to taking over drumming duties, Peart also took over the lyrics from Geddy, who had penned most of the lyrics on their debut. I’ve admitted on many an occasion that I don’t pay attention to lyrics in most instances, but bad lyrics can definitely detract from an otherwise good song. And Geddy Lee is not a particularly good lyricist. Most of the lyrics on Rush are insipid, trite regurgitations of hard rock clichés. Neil was a welcome improvement.

fbnThe band recorded their second album, Fly by Night, in early 1975. Fly by Night marked a massive shift in Rush’s sound, away from the blues-oriented hard rock of their debut and toward something much more complex and sonically varied. It acts as something of a bridge between their debut and their future progressive explorations.

“Anthem”, the opener, demonstrates this bridging quality. It still falls into the realm of hard rock with noticeably bluesy touches, but the riffs are much more technical and distinct. There’s no way in hell anyone would mistake this for some obscure Led Zeppelin track, as many radio listeners did when they first heard “Working Man”. The same cannot be said of “Best I Can” or for the verses of “Beneath, Between & Behind”, though.

Side 1 closes out on the mini-epic “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, which crams eight distinct movements into only eight-and-a-half minutes. The sci-fi lyrics, snarling guitars, and complex rhythms clearly laid out the band’s ambitions for future records. Reportedly, this song flummoxed their label, who wanted the band to stay in their previous, Zeppelinesque vein. And in the label’s defense, this would be baffling, coming from a band that had released “Working Man” less than a year earlier.

Side 2 doesn’t have anything near the scope or scale of “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, but it does have the album’s title track, which is one of Rush’s best short songs. Unfortunately, it also contains “Rivendell”, one of my least-favorite Rush songs. It’s a five-minute acoustic meditation that feels twice as long, and (aside from the lyrics) is more stylistically in line with Bruce Springsteen’s most boring moments.

cosThe follow-up to Fly by Night, Caress of Steel, was released just seven months later, in September 1975. Caress of Steel was meant to be Rush’s big, breakthrough commercial success, but it suffered from lackluster sales. I love Caress of Steel, but I can understand why it didn’t do as well as the band and their label had hoped.

The album opens with three short songs: “Bastille Day” is Rush’s last gasp of Zeppelinism, though it is enjoyable; “I think I’m Going Bald” is a goofy, groovy hard rock track; and “Lakeside Park” is forgettable and inoffensive. These songs feel tacked-on, in comparison to the pair of epics that follow.

“The Necromancer” is the more cohesive of the two long tracks, but it has issues. Narration is difficult to integrate unobtrusively, and the frequent, down-pitched narration on this song is distracting. Storytelling through lyrics alone is difficult, so I understand the desire to add context, but the song loses all its momentum during the narrative breaks. Once the band get into the real meat of the song, it’s great, featuring some of the best soloing of Lifeson’s career. This song is also something of a sequel to “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, with both characters being mentioned in the song’s final movement. Continuity between the two is also evident in similar soloing in both songs’ midsections.

Where “The Necromancer” felt like one big, cohesive song with pacing issues, “The Fountain of Lamneth”Caress of Steel’s 20-minute closing opus—feels more like six separate songs slammed together. The song’s internal divisions all have hard, clear demarcations where the music simply stops for a second or two. Despite its disjointed nature, this song’s music is more consistently enjoyable. The melodies are stronger, the riffs are less weird-for-the-sake-of-weird, and arc of the song’s drama and intensity makes sense.

2112Following the disappointing sales of Caress of Steel, Rush’s label wanted the band to go in a safer, more commercial direction. Instead, they recorded an album with an even longer song. 2112, released in April 1976, was the band’s popular breakthrough. The seven-part, 20-minute title track is considered by many fans to be one of the crowning achievements of progressive rock, and it’s clear to see why. Lifeson’s riffs are inventive and fresh, and his soloing is masterful; Geddy’s bass cuts through to the fore; and Neil’s drumming is technical while having raw power behind it, to say nothing of his dystopian, sci-fi lyrics. In an improvement over “The Fountain of Lamneth”, “2112” feels like a cohesive, multi-parted suite that flows naturally.

I can’t be quite as effusively worshipful of the rest of the album, though. “A Passage to Bangkok” is enjoyable and reminiscent of songs off Fly by Night, but the rest of side 2 fails to make much of an impression. “The Twilight Zone” meanders torpidly in a way the big, sharp main riff can’t offset, and “Tears” suffers from a similar problem. Rush were never a band for ballads. Meanwhile, “Something for Nothing” and “Lessons” feel like weaker renditions of “A Passage to Bangkok” or “Fly by Night”—to-the-point, melodic hard rock, but lacking the memorable qualities of the latter two songs.

Subdivision III: Prog-Rock Classics (1977-1981)

1977Following the tour for 2112, Rush set about recording A Farewell to Kings, which was released in late 1977. During the recording process, the band members challenged themselves to incorporate more instruments and more complex song structures. As a result, Alex Lifeson made extensive use of acoustic guitars, Geddy Lee began including more synthesizer, as well as synth bass pedals, and Neil Peart’s drumkit swelled with the addition of bells, chimes, triangles, tympani, and a panoply of other percussion.

The title track opens this album demonstrating by these changes. The intro features Spanish guitar with synthesizer and chime flourishes. The first part of the guitar solo is done in a bizarre, jerky rhythm in an odd time signature. The melody is as strong as ever, and Neil’s lyrics once more elevate the music.

Following this is the 11-minute “Xanadu”, the first of two suites on this album. This is also, without a doubt, my personal favorite Rush song. The gentle opening, consisting of chimes, soft guitar and synth lines, woodblock, and birds chirping, explodes into a powerful guitar arpeggio augmented by powerful bass and drum fills before transitioning to an energetic series of riffs where Geddy’s newfound love of synthesizers first shines through. After five minutes of instrumental showmanship, the lyrics—inspired by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem Kubla Khan—come in, and the verses alternate between pastoral and bursting with energy. Geddy’s bass plays the role of a lead instrument throughout the song, the synth flourishes are all perfect, and the three members’ interplay is sublime. I cannot praise this song enough.

Side 2 then opens with one of the few Rush songs to clock in under three minutes, but it’s also one of their best, irrespective of length. “Closer to the Heart” superbly blends catchiness with progressive instrumentation, and it’s clear how this became one of their best-known songs. “Cinderella Man” and “Madrigal” are relative weak points, but they’re both great songs in absolute terms. The other four songs here just overshadow them by a huge amount. (Well, that may be a little generous to “Madrigal”, but it’s still enjoyable.)

A Farewell to Kings closes with its second suite: “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage”. A song about black holes, it opens with weird bell tones and heavily-affected vocals before transitioning to yet another brilliant, odd-time riff. As the song’s protagonist plunges headlong toward the black hole, the music builds in energy as a galloping, syncopated riff. The odd riff from earlier comes back in menacing, metallic fashion as the protagonist is shredded by the black hole’s gravity.

1978“Cygnus X-1” would continue on their next album, Hemispheres, released in 1978 as the opening track, “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres”. It’s an 18-minute suite that covers the entirety of side 1. Initially, with its feud between Apollo and Dionysus for the souls of mankind, Book II seems to have little to do with Book I. But the traveler from Book I appears in the fifth part of the suite, along with brief samples from Book I, at which point Apollo and Dionysus declare him Cygnus, the god of balance. I can’t say it makes much sense to me, but all of Peart’s lyrics can’t be winners. Musically, though, it’s another fantastic performance. Geddy’s vocals are impassioned, and the riffs and rhythms are complex without being off-putting.

“Circumstances” opens side 2, and it’s the most unimpressive song on the album. If you’re looking for terse Rush, they’d put out much better work on successive albums. “The Trees”, meanwhile, is a bit goofy for me to take seriously. Musically, it’s brilliant, and Neil’s woodblock interlude is especially praiseworthy. Those lyrics, though, are just really, really odd, to the point of being distracting.

Hemispheres closes on the 12-part instrumental suite, “La Villa Strangiato”. Based on a dream Alex Lifeson had, the band have said that this was the most difficult song they ever recorded. Geddy Lee claims that this one song took longer to record than the entirety of Fly by Night.

It’s a cascade of rapidfire musical ideas. It opens with nylon-stringed guitar before building over synths to the main theme, where guitar and bass battle for supremacy. Summarizing this song is a fool’s errand, as it’s full of so many hairpin turns in tempo and tone, there’s no way to do it justice. Suffice to say, this is one of Rush’s classics for a reason.

1980Following Hemispheres, the band shifted their writing style. The songs on 1980’s Permanent Waves were shorter, more direct, and showed new influences, such as reggae and new wave, and synthesizers played a larger role. Additionally, Peart’s lyrics shifted from fantastical sci-fi allegory to human emotion and everyday matters. The first two songs, “The Spirit of Radio” and “Freewill” exemplified many of those changes. They retained Rush’s usual instrumental complexity, but they’re more direct. The lyrics are more personal, and there’s a reggae-flavored interlude in the former song.

“Jacob’s Ladder” is more akin to their previous work. It describes a sunbeam breaking through clouds, but it’s a dark, ominous piece full of uncommon time signatures, and some downright cinematic soloing from Lifeson. His guitar tone on this song is absolutely massive. This is also one of the first instances where Geddy’s synths get a chance to take center stage.

“Entre Nous” is another pop-friendly piece of hard rock in the same vein as “Freewill”, and “Different Strings” again demonstrates Rush were never very good at ballads. “Natural Science”, though, saves side 2. A three-part suite, it starts off with simple acoustic guitar before delving into something stranger and more driving. It features several sudden shifts in time signature and tempo and is stylistically similar to “La Villa Strangiato”.

1981In 1981, Rush released Moving Pictures. Moving Pictures continued with the general trends begun on Permanent Waves, including shorter songs, tighter structures, and more prominent synthesizers. It would also become Rush’s most commercially-successful album of their career.

Moving Pictures opens with the seminal “Tom Sawyer”. The irregular, yet alluring rhythm, heavy synth bass tones, and cryptic lyrics all add to the song’s appeal; and Geddy’s synth line in the bridge is one of the most infectious instrumental earworms in all of progressive rock.

“YYZ”, even more so than “La Villa Strangiato”, may be the single-best distillation of Rush’s combined instrumental prowess in one song. Based around Morse code of the letters Y-Y-Z (Toronto’s airport code) and performed in 5/4 time, it’s brimming with finger-twisting bass and guitar lines and phenomenal drumming. The backbone maintains a loose, fun funkiness despite its technical nature, and the synthesizers on the bridge acts as the perfect foil to gnarlier tones elsewhere in the song.

“Limelight” has never been my favorite Rush song. I often confuse it with “Freewill” if I’m entirely honest. Both songs have bisyllabic compound word titles and are radio-friendly. It’s enjoyable, and the lyrics are typical of Peart’s output (out-Peart?) after he largely abandoned sci-fi. I’ve simply never gotten the enthusiasm around this song.

“The Camera Eye” would be Rush’s last foray into the grandiose side of progressive rock. The slow-building intro of burbling synths and the marching drums segues into a high-energy blend of new wave and prog influences. Rounding out side 2 are “Witch Hunt” and “Vital Signs”. The former is slow-moving and ominous, and the latter is more high-energy, featuring sequenced synthesizers and reggae influences.

The synthesizers on side 2 of Moving Pictures were generally more prominent than those on side 1, and that’s a trend that would define Rush’s sound for most of the ‘80s.

Subdivision IV: Rush Goes Full ‘80s (1982-1988)

1982On their 1982 album Signals, Rush increased the prominence of Geddy’s synthesizers even more. The album opens with the classic “Subdivisions”, and those striking synth chords set the tone for the rest of the album. Lifeson’s guitar is relegated primarily to a supporting role and is mixed lower, with keys acting both as rhythm and lead instruments. “The Weapon” is another highlight that demonstrates the pervasiveness of Geddy’s synthesizers.

That’s not to say there are no guitar-centric tracks here. “The Analog Kid” is an upbeat, energetic cut with a new wave-inspired guitar backbone in the verses. The chorus is quite synth-heavy, but this is one of the most guitar-forward tracks on the album.

Rush also continued to integrate reggae and ska influences. Songs such as “Chemistry” and “Digital Man” have Caribbean fingerprints on their rhythms, and especially on the guitar. The latter song even includes explicit mentions of Zion and Babylon, common lyrical tropes in reggae. “New World Man”, in addition to featuring reggae flavors and being among the more guitar-centric tracks on the album, was Rush’s only Top 40 hit in the US, peaking at number 21.

19841984 saw the release of Grace Under Pressure, where the trends on Signals continued to grow stronger. Geddy introduced even more synthesizers and sequencers, and Neil incorporated electronic percussion into his already-immense drumkit. Meanwhile, Alex continued to utilize reggae-style guitar patterns on many songs, though his guitar was given more prominence than on Signals. The album’s opening track, “Distant Early Warning” typifies all this. It’s a great song and one of my personal favorites. (Plus, the video demonstrates how Rush fully embraced the stereotypical aesthetic of the 1980s. Alex and Geddy look like they’re auditioning for a Canadian adaptation of Miami Vice, and Neil’s got an especially unfortunate mullet.)

“Afterimage” is another example of the band’s embrace of synth-heavy ‘80s-style hard rock. It’s enjoyable, if a bit indistinct. However, over the span of the entire album, the same-y-ness of many of these songs becomes an issue. Most songs are similar tempos with similar atmospheres, and Geddy doesn’t do much to experiment with the tones of his synths. Songs such as “Red Sector A” and “Red Lenses” both fall into this category.

“The Enemy Within” is a genuine highlight, though. It sounds like it could have belonged on Permanent Waves, with synthesizers largely relegated to the occasional flourish. The high-energy reggae-influenced verses make the whole song feel anxious, and that helps drive it along. “The Body Electric” is one of the weirdest songs on the album, and its contrast of jerky and smooth rhythms helps break up the flow of the album. The closing “Between the Wheels” is another strong point. Geddy’s synths sound huge and threatening, and Alex gets a chance to show off a bit.

1985Rush followed this album up with Power Windows in 1985. The opening “The Big Money” demonstrates some differences with the sonic qualities of Grade Under Pressure. Geddy’s keyboards have more varied tones, and his bass has a much funkier tone than usual. Lifeson’s guitar is also mixed lower, much like on Signals.

“Manhattan Project” is one of Rush’s better slow songs. The synthesizer tones are rich, the chorus is big and powerful, and Lifeson’s clean guitar tones cut through the walls of synthesizer. By the time the song’s over, it’s no longer slow, but the evolution is a smooth one.

“Territories” is another high-energy piece that reminds me a lot of the best output that Yes did in the 1980s. “Emotion Detector”, meanwhile, is structurally similar to “Manhattan Project”, and Neil’s use of electronic percussion is especially noteworthy.

Power Windows isn’t without its weak spots, though. “Marathon has a terribly cheesy chorus, and the use of a choir only makes it sound more ridiculously overblown. “Middletown Dreams”, for all its interesting sequencers, winds up sounding awfully generic. The closing “Mystic Rhythms” similarly fails to make much of an impression. None of these songs were bad—Rush were very good at not writing bad songs—and it’s a testament to the band’s skills as songwriters that the worst they usually did was a few bland tracks.

1987In 1987, Rush released Hold Your Fire. The opening “Force Ten” is a decent hard-rocker, but if it weren’t for Geddy’s distinct voice, I doubt I would have recognized this as a Rush song. “Time Stand Still” is another generic ‘80s pop-rock cut, but it’s notable for featuring guest vocalist Aimee Mann and for having a truly, majestically terrible music video.

I really don’t have much to say about this album. This was unquestionably Rush’s worst album to date, but it’s not that bad. It’s just a bland mush of ‘80s rock clichés. The synths are overdone, the slow songs are as dull as ever, and the faster songs don’t particularly sound like Rush. No songs stand out, either in a good way or a bad way.

Subdivision V: Genre-Hopping & Hiatus (1989-2001)

1989After releasing Hold Your Fire, Rush left their longtime label, Anthem, and signed with Atlantic Records. The ensuing album, 1989’s Presto, saw the band return to a more guitar-centric sound. However, despite ditching the synths, Rush were unable to shake off their generic ‘80s sound. This was just now a different type of generic ‘80s sound. Presto is hampered by thin, dry production that makes everything sound weak.

The opening “Show Don’t Tell” is a five-minute slog that feels so much longer than it is, but “Chain Lightning” is the first interesting song the band had recorded in a long time. It features some of the band’s trademark weird rhythms. I’m not wild about Alex Lifeson’s guitar tones anywhere on this album, but “Chain Lightning” is a strong enough composition that I’m willing to overlook it.

The same cannot be said for most of the rest of the album. Every song is in the four-to-six-minute range, and almost all of them feel interminable. “Scars” isn’t particularly good, but I give the band points for trying something a little different, at least.

There are only so many ways to call something dull. Presto is marginally better than Hold Your Fire, but both should be avoided. They’re just not very interesting.

1991In 1991, Rush released Roll the Bones. It opens with “Dreamline”, and this is an immediate improvement over their last several albums. The production is miles better than Presto, Geddy’s vocal melody is strong, and the three musicians sound like they’re having fun. It features some weird chords in the chorus; this is the first time in a while where it sounds like Rush took a bit of a musical risk.

Then again, maybe my expectations have just been lowered after being subjected to Presto and Hold Your Fire. “Bravado”, the second track on the album, is not as interesting as “Dreamline”. It reminds me a lot of something off Presto, if Presto had good production. “Big Wheel” is similarly bland, albeit more uptempo.

The title track features funk and hip-hop influences. The rhythm rolls along smoothly, and it’s got a pretty strong pre-chorus. However, this song is best known for Geddy’s goofy, pitch-shifted rap break, featuring such lyrical gems as “Jack, relax/Get busy with the facts/No zodiacs or almanacs/No maniacs in polyester slacks/Just the facts/Gonna kick some gluteus max” and “Stop throwing stones/The night has a thousand saxophones”.

The Instrumental “Where’s My Thing?” was nominated for a Grammy and features prominent funk influence. Geddy’s bass is high in the mix, as always, and the synthesizers add to the overall feel without being overbearing. Roll the Bones closes strong. “You Bet Your Life” is an energetic, poppy piece that features multi-layered vocals and guitarwork that sounds like it’s from Grace Under Pressure.

19931993 saw the release of Counterparts. In the writing for this album, the band made an effort to forge more powerful-sounding songs, and they specifically cited Primus and Pearl Jam as influences. Those alt-rock inspirations are evident from the get-go. Keys are once more diminished on this album. “Animate” opens the album on a strong note, and that’s followed by the standout “Stick It Out”, which topped Billboard’s Mainstream Rock charts upon its release. It blends the grittiness of grunge and alt-rock with the compositional complexity of progressive rock, and it’s carried on the back of a strong melody. “Cut to the Chase” features a great guitar solo, and “Between Sun and Moon” mixes alt-rock with strong pop sensibilities.

Counterparts does sag a bit in the middle. “Alien Shore” and “The Speed of Love” are both too long and short on ideas. “Double Agent”, though, is a weird, engaging piece that utilizes some sinister-sounding narration to great effect. The instrumental “Leave That Thing Alone” earned Rush another Grammy nomination, though they lost to Pink Floyd’s “Marooned”. “Leave That Thing Alone” is a return to form for Rush. It’s filled with tight, complex riffs and varied textures. It’s another brilliant synthesis of alt rock and prog rock.

1996Rush would wait until 1996 to put out their next album, Test for Echo. The title track opens the album, and it’s not very good. I give Lifeson credit for trying something a little different in his playing style. He utilized harmonics and some ugly, metallic chords, but he couldn’t quite pull it off. The production isn’t too great, either. It sounds far too airy and thin during the clean sections.

“Driven” is the best song on the album by a wide margin. The chorus melody is strong, even if the lyrics aren’t, and Lee’s bass playing is especially on-point. “Resist” is unremarkable in the incarnation heard on the album, but it would later be reworked as a much stronger acoustic piece for live performances.

Most of Test for Echo sounds almost like an updated Presto. Rush draws a lot from the more boring tropes of mid-‘90s alt rock, and the production is inconsistent. Clean parts are light and echoey, and distorted parts are muddy and unclear. Many of the songs feel disjointed, as if they were just slapped together from loose parts.

Not long after the release of Test for Echo, Neil Peart was struck by a pair of personal tragedies. His daughter died in a car crash in 1997, and his wife succumbed to cancer in 1998. In order to allow him to grieve and heal, Rush went on hiatus until 2001, when Peart decided he was ready to return to music.

Subdivision VI: The 21st Century & Disbandment (2002-2018)

2002Rush returned to the studio in early 2001, and in contrast to their usual speedy recording process, it took them nearly a year to finish this release. The result was 2002’s Vapor Trails. Vapor Trails was distinct from Rush’s preceding albums in that it wholly lacked keyboards—the first time this occurred since Caress of Steel—and that there are almost no guitar solos. Lifeson’s guitar tones are rawer than on past releases, and Peart’s drumming is more aggressive than usual. He specifically cited The Who’s Keith Moon as an influence on his drumming style for this album.

(Note: I’m using the 2013 remix of Vapor Trails for this review. The initial release was muddy as hell, and this remaster sounds much better.)

The increased aggression is a nice change of pace compared to some of their more anodyne releases in the ‘90s, but that doesn’t exactly make up for weak songwriting. The opening “One Little Victory” is maddeningly repetitious, and it wears out its welcome about two minutes into its five-minute runtime. “Ceiling Unlimited”, the second track, is stronger in that it has more ideas in it and those ideas are more interesting than those in “One Little Victory”. Despite this, it once again runs too long, though it features one of the rare solos on the album.

“Peaceable Kingdom” is one of the more engaging tracks on the album, as it’s not just big walls of distortion. There are some genuinely interesting dynamic contrasts, and there’s a rather Collective Soul-y riff in there. However, like most songs on Vapor Trails, it’s simply too long. “The Stars Look Down” is another strong point, featuring some of the band’s most complex structures in a long time. It also helps that this is one of the shorter songs on the album. “Earthshine” is probably the best song on the album, though. It reminds me a lot of “Driven” off Test for Echo with its metallic riffs and highly melodic chorus.

Despite this handful of decent songs, Vapor Trails is mostly a slog. The individual songs are too long, and that piles up into an exhausting album. Caress of Steel may not have featured any keyboard tones, but Lifeson deployed a greater variety of guitar tones, and the band demonstrated much more ambitious songwriting. Vapor Trails is a monotonous, tedious record, though it’s not their worst.

2004Rush’s next release is probably the oddest thing in their studio discography. In 2004, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their debut album, the band put out the Feedback EP, a collection of eight covers of songs from the late ‘60s which initially inspired them to start making music. None of the covers are failures, but none do anything to elevate the source material, either. They’re all very close to how the originals sound, but with Geddy on vocals and Alex’s distinct guitar tones.

20072007 saw the release of Rush’s next album, Snakes & Arrows. “Far Cary” opens the album strong. It features a heavy, slightly weird riff in the verses, and the chorus is some of the catchiest music the band had written in a long time. “Spindrift” is another highlight, having an idiosyncratic main riff.

Snakes & Arrows features a trio of instrumentals, which are some of the strongest tracks on the album. “The Main Monkey Business” shows Rush returning to their prog rock heyday. It’s full of complex rhythms, just the right amount of instrumental flashiness, and Mellotron is deployed to great effect. “Hope” is a lovely little acoustic piece, and “Malignant Narcissism” is a funky, aggressive two-minute showoff session for Geddy and Neil.

There are weak points on Sankes & Arrows, though. “Armor and Sword” is one of the least-interesting songs on the album, which only serves to reinforce my bias against slow Rush songs. “Workin’ Them Angels” shows continued alt rock influence, particularly in Alex’s guitarwork in the chorus. The verses are weirdly folky, and folky wasn’t really a sound that suited the band too well. “The Larger Bowl” reminds me of Test for Echo or Vapor Trails in how bland it is. Despite these shortcomings, Snakes & Arrows is considerably stronger than their previous couple albums, due in no small part to the tonal and textural variation deployed.

2012It would take Rush five more years to release their next (and final) studio album, Clockwork Angels. (The single “Caravan” b/w “BU2B” was released in 2010, though.) Clockwork Angels sees the band returning to a consistently heavy sound, as well as featuring some of their most complex and progressive songwriting in decades. Complementing this is the fact that Clockwork Angels is a concept album.

“Caravan” opens up the album and sets the tone well. It’s full of big riffs, and Geddy’s bass tone is especially aggressive. “BU2B” (short for “Brought Up to Believe”) features metallic guitar tones and sudden shifts in dynamics and rhythm. The title track is a multi-parted mini-suite that harkens back the band’s best output of the late 1970s.

Other highlights include the driving, infectious “The Anarchist”—featuring a string arrangement that lends a distinct Middle Eastern atmosphere—“Seven Cities of Gold”, and “Headlong Flight”, my personal favorite track on the album.

Like most later Rush albums, though, there is some bloat. This 66-minute album could have been trimmed down by shaving off some time from some of the less essential songs, like “Carnies”, “Halo Effect”, and the disappointing closer, “The Garden”.

After extensive touring to support Clockwork Angels and to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their debut album, Rush went on hiatus in 2016 before officially calling it quits in 2018. And as we all know, Neil Peart sadly passed away earlier in 2020 after a years-long battle with brain cancer.

Subdivision VII: TL;DR and Ranking

Throughout their long career, Rush put out a lot of music in a lot of styles, ranging from blues rock to hyper-technical prog to synth rock to alt rock. Rush also never put out a bad album, in my view. The worst they ever managed was dull, and I’d eagerly recommend most of their discography.

  1. A Farewell to Kings (1977) (98/100)
  2. Hemispheres (1978) (96/100)
  3. Moving Pictures (1981) (92/100)
  4. Permanent Waves (1980) (85/100)
  5. Signals (1982) (85/100)
  6. Clockwork Angels (2012) (83/100)
  7. 2112 (1976) (82/100)
  8. Caress of Steel (81/100)
  9. Counterparts (1993) (80/100)
  10. Fly by Night (1975) (79/100)
  11. Snakes & Arrows (2007) (76/100)
  12. Roll the Bones (1991) (74/100)
  13. Grace Under Pressure (1984) (73/100)
  14. Power Windows (1985) (70/100)
  15. Rush (1974) (68/100)
  16. Feedback EP (2004) (55/100)
  17. Vapor Trails (2002) (52/100)
  18. Test for Echo (1996) (46/100)
  19. Presto (1989) (44/100)
  20. Hold Your Fire (1987) (40/100)

 

9 thoughts on “Deep Dive: Rush

  1. Nice try. I’m a huge, lifelong Rush fan. I stopped reading when you didn’t give any props to Passage to Bangkok. Every Rush fan knows that it is a wonderful ode to smoking pot, which is one thing all true Rush fans have in common.

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  2. Thanks for writing this. As a lifelong Rush fan I disagree with some of points. For example you couple ‘Freewill’ with ‘Limelight’ as “interchangeable”? Completely different Rush classics. Not sure if you are a musician but it helps you to appreciate all these prog bands. I appreciate your opinion, even as I disagee.

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