Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Rush Geek Week (Part John-O The First)

Over there at Prime Mover, Josh has proclaimed that this is Rush Geek Week. He teed off with his top ten Rush albums yesterday and followed that today by ranking the live sets. Both are fun posts if you dig on Rush, so I’m hoping that Jason and Mike will have a chance to bounce over there and have a look. Here's my list. Please feel free to bail at this point if you're not into Rush.

First, a note on an album that I feel I should have included but did not:

2112 - As Josh correctly notes, this is the album that saved Rush. A critical and commercial success, it saved their Canadian bacon (there’s a ham-handed pun) from being dumped by their record label. It erased the notion (posited by the first two albums) that these cats were nothing more than Led Zeppelin knockoffs; and it also dispelled the notion that their concept stuff was crap (which you might have wondered about if you listened to Caress Of Steel - the only sub-par album other than the first one, although Caress does contain “Bastille Day,” which is an excellent song). It took them four records, but the real Rush finally appeared on this record. Come to think of it, maybe it should have been in my top ten. Only problem is that I haven’t spun it enough. Other than “A Passage To Bangkok” and the first two parts of “2112,” I don’t know the songs very well.

And now...

10. A Farewell To Kings
The title track contains the line “Can’t we find the minds to lead us closer to the heart?” The song “Closer To The Heart” contains the line “You can be the captain and I will draw the chart.” The song “Xanadu” (inspired by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “Kubla Khan”) talks about “the last immortal man.” Musically and lyrically rich, it uses post-apocalyptic themes to tell the story of a world that has moved on - and of a band that is moving in a new direction.
Best song: "Xanadu"

9. Fly By Night
I could have put 2112 here, but I really like this album - it’s got a nice blend of soft songs and hard rockers. It’s the first album with Neil Peart, but that’s not really saying anything, as there was only one album with that other drummer (John Rutsey, who left the band because he was worried that their increasing popularity and rigorous touring plans would have a negative impact on his diabetes). They shake off the last of the Zeppelin comparisons (this is a poor man’s Led Zeppelin IV) and begin to find themselves.
Best song: "Anthem"

8. Hold Your Fire
Best 1-2 lead-off of any of their albums other than Moving Pictures, with the songs “Force Ten” and “Time Stand Still.” After that, the record sort of wanders into 1980s mediocrity for the next four songs, before finishing strong with “Mission,” “Turn The Page,” “Tai Shan,” and “High Water.” “Force Ten” is a stunning composition, both musically and lyrically, as is “Time Stand Still.” The strength of those two songs could carry the album. Not at all a bad album, but it feels very “produced,” and is sandwiched between two albums that are vastly superior (Power Windows before and Presto after).
Best song: "Time Stand Still"

7. Signals
This, and its follow-up, Grace Under Pressure, are the two crappy Rush albums. Poor production quality, flat drumming, and an overabundance of keyboards drag the songs down - and yet, I really like this album, and even Grace is okay (the first half, mostly). Every time I listen to the drums on “Digital Man” I ask myself what the hell is wrong with Neil. How did he even think of that? He was being difficult on purpose, I’m sure of it. “Subdivisions” is just a classic, though, and “The Analog Kid” is at turns romantic and desperate and is a joy to listen to.
Best song: "The Analog Kid"

6. Vapor Trails
There’s a chance that I could be putting this in here, and this high, only because I have been spinning it in my car over and over lately. Even though I might be biased at the moment, it’s still a great album. After the tragic deaths first of his daughter and then, just a few months later, his wife, Neil certainly could have called it quits - but he held on, went on a motorcycle ride, and wrote a whole bunch of great songs about redemption and the triumph of the spirit. Geddy’s vocal range is still intact, and there is a dreamlike quality to almost every song. This album came out five years removed from its predecessor (the largely forgettable Test For Echo), and we all knew about the tragedies in Neil’s life and the rampant rumors that the band was done. Thus, to hear the opening drum explosion of the first track and first single, “One Little Victory,” was to be blown away and to realize that the band was by no means finished.
Best song: "Earthshine"

5. Permanent Waves
Here we get into the albums that, for me, don’t have any weak songs at all. Like A Farewell To Kings, this is another record that shows the band going in a new direction. The prog sound is almost entirely gone and the record opens with two big radio hits “The Spirit Of Radio” and “Freewill,” the former being the most recognizable Rush song other than “Tom Sawyer.” Funny thing about “Spirit,” though, is that it calls out the radio format for being less about the music and more about the corporate money. “Freewill” distills Ayn Rand’s philosophy respecting religion into a five-minute scorcher featuring some of Neil’s tightest drumming and a bridge that contains the most amazing Geddy Lee vocal in the band’s recorded catalogue. Oh, and there’s a bass solo, too - right before a blistering Alex Lifeson guitar solo.
Best song: "Natural Science"

4. Counterparts
Another new direction! Actually, this is more of a return - to a less keyboard-oriented sound than dominated their records in the eighties. It’s also another bacon-saver, although along with Grace this is the record the band is the least happy with, as goes the production. Had they not stripped out the keyboards and brought Alex back to the front, he might well have left the band that he founded. This is a themed album, with the songs tied together loosely by one theme, as opposed to a concept album where the songs are tied more tightly together and form parts of a story. The theme is that of one person relating to another, or to others. There are love songs in here, too, though you might not think it - or even hear it, the first time around. The best song is “Double Agent,” or in Bob Dylan parlance, “Talkin’ Disgruntled Lover’s Blues.” “Leave That Thing Alone” is the band’s best instrumental that does not contain a reference to an airport, and “Everyday Glory” is one of those great “last songs on the album,” a cheery sort of hope-for-the-future sort of thing.
Best song: "Double Agent"

3. Power Windows
I prefer the two albums I talk about next, but this is really the best one. Wide-ranging in theme and scope and remarkably balanced musically, there is not only not a weak song on here, there are also no songs that are merely “good.” These are eight of the band’s best songs, and Alex’s best solo is contained in the amazing “Marathon,” which is the second-best song on the album after “Middletown Dreams,” a haunting lament of life gone wrong somewhere along the line but perservered through anyway - still with hope that all might turn out well in the end. Slick production gives it a glazed, medicated feel that adds to the song rather than glossing over its imperfections. It relies too much on keyboards, but when you hear Alex on guitar, it’s a blistering, bullet-like effect. Like the rest of the songs, it contains excellent vocals - only on Presto does Geddy’s voice sound so good, but the songs are not of the same caliber. A masterpiece.
Best song: "Middletown Dreams"

2. Moving Pictures
From the opening keyboard splash of “Tom Sawyer,” this is an album that burns with energy and intensity and passion. “Tom Sawyer” is the band’s best known song, a prog rock anthem condensed into four and a half minutes of precision that showcases some of the best vocals, guitars, bass, and drums in the band’s catalogue. Also contains my favorite Rush song, “Red Barchetta,” another complex musical number about a future where motor cars are outlawed but man’s free spirit is alive and well. “YYZ” is their best instrumental number, and must be listened to with headphones to get the full effect - one of Geddy’s most melodic bass lines and a frenetic passing back and forth of the song’s main riff. “Limelight” has one of Alex’s best solos, “The Camera Eye” one of Geddy’s best vocals. “Witch Hunt” and “Vital Signs” round out this gem, the first touching on xenophobia in a dark, haunting way and the latter a robotic study of the things that give life to man while at the same time stripping that life away bit by bit.
Best song: "Red Barchetta"

1. Presto
If music can solve any problem - or if the music is the ultimate solution or the ultimate salvation - the central idea in “2112” the song, then these eleven songs are the object lessons. If that were the case - which, of course, is not the truth. If it were the truth, it would be magic - Presto! Since there’s no such thing as magic, though, you have to make the most of what you’ve got to work with - and so these songs are still the object lessons. Everything that the band does so well is presented here in perfect balance at the end of the keyboard age. From the search for truth in “Show Don’t Tell” to a pointed rejection of suicide in “The Pass” (one of the band’s favorite songs) to the impotence of bombast and media hype in the amazing “Superconductor” to the search for truth again, though this time in nature, in the even more amazing “Available Light” - this is nearly the same kind of masterpiece as Power Windows, though in a different way. There is a playful tone here - the band saying “these are just songs, sure - but we really mean it.” The production quality is there, but it feels different - the difference between Peter Collins, who produced Power Windows and Hold Your Fire and Rupert Hine, who produced this one. The difference is subtle, but it’s there, almost like magic - Presto!
Best song: "Superconductor"

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