I pinned down the year I stopped listening to Rush to 1983. Totally immersed in the New Wave and Punk movements of the day, listening to progressive music I found more avant-garde, like Zappa or Adrian Belew-era King Crimson, it was the year I graduated from high school, the year after the Signals record came out. I liked the singles from that record; “Subdivisions” and “New World Man” were cool tunes, if not significantly less adventurous and progressive than almost everything that came before, at least rhythmically. But I didn’t own that record and didn’t listen to it all the way through until maybe five or six years ago, when I decided to collect the three Rush box sets, Sectors I, II, and III, collecting every album, studio and live, from the very beginning all the way to 1987’s Hold Your Fire and the live album that followed, A Show of Hands. Maybe it was a sense of nostalgia (I had sold my entire vinyl collection in 1987 and all my Rush albums with the lot), and the fact that I had gotten over a decade or more of snobbishness against the band, but I felt like it was time to dive back into Rush and I did that in a big way. A few years later, 40 year anniversary reissues of my favorite of the classic Rush records started to come out, and I just had to have Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres on heavyweight vinyl. I was all in. And then, this January of 2020, Mr. Peart, one of the greatest rock drummers of all time, he shuffled off this mortal coil. And while I was mourning that loss and listening to those two favorite Rush albums again, I realized that there was almost 20 years worth of Rush albums since Hold Your Fire that I had never heard–not even one song.
I had homework to do.
Apparently, there was a box set made especially for me, especially for this occasion, a collection of every studio album from 1989 to 2007, seven compact discs in all, released, perhaps, before the band knew that they would ever release another record, or, more likely, released after the band’s exit from the Atlantic record label. There would be only one more studio album after 2007, Clockwork Angels from 2012. So, as far as Rush’s studio albums are concerned, save for this 2012 record, which I have not yet heard, I have become a Rush Studio Album Completist.
I read somewhere recently that since Peart’s death, Rush record sales and streams have soared upwards about 2000%. I am happy to have contributed to that. At the same time, there’s a kind of sadness about the fact that the popularity or public interest in an artist always surges after they’ve died. But I think the joy outweighs the sadness: I have always found great pleasure in discovering a band several albums into a career and then being able to check out the back catalogue, to find out what I had missed. I did this in the 80s with Japan, XTC, The Boomtown Rats, King Crimson, and Frank Zappa. Recently, I’ve done this with Father John Misty, St. Vincent, The Dear Hunter, and The Mountain Goats. Now, I have the pleasure of knowing the music of a band’s trajectory almost 15 years in, and then of being able to explore another 20 years worth of music going forward! So, thank you again, Neil, for that.
I worry: might there be a good reason I never heard a single song from 8 albums over 20 years? Wasn’t there a good reason for falling out of love with Rush in the first place? Are these new records from the catalogue going to have any kind of staying power for me now? Or am I just going to listen to them once, say to myself, okay, I did that, and then put them back away for ever? Well, let’s find out. Here’s a little listening tour in miniature of every Rush album made from 1989 to 2007! Don’t expect full-blown reviews. These are essentially notes I was taking as I listened to each record for the first time. And, F.Y.I.: I did not do this in one sitting.
Presto: The first song out of the gate is one that I know I’ve heard: that opening riff of “Show Don’t Tell” is, perhaps, at least in my memory, the last of the iconic Alex Lifeson riffs, and maybe the last of the big singles. This tune rocks. It showcases each member of the band at the height of their powers. I’m disappointed in the fade-out, though. I like it when bands write endings and record them, especially on the first track of the album. “Chain Lightning” has kind of a new wave thing going on. Geddy hasn’t yet jettisoned the keyboards. But this is no synth pop. I hear The Police in the third tune, continuing to make impressions on the dynamic Canadian trio. It seems clear that the era of the epic prog tune is over for Rush at this point; not a single song reaches six minutes in length. This was also true, I think, of their previous two albums, Grace Under Pressure and Hold Your Fire. “Scars” is almost a dance tune. I’m not kidding. Miraculously, it works. The title song begins with the line: “If I could wave my magic wand.” Not a great lyric moment for Neil. “Superconductor” out-Polices The Police. Super rocking song. And its central riff is in 7. Yea! More good songs follow. Nothing mind blowing, but nothing either that I would be tempted for a moment to skip over. In the last song, “Available Light,” a piano predominates the verses. This is a very different Rush thing and it’s lovely. The vocal transition between the chorus and the next verse is an exquisite move. Strong ending, friends.
Roll the Bones: “He’s got a road map to Jupiter.” This might be the first Neil lyric, at least that I’m aware of, about riding a motorcycle, unless I’m totally misreading the lyric, which is possible. This first track, “Dreamland,” is a palatable rock song. “We’re only immortal for a limited time.” That’s clever. The title track is funky, a happy chance, after the sleepiness of that second tune. I wanna shake my booty. Oh my, there’s a kind of rap thing going on right now and I’m frightened. It didn’t ruin anything, happily. More rock. It’s impossible not to do that chicken head maneuver along with the beat of “Face Up.” An instrumental? Oh yeah. Super groovy. And it’s got an absurdist title: “Where’s My Thing? (Part IV, ‘Gangster of Boats’ Trilogy)” Whoever said Rush didn’t have a sense of humor? Clearly, when you see them in interview or in that beautifully inspiring documentary, they do, but rarely does it show up in the music. Here it is. This whole thing is in 4–but there are fantastic Neil moments in this one. Things get pretty pedestrian after this. “Ghost of a Chance,” though, is effective pedestrian. “You Bet Your Life” is a celebratory, fun, nutty closing tune. This background vocal chant-thing is exquisite. I’m a fan.
Counterparts: Drum intro after an obligatory, and funny in this case, 1, 2, 3, 4 count-off. “Animate” is the first track here, and it rocks, and it features some lyrics that are at once a return to philosophical and fantastical form for Neil, but also seem to fit nicely into the disaffected and anti-establishment ethos of the early grunge movement. “Stick It Out” continues very much in this vein. This record, so far, is way heavy. Metal, even. I dig. Am I listening to a lost Faith No More album? It sounds great and I just want to bang my head. Some touching and politically pointed lyrics in “Nobody’s Hero,” the closest thing to a rock ballad I’ve heard yet in these albums. Strong, affecting. The next two songs continue to rock, are interesting melodically, and have cool arrangements, but “The Speed of Love” is a little sleepy. “Double Agent” is a rocking thing that in sections returns to progressive odd time signatures and is punctuated with some spooky spoken word. Another instrumental! “Leave That Thing Alone” demonstrates that while musically their instrumental works remain super focused, tight, melodic, their titles can be (or have become) super silly. That was awesome. A favorite moment. There’s nothing unpleasant about the last two songs of this album. Verdict: a very good record.
Test for Echo: It just seems wrong to hear so much 4/4 on Rush albums. The odd time signature was one of those things, as a young man anyway, that defined Rush for me. I’m trying to let that go. On this album, I counted not one crazy drum fill. I could have missed it. I may have spaced out. Geddy’s singing is consistently in lower registers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Out of the first four discs in the box, this so far is my least favorite. It’s just not very interesting, adventurous, or memorable. Is there a single tune that stands out to me? Maybe I’ve had too much to drink. To be fair, I’ll have to return to this one.
Vapor Trails: That opening drum intro kicks ass. “One Little Victory.” Okay, this is the Rush I love. Not super melodically interesting, but it’s sure rocking. “Ceiling Unlimited”: mo’ better melody. Heady words. We’re out of the 90’s now, Dorothy, but still, this is almost punky grungy. And, apropos of the 90s: running time on this one is 1 hour and 8 minutes. Too long. Another motorcycle song: “Ghost Rider.” Yea! Odd time signatures make a return on “Peaceable Kingdom.” Ooh. That’s almost a Beatle-y bridge. This song is long and has lots of parts. I’ve forgotten where I am. A bit of folk-pop in “How It Is,” decidedly uncool. Titular tune, decidedly sleepy. “Freeze” is maybe the coolest, most melodic and thus most interesting thing on this record, which, overall, tends to be seriously good.
Feedback: An album of covers?! Oh my. What do we have here? Seems kind of antithetical to everything Rush has done since their debut album. Maybe that’s the point. This, perhaps, was all formative shit for the dynamic trio. “Summertime Blues”? Really? Cool idea to replace the spoken word breaks with bass solos and drum solos. Nifty and surprising ending. The Yardbirds cover, a song I don’t know, is groovy. Geddy’s vocal on this is especially pleasing. Buffalo Springfield! Stop, Children, what’s that sound? It’s Rush doing cover tunes. The Who! Neil has said that Keith Moon was a big influence. More Buffalo Springfield! The first and only time I’ve heard the song “Seven and Seven Is” was on an 80s vintage Alice Cooper album. I’m learning things about Love. More Yardbirds! And finally, Robert Johnson a la Cream: “Crossroads.” Neil’s playing the super straight ahead rock drums on this whole collection, but nevertheless, this has been an unexpectedly enjoyable experience.
Snakes and Arrows: The last disc in this collection, Rush, circa 2007. First tune, “Far Cry,” is rocking, guitar riffy, melodic, and begins with a series of classic Rush intro breaks. I have a good feeling about this one. Hey! The odd time signature makes a comeback in the verse of “Armor and Sword,” a beautiful song that seems to move seamlessly between a bunch of disparate pieces that nevertheless all hang together. “No one gets to their heaven without a fight.” I can dig the use of the “their” pronoun in this lyric. It changes everything. The following two or three songs are not nearly as remarkable, but still undeniably good and smart. In this lovely instrumental, “The Main Monkey Business,” I think I hear references to early Rush tunes–and I think they’re deliberate allusions to 2112 and Hemispheres and not an accidental rehash. Maybe I’m imagining things. Nope, there it is again. Holy cow: that truly rocked. Followed by a kind of blues-thing-not-a-blues-thing. It seems what Rush is trying to do here and in many of these earlier records from this collection (successfully, I might add), is to rediscover themselves as ROCK band. I can’t remember hearing anything on any of these records that might be considered a ballad. The closest we get is a moment here and there of relative quiet–but only a moment. Fist pump. Devil horns. Head bang. They may have been more “easy listening” in the prog era of the 70’s. Is “Faithless” a kind of atheist anthem? I’d have to read these lyrics more closely. “I don’t have faith in faith. I don’t believe in belief. I believe in love, and that’s faith enough for me.” There’s some playfulness, some actual humor, I think, in “Bravest Face,” musically and lyrically. I’m finding this thoroughly enjoyable, all the way through. This last one may be my favorite of the seven–indicating perhaps that they just kept getting better. Rush was a fucking great band. There are bands that I have loved more, bands that I would never have stopped listening to even if you put a gun to my head, that I have been more loyal to over the years, but ultimately, Rush was unstoppable. Only death could keep them down. And that is really saying something.