You can divide the history of Rush into different discrete eras – in fact, the band did a good job of this themselves by putting out a live album exactly every four studio albums, wrapping up their career into nice little leather-bound volumes of history that chronicled their change from a Zep Clone band on the Toronto bar circuit to the prog-rock juggernaut they became by the 1980s. But if you had to look at their album output and find the one album that signaled (no pun intended) their high-water mark, the place the trio of long-haired, polyester flare-pant wearing Tolkein lovers switched into a tech rock genre unto themselves, you’d have to say Moving Pictures.
Listening to their eighth? studio album today, almost thirty years later, it’s surprising to me this was produced in an era before digital recording, compact discs, widespread off-the-rack solid-state synths you could buy at the neighborhood Guitar World, and personal computers that could fit in a room and boot up without dimming the entire neighborhood’s lights, let alone fit thousands of MP3s on a tiny hard drive. It astounds me that even Rush’s own albums later in the decade pale in dynamic comparison to this disc. (Listen to this and Power Windows back-to-back; PW is cleaner, but to the point of sterility, with no feel whatsoever in the guitar. It sounds like Lifeson did away with mic’ing the Marshall stacks and fed his guitar through a DI box directly into the mixing board, with no effects whatsoever.) There’s incredible depth, full range, and a complete sonic experience here. It’s the kind of disc you bring to the store when you’re shopping for a new amp or speakers for your car, because you know in three minutes, you can hit every conceivable combination of notes in every type of range, from laid-back noodling to frenetic soloing to groovy prog-rock, with a solid low-end from Geddy Lee’s bass, and a gutsy midrange of Lifeson’s guitars over the top of it. Add to it a crystal-clear drum kit from the professor himself, and you’ve got a seven-song Maxell tape commercial, with everything but the crystal glass to shatter when you turn it up to 11.
This album isn’t about loud, and it isn’t about prog-metalling through every major and minor mode scale at the speed of light to let everyone know you can jerk off with your four or six string as well as they jerk off in their parents’ basements. It’s one of those ‘perfect storm’ moments that the band could record an album with more pop sensibilities than when they were trying to record AOR pop albums that charted, and yet they still managed to write things like the one prog-instrumental track (“YYZ”) that both carved the mold for every prog-rock band that wanted to record a complicated yet jamming instrumental track, as well as instructing a generation of music fans what the IATA three-character airport code for Toronto was. Every drummer that I’ve ever known that could play worth a damn went through a phase where they thought this was the greatest drum album ever recorded, and for good reason. Neil laid down absolutely perfect percussion here, including his innovative use of plywood, which is listed in his musical credits. (How do you play plywood? Wear gloves, hold it by the edges, and hit a metal chair sharply. It’s that bullwhip-meets-shattering-glass sound in “YYZ”.)
One thing that’s firmly gelled in this album is a lyrical sense that examines the 80s more than it examines comic-book scifi and the land of talking trees, magic elves, and twenty-minute epic concept songs. “Limelight” takes an honest look at a life of stardom and the road, in a more sincere way than your typical Motley Crue long-road-ahead-of-us-baby-baby sense of the theme. (It’s also helped by one of the most warm and emotion-piercing feedback-touched solo by Alex Lifeson, one that he claimed was his favorite ever, well after this was released.) “Witch Hunt” and “Red Barchetta” metaphotrically compare future fiction and possible past of Orwellian and MyCarthyist society, something everyone would be whining about in Reagan era new wave pop saturating the MTVs at the same time. Peart output a solid Humanist theme in the album’s lyrics, the kind of thing that works on multiple levels and opens up the band to a wider audience, even if the underlying musicianship of the band is still math-rock odd-meter and blindingly complex instrumentation.
Rush is and always will be a band of the Eighties. Yes, they’ve released many good albums in the nineties and beyond, and there was some pretty solid output in the seventies, too. But with the “one hit” track “Tom Sawyer”, the one song that much of the population equates with the Canadian Trio lands you right to this 1981 classic LP. And most of what I equate with Rush – the synthesizers, the electric drums, the high-tech recordings, the sound of my childhood and when I stopped listening to my parents’ Billy Joel records and started building my own musical identity, this all puts every Rush album as some extension of the Eighties. And if you’re looking at Test for Echo or Caress of Steel, you’re looking at some genetical precursor or successor of that one cornerstone album. Moving Pictures is that fly trapped in amber that will forever be used to carbon-date the crest of this movement in music.
There’s little I can say that’s bad about this album. I can still listen to it from start to finish, which is pretty much rule zero for good album-oriented rock. Maybe if I had to pick nits, I’d say “The Camera Eye” is a little bit repetitive and adds a side two lull that’s slow to pick up until “Witch Hunt” breaks out in its second half. And for the longest time, I held some sort of generic resentment toward the song “Tom Sawyer”, because so many people that didn’t like Rush liked that song, so naturally, I had to not like it, and would skip forward to “Red Barchetta”. But that faded, and not just because in the era of tape, it was such a pain in the ass to fast-forward past a song, and I eventually listened to this one from start to finish every time.
But “Red Barchetta” – perfect driving music. “Vital Signs” is the perfect mellow outro of a bookend for the tail of the album. “YYZ”, probably the greatest instrumental ever, at least in the rock world. The part of “Witch Hunt” that picks up from a slow dredge to a full blowout of rising energy still floors me every time I hear it. There’s so much thickness here, so much perfection, it’s hard to rate any other Rush album as being anything but an inferior product in comparison. It makes me feel old to pull the “they don’t make em like this anymore” shit. And it makes me even older to think about how much this transports me back to my teenage years, how much this album encapsulates the mid-1980s for me, and reminds me of every frustration and carefree moment of my early teens. But I just can’t think of another album that wraps it all up in a nice, seven-song package like this, which is why it easily gets a perfect rating.