When I first got into Rush, my friend Derik Rinehart (now an accomplished prog-rock drummer) made me a tape from his LPs, with this on one side and Moving Pictures on the other. Of course, I played the hell out of both sides, and I probably liked Moving Pictures a lot more because it rocked, and everyone likes it more, right? But I still listened to Grace Under Pressure because I didn’t want to waste my precious Duracells rewinding the D-90 in my walkman, and the album burned it into my brain. And I’m not sure if it’s the content of the album, or the thoughts back to that era, but when I think of this LP, I think of a sterile bleakness. My pal Simms once told me, “It’s the Cold War, man. I love it!” And maybe he’s right. But it’s something that now, 20 years later, I can’t completely reconcile when I try to decide how meaningful this 39 minutes and 26 seconds of music is to me.
Here’s what might be throwing me: This is the first album since their sophomore effort that wasn’t produced by Terry Brown. It’s said the switch to Peter Henderson had to do more with accessibility, which seems strange following Moving Pictures, which produced the only song for which 90% of the population knows of the band at all. (Henderson was previously known as the producer of Supertramp’s biggest albums, as well as an engineer for Frank Zappa, among others.) And I guess the soundscape might match pop back then a bit better. (It’s also worth noting that Steve Lillywhite was supposed to produce this album, but pulled out of the project at the last minute, almost derailing the entire project. Henderson was their last-second replacement.)
The easiest way to describe this album is to first go into the differences between it and previous albums. First, there’s not a lot of bass on this album. And while I mean thin-sounding bass, I also mean that there’s at least one song with NO bass, where Geddy Lee just plays synth and sings. And there’s a lot more synth on this album. Previously, the band just filled out their sound with bass pedals, and Geddy reached over to play a line or two here and there, like a solo opposite from Alex’s guitars. But here, there are more places where MIDI madness has taken over not only Geddy’s performances, but also those of the guitar. This album is the first to have markedly less guitar, or more “atmospheric” sounds of droning chords for a measure or two at a time, but less leads and powered strumming. The drums are still there, and Neil Peart still lives behind the 97-piece drum kit, but his playing is much more methodical and exact. There aren’t many stray or extra beats anywhere, and certainly no heroics in the solo department. It’s all very exact. And I guess that reminds me of the era, of everything becoming so exact. Computerized watches! Fuel injection! Mechanized assembly! Welding robots! 2000 would be here soon, and we’d all be living on the moon, so make your prog-rock as efficient and exact as possible.
The other thing is that this album takes a rather dark turn toward social and political issues. The opening song, “Distant Early Warning,” describes how the nuclear war is going to start in moments, and what humanity has brought onto itself. “Red Sector A” (the bassless song, for those keeping track) talks about concentration camps in World War II, a place where Geddy Lee’s parents survived before fleeing to Canada. “Between the Wheels,” “Kid Gloves,” and “Red Lenses” are all political gesturing to the superpower-driven Cold War.
All of these songs are interesting sonic paintings of the time. But if you’ve ever seen them performed live, they’re also very tedious. I seem to remember a videotape of a concert from this era, and it was seriously like sitting through the Canadian Socialist Worker’s Party convention. I’m surprised that “Distant Early Warning” remained a staple for live sets as long as it did. For me, I was always thankful for this song, because it was a good time during their live sets to get up and go to the can. (This was later replaced with “Nobody’s Hero.”)
Oddly enough, the album as a whole seems to be greater than its parts, despite the fact that it’s not a concept album in the strictest sense. When you play it from the beginning to end, it flows well, and has an even sound that carries you easily. When I’m working on some writing or taking a long car trip and I need something to kill some time, this album always seems to end up in the player. There are songs that I like (“Red Lenses,” “Between the Wheels,” “Afterimage”), and like I said, it’s a very true look at what 1984 was like for me (no Orwellian pun intended.) The only reason I can’t give this a higher rating is that it doesn’t rock. Go listen to “Tom Sawyer” or “YYZ” and then listen to “Red Sector A.” Where are the guitars? The solos? The rock? Rush is a rock band! They took themselves too seriously on this one, and that’s why I’m saying it’s only slightly above-average.