Ugh. For Rush’s sophomore effort on Atlantic records, they slid further into mediocrity with more standard hard rock numbers, an unusually bright and bland production, and a general lack of noteworthiness that got them an album that somehow peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200, but failed to do anything interesting musically.
Let’s face it: at this point, Rush stopped selling mass numbers of albums because they were interesting or good, and managed to sell a lot of records because they were Rush records. I’m sure there are many people who would argue that this was the greatest stuff ever, but I’m not one of them. However, there are plenty of completists that will buy anything released by Rush without question.
I won’t deny that the trio was still trying new things and attempting to progress musically. If you look at the albums between Hold Your Fire and Counterparts, there’s sort of a bell curve of writing style where the band wavers, overcorrects, and eventually drops into a good groove. Fortunately, that means Counterparts is excellent. Unfortunately, that means there are many missteps along the way.
One interesting example is an instrumental track, “Where’s My Thing?, Pt. 4: Gangster of Boats Trilogy”. It’s great that the band dipped back to their prog roots and decided to do their first instrumental track since “YYZ”. Unfortunately, it’s a synth-laden, fake-brassy track that’s doesn’t stand out as a feat of technical prowess. Most of the album has the same dynamic; things aren’t catchy, and songs blur into each other, with none of them standing out. The only ultimately memorable songs to me are the opener, “Dreamline”, which has a catchy chorus, and “Heresy”, which is Rush’s “the wall fell down” song (which was a big fad of the time.)
And then there’s the title track. And the rap. Geddy Lee raps. I don’t even know how to process this. A RAP. Jesus H. Christ on a cross – I mean, I have nothing against rap, and I even own a few records of the genre and can enjoy them, but this is like when your parents try to act cool and learn like one word of youth slang and then use it incorrectly to gain some kind of cred with you. I wish I could just pretend this whole album never happened.
Anyway, I have a minor conspiracy theory about how such a shoddy album could chart so well: RTB was the first Rush release in the Nielsen SoundScan era. Prior to SoundScan’s adoption on March 1, 1991, the weekly Billboard 200 chart was assembled together from vague statistics reported manually by store owners based on inventory changes and normalized with secretive statistical voodoo. But starting in May of 1991, actual barcode scans in stores with computerized point-of-sale systems were directly used to measure performance on Billboard charts.
This led to a strange shift; instead of being based on a weighting of store owners’ perceived sales figures, they were based on actual sales figures. This meant that some albums that you wouldn’t think were chartable would show up and rate high. The first #1 album on the post-SoundScan Billboard 200 was a Michael Bolton album. Heavy metal albums, which traditionally were not well-reported, suddenly tore up the charts. Skid Row’s second album, Slave to the Grind, entered the charts at #1, and then rapidly fell back off, because a surge of people bought it during a single week. And remember when Guns ‘N Roses had the big Use Your Illusion midnight purchase rush? Actually, pretty much every big band started having those Tuesday night come-in-at-midnight store events, mostly because it was a good way to juice SoundScan stats. (It was also a good way to get people to line up to buy a crappy Guns ‘N Roses album of cover tunes, but that’s another review.)
Amazon and iTunes have similar rating systems, in which titles with large purchase numbers at very specific time periods skew statistics. A perfect example of this in 2008 was when Stephen Colbert urged all of his fans to buy his Christmas album on iTunes at one specific time. This threw off the system and unseated a much larger-selling Kanye West album from the top position. So when you have a band with tons of loyal fans that all rush out at midnight on a certain day to buy the band’s new album sight unseen, it just might chart very well, even if it sucked total shit and had Geddy Lee doing a god damned rap in one song.
I remember this album coming out, and being excited that a new Rush song was on the radio, but I didn’t hurry to the record store and wait in line all night for this one. In fact, I think I listened to it once at a record store and decided to pass on it. Much later, I picked up a used copy, listened to it a few times, and must have sold it back, because I had to go out and buy another copy on iTunes to write this review. Maybe the reason I never got into this album, aside from its contents, was that so much else was going on at that point in music. A ton of excellent metal albums came out around then (Entombed – Clandestine; Carcass – Necroticism…; Death – Human; Motorhead – 1916) and this got lost in the shuffle.