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Neil

When I was a kid, I was a fan of pop music, mostly because of the insular community where I grew up. We had one pop FM station out of Notre Dame University, which wasn’t a “college rock” station, but played the standard hits. (There were two stations if you had a really good antenna and could pick up WAOR out of Michigan.) When I got my own stereo and started taping things off the radio and buying 45 records, it was all top 40 music. The early eighties wasn’t a bad time for this, hence the “hey, remember the 80s” nostalgia that has pretty much become a genre. I spent a lot of time listening to bands like Men at Work, The Police, Def Leppard, Van Halen, Journey, and whatever else crossed the airwaves. I didn’t have any specific favorites, but I prided myself in being able to identify whatever songs popped up on this AOR FM station, or this brand new thing called MTV.

When I was about 14, I started hanging out with this guy Derik who lived nearby. He had an older brother who was a drummer, and while he was in the Air Force, Derik had also become an accomplished drummer. We were into a lot of the same music, but he also knew of a lot of other bands from his brother Keith, things that were either slightly older, or weren’t in heavy rotation on WNDU. Derik played along on these albums with his drum set, and I started to get enticed by the weirdness and heaviness of it all.

One of the bands was called Rush, this weird little trio of Canadians that sang about wizards and talking trees and nuclear war and had impossibly complicated songs that sometimes spanned an entire album. They also had like a dozen albums at that point, and wouldn’t stop putting out more. I didn’t really know where to jump in on this, so Derik dubbed up a C-90 for me with two of their albums: Moving Pictures and Grace Under Pressure.

That summer, the one between junior high and high school, was like Rush summer for me. I memorized that tape. I was amazed by the complexity and virtuosity of it all. For a kid who was obsessed with computers and Dungeons and Dragons and was a social outcast, this stuff scratched a serious itch for me, and I scraped together every penny I could to buy more of their tapes, and begged Derik to dub copies of more of their albums. In those pre-employment, pre-social life days of summer, I listened to the stuff constantly.

Rush was also almost like a secret club to me. Other than Derik, I don’t know anyone who was a big fan. They never played the music on the radio. Even though MTV only had like twenty videos in rotation, they did have maybe two Rush videos, but they never, ever played them. Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson were on every hour, but that one Rush video for the song “Countdown” about the Space Shuttle only came on like twice all summer. The people who did know about Rush were the record store cashiers. When I’d go in with my hard-earned ten bucks of lawn-mowing money and approach the register with a copy of Caress of Steel, the long-haired dude at the till would give me a nod, like “yeah, this kid knows what’s up.” Never mind that my mom thought they were Satanic, and everyone else at school was obsessed with Johnny Cougar or whatever. To this narrow audience of people who were the gatekeepers of cool (and who could tolerate Geddy Lee’s singing), I was part of that club.

I don’t know how I pulled this off, but I somehow convinced my parents at that time that it would be a good idea for me to spend an entire summer of babysitting wages to buy Derik’s old drum set. Derik now had a “real” drum set and sold me this mish-mash of various Sears and Ludwig student-level drums with rusty hardware and tarnished cymbals. I quickly learned I have absolutely no rhythm or musical skill whatsoever, and that experiment lasted about a year, until I sold the kit and bought a ten-speed with the proceeds. But trying to learn drums made me listen to the music much more, made me separate the parts and focus on the rhythm and the parts of songs. Before I listened to Rush, music was just something that started when I pressed a play button or turned on a radio. But after examining it, I learned the roles of the drums, could tell the difference between the bass and the guitar, and could appreciate the skill level between something like “My Sharona” and “Tom Sawyer.”

Another thing that Rush did was serve as a gateway to an entirely different foundation of music for me. I read every interview or magazine article I could find about them (there were very few) and I went back to try to find every influence of theirs. So through Rush, I discovered Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream. Then I tried to research all of Rush’s prog-rock peers (although they are peerless) and discovered Yes, Genesis, Saga, and Triumph. Each of those bands led to other bands. There was a strong teenaged urge to chase that high, to find things more and more extreme. There wasn’t much more complicated than Rush at that time (although later, this lead to Dream Theater, and guitar virtuosos like Satriani, Vai, Malmsteen, etc.) So I fell down the wormhole of finding things more heavy, more loud, and more extreme, which led to Metallica, then thrash metal, then death metal, and so on.

And I’ve told the story before on The Koncast so I won’t repeat it, but my first concert was Rush, on the Hold Your Fire tour. Me and Derik went, and it was mind-blowing to see the band a few hundred feet away, but also to be in an arena full of people who geeked out to the same kind of music, the stuff nobody in my small town seemed to appreciate. It was like the first Star Trek convention for a lifelong Trek fan. It showed me there was much more out there in the world of music, and life was much bigger than what was going on in rural Indiana.

Anyway, I got to college, and my relationship with Rush “normalized” a bit. I was into so many other bands, and I guess it just fell out of style a little bit, just like D&D and model airplanes and video games. It was uncool to be into Rush, especially after their late 80s synth-dominated albums, and after “college rock” became “alternative” and Nirvana exploded, and anything related to metal was tragically uncool with the mainstream. The cold war was over, and instead of worrying about Reaganomics and tribalism, Generation X became the me generation, and we were all supposed to worry about ourselves, our Prozac, our go-nowhere futures. (Ugh.)

My interest in Rush waxed and waned, because they still put out an album every year or two. A new one would drop, and I’d buy Roll the Bones or whatever, and think “eh,” but still end up spending a week rolling 2112 and Moving Pictures again, before I moved on to Queensrÿche or Morbid Angel or whatever the hell I was into at that point.

Anyway, as far as my personal relationship to the members, guitarist Alex Lifeson was a non-entity to me. No offense to him, but he wasn’t the spokesman, and he didn’t sing, and on those late 80s albums, he damn near didn’t even play guitar. Geddy Lee was the frontman, and because he sang, in my head, it was he who communicated the lyrics to me. He’s also a hell of a bassist, and does that and keyboards at the same time. But the singing was, well, a bit of an acquired taste, and although he seemed like a cool guy and all, he wasn’t who I really related to.

But, Neil. Like I said, I tried to play the drums, and I had that connection. I knew how hard it was to do something like “YYZ” or his marathon drum solos. (Or the song “Marathon”… Jesus Christ, all that weird off-meter stuff – I had no idea how a human being can remember all of that in order, let alone perform it.) And he was indirectly, through Derik’s playing and obsession, the reason I got pulled into all of this. Neil was also the lyricist, the person who actually wrote the words that Geddy sang. So he was the one reading Tolkein and Jack London books on the tour bus, like I did in study hall, except he distilled them into songs instead of Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. Neil was the quiet, intelligent guy in the band, and that is why I identified with him.

Later, in the Nineties, Peart started writing books. He had a book called The Masked Rider, which was a travel journal of his bicycling adventures in Africa. This was particularly resonant to me, because I spent a long period in high school cycling everywhere, doing every 25K race I could find in northern Indiana, even doing a 100K race once. And every day after school for a year of so, when I first got that ten-speed in exchange for the drum set, I would ride twenty miles in the cornfields of Elkhart county, usually listening to a Rush album. So when I read this book, it felt as if he was speaking directly to me in some way.

Neil had a series of tragedies in his life in the late Nineties. First, his nineteen-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident. Then, ten months later, his wife died of lung cancer. After this, he pretty much called everything quits, and took off on his touring motorcycle, on a crazy multi-year trip that wound across the continent from end to end both ways. After recovering, remarrying, and rejoining the band, he wrote a book about this journey called Ghost Rider. This book is absolutely essential reading for people into travel and road trips.

One of the most striking coincidences as I read this is that he was crossing the US at the same time as I was. In 1999, I went on this two-week ramble from West to East, driving everywhere and seeing everything I could. I very distinctly remember an afternoon in remote Utah, sitting on the bench seat of this giant sedan I’d rented, everything I owned in the back seat and trunk, flipping through disc after disc in my collection, going on a twelve-hour jag of listening to old Rush albums in the middle of nowhere. It’s strange for me to think he was out there at the same time.

Some Rush fans lock into it for life, go to every date on every tour, only listen to Rush, get custom license plates and tattoos and teach their kids and grandkids all the words to Moving Pictures and the whole thing. That wasn’t me; I moved on to other things, I guess. All of the albums, every note and word, were still locked into my head, though. And I would still go back to them, a guilty pleasure, a way to immediately teleport myself back to the summer of 1985. But Rush meant a lot to me. When I met a Rush fan, we’d trade our stories like two people who both came from the same small town, both fought in the same war, both knew the same people. It was and is still a big part of my life.

You probably already know where this is going. I heard the news today that Neil Peart died of brain cancer this week. He was 67, far too young. It’s hard to process this, because he was such an icon, yet such a close voice in my head from all those albums. He was the root of my musical tree, and an example of how to strive for perfection. Not only that, but he was the perfect example of doing what you want to do, doing what is you, even if it flies in the face of convention. Nobody was doing full-album conceptual science fiction songs, and he was penning these things in motel rooms while broke, facing a record company about to drop the band for dismal sales, touring the country in a car, and opening for Ted Nugent or whoever the hell would take them. He did what he did, and people learned to appreciate the genius behind it, instead of trying to follow whatever formula for success everyone else said to take.

Anyway. Fuck. I have no good way to end this, except to say I really appreciate everything Neil did in his lifetime. A legend.

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Rush – Feedback (2004)

A Rush album of covers? Okay, I didn’t buy this when it came out, because I’d already seen all of the car commercials that featured these songs. It’s always amazing how old hard rock goes from the AOR stations to the brokerage commercials now.  I mean, I love Led Zeppelin and The Who, and I’m glad somebody’s providing them some cash during their later years, but I don’t think the works of Jimmy Page are going to make me get off my ass and buy a Cadillac.  Maybe if Keith Moon drove one into a hotel pool and expounded on the various safety features that kept the car from sinking like a rock, I’d pay attention.  Anyway, the Rush album:  a collection of cover songs, from a band that’s known for never covering songs. I’m not a big fan of buying filler albums of throwaway content. And how would a band that plays so surgically handle a bunch of old covers? What spin could they put on them, other than Geddy’s high-pitched voice?

It turns out this isn’t a bad piece of work. The band decided to celebrate the 30-year mark since their debut album by dipping back into their influences and cranking out eight tracks of classic/60s/brit-rock. They start the 27-minute fest with a replay of The Who’s “Summertime Blues.” This isn’t a jokey stab at a cover, like a tongue-in-cheek attempt a band would throw on a b-side or a fan club giveaway disc. It’s an honest attempt at capturing the spirit of Townshend’s execution of the Eddie Cochran original. The guitar is awesome! This rocks in a Zep-blues way even more than the earliest Rush. There’s tons of feedback pouring off of the heavy riffs, thick bass lines, and pounding drums. This doesn’t sound like a band that’s been doing their own thing for three decades – it sounds like a garage band slamming out old-school rock in a bar.

There’s more Who, two cuts by the Yardbirds, two by Buffalo Springfield, and one each by Love and Cream. All of the cuts are more of the same straightforward jamming. Geddy is not Neil Young vox-wise, but “Mr. Soul” is decent. It’s odd to hear “For What It’s Worth” (i.e. the song used in every other Vietnam protest montage in a film), but the mellowness gives you a nice breather from the rest of the scorching on the album.

I dig their take on “The Seeker,” which shows Alex Lifeson’s ability to channel Pete Townshend and really windmill through the power chords. There’s also a good Love cover of “Seven and Seven Is,” where Neil takes off on the drums. (It’s funny that on the original recording of this, Snoopy Pfisterer couldn’t keep up with the 30-some takes needed in the studio, and frontman Arthur Lee had to take over for him. Peart, of course, has no problems with this.)

The hottest cut on the album is “Crossroads,” the old Robert Johnson classic best known for its coverage by Cream. Alex does just as good a job as Eric Clapton on the feedback-laced fretwork for this one. You can tell the band had a lot of fun with this EP by the way they blast through these songs, and this is no exception. It’s funny that many panned Rush’s first album as being a Zep/Cream ripoff, and thirty years later, they’re covering a prototypical Cream song. What’s even funnier is that they sound so much like a bunch of 19-year-olds playing this stuff out at a local gig, and not a trio of multi-platinum artists who have spent decades filling stadiums by playing odd-meter geekfests of songs about nuclear war and talking trees.

I really enjoy this album, although it started a bad precedent. They toured in support of this EP, and a few years later, they’re releasing a live album for the tour supporting the live album they released when they recorded a DVD of a tour they did supporting an EP that they… hey, when is a new studio album coming out? Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but I think we all wish they would get back on the four studio albums/one live album rotation. I’m glad they had fun with this one though.

Rating: 8.5

 

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Rush – Roll the Bones (1991)

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. I blame The Scorpions for this didn’t-age-well trend.)

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.

Rating: 4

 

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Rush – The Story of Kings (1992)

I’m a sucker for “unofficial releases” that are nothing more than a journo’s taped interview with a band, later set to CD-R boot. And here’s a classic example of this non-canon release: a half-hour chat with Alex Lifeson. Although the internets give this a release date of 1992, the conversation dates it at 1987-ish, around the time of Hold Your Fire.

Listening to Alex talk is always an interesting proposition for me. I always think of Geddy as the voice of the band in the literal sense, but so much of what I’ve read over the years, both in books and in the actual lyrics, are written by Neil. So the thought of Alex doing anything other than playing the six-string is out of sorts for me. But it turns out he’s a wonderful conversationalist in this interview. A good chunk of the talk deals with how the band approaches music, and he details their unique writing process. When the band hides away on a Canadian farm for a few weeks to write, Neil is in one end of the house, shuffling papers and penning lyrics, while Alex and Geddy are at the other end, noodling on their stringed instruments, taping riffs and jamming away at embryonic songs. It seems strange that a band with lyrics and complicated music twisted tightly together can write like that, but it works well. Each night, the band regroups and laminates together the raw pieces into well-crafted songs.

One of the funnier bits in the interview is a discussion about the early days, in which Alex admits that back in the day, he used to work at a gas station pumping gas during the week, and then the band went out on weekends to gig. He also said in the early years (the mid-70s), he was barely making rent on a tiny apartment, and when he wasn’t on tour supporting albums like Caress of Steel, he was working as a plumber for his dad. It’s hard to imagine Rush as anything but successful, but according to this interview, they struggled until Moving Pictures.

Lifeson seems to have his head on straight, even if they are somewhat more famous by this point. He emphasizes that the music is most important to them, not the partying, which kept the band together for so long. He also talks about family, and how his then-17-year-old son was more of a friend than a kid to him (he was 34 at the time). He also mentions his son’s teenaged attempts at music and bands, which is humorous.

This interview sounds like it was recorded in a restaurant. Alex is recorded well, but the interviewer’s voice is a bit muffled and has a heavy accent, so it’s hard to hear exactly what he’s asking. There’s not a smooth start or stop on this, and it is by no means a pro release, but it’s an interesting snippet of conversation. You’ll have to hunt to find this one, but if you’re a fan, it’s a nice little view into the late-80s world of Rush.

Rating: 7

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Rush – Fly By Night (1975)

Following a self-titled debut of Led Zeppelin-clone originals and immediately before a tour, John Rutsey, the drummer of this Canadian three-piece walked away from the band, citing health reasons and/or a lack of interest in touring. This could have been the end of the struggling band, but a dude selling tractor parts with his dad showed up with a carful of drums, and became a key component in this band’s huge future.

Neil Peart, fresh off an 18-month stint of starvation, dead-end musical attempts, and a demeaning job of selling trinkets to tourists in London, joined Rush two weeks before their first US tour. In addition to adding his manic drum stylings to the band, he also became their chief lyricist. Both skills are obvious from the get-go on this eight-track LP, with the first song, “Anthem.” Even in the first sixty seconds, we hear Neil Peart’s drumming can drive more complex rhythms than the simple 4/4 Cream/Deep Purple rip-off beats of his predecessor. And the song’s about the Ayn Rand book of the same title, showcasing Neil’s bookworm-dom which would become apparent over the next few albums.

If you compare Fly by Night with the band’s first effort, there are many similarities. Although production is more consistent and solid, it still has the mid-70s echoey sound, as opposed to the cleaner recording on later albums. This was also recorded at Toronto Sound Studios, but instead of a one-inch 8-track, they used two-inch 16-track tape on a Studer deck with a Neve console, which gave it a warm sound and let them be more flexible with overdubs. And behind that Neve console was Terry Brown, the band’s long-time fourth member, who would produce this and the band’s next eight albums.

This album is split almost down the middle into two types of songs: “Life is rough on the road being a rock star,” and “I bet it would be smart to market ourselves to nerdy 15-year-olds who play a lot of D&D.” Case in point on the latter is “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” a near-nine-minute literary epic that introduces the band’s use of concept in their album-oriented music. It’s a prototypical rock music battle, much like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” except it was never featured in a John Travolta album, and the lyrics are more suited for the kind of guy who tries to make his own chain-mail out of soda can tabs and wear it to high school for yearbook picture day. Musically, it’s pretty impressive stuff; Peart is all over the place on the drum kit, and Alex Lifeson contributes a lot of shrieking guitar, including a very bluesy solo towards the end.

The band also showcases their love of J.R.R. Tolkien in the song “Rivendell,” which features some of the stupidest lyrics possible in a song. “Lying in the warm grass / feel the sun upon your…. face.” Ugh. And I should clarify for those of you born in the 1980s that back in 1975, it was not cool in any way to like Tolkein. This was long before the films made it cool, and you were looking at a serious ass-beating if you sat in study hall and perfected your Elven calligraphy between readings of The Two Towers. Taking metal music, the art form of Satan and Ozzy himself, and taking a sudden turn into dreamy poetry about Elves was prime grounds for your parents to whisk you away to some kind of backwater evangelical reprogramming camp, where the ex-con counselors could beat the living shit out of you until they were certain you were heterosexual and would never roll a 2d12 again.

This album’s not all bad. The title track, with lyrics penned by Peart to describe his exit from Canada to London, is a bit foppish but has some decent soloing in it. “Beneath, Between, & Behind” has some cool drumming, including probably what’s the first double-bass on a Rush album. “In the End” has a great sound to it, especially the more-electric second half of the song. Aside from “Rivendell” and “By-Tor,” most of the album is only a slight progression from their first LP’s extremely straightforward hard rock sensibilities. But it’s a good progression, and the birth of what later became a very unique formula.

There are a couple of oddities on this album, so I’ll put them in a nice bulleted list for you:

  • “Beneath, Between, & Behind” was the first song that Peart worked on, and the only Rush song that Geddy Lee did not work on writing-wise in any way.
  • “Making Memories” is the only Rush song featuring slide guitar.
  • “Rivendell” is the only Rush song that does not include drums.

This is a short one, clocking in at a mere 37:18. But if you can overlook the dorkiness, it’s a decent $8 investment for a listen at the first shot of this band’s golden lineup.

Rating: 7.5

 

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Rush – A Show of Hands (1989)

The first concert I ever attended was Rush at the old Rosemont Horizon in Chicago, supporting the Hold Your Fire album. Imagine my amazement when I found that the exact tour I saw was released as a live album! They didn’t record the same show (thank god – the sound at that place was similar to recording a live album inside a large oil storage drum), but they did capture the spirit with the fifteen tracks recorded for this CD. I think if I would have reviewed this back in 1989 when it was released, I would have given it a ten. I think it’s interesting to come back to this two decades later and give it a second look.

This is probably the cleanest recorded Rush live album of the five (or six) officially offered by the band. It’s hard to even tell it’s a live album during most of the songs, because there’s absolutely no crowd noise, and the conditions are absolutely perfect. It’s also important to note that Rush almost never deviates from the recorded version of the song, except maybe an extra “ba-bum” at the end of a song. Combine the two, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish if you’re listening to the live version or the studio version through a lot of the album. Rush fanatics absolutely love this, and think it’s the highest form of perfection and a demonstration how well the trio can play. I’d be more impressed if they could mix things up a bit more, maybe not as much as Frank Zappa did on his ever-changing, ever-mutating setlists, but maybe an extra or different solo here or there.

This album captures the era of Rush after Moving Pictures, but before the band slowed things down and became more irregular with their studio and touring schedule. They blew their wad on the classic, rockable stuff over their previous two live albums, and the only old tune that survives here is the closer, “Closer to the Heart.” Yes, they did play “YYZ” and “Tom Sawyer” on the tour, but this album is just a 75-minute collection of the best parts of the evening, not a historical bootleg-type capture of the whole show. So they really trimmed back the tracklist to only showcase the new stuff.

That means you’ve got a lot of the more dire, more synthified, less guitar-oriented numbers. We’re talking half of Power Windows, a lot of Signals, and a lot of Grace Under Pressure (although not the songs I’d want, and they do “Red Sector A” toward the end of the CD, which usually puts me to sleep.) The one advantage is that the live sound is much better than some of the studio sound on some of these numbers. For example, “The Big Money” (the opener, after a track of the Three Stooges theme music) has a much crisper and a slightly bassier sound to it, and I like it better than the cut on the original album. This is consistent across all of the tracks; without spending hundreds of hours spinning knobs in the studio for that polished sound, they introduce more of Geddy’s bass and a good live guitar sound that challenges the synth-heavy landscape.

There are only four tracks from the album this tour supported, which is also strange. It’s a good grouping from Hold Your Fire, though. They all sound pretty much identical to the album version, which doesn’t do much, but it’s always enjoyable to hear them again. “Mission” was a remarkable live track, because that’s the song where they dropped a million red balloons into the crowd, ala the three red spheres on the cover of the album. It was sensational to be on the first deck of this auditorium and see all of these red spheres float down into the crowd on the floor and then spread out like crimson paint. Unfortunately, you can’t hear this on the live album, but the song’s a nice reminder if you were there (or saw a video).

The highlight of this album is “The Rhythm Method,” Neil Peart’s drum solo. Unlike other albums, this is a standalone solo, not merged in the middle of another song. Peart does a bit of the old-school stuff, but halfway through the solo, his drum kit turns to reveal his electronic drums, and he plays between both sets, using the e-drums to trigger MIDI synth beats that sound like stuff from a big-band number. It’s a completely unique sound and approach, and even though it’s less than five minutes long, it packs a tremendous amount of drumming in a short space.

This isn’t a bad live album. At first, I thought I’d give it a lower rating, because I seldom listen to it, and it’s not a lot of things. It’s not long, and it doesn’t have a tremendous amount of stuff on it. It doesn’t have the old favorites. It doesn’t do anything dramatic or weird or neat (aside from Neil’s solo). It’s a very straightforward capture of one CD’s worth of a concert that was recorded well, end of story. But looking back, it’s such a great-sounding capture of the band at a very key time in their career that’s usually forgotten. I don’t think most people would buy this album to get started on Rush, because there are all kinds of collections and compilations of the old stuff, and I don’t think a fan looking for a good live album would pick this, when they could get one of the older classics, or get a much greater value out of the 3-CD Different Stages CD. But for some reason, I keep listening to this CD, and I think back to when I got it, and it’s just such a perfect little time machine to then, that I realize I do really like this.

Rating: 7

 

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Rush – Caress of Steel (1975)

Okay, before I start, I remembered this tiny bit of trivia, and it took me forever on google to confirm it, so I better just paste it in. This album, in the original LP form, had a bunch of city names under the names of each track. Turns out that the album was written on the road, and those are the names of the cities where that specific song was hashed out. I only find this interesting because a couple of these were written just down the road from where I grew up, in South Bend, Indiana. Here’s the full list, since this has been long-since deleted on CD reissues, as far as I know:

“Bastille Day” – Beamsville, Pittsburgh, Louisville
“I Think I’m Going Bold” – Saginaw, Fort Wayne, Lansing
“Lakeside Park” – South Bend, Saginaw, Terre Haute, Cincinnati
“The Necromancer” – Los Angeles, Toronto
“The Fountain Of Lamneth”
“In The Valley” – Beamsville, Atlanta
“Didacts & Narpets” – Beamsville, Toronto
“No-one At The Bridge” – Beamsville, Dallas, South Bend
“Panacea” – Beamsville, Corpus Christi, Atlanta
“Bacchus Plateau” – Atlanta, Beamsville, Northampton Penn
“The Fountain” – Beamsville, Chicago, Dallas, Lansing, Detroit, Louisville

On to the review. This is a really lopsided album, I hate to say. It’s as if the band simultaneously realized they could write long-length prog rock epics, but needed to write short little AOR ditties to get on the radio. How did they reconcile this? By writing three little songs and two really big ones. They did some good stuff in here, but as an album, it’s not balanced. And the record company thought the same thing, especially since this album did not outsell its predecessor.

Both of the long tracks (“The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth”) remind me entirely of playing D&D in my mom’s basement. Actually, they remind me a little more of the days before my driver’s license or the invention of the opposite sex, when I used to build model airplanes (when they still had the good glue) and listen to Rush tapes on repeat, over and over. Both of the long tracks are excellent and overly geeky, with lots of weird drumming and some strange vocal effects and stories of mystical times and places. “Necromancer” is totally about Lord of the Rings, while “Lamneth” is a more philosophical take on addiction and life. The former even includes a short tie-in to the last album, aka the song “By Tor and the Snow-Dog,” also a long-format tune that I guess needed just a little more.

It’s great to listen to this stuff for the pure nerdiness of it, and to also see a precursor of what would later lead to 2112, among other things. My favorite little bit is “Didacts and Narpets,” which is nothing more than a really quick drum part from Neil Peart, with Geddy shouting a bunch of weird, unintelligible stuff over it. (Yes, I know there are exact lyrics and even a meaning for the title, but I’m too lazy to google for it, and I’m to afraid that if I paraphrase, I’ll get a million Rush fanatics correcting me. The truth is out there.)

Of the other three songs, “Bastille Day” is strong, and gives us a little history lesson wrapped in a Zep-like rock number. It’s solid, but never landed with me for some reason. “I Think I’m Going Bald” is absolutely silly, and evidence that the band ran out of material in the studio. (It was actually written for Canadian band Max Webster.) “Lakeside Park” (written in South Bend!) is a mellower tune, talking about hanging out on Victoria Day at St. Catharine’s, on Lake Ontario. It’s a very sweet little song talking about hanging out with friends on the holiday, and I’ve always liked it. It got the band a fair bit of airplay, especially in their native Canada (although Geddy Lee, in a 1993 interview, says the song now makes him cringe.)

Overall, this isn’t a bad album, although back in the days of cassette tape, I had to do some careful fast-forwarding for each listen, to avoid the bits I didn’t like. It’s dated, and it’s not perfect, but it’s a good effort, considering all of these songs were written in hotel rooms after the band put in a full night gigging on the road. I wish I could like this more, but it’s not exactly like the kind of thing I’d leave in my car and listen to every other day. It’s probably my favorite of the pre-2112 albums, but that’s when things suddenly took off in full-prog-ahead mode, so this is more of an overlooked era for many.

Rating: 7

 

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Rush – Rush (1974)

Every band has to start somewhere. What’s amazing about Rush, after listening to their self-titled first release, is that it’s so far removed from their later core releases, and they went through such a giant transformation by their second album. If you take their second or third album and remove the monster-solo prog-rock geekfests and the Tolkein-meets-Ayn Rand lyrics, you still aren’t anywhere near this one. It’s a miracle this obscure band, scraping by on a self-released album, even got the chance at a second one.

The easiest way to sonically describe this is Led Zeppelin clone with a chick singer. The band blows through eight numbers that are straight-up, simple, forgettable AOR rock. And I guess that’s forgivable. I mean, listen to some of AC/DC’s early stuff and it sure isn’t Back in Black. It’s barely metal as we know it today. Same with KISS, same with a lot of other bands that started before things really got categorized and defined. So here are some tracks of simple bar-band blues, and that’s fine. And Neil Peart wasn’t in the band yet, so you’re trading the all-time best drum wizard for regular old guy John Rutsey clonking away the basic beats. (Rutsey quit the band after their first release, saying that they weren’t going anywhere, and also citing his diabetes as being a problem with extended touring. He, oddly enough, got into amateur bodybuilding after he dropped out of music.)

Probably the biggest problem on this album is the big love-it-or-hate-it of Rush, being Geddy Lee’s vocals. Some people are immediately turned off by his high-register singing, which sounds slightly feminine or falsetto. I personally don’t mind his singing a lot of the time, but there are usually a couple of runs or notes per album that grate at me a bit. Unfortunately, a lot of the stuff on this first album falls under that category. Maybe it’s because there’s a lot more “oooh yeeah” phrasing in the hard rock style, and by the time they started singing more sedate stuff about Dungeons and Dragons and not “baby-baby” bar music, he stopped doing that.

There are a couple of gems in this album. One is the song “Working Man,” which became a live staple for a while, and rocks out well. It also, like many of the songs here, shows that Alex Lifeson is a damn good guitarist, and can really jam away like he just got done listening to a bunch of Hendrix and wants to do similar work. This song is the reason a DJ in Ohio started spinning the record, playing the song on Friday afternoons to their working-class fans. (This later resulted in the band’s deal with Mercury records, and the wider rerelease of this album.) “Finding My Way” is a good opener, and “In the Mood” is funny, but maybe a bit corny. The other stuff is so un-Rush-like it’s only interesting as a historical note. Probably the most interesting thing about this material is that it deals with straight-up, hey-baby sex stuff, which became taboo as the band went on to talk about inevitable nuclear war and starships vanishing into black holes.

The album itself has some interesting history, in that it was pieced together from two different studios. The band’s first release, a cover of the song “Not Fade Away,” was recorded with an original B-side. This work was done at Toronto’s Eastern Studios (where Gordon Lightfoot was putting down most of his mid-seventies albums, too) in a series of graveyard shifts, and included two other original songs, plus the versions of “In the Mood” and “Take a Friend” that ended up on the LP. The band also laid down some more skeletal work on other songs on the studio’s 8-track before becoming dissatisfied and moving to Toronto Sound Studios and self-producing the rest of the album. No record company would touch the album or the “Not Fade Away” single, so the band and manager Ray Daniels formed Moon Records to release both. When the album got picked up by Mercury, long-time Rush producer Terry Brown re-mixed the album into the form most of us have heard.

(Also worth noting: in 2008, the band found an old tape with a different version of “Working Man”, including an alternate solo. This was released directly to the Rock Band video game, and then later released on iTunes. It’s worth the 99 cents to hear this slightly different version if you’re a Rush fanatic.)

All I can really say about this album is that it got a lot better really fast. Completists will obviously want check this out, but it’s a tough sell for the casual fan of the later music. If you’re only familiar with “Tom Sawyer” and newer, a better dip into the old catalog would be starting with Fly By Night, and catching the couple of good tunes here on the first live album with Neil on the drums.

Rating: 6.5

[I feel I need to put some kind of disclaimer on this for giving a Rush album a 6.5 and I’m sure I’m going to hear about it. So, sorry or whatever.]

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Rush – Grace Under Pressure (1984)

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.

Rating: 8

 

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Rush – Moving Pictures (1981)

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.

Rating: 10