Somewhat tentative first steps from a band that’s equally loved and loathed, Rush had yet to develop their own distinctive style and sound on this debut, following too carefully in the hard rock footsteps of forbears Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Jeff Beck Group, and especially Led Zeppelin. Which isn’t to say that this album isn’t enjoyable, it certainly is, but it is on a fairly derivative level, and original drummer John Rutsey is no Neil Peart (not that there’s anything wrong with his playing, it’s quite solid in fact). On the plus side, this quickly recorded album (2 days I think as it was a real “rush job” har har), produced by Terry Brown who would helm all the band’s subsequent albums through Signals, is as raw and heavy as the band ever got. The album starts strongly with the memorably heavy riffs and squealing high pitched vocals of bassist Geddy Lee – a difficult to overcome obstacle to many but certainly uniquely his own and I rather enjoy it so sue me - of “Finding My Way.” Elsewhere, the metallic “What You’re Doing” and the catchy if simplistic boogie rocker “In The Mood” also became immediate concert favorites, while the 7+ minute finale “Working Man” is easily one of the band’s best songs ever. For starters, Alex Lifeson’s heavy riffs are utterly unforgettable, it’s got those great everyman lyrics that anyone can relate to (small wonder then that this is the song that first got the band noticed), and Alex just kills it on the guitar solo. The rest of the album is also enjoyable but more workman-like, with Lifeson’s epic guitar solo at the end of “Here Again” and pretty mellower intro to “Before and After” providing additional memorable moments that stand out from the pack. At times inconsistent material aside, and despite the “acquired taste” vocals, it was obvious that this was a band of extremely talented musicians, and Rush served as a highly creditable launching pad for a career that would long continue with an upward trajectory.
Fly By Night (Mercury ‘75) Rating: A-
For Rush’s second effort new drummer Neil Peart comes aboard, and his literate, thoughtful, fantastical lyrical emphasis and showy drum fills would become major components of the Rush story. Of course, if you replace your solid but workmanlike drummer with arguably the best drummer ever, obviously you're going to improve, and this album was a significant step forward in the band's evolution. Rush have always been a love ‘em or hate ‘em proposition, not the least because of Geddy Lee’s helium high vocals. But early Rush was certainly a more straightforward and metallic outfit, as the hyper-riffing guitars and screeching vocals of “Anthem” can attest; this is one of their best truly heavy rockers ever and it features one of Alex's best raw solos, plus it's their first song to reference Ayn Rand. “Best I Can” and “Beneath, Between & Behind” are also enjoyable if minor rockers that feature compact performances, as does the classic title track (the lone popular "radio track" of the bunch), which is ignited by a catchy riff, a sing along chorus, great lyrics about breaking away from the status quo and changing your destiny, and a notable guitar solo. Then there’s the nearly 9-minutes long “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” which had stuffy critics’ nostrils aflame, what with Alex Lifeson’s garish “look at me” guitar squeals and its multi-sectioned, jam-based, ostentatious displays of “serious musicianship.” Hell, its mere title was easily mocked by the hipster crowd who were all too eager to prove that Rush fans were all geeks, but screw them this song is musically excellent even if it’s lyrically iffy; it is a bit long-winded perhaps but it's also lots of fun for you geeks out there who like to rock out! Another successful epic scale track is the album closer “In The End,” which starts and finishes all mellow but in between you have a nice heavier mid-tempo number. In between, on the lighter side you have “Making Memories,” an enjoyable acoustic foray that also evolves into a ripping electric affair, while The Lord Of The Rings inspired “Rivendell” is a pretty but boring ballad that’s mixed at too low a volume. All in all, though this was a band who were still finding their footing and establishing their own identity - becoming the first "progressive metal band" - this was an enjoyable early offering (I even like the memorable owl album cover) which hinted at even grander statements to come.
Caress Of Steel (Mercury ‘75) Rating: B+
This is the album that began in earnest the band's progressive rock period, and it sold less than its predecessor (not surprising since it's much less commercial) and was generally considered a disappointment. In fact, this is the band's most overlooked early record and as such it's one for the diehards, many of whom consider it something of an overlooked gem. I myself enjoy the majority of it, though it certainly has its pretentious faults. The album gets off to a rousing start with "Bastille Day," which gives "Anthem" a run for its money in the "kickass album openers" department ("Anthem" winning by a narrow decision). Not only does it rock, but you get a history lesson too, which makes the daft lyrics of "I Think I'm Going Bald" that much more disappointing, though it has some solid riffs and soloing. Much better is the nostalgic "Lakeside Park," an anomaly in that it's one of the band's poppiest songs on one of their proggiest albums. Speaking of prog, the band goes full on prog on the albums last two songs, the three-part, 12-minute "The Necromancer" and the 6-part, 20-minute "The Fountain Of Lamneth." If you can overlook the beyond-cheesy spoken work parts and the fantasy-based lyrics (By-Tor returning as a good guy this time!), there's much to like about the music on "The Necromancer." For one thing it's alternately atmospheric and prettily melodic in parts, and there's some good heavy jamming by all three of Rush's first-rate instrumentalists (each among the very best at their chosen instrument), with the complete freakout at around the 7-minute being especially notable. "The Fountain Of Lamneth," in some ways a trial run for the more successful side-long piece "2112," is less successful but still interesting. The cycle of life lyrics are a benefit rather than a hindrance this time, but the song is a bit too all over the place musically, even if certain sections work quite well, the most lucid being the atmospheric, intense "No One At The Bridge," which I remember my roommate including on a mix tape in college! Geddy Lee himself told writer Martin Popoff: "I think there are some beautiful moments, but a lot of it is ponderous and off the mark." I think that's a bit harsh, as the song and the album on the whole can be seen as a seriously flawed but often fascinating step forward into a bold new direction, as clearly this was a band who were going to pursue their very own path.
2112 (Mercury ‘76) Rating: A
Rush’s first masterpiece. An epic 20-minute song cycle based on Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem occupies the entire first side, and it's one of the heaviest, most majestic pieces in the entire Rush catalogue. The album’s theme revolves around a dystopian future society where music is banned, but the lyrical aspect of this sci-fi saga takes a backseat to the breathtaking music, which is expertly sequenced. The brilliant instrumental “Overture” opens the album with a section where all three members display their amazing chops, highlighted by Peart’s powerhouse drumming and Lifeson’s searing guitar solos (this album probably features Alex's finest overall performance in the studio). Heck, I could probably write an entire dissertation on the brilliance of the "Overture" alone, but “Temple Of Sphyrinx” continues with another firm fan favorite, an ultra-heavy piece that blazes from start to finish, while “Discovery” lets the listener come up for air before “Presentation,” which builds to several exciting climaxes and which is highlighted by Lee's impassioned vocals, Peart's awe-inspiring drum fills, and another great raging Lifeson guitar solo. “Oracle: The Dream” is another respite before Geddy’s explosive “Soliloquy” (Neil and Alex in vintage form as well), and the band then brings it all home during the aptly titled “Grand Finale” (whose "we have assumed control" outro is both cheesy and awesome). The entire piece coheres together magnificently, making for a whole that’s even greater than the sum of its impressive individual parts, and if the more standard second side inevitably pales in comparison it nevertheless contains some exhilarating hard rock in “A Passage To Bangkok” (which has quite a catchy pop chorus too) and “Something For Nothing.” The other three songs are more "solid album tracks" rather than highlights, but I also like the moody, mysterious (as you'd expect given its title), soulful "The Twilight Zone," the breezy and heavy "Lessons" (like Zeppelin Rush expertly used light and shade contrasts, though I understand those who find the shrieking vocals here and elsewhere grating even though I personally like it), and "Tears," a rare straight up ballad from the band. But again, solid though what used to be side 2 in the pre-CD age is, it's the majestic title track, with its expert mix of mellow and heavy sections, interesting story, and especially its astounding musicianship and overall cohesiveness, that makes this album a landmark prog-metal classic. 2112 stands as many a Rush fanatic’s favorite album, as its far-flung ambition is matched by the flawlessness of its execution (even the cover art is classic). Almost as importantly, the success of the album gave the band a career, as it subsequently gave them the freedom to do what they wanted, as their record company had to concede that these guys actually knew what they were doing!
All The World's A Stage (Mercury ‘76) Rating: A
Starting an every four studio albums trend of releasing a live album that essentially summarizes and commemorates the closing of that particular musical period, All The World's A Stage remains my favorite live Rush album. Early Rush produced their heaviest and most straightforward music, and this album captures a crisp, raw performance with an energetic but unobtrusive Canadian crowd on hand to support their homegrown heroes. Although this concert album meanders too much at times, such as on the extended “By-Tor & The Snow Dog” (which is still very good, by the way), by and large Rush treat listeners to electrifying renditions of their best songs to date. "Bastille Day" and "Anthem" provide a blistering 1-2 punch to start the album, the transition from "Fly By Night to "In The Mood" works exceedingly well, "Something For Nothing" is very good and very heavy, "Lakeside Park" is a bit more rocking than its studio counterpart (and the same could be said for all these songs in general), and the condensed "2112" that focuses primarily on the heavy parts is exceptional. Also notable is Neil Peart gracing the first album’s “In The Mood,” “Working Man,” and “Finding My Way” for the first time. The latter two songs are switched back and forth during a memorable medley where they’re both given a take no prisoners metallic sheen that demonstrates an awesome instrumental unit in full fury. Fittingly, Peart finishes things off with the obligatory drum solo, but all three band members are in fine form throughout, with Lifeson in particular being granted more leeway than usual to stretch out. Perhaps some of these songs are too faithful to the originals (the "one two buckle my shoe ad-lib during "In The Mood" being a cute exception), but All The World's A Stage delivers the heaviest versions of their heaviest songs (fittingly also including "What You’re Doing"), and as such it functions as a highly enjoyable "best of" their early years.
A Farewell To Kings (Mercury ‘77) Rating: A
Another prog rock album through and through, A Farewell To Kings contains more complex time signatures, rapid fire chord progressions, mind-melting solos, and cosmic sci-fi based lyrical themes. Although critics scoff at such high minded pretentiousness, the band's many fans scooped this stuff up ravenously, yours truly included. This is because this is an extremely tight and musicianly trio that can REALLY play. In fact, they have the fullest sound of any power trio I can think of, especially since Geddy Lee’s synthesizers are becoming a more dominant aspect of their sound, adding depth and diversity to an already full mix. The band’s sophisticated artistry went against the sloppy, unstructured immediacy many fans craved at the time, and Rush were extremely unpopular within the burgeoning punk rock scene of the time (probably 'cause they could actually play!). Nevertheless, A Farewell To Kings contains some magnificently powerful prog rock, and Rush subsequently managed to outlast all inferior punk pretenders. In addition to Geddy Lee's use of synths, the band adds different sounds elsewhere, such as Lifeson's classical acoustic guitar on the terrific title track and the simple, heartfelt hit "Closer To The Heart" (one of the band's signature songs and always a sing along concert favorite), both of which get electric and up the excitement as well, while Peart really ratchets up the accoutrements, adding bells, wind chimes and the like on what's probably his most impressive outing to date (maybe ever). The album contains a nice mix of four shorter songs (by Rush standards) and two epics; among the shorter songs (also including the two aforementioned tracks), "Cinderella Man," written entirely by Lee and lyrically based on the Frank Capra film Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, is another very good riff-driven album track, while "Madrigal," one of the bands shortest songs at 2:35 and another rare ballad, provides pleasant padding. The two epics are the showstoppers though, especially the 11-minute "Xanadu," with lyrics based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem "Kubla Khan." Simply put, this magical multi-sectioned masterpiece is one of Rush's very best songs, as its vastly different sections mesh together beautifully and all three members are at their absolute best. The heavy 10+ minute sci-fi epic "Cygnus X-1," about a spaceship being pulled into a black hole (not your typical lyrical fodder for sure!), was a bit more of a grower track for me, but some overblown inconsistencies aside, it features some fantastic instrumental passages, though when people claim the band's music isn't hooky enough, I suppose it's songs such as this that they're referring to (not that I agree with them, mind you). Anyway, this album contains much of what thrills the band’s fanatical fans yet drives others (primarily critics) to demented distraction, but the pluses here easily overwhelm the minuses, making A Farewell To Kings another smashing success from their prime prog rock period.
Hemispheres (Mercury ‘78) Rating: A
Paying no heed to the punk rock revolution, the band continued their brilliantly ambitious brand of progressive rock, further mystifying critics and thrilling their legions of followers. Reprising the structure of 2112, the entire first half is a suite of linked songs collectively titled “Cygnus X-1 Book II, Hemispheres,” which continues the prior album's last song, which is a pretty cool concept in of itself. This largely instrumental 20+ minute suite is complex yet melodic, atmospheric (the synths really aid on that front), and rocking, and if the story and music aren't quite as majestic or as cohesive as on 2112, it nevertheless is consistently creative. Of course, it's also pretentious (no shit Sherlock) and occasionally overwrought, but Rush always wins me over by virtue of their unparalleled musical virtuosity (Geddy in particular shines on this track) and Peart’s impressive storytelling skills. Alas, side two is another story altogether, with two shorter songs and another extended epic. “Circumstances” is an intense mid-tempo rocker with menacing riffs and thoughtful, cynical lyrics (“the more things change, the more they stay the same”). Even though the great heavy guitar riffs blow the doors off of anything (insert critically acclaimed punk rock band here) ever did, just to keep their detractors happy Rush put in a couple of French lines so that critics could run to their typewriters (remember those things?) and declare how awful and pretentious the band still was. Though some (including myself) find its lyrics to be a tad goofy, “The Trees” is still a cool allegorical rocker about mankind's greed, with the obligatory big bass fills, ripping Lifeson solo, and successful integration of Lee's synths along with dynamic percussive devices from Peart. Lastly, we get “La Villa Strangiato” (subtitled “An Exercise in Self-Indulgence,” which suggests that perhaps the band had more of a sense of humor than their many detractors.) This nine plus minute instrumental has it all for the discerning Rush fan; their much ballyhooed stop and start on a dime tempo shifts, virtuosic playing including several solos (Lifeson at his most soulful), and other assorted excesses that show off an amazing band in full flight. Simply put, this is THE Rush instrumental (along with the "2112: Overture" and later "YYZ") and arguably THE Peart drum showcase (just listen to how people speak of his performance in awe in the excellent Rush documentary Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage), as again the music is complex, atmospheric, and rocking, yet also melodic if not exactly "commercial." Anyway, what a way to end things, and this song and album did mark the end of an era, as Rush would subsequently and quite deliberately go in a less progressive, more commercial direction, with shorter (if still not exactly short) songs, which of course gave them the added benefit of the possibility of getting more radio airplay.
Permanent Waves (Mercury ‘80) Rating: A
Arguably the band's best album to date, Permanent Waves took the band to the next level commercially by shortening songs, adding new influences (most notably new wave), and penning more direct real world lyrics, while still delivering challenging, highly technical and hard rocking (but catchier) music. The album starts off with two classic singles that remain among their most celebrated and most played songs. The exhilarating single “The Spirit Of Radio” is a serious contender for "best Rush song ever" by virtue of its great guitar riffs and uplifting lyrics (sung by an inspired Geddy Lee) about the joys (and perils) of making music. The "all this machinery making modern music" verse is one of my all-time favorites that I can't not sing along to, Peart is in prime, explosive form throughout, there's that nifty little Police-like reggae section, Lifeson's superb shred solo, and even some perky boogie piano towards the end - everything fits perfectly. “Freewill” was another instant classic which features cynical but ultimately uplifting lyrics from Peart about freedom of choice, and musically it contains an absolutely breathtaking guitar solo from Lifeson, plus Geddy's "each of us..." vocal section provides another high pitched high point. My wife likes Rush and points to this song as a prime reason why, namely she appreciates their intelligence (great lyric: "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice"), proving that it is indeed possible for women to like Rush! The sinister, largely instrumental 7+ minute “Jacob’s Ladder” continues with the first of several strong, underrated album tracks, this one atmospheric, intense, and quite heavy at times, with another memorable screaming guitar solo from Lifeson and superb playing by all involved. The oddly catchy "Entre Nous" is a less ambitious but still mighty fine tune, with thoughtful lyrics about relationships, while the moody "Different Strings" is another rare ballad (oddly enough like "Tears" penned by Lee) that's probably the weakest song here, though it's a grower track that I've learned to appreciate. Lastly, the darkly explosive, multi-sectioned, near-10 minute epic “Natural Science” is this album's dazzling if arguably a bit overdone prog rock behemoth, and is the song here that most recalls their prior work. On the whole, this album saw a leaner, more economical outfit who still liked tricky time signatures but who weren't averse to including a catchy chorus as well. If I could launch a minor complaint it would be that, at only six songs and a mere 35:35, today the album seems stingy in this CD age of ever expansive (and often over-long) running times. However, this is a nitpick, as Permanent Waves showcased Rush at the peak of their powers, and along with Moving Pictures it's probably the best starting place in getting acquainted with the band (excluding compilations like Chronicles).
Moving Pictures (Mercury ‘81) Rating: A+
Rush’s critical and commercial peak ("Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight" in particular are still often-played radio standards), Moving Pictures was a blockbuster release that took them to another level as a headlining arena band. Like Permanent Waves, this highly accessible album features a hit-filled first side and an also very good second side that's comprised of underrated album tracks (at 7 rather than 6 songs this album seems a bit more complete though). Geddy tones down his high-pitched shriek on this album, and it's the band's synthiest and most electronic-based album yet (everyone always raves about what a great bassist Geddy is but the synths here are brilliantly hooky and atmospheric throughout), but it's still a great guitar album, though Lifeson's guitar tone is more streamlined and new wavey than in the past. The album begins with their signature song, the wonderfully moody yet rocking "Tom Sawyer," with those big synth washes, great inscrutable lyrics, and maybe the most famous drum solo in rock history (I air drum to it every time I hear it!). "Red Barchetta" is a great car/driving song that Bruce Springsteen would be proud to call his own, and "YYZ" (call letters for Toronto's Pearson International Airport) is one of their signature instrumentals on which all three members dazzle; it's best known as a drum showcase as Neil would often incorporate his drum solo within this song in concert, but Alex and Geddy (on synths) add classic solos as well. "Limelight" has those classic opening riffs and if anything gets better from there, as it has some of Neil's best writing about his ambivalence towards the rock star life (on meeting fans: "I can't pretend a stranger is a long awaited friend"), arguably Lifeson's greatest guitar solo highlighted by an incredible sustained high pitched note, and fabulous drum fills throughout. Again, what used to be side two is less impressive but still very good, starting with the dramatic "Camera Eye," this album's impressive if slightly over-long (11 minutes) nod to their prog roots. Continuing, "Witch Hunt" was the darkly paranoid first installment of their "Fear Trilogy" (later followed by "The Weapon" on Signals and "The Enemy Within" on Grace Under Pressure), and "Vital Signs" ended the proceedings with a lighter Police/reggae influenced track where again the lyrics ("everybody need reverse polarity") are far from your typical hard rock fare. Anyway, on the whole it's hard to find too much fault with this classic album, on which all the band's best attributes came together. Although they had produced consistently fine (and some excellent) albums over the course of the previous eight years, this album made them stars and expanded their fan base considerably; they already had a hardcore following that was near-religious in their fanaticism. Synthesizers are now an accepted element of the band’s sound (something that would help cause their decline down the road), but here they are used very effectively, adding textures to their sound without drowning out the core instruments of guitar, bass, and Neil Peart’s magnificent drums. “Tom Sawyer,” “Red Barchetta,” “YYZ,” and “Limelight” especially all deserve their classic status, and Neil Peart himself felt that all their prior albums were basically the training ground that led to this masterpiece.
Exit...Stage Left (Mercury ‘81) Rating: A-
Another four studio albums had passed, so it was time for another live album, this one marking the end of a golden era for the band. Even the critics, who generally missed the boat completely regarding this band, would be hard pressed to deny the quality of the songs on this set list, "Limelight" being the lone inexplicable omission. Whereas All The World’s A Stage featured notably rawer, more improvised versions of previous band standards, these versions generally stray little from their studio counterparts. This fact, plus the sterile sound which somewhat neutralizes what are predictably fine performances, makes this less essential than the prior live album even if it is another strong release overall. There’s not a bum note to be found (in part because of studio touch ups, alas), and some of the songs are given extended treatments, such as “YYZ,” which includes a prolonged Peart drum solo, "Jacob's Ladder," whose powerful rendition features a soulful new intro, and "The Trees," now with a classical guitar intro titled "Broon's Bane." Also notable is the crowd participation in "Closer To The Heart" and the surprising inclusion of a pair of earlier tracks ("A Passage To Bangkok" and "Beneath, Between & Behind"), while “Xanadu” and "La Villa Strangiato" (with vocals!) feature particularly spellbinding performances. It may not offer anything especially new, but Exit. . . Stage Left is still an enjoyable addition to any Rush collection and it works as a nice companion piece to All The World’s A Stage.
Signals (Mercury ‘82) Rating: A-
Although Signals is another very good Rush album, this is where the band really started to change direction, and not for the better. Symphonic synths are now arguably the principal component of the Rush sound, which is decidedly more electronics-based and produced (meaning it's more dated to the '80s, alas), and which owes even more to the new wave and even techno movements. Often dreamy and ethereal, and considerably less heavy and aggressive, the album also features more subdued and "normal" if less distinctive vocals from Lee, and though I dig the overall vibe of the album, some of the songs aren't all that memorable since the focus is more on sounds, moods, and textures than songs (though there are certainly good songs too). The album is also devoid of the expansive epics we've come to expect, containing a whopping eight songs (for Rush that's a lot!), only two of which exceed the 6-minute mark. "Subdivisions" starts the album with an obvious standout that's simply one of the band's biggest and best songs ever. Sure, it's synth-based, but it's also atmospheric and catchy (if a bit hokey on the chorus) as hell, with great easily relatable lyrics about teenage alienation, plus for all my complaining about excessive synthesizers this song still has a cool guitar solo. So does "The Analog Kid" (and several others, come to think of it), another great track notable for its fast pace, spidery riffs, terrific imagery, and especially its emotional vocals on the chorus. Next, who but Rush would write a song about "Chemistry" (?), and "Digital Man" is another funky nod to The Police. Both of these quality songs have grown on me though I don't consider either of them album highlights, unlike "The Weapon," the stellar next installment of the "Fear Trilogy" (sequentially released in reverse order) and an intense, edgy performance, with another interesting lyric and good guitar solo. "New World Man" is somewhat controversial among fans because it's probably the band's poppiest song ever, certainly to date, but this catchy, bouncy new wave influenced effort (the band's lone top 40 U.S. hit!) also has a propulsive rock drive and is quite enjoyable. "Losing It" is a pretty, melancholic ballad, with Ben Mink's prominent violins adding ambiance as Rush were stretching out and allowing outside musicians to contribute, while "Countdown" provides an uplifting finale by recounting a rocket launch in wide-eyed fashion (Geddy's synth soloing here must also be mentioned). Again, this is a very good album, but on the whole I can't say I'm thrilled with the band's change in direction, as Lifeson’s guitar plays a more understated (though still important) role, while Peart’s drums simply don't sound as superb as in the past (again you can mostly blame '80s production techniques for this). Still, Signals contains some of Peart’s best and most perceptive (and most human) writing, and musically this highly atmospheric album is consistently listenable and at times outstanding, even if in retrospect it heralded the dawn of a new era and style that would soon cause the band’s fall from greatness.
Grace Under Pressure (Mercury ’84) Rating: B+
I have an affection for this album that most people (barring Rush fanatics, who love everything the band does) don’t seem to share, though further slippage is evident, most obviously on a pair of filler-ish side two tracks; a weak chorus mars “Kid Gloves” and "Red Lenses" isn't much of a tune despite being a Neil Peart tour de force on the drums (the term "math rock" comes to mind here, and not in a good way). And though Lifeson’s guitar seems like an afterthought at times (he plays more rhythm than lead guitar), Peart's electronic drums scream "1980s!" (again, that's not a good thing), and “The Body Electric” has lyrics that only an android can appreciate, who but Rush could take “1-0-0-1-0-0-1 S.O.S.” lyrics and make an oddly catchy chorus out of it? OK, I understand those who would question why anyone would even try, but really, some of Peart’s best lyrics appear in some of the other songs here, including the anthemic first track (and modest hit single) “Distant Early Warning,” the album’s heaviest rocker which demonstrates the band’s fascination with Cold War isolationism (it's worth noting that the gloomy, cold music on the album is a perfect match for the stylish album cover, one of the band's best). The reggaefied verses again nod to The Police, but really the song is all about the surge on its chorus, as this is a synth-drenched but genuinely exciting rocker. After "Distant Early Warning" comes a pair of the band's most moving songs, as the album is nothing if not frontloaded. “Afterimage” is a highly atmospheric, emotional song about the loss of a dearly departed friend, while the deeply affecting “Red Sector A” brings the horrors of the Holocaust vividly to life, a topic that clearly hit close to home as Geddy Lee's parents were Holocaust survivors. Elsewhere, "The Enemy Within" completes the "Fear Trilogy" (again presented in reverse chronological order) with probably its weakest entry, but it's still a solid album track, with an interesting ska influence though it's still decidedly atmospheric, while "Between The Wheels" is something of an "overlooked gem" and provides a surging, soaring finale. So, even though it’s a bit inconsistent by Rush standards and it further veers away from rocking out in favor of mechanized atmospherics, Grace Under Pressure (produced by Peter Henderson instead of Terry Brown) is still a very good album containing several truly excellent songs.
Power Windows (Mercury ‘85) Rating: B
Peter Collins produced this one, and truth be told I'm not a big fan of the sound on this album, as the band's over-embrace of technology sapped them of the raw power provided by their earlier albums, plus the abundance of electronics and cheesy '80s synthesizers (at the expense of the guitars) makes the album sound even more dated than the prior two efforts. It's funny how what sounded futuristic then sounds so dated now, but truth be told the songwriting is less impressive this time as well. Don't get me wrong, there are some fine songs here and the album is quite listenable on the whole, but it lacks significant standouts aside from the emotional, soaring "Marathon," and even in this case the version here pales next to the superb live version on A Show Of Hands. "The Big Money" was also a very good pop song, and a hit too, while my other favorite album tracks are probably "Manhattan Project," which provides another history lesson and which musically is sorta funky and evolves into a good fast paced groove, and "Middletown Dreams," which lyrically recalls the themes of "Subdivisions" and musically sees Rush melodic and melancholic. I don't have that much more to say about this album, as truth be told I rarely listen to it and it's the album where I started to become less interested in Rush (at least new Rush as I've never lost my enthusiasm for their first decade of work). It's still a solid album overall, but not one of my favorites. Note: Since the next few albums constitute my least favorite Rush period, I'm going to briefly sum them up rather than write fully-fledged reviews of those albums. The next album, 1987's Hold Your Fire, also produced by Collins, was more of the same but even weaker. Although not a bad album by any means, it's pretty unexciting overall and again there are too many keyboards and dated '80s sounds The two modest hits, "Force Ten" and the Aimee Mann enhanced "Time Stand Still," are the best songs, though there are a few other good ones with "Mission" probably being the best of the rest. The live album commemorating the four prior albums, 1989's A Show Of Hands, was a distant third among Rush live albums to date, though again it too had its moments such as the aforementioned magnificent version of "Marathon" which remains one of my all-time favorite Rush songs (nice to see "Witch Hunt" there too, though I'm not sure another version of "Closer To The Heart" was needed). 1989's Presto, produced by Rupert Hine, was an improvement, as it was a guitar-driven effort (the keyboards are there but more in the background this time), though it was another album showcasing a mellower, more "mature" (i.e. more boring) Rush. Again the songs are streamlined, prog rock being a thing of the past, and again the best songs are the hits ("Show Don't Tell," "Presto," "Superconductor," and especially "The Pass," an emotional anti-suicide number), though there are some notable album tracks as well, such as the aggressive "Chain Lightning" and the dramatic closer "Available Light." 1991's Roll The Bones was also solid if nothing special, in a similar style as Presto but funkier and perhaps with slightly better songs overall, though again it lacks a certain excitement (both albums have more harmonies than usual it should also be noted). Still, the album contained a pair of catchy, memorable hits ("Dreamline" and the title track, the latter despite its regrettable rap section) and some strong album tracks (the pretty "Bravado," the anthemic yet melancholic "Heresy," and the atmospheric semi-ballad "Ghost Of A Chance") along with other songs that are too often interchangeable and/or forgettable. On the whole, these albums were commercially successful and they have their fair share of supporters and solid songs, but I rarely listen to them since there are so many better options within Rush's prolific output.
Chronicles (Mercury ‘91) Rating: A+
A generous sampling of virtually every Rush album throughout their long existence (up until Presto), this 2-cd compilation - the first CD as opposed to tape or record I ever bought, so it’ll always be near and dear to my heart - is a great starting point for anyone not familiar with the band. However, since Rush was an album artist by nature and had many long songs and extended song suites, compiling an album of this nature was bound to leave off many quality songs. In fact, hearing many of these songs taken out of their proper context will likely jar many a listener. Still, Chronicles is a fascinating journey from beginning to end of Rush’s most commercial efforts, and it expertly documents the different phases throughout the band’s illustrious career. The song selection is excellent, even though it focuses equally on each album (two songs apiece from every studio album except Moving Pictures, which places three, and Presto, which only places one), thereby omitting many satisfying songs from albums that have an abundance of great songs. I probably would've found room for "Xanadu" at the expense of "A Farewell To Kings" and the live version of “What You’re Doing” (both this and the live version of “A Passage To Bangkok” were likely included here because they were omitted from the original CD versions of All The Worlds A Stage and Exit...Stage Left, respectively), but on the whole I have few complaints, though unsurprisingly the quality dips towards the end of side two (I personally would've included "Marathon" rather than "Mystic Rhythms" from A Show Of Hands and "The Pass" rather than "Show Don't Tell" from Presto but these are nitpicks). This timely retrospective of mostly awesome songs made any critic who had previously dismissed the band look pretty foolish, though true fans of the band will no doubt prefer to visit these songs within the contexts that they were originally intended for (i.e. the original albums).
Counterparts (Atlantic ‘93) Rating: B+
With their vitality having been undermined by a torrent of synthesizers in recent years, it took Rush rekindling their love for the electric guitar to really get me excited about them again. Although still a tad too clean and mechanical for my taste, Counterparts was their heaviest and not coincidentally best album in years, as it packs a sonic punch that their previous albums lacked. Patrick Collins is back producing but things are much different this time around, perhaps in part due to the assisting presence of engineer Kevin “The Caveman” Shirley but also likely due to the influence of grunge, much like how new wave had influenced them years earlier. Stripping things down to bass-guitar-drums, with minimal keyboards and electronics, Rush get back to riff-based hard rock here, and though the songwriting is a bit hit and miss (none of the songs are bad but a few are rather nondescript though they still at least sound good), diehard fans (of which there are many!) could take solace in the fact that this effort contained some prime performances. Geddy Lee delivers some dramatic, impassioned vocals (“Nobody’s Hero” and “Everyday Glory” in particular standing out), and they finally unleash Lifeson on lead guitar. He contributes some heavy, quality licks on several stellar songs, including “Animate,” “Stick It Out,” “Nobody’s Hero,” and “Cold Fire,” the latter probably their best song in ten years, propelled by its breathless rush of a chorus. All of the aforementioned songs (aside from “Everyday Glory” which like “The Speed Of Love” is an atypical mellower effort that recalls Journey more so than what Rush was previously known for, but hey I like Journey so that’s ok) received significant radio airplay back in the day, as the album was both a resounding critical (the groovy, rhythmic, atmospheric instrumental “Leave That Thing Alone” can also be added to the band’s list of fine instrumentals) and commercial success. Note: I’m a bit burnt out on Rush at the moment, so I’ll postpone more proper reviews for now and end this page by saying that I like most of their subsequent work as well, though on the whole I’m not as familiar with it. Recent albums have been quite heavy if over-long, with 2012’s Clockwork Angels being their best post-Counterparts offering. Naturally, there have been several live albums as well, with the 3-CD Different Stages being the most notable one (in particular because of the live disc from 1978). In recent years the band also seems to have gained some of the praise from the pundits that had long eluded them, with placement in VH1’s (admittedly dreadful) 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list, the aforementioned 2010 documentary Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage, and finally enshrinement into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2013 (where Lifeson made one of the most bizarre induction speeches in recent memory).
Clockwork Angels (Anthem, Roadrunner '12) Rating: A-
With Rush having (at least temporarily) retired from touring, it seems like a good idea to review Clockwork Angels, which may turn out to be the last Rush studio album. If that's the case, it's a mighty fine way to bow out, as this is probably the band's best record since they fell in love with synthesizers about 30 years. Don't get me wrong, there are atmospheric synths on this album, as well as strings (sometimes quite prominently), but this is also a heavy, hard rocking set of tunes. If I could nitpick, I'd say that this 66-minute album could be trimmed by a couple of songs, and that the songs on the whole could be a bit hookier; it took several listens for me to appreciate most of these tracks. The album’s strength is in its consistency, but highlights (the first four songs, "The Wreckers," "Headlong Flight," "The Garden") do emerge, and some of these long-ish songs have an epic scope that recalls their prime progressive period. Above all else, the band delivers a masterclass in musicianship throughout, especially drummer Neil Peart, who provides many a pounding, propulsive reminder why so many people consider him the greatest rock drummer ever.
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