08 May 2010

Why I love Rush

It's about time I updated this thing. I can't say I've missed the blog too terribly, and I'm sure you haven't either, but for the sake of occupying myself, I'll now embark upon the first of what will hopefully be a series of posts dealing with my favourite things.

In an ideal world, I wouldn't even need to explain why I love Rush a.k.a. the Holy Trinity of Rock. Everyone would already be aware of their face-melting awesomeness and raise their respective goblets of rock in their general direction. Everyone would be in awe of their revolutionary approach to modern music -- their 20 minute-long gargantuan epic story songs, their enthusiasm, and their elegant incorporation of references from everything to Greek mythology to modern philosophy to political and historical commentary to psychology to Mark Twain novels (guess which one). Their scope tends to be so vast, their musical talents so astonishing and ambitious and crazy, that I love Rush for many of the same reasons I love the TV show Lost: I'm just amazed they were able to accomplish what wild and wacky things that they did, even if not every song or album reached the heights such lofty ambitions promise.

Lost entry pending... probably following the grand finale THIS SUNDAY!

Are they the "perfect" band, like a lot of people suggest the Beatles might have been? Not particularly. I find Geddy Lee's voice as weird and high-pitched as a lot of his detractors do... the main difference I think it fits well into their overall style. He's a strange dude, but he works here. While their mid-'70s to mid-and-even-late-'80s output was overall astonishing, they undoubtedly hit some rough patches (as did many people, I'm sure) in the '90s. While even there, they had plenty of songs that still shake me to my core, like "Nobody's Hero" or "Ghost of a Chance," '90s-era Rush was entirely too filled with dreary or falsely spangly output like "Driven," "The Pass," and, possibly the worst of all, "Presto." There was also middle-of-the road stuff (not amazing, but certainly still listenable) like "Earthshine," "One Little Victory," and "Dreamline," not to mention the offbeat but kinda fascinating "Roll the Bones." Nonetheless, only two of those '90s-era tunes can really hold a candle to '70s and '80s-era masterpieces like "Spirit of Radio," "Time Stand Still," "Closer to the Heart," "Subdivisions," and "A Farewell to Kings."

So does that mean their glory has totally faded? Not really, since Snakes and Arrows, their latest full album, was actually damned impressive and something of a return to classic form while also being a mature step forward for the band. It's full of rocking instrumentals, as we've come to expect from Rush, as well as authoritative, intense numbers like "Far Cry" and "Workin' Them Angels," which sift out what worked in some of those '90s songs and yoke it to pure instrumental '70s and '80s-style awesomeness. This is more than can be said of most bands popular in a bygone age, like, say, the Rolling Stones, who undoubtedly deserve props for daring to rock out in their seventies but haven't really recorded much new music of interest. (I know, I know, the Stones are older than these guys, but not so much so that it's not a fair comparison.)

But enough with what they're doing now that may or may not be great. (It is, mostly.) It's how they started out and grew (roughly 1974-1987) that made Rush what they are, love them or hate them (as an inordinate number of people I know do). They started out with a self-titled 1974 album (which was actually recorded just before Neil Peart joined the band, explaining some of its lack of epicness), which, despite being more mellow than many later recordings (especially the fun but not-so-hot "In the Mood"), still contained such exuberant classics as "Finding My Way" and "Working Man."

We then get the one-two punch of 2112 and A Farewell to Kings, arguably my two favourite albums from the band (although I'm currently in the process of acquiring several I don't yet have). 2112 opens with a 20-minute long title track, divided up into sections linked by common musical signatures and a surprisingly, reasonably coherent storytelling thread that follows a young man who has stumbled upon a magical brand of music that promises to bring enlightenment to the people of his land. But his mission is hindered by the priests of the Temples of Syrinx, the leaders of the "tribe" as it were who frown upon such spiritual, "frivolous" things and prefer to focus on the practical. It ends with authoritarian forces assuming control of the planets of the "solar federation." It works both as a single, saga-type song but its sections can be seen as relatively independent, each with their own charms and unique feel. The overture and the intensity of "The Temples of Syrinx" is beautifully juxtaposed with the softer middle segments, resolved by that crescendo of a finale. Just daring, crazy, and amazing! Not only is "2112" formally and structurally daring, but manages to combine sci-fi, adventure, mythology, and political philosophy into one gigantic slice of rock. It's probably the most singular achievement of this singular band. The rest of the album is much more quick, fun, and laid-back (except for the heavy, emotional "Tears") but not any less awesome, especially "A Passage to Bangkok."

My other favourite, A Farewell to Kings, thrills for similar reasons... although it's oddly some of the shorter songs I prefer here. "Xanadu" is a bit too much, really. Overly decadent, and quite apparently druggily incoherent, with talk of "breaking my fast on honeydew," it tries but doesn't quite match the heights of "2112." "Cygnus X-1" does a bit better, especially in the sci-fi department, consisting largely of eerie, moody, evocative metallic, almost robotic sounds and various guitar solos. I gather I'm only getting half the impact of this song, since it's continued on Hemispheres, which I also have yet to receive in the mail, but it still holds up decently while being a tad bit excessive. It's the opening title song that never ceases to rock my socks in every way possible. Starting with an old-timey lute-type intro that perfectly sets the tone for (yet more) political/social commentary about how we've done away with kings only to follow the "paths of least resistance" and have lost past glory. While I do tend to find Rush's politics a tad reactionary and overly nostalgic about some past "golden age" which may or may not have actually ever happened, I can't for a second argue that "A Farewell to Kings" doesn't make a damn persuasive (and intensely rock-licious) argument. "Closer to the Heart," later on in the album, is one of my top-five Rush songs of all time. It's one of their lighter, shorter offerings (like "Fly by Night"), clocking in at just under 3 minutes, but is a full-on sparkling gem of a song, so pretty, so perfectly written, so sincere... it'll break your heart unless you're some sort of rock person.

Having received Permanent Waves (from 1980) recently in the mail, I can say this is a contender for the top spot as well. I already knew the pure energetic, soul-stirring intensity of "The Spirit of Radio" (one of the group's most popular songs, and for good reason), and already knew and appreciated "Freewill" (also up there on the popularity meter). But when "Jacob's Ladder" rolled around, it hit me like a damn freight truck. I can't believe I hadn't heard it before, and I was floored by the excitement of discovering such dark, pulse-pounding awesomeness anew. It's a song that will likely crack my top-five upon further listening. "Jacob's Ladder" is amazing. If you have not heard this song yet, SEEK IT OUT NOW. "Entre Nous" is also a pretty sweet offering -- catchy and upbeat (with bonus points for having a French title) -- and "Natural Science" definitely tops something like "Xanadu" for being one of the better extended songs (although 9 minutes is, oddly enough, not even that extended for a Rush song).

(1982) has "Subdivisions" and "The Analog Kid," two of my already long-established favourites, but other than that is a bit lacklustre. I mean, I'll be listening to it again, but isn't quite as consistently awesome as the latter three albums I've discussed.

And what the hell is with that cover art? Drugs is my only explanation.

Power Windows (1985) is very firmly ensconced in the '80s synthesizer-y sound of Rush... but I'm more than OK with that. It's more tonally and narratively consistent than Signals, and more modern and earthbound in its subjects of discussion than something like A Farewell to Kings or 2112, and therefore shows Rush moving in a slightly different, still exciting direction. "The Big Money" has one of my favourite bass lines of all time, and while the subject matter (the evils and complexities of money) is familiar, it more than holds its own among other famous money-related songs like "For the Love of Money" by the O'Jays and, best of all, "Money" by Pink Floyd. (I actually like the Floyd song a bit more than this one, but it's a reasonably close contest). "Marathon" and "Mystic Rhythms" weren't some of my favourite songs upon hearing them on Rush Gold, but they work a lot better in the context established by this album. "Grand Designs" and "Manhattan Project" are also good stuff.

As for the other albums, I'll have to postpone discussion on them until I get them in the mail. (I recently ordered all the Rush CDs from 1974-87, barring the ones I already had.) I'm particularly excited for Hemispheres (for the continuation to "Cygnus X-1"), Caress of Steel (to witness their early experimentation with gigantic songs divided into parts), and Moving Pictures (to experience "Tom Sawyer," "Red Barchetta," and "Limelight," all bona fide Rush classics, in their proper context).

So as far as rankings go, since I'm a list junkie, here's the albums I have ranked from favourite to least favourite (not including the "compilations" I have, like Gold and the Retrospectives):

1. A Farewell to Kings
2. 2112
3. Permanent Waves
4. Snakes and Arrows
5. Power Windows
6. Signals

Obviously this list is horrifically incomplete, so pay it no heed. Of course, music fans tend to also enjoy picking their favourite band member, just as, among every Beatles fan, there are the George people, the Paul people, and the John people (the Ringo people don't count... I kid... mostly). While I find Geddy Lee an amazing bassist, I find his voice (especially live) and personality (what little I could glean from the concert I attended in Edmonton two summers ago) seem a bit... off. I mean, the vocal incoherence is kind of charming in a way, but it's still... incoherent. (I seriously don't mean this to be an insult to Mr. Lee, who I would still pretty much give my left nut to meet in person.) Alex Lifeson is almost too far into the background despite being, once again, a ridiculously skilled musician. If I knew more about him, he might be the favourite. That leaves...

Neil Peart! If ever a man was the man, this man is it. His kickin' rad giganticohuge drum set, his mastery of all of it, and just the fact that he seems like a really cool guy all work in his favour. He is amazing to watch in action, possessing downright superhuman stamina as we just plugs through really long, really complicated, really fast and furious drum solos. This is all the more impressive since Peart endured considerably tough times over the years, with his daughter dying tragically, followed by his wife, who succumbed to cancer. Peart is also the main lyricist for Rush, the one responsible for the band's crucial focus on philosophy, spirituality, science fiction and fantasy, mythology, and plenty of else drawn from the vast annals of human history. Rush, in summation, would not be what they are without this man.

Well, I've rambled on long enough, but I hope whoever is reading this has enjoyed my sharing of one of my all-time passions in life: the music of Rush. Hopefully I've expressed my enthusiasm adequately, coherently, and intelligently. (I somehow doubt I accomplished the latter two criteria, but meh.) More "Why I love..." entries will be posted soon, perhaps on the Beatles, perhaps on Lost, perhaps on something else. Until then, enjoy this hilarious slice of '80s music video cheese (such a ridiculously cheesy video for such a cool song)...

*Joyous update! I have received six more of the Rush CDs I had ordered in the mail a while back: Rush, Fly By Night, Caress of Steel, Hemispheres, Moving Pictures, and Grace Under Pressure. After giving them a listen, I'll try and add them to the list above. I can already tell that Hemispheres is pretty epic.

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