Thursday, July 8, 2010

Rush. Yeah, Rush. You wanna make something of it?

(one more chapter of the "Camaro Rock" book -- and then you gotta buy the rest, dammit! Er, assuming it will ever be a) finished and b) published. Both of which are extreme wishful thinking.)

I like Rush a whole lot.

I realize that's an incredibly nerdy thing to admit, akin to saying you're a "really big fan" of, say, a theoretical physicist or an architectural draftsman, but there it is. My intro to Rush came via "Tom Sawyer" cranked top volume on a school bus in the mid-80s -- I wasn't what you'd call a huge fan (honestly, my musical taste ran more to Duran Duran) but there was definitely something to the group's odd, crystalline, mathematic brand of rock and roll power.

To begin with, Rush are Canadian. Now, say what you will about Canada and Canadian rock (and you will), there have been some awesome Canadian rockers over the years (Neil motherfucking Young, for one). Sure, the cliche is that Canadian rockers are polite and neatly-scrubbed and lack the danger of their American counterparts, which is at least partially borne out by reality (Glass Tiger, anybody?). But Rush -- despite their rep as mathrock nerds -- are, if nothing, completely impolite. They patently refuse to be pigeonholed into a genre (are they prog? Hard rock? Metal?), they write dense and incomprehensible songs, they don't give a flying how-do-you-do about the latest trends, they made pretentious concept albums when such things were outta favor, and they do what they want when they want. They're basically a gigantic middle finger to everything polite in rock. And yet, legions of teenagers -- from bemulleted dirtballs to nerdy bandgeeks to Joe American -- continue to adore them despite their affront to apparent good taste. To them, I say: good on ya.

Meanwhile, among music fans "with taste," the band is among rock's most despised. No other group in the history of the form (except maybe Lady Gaga) has inspired so much love-'em-or-hate-'em polarization. Few people just kind of like the group. You either love 'em or you despise them with a force unmatched. The focus of the group's ire (and affection!) is twofold -- most people's emotions center around drummer Neil Peart. He's the posterboy for overplaying -- his comically large drumset is adorned with a million drums ranging in size from gong to thimble, and he seldom lets a moment pass in music without throwing in an adornment or filligree of some kind. He's good, but his problem is (or seems to be) that he's too good.

The other issue people have with Rush is Geddy Lee's voice, and the issue they seem to have with him is that he sounds like a girl. Now, people have the same issue with Jon Anderson and Tiny Tim (for example) but while those guys sound pretty, Geddy's strange, adenoidal voice makes him sound like -- well, an alien girl, honestly. It's absolutely an acquired taste, like foie gras or beets -- you either learn to love it or it makes you wanna puke for the rest of your life.

Rush's lucky break came early on in their recording career, when original drummer John Rutsey left (due to diabetic complications, sadly) and was replaced by Peart. Rutsey was a serviceable hard rock drummer, and the group under his sticksmanship was a perfectly serviceable Zeppelin clone with very little to recommend it except bassist Geddy Lee's voice and Alex Lifeson's heavy guitar attack. Their first LP is heavy and generally okay but certainly no kind of masterpiece, and resembles nothing more than a Foghat LP -- second tier metal, with a decent crunch. Peart, on the other hand, is certainly distinctive. Playing twenty notes when one would probably do, accurate to the point of being a living drum machine, and writing a particularly high-falutin' brand of lyrical poetry, Peart gave the band an identity -- he pushed them into the realm of progressive rock while retaining the heavy-hitting smackdown of the first album. Suddenly, Rush were brainy rather than boneheaded. Suddenly, a new audience opened up for 'em -- camaro guys AND the math league loved 'em.

It's on "Fly By Night," the group's second LP, that they become RUSH, all caps, full signifier. The record contains their first radio-ready hit, the catchy and rather wonderful "Fly By Night" which positively soars under a terrific Alex Lifeson guitar hook. Elsewhere, the group veers between the busy, mathematic/architectural heavy rock that would eventually become its stock in trade ("Anthem," "Beneath, Between and Behind") and gentle hobbit-rock ("Rivendell.") "Caress of Steel," its followup, is another step in the right direction, and fans of the band will certainly enjoy the 20-minute epic "The Fountain of Lamneth" while acknowledging that it's still an unformed, nascent vision of what would eventually make the band a beloved entity.

"2112" was the group's first cult classic. Legions of Rush fans who favor their 70s work swear this is the group's apex, but I almost never listen to it. Side one is a futuristic multipart epic, and a far more insightful try at such than anything they'd yet attempted. It's heavy, goes a million places, and generally is a blast to listen to. I find the album's remainders, including nominal hit "Passage to Bangkok," to be only okay -- a bit unfocused, not as radio-ready as they should be, fussier than they are catchy. But millions swear by it, so, as they say, your mileage may vary.

"A Farewell To Kings" and "Hemispheres" find the group expanding their sound gradually, letting in different textures (keyboards! Every guitar under the sun!) and sharper songwriting -- everybody knows "Closer To The Heart" from "Farewell" and the grating-but-amusing "The Trees" from Hemispheres, and the "Cygnus X-1 Book 2" suite on the latter album is probably their best and sharpest sidelong epic. But suddenly on "Permanent Waves," in 1980, the group makes a sharp left turn that would define the group's sound for the next fifteen-odd years: the eventual dominance of Geddy Lee's synthesizer. Suddenly, the group isn't just a pseudo-cryptic mathrock/metal group -- suddenly you can add "New Wave" to that bloated descriptor. Suddenly, Rush sound like "the future." "Waves" is great -- Opener "Spirit of Radio" sounded like nothing else to that point with its burbling synth intro and the group's slam-bang riffery, Elsewhere "Freewill" is tense and taut, "Entre Nous" is optimistic and catchy and sparkles with synth brilliance, and "Natural Science" is a thrilling epic.

My favorite Rush record -- since I tend to favor their 80s pop work, despite its inconsistencies -- is the awesome, epic "Moving Pictures." Even people who hate Rush (most of my friends, in other words) will admit that "Tom Sawyer," the record's amazing, heavy, stone-cold-classic opener is one of the best album kickoffs in history. Geddy's keyboards begin to dominate the group's sound on the rest of the record, but its no less heavy or insightful because of them -- "Limelight" still powers forward on some of the group's best riffery, "YYZ" remains a classic mathrock instrumental, "Red Barchetta" showcases the group's ever-developing pop side perfectly. Not a dud song on the entire album.

Moving forward into the 80s, the group would never manage an album as consistent again. As Lee's keyboards began to dominate the albums (even over Lifeson's guitar attack), the group's songwriting continued to become more pop-influenced and slightly generic, and this would occasionally hobble their 80s output. They were writing sharp and focused -- they just occasionally forgot "memorable." "Signals" is almost entirely great -- "Subdivisions" is one of the group's best songs, awash with New Wavey keyboards, and "Analog Kid" finds the group propelling forward at an almost punk speed. From there, though, it's pick-and-choose (rule: the albums' openers are almost always their best track). "Grace Under Pressure" has "Distant Early Warning" and the remarkable, futuristic, pulsating "Red Sector A." "Power Windows" has "Big Money" and the catchy "Grand Designs." "Hold Your Fire" (the best of the 80s batch) has "Force Ten," the almost Police-like "Time Stand Still," and the gorgeous "Second Nature." And "Presto" has "Show Don't Tell" and the powerful "War Paint."

By the early 90s and "Roll Your Bones," you can tell Rush has become frustrated with being third-tier wuss-pop (and getting stick from their 70s fans for it). The keyboards slowly start to vanish, replaced with a tougher guitar attack, and the pop sensibility fades slowly over time. While "Bones" still has some catchy pop tunes -- "Dreamline" and the title track are my favorites, and the latter has a particularly funny "rap part" to make it relevant -- the follow-up, the shamefully underrated "Counterparts," features a toughened attack borne of the alt-rock explosion of the time. It wasn't so much Rush following trends as it was a gradual return to an earlier sound that better fit the tenor of the times. Or maybe the group just really liked Nirvana. Either way, tracks like "Stick It Out" and "Leave That Thing Alone" (no, this wasn't a sex-themed concept record) hit with a force the group hadn't mustered in years.

Since then, however, the group hasn't managed a consistently great record. 2007's "Snakes and Arrows" came close -- and thanks to a new audience from online games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, it was their most popular record in a dog's age, too -- but it, like most of "Test For Echo" and "Vapor Trails," is marred by unmemorable songwriting and muddy sonics.

Basically, I like them despite the "taste issues." I think their best songs are terrific examples of smart, catchy hard-rock songwriting. I obviously don't mind a little bit of progginess or mathrock, I have no issue with Geddy's voice (I've learned to love it), and I've learned to overlook Peart's overplaying (by ignoring all but the heavy bits). Whatever you might say about 'em, you have to acknowledge the awesomeness of "Tom Sawyer." And if that's the group's legacy to the world, that is, frankly, enough.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your writing about music, so I only can think of one thing to say about all of this: e-book.
You've got me revisiting lots of old vinyl I've been letting sit in the basement. Thank You!