As the 1970s turned into the ‘80s and punk, disco, and New Wave replaced arena rock at the forefront of youth culture, the giants of prog rock died slow, predictable deaths, either commercially or artistically. Yes awkwardly attempted hair metal, striking gold with “Owner of a Lonely Heart” but acquitting themselves pretty pathetically otherwise. Phil Collins replaced Peter Gabriel as Genesis’ frontman and reinvented the band as a hit machine, but much of what made them interesting in the first place got lost in translation. Kansas and Jethro Tull lost all relevance seemingly overnight and never really recovered. King Crimson made several stellar albums during this period, but Robert Fripp was becoming better known for his groundbreaking work with Brian Eno than that of the outfit that gave him his name. Chances are, if it had long hair, used odd time signatures, and had an affinity for classical-style movements and suites, it wasn’t going to survive in the Me decade.
All of which makes Rush’s output during this period all the more remarkable. The single biggest reason Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart have remained artistically vital over four decades has been their unending ability to make contemporary musical trends sound like Rush, rather than the other way around. It’s a skill that had never been truly tested in the ‘70s, because the music they were making wasn’t completely passé. On Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, they dialed back the song lengths and upped the count of radio-friendly songs, but those albums could still be reasonably classified as both “progressive rock” and “hard rock.” Beginning with 1982’s Signals, neither of those descriptors much applied. Keyboards became the main songwriting tool, and Lifeson’s role shifted drastically. Rush became functionally a New Wave act, with more in common with the Police and the Talking Heads than Yes and Zeppelin. The Moving Pictures track “Vital Signs” predicted their shift in direction, a construction of jittery synths and Stewart Copeland-esque hi-hat work.
That approach is all over the Signals tracks “New World Man” (their only ever Top 40 hit, despite being, like, their tenth most well-known song, if that) and “The Weapon.” Lee’s keyboard capabilities never approached his virtuosity as a bassist, but his early efforts to shift the songwriting process from guitars to synthesizers resulted in some of the band’s best work. The two best songs on Signals are “Subdivisions” and “Losing It,” which are built almost entirely around keyboards but couldn’t be more different beyond that. “Subdivisions” was the high-school-outcast anthem that was basically the most inevitable song ever for Rush to write. It’s also one of the few Rush songs it’s okay for cool-conscious people to admit they like, since its lyrical content is, essentially, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs condensed into five minutes. “Losing It,” on the other hand, is the most unblinkingly gorgeous entry in the entire Rush canon. It’s a hushed, plaintive thing with almost no guitars—it’s utterly unlike anything else they’ve ever done, and it’s also among the most powerful.
Aside from Caress of Steel and Vapor Trails, Signals is the most polarizing album in Rush’s extensive catalogue. It’s a clear dividing line between “old Rush” and “new Rush.” As Rush have added another three decades onto their output, the albums that were once ostracized by diehard fans for their New Wave transgressions are now part of the pantheon. 1984’s Grace Under Pressure is even better than Signals. Keyboards are still prominent, but Lifeson’s guitar work is back at the forefront, and his approach is radically different. The flashy solos and monster riffs of old are gone, replaced by steely, monochromatic textural playing. Lifeson hated this role, but some of his most compelling work is the color he provides for “Between the Wheels” and “Kid Gloves.” Grace is colder and darker than Signals, but the songwriting was tighter than ever. “Red Sector A” is particularly impressive from both a musical and lyrical standpoint. Like everything else by this point, it’s a Peart composition, but its tackling of Lee’s parents’ harrowing concentration-camp experience brings out one of his best vocal performances ever.
Power Windows was considerably sunnier and glossier, but no less impressive. In many ways, it’s the album Rush had been building to ever since they began integrating keyboards. It’s the ideal synthesis of the trio’s instrumental chops and newfound ear for pop melodies. “Manhattan Project” and “Marathon” are as fine of vocal hooks as Lee has ever composed, and “Territories” is the peak of Lifeson’s textural work. At the time, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke called Power Windows “the missing link between Yes and the Sex Pistols,” but a better parallel is a more contemporary one. The album was released in 1985, one year after U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, and Lifeson in particular appeared to be taking the majority of his cues from that album’s blurred aesthetic.
And then there’s “Middletown Dreams,” the single greatest song Rush have ever released. Its depiction of mundane suburban life is somehow even sharper and more vivid than that of “Subdivisions.” It makes room for a killer guitar solo and a wicked synth bridge. It’s the band’s peak as tunesmiths, and boils down the most interesting, forward-thinking period of their musical development to one six-minute piece of note-perfect pop.
Things started to reach the point of diminishing returns on 1987’s Hold Your Fire. The songs were still there, for the most part—“Mission” is one of the band’s all-time high points, and “Time Stand Still” (featuring a guest vocal from Aimee Mann) and “Prime Mover” are highly effective pop-rock. But for the first time, the keyboards started to feel gratuitous rather than groundbreaking. Where Power Windows struck a balance between the flash and the substance, Hold Your Fire tracks like “Open Secrets” and especially “Tai Shan” were bludgeoned to death with syrupy synths. For the second time in their career, they had painted themselves into a corner and needed a radical makeover to get out of it.
The so-called “keyboard era” has come to be my favorite stage of Rush’s career. Beginning with Signals, they produced four albums (three spectacular, one merely pretty good) of smart, engaging New Wave that was current-sounding but not coattail-riding. The success with which they stepped outside of every preconceived notion of what they are supposed to represent made them a better band and, eventually, allowed them to return to their former sensibilities by approaching them a different way, rather than destroying them entirely.
NEXT: Rush return to their power-trio roots with decidedly mixed results, before a tragedy brings the band to a grinding halt.