Tag Archives: Music

“Retired Numbers” – Unrelenting Layers

Books on Tape, a one man project formed by Todd Drootin in 1999, made a name in the early part of the 2000s through a self described “beatpunk” sound spanning four albums. The group’s frantic approach to sampling became its signature sound. After a series of tours, Drootin put the band to rest in 2006 due to a foreboding indifference with music. Last year, while digging through old boxes, Drootin re-discovered a series of unreleased Books on Tape songs which make up “Retired Numbers”, the groups’ first release in six years.

“Retired Numbers” consists of six songs, though the album can be seen as one large tapestry with several movements. The opening song and lead single “Super Dr.” offers an immediate introduction to Books on Tape’s unrelenting, layered approach. “Have You Seen This Man?” picks up off the opening song and features an interplay between guitar/synth/vocal riff, a scrambled noise, and an acoustic guitar sample. The album never lets up from this frenetic pacing.

I find three qualities define “Retired Numbers” – first, as described above, its pacing (if I were on Twitter, I’d say something like this album is the Jeremy Lin of beatpunk sampled music). Secondly, the incorporation of sound in all forms which add depth to each song. Thirdly, storytelling. BoT switches sonic storylines at will, at times within a few seconds into an idea. BoT unapologetically combines these three aspects. It’s difficult to describe specific songs in a usual manner. The final song, “Safety First”, begins with guitar chords, and slowly incorporates drums, a vocal track, and a synth line before morphing into a separate song 50 seconds in. That’s how it is.

Books on Tape retired in 2006. Six years is an eternity in anything, much less music where new genres and movements seem to pop up on a daily basis. Perhaps the most significant theme of the album is that the songs were recorded in the early half of the 2000s and they do not sound out of place today. May all our past ideas be this relevant.

Download Books on Tape’s latest album “Retired Numbers” or past albums on iTunes. Like the Facebook page and of course, follow the Twitter.

Wheels Within Wheels: A Completely Subjective History of Rush (Part IV: 1989-1996)

Illustration by Maddison Bond.

In advance of the June 12th release of Rush’s 20th studio album, Clockwork Angels, Sean Highkin is taking a decidedly unfair and imbalanced look back at the career of his favorite band. Here are Part I, Part II, and Part III  if you missed them.

In the previous installment of “Wheels Within Wheels,” I pointed to Rush’s adeptness at bending rock trends to fit their sound as the chief reason why their 1980s output worked so well. Following 1987’s Hold Your Fire, the synth-layered New Wave sound they cultivated for much of that decade fell out of favor, which was probably beneficial for Rush. While that album was solid, they had begun to back themselves into a corner with keyboard-dominated compositions, and for the first time in their career lost sight of their power-trio roots. These roots would return with a vengeance on 1993’s Counterparts, but the two albums they released prior, 1989’s Presto and 1991’s Roll the Bones, occupy the wide-open time period between the death of the ‘80s bombast they embraced and the dawn of the grunge movement that would reinvigorate them. Keeping up with musical trends is difficult when there aren’t many overt ones to speak of.

What they did with Presto was make an album very similar in spirit to Hold Your Fire, but with most of the keys chopped out. What little keyboard work remained tended towards electric piano. The band brought on producer Rupert Hine, best known at that point for his work with the Fixx and the Thompson Twins, and the result was the most lightweight, jazzy album they’ve ever made. It’s the only record in the Rush canon that could ever be called “forgotten,” since the band members themselves periodically downplay its very existence. “It didn’t live up to its own potential even, never mind our potential,” Neil Peart told journalist Martin Popoff in 2004. “They’re not songs that I would look back and say, ‘this is our best work,’” Geddy Lee added.

Naturally, I beg to differ. Despite the group’s own dismissal of Presto, and its status as the least musicianly album they’ve ever recorded, it’s a record that features some of their strongest pure songwriting. “The Pass” is one of Peart’s strongest lyrical achievements, possibly even at the very top of the heap, an unflinchingly honest attempt to tackle teen suicide backed by an appropriately soaring Alex Lifeson solo. Elsewhere, “Chain Lightning,” “Red Tide,” and the title track feature particularly strong vocal melodies. “Superconductor” is notable for being the only song in history to feature the line “A strong and simple beat that you can dance to” while boasting a main riff in 7/4 time.

It’s easy to see why the band and many fans view Roll the Bones as a superior evolution of Presto’s aesthetic. It’s a more complete, cohesive album, with a few of the band’s all-time best songs (“Bravado,” “Ghost of a Chance”). But while it achieves a greater conceptual unity than its predecessor, it also goes completely overboard on the slickness. Tracks like “The Big Wheel” and “Face Up” border on Adult Contemporary, a copy of a copy of the Joshua Tree-era U2 sound they only truly reach on “Bravado.”

And then we get to the only thing in their discography whose mere existence I’ve ever found myself apologizing for: Roll the Bones’ title track, with its cloying rap section that sounded dated and hopelessly out of touch in 1991 and hasn’t been done any favors by the passage of two full decades. For some reason, Rush kept it in their setlists until 2004, with a video of a skeleton taking on the rap and creating the greatest piece of unintentional comedy they’ve ever perpetrated (the other contenders: the “Time Stand Still” video I included in the previous post, and the baffling medley of “Xanadu” and “Superconductor” they performed on the Roll the Bones tour). Reportedly, Rush’s original plan for the “Roll the Bones” rap involved a guest appearance from LL Cool J, who still had a modicum of relevance at that point and was understandably less than enthused about the prospect of rapping lines like “Stop throwing stones/the night has a thousand saxophones/so get out there and rock, and roll the bones!”

The grungy Counterparts played much more to Rush’s strengths. It was the first time since Grace Under Pressure that a Rush album truly rocked. The intricate musical interplay that dominated the last stretch of records to which the phrase “power trio” could be applied was replaced by power chords—lots of power chords. Lifeson sounds truly in his element for the first time in years, audibly salivating at the opportunity to cut loose again after a decade buried behind a wall of synthesizers. But on Counterparts, his attack is more stripped-down. The menacing “Stick it Out” and “Between Sun and Moon” display some weapons-grade riffage, while album opener “Animate” and “Leave That Thing Alone” (a sleeper candidate for the title of best Rush instrumental) introduce to the Rush palette the concept of a groove.

But while Counterparts is, musically speaking, arguably the strongest of Rush’s post-1980s albums, there’s one massive caveat. It marked the first time Peart’s lyrics delved into personal territory and explored romantic relationships, and suffice it to say that he did not take to it well. The would-be tolerance anthem “Nobody’s Hero” actually features the line “I knew he was different in his sexuality/I went to his parties as a straight minority,” and “Speed of Love” and “Alien Shore” are equally cringeworthy. Only on “Cold Fire,” a he-said/she-said number with a killer hook, does he get the balance right. It’s a shame, too, because Counterparts wastes one of Lee’s better front-to-end vocal performances on easily the worst set of songs Peart has ever written.

Although Counterparts reinvigorated the band musically, Peart himself was compelled to take this self-rediscovery even further. After being referred by former Journey drummer Steve Smith at a Buddy Rich tribute event, Peart began studying with legendary drum teacher Freddie Gruber, who radically reinvented his entire approach. The Peart whose playing is heard on 1996’s Test for Echo is a much more precise drummer, obsessed with white space rather than filling up the sheet with fills, and the new philosophy resulted in the most compelling work in many years from the man who spawned several generations of hyperactive drummers.

Unfortunately, Test for Echo also represents Rush’s unrivaled songwriting nadir. It’s their only work that can legitimately be termed boring. “The Color of Right,” “Half the World,” and “Carve Away the Stone” betray their existence in yet another time of uncertainty in the rock landscape, the immediate post-grunge/pre-garage-rock-revival years. There’s nothing remarkable about most of these songs—I’ve listened to this album an ungodly number of times, and only the stellar “Driven” and the totally out-of-character ballad “Resist” leave much of an impression.

For years, it seemed as though this was how Rush would go out. Shortly after the completion of the Test for Echo tour, Peart’s 19-year-old daughter, Selena, was tragically killed in a car accident, and his wife, Jackie, died of cancer less than a year later. Understandably, Rush effectively ceased to exist at that point, and Peart hit the road on a motorcycle journey that eventually took him to South America. This soul-searching trek is chronicled beautifully in Peart’s profoundly affecting 2002 memoir, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, the best of five such books he’s released (all of which are well worth reading for fans and non-fans alike). Even among Rush’s hardcore fans, Peart has always been somewhat of an enigma, never seeming as eager to do ritualistic media work as his bandmates. He’s garnered a reputation as a curmudgeon and a recluse, much of which seems undeserved. The amount of personal detail he presents in his books and in periodic blog entries on his official site is anything but closed-off—he just prefers to do it on his terms. It’s understandable that he would have wanted to escape everything related to his former life when his entire family was taken away from him, but it would have been a shame if this band had never released music again.

NEXT: Peart returns from his sabbatical to record Rush’s intensely personal Vapor Trails album, which kicks off an unlikely career renaissance that includes, for the first time in their career, some form of mainstream acceptance.

Wheels Within Wheels: A Completely Subjective History of Rush (Part II: 1976-81)

Illustration by Maddison Bond.

In advance of the June 12th release of Rush’s 20th studio album, Clockwork Angels, Sean Highkin is taking a decidedly unfair and imbalanced look back at the career of his favorite band. Here’s Part I if you missed it.

If Rush weren’t the antithesis of conventional rock cool, 2112 would be treated as one of the all-time great punk-rock career moves. 1975’s Caress of Steel tanked, and Mercury threatened to drop the band unless they started writing more commercial material. Neil Peart responded by writing another side-long suite, this one about an authoritarian future world in which music was banned. It was a fairly unsubtle jab, both thematically and sonically, at the label—and it ended up striking a chord with the public in a way that no previous Rush album had. More importantly, its success earned the trio a lifetime pass from any future label interference. Never before or since has such a blatant defying of record-company authority worked out so well—it’s just never likely to get the credit, because of Rush’s lack of critical correctness.

It wasn’t without reason that 2112 hit a nerve while Caress stiffed. The latter record’s extended pieces, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth,” often felt like collections of shorter songs slapped together under one title without much rhyme or reason. 2112’s 20-minute title track, on the other hand, completely and utterly justifies its length. The playing is focused and unified. Geddy Lee finally found a niche for his high-pitched wail that didn’t blatantly rip off Robert Plant. The “Overture” and “Temples of Syrinx” sections of the suite are the modern-day live staples, but the moment when everything truly coalesced for Rush was the transition from “Discovery” to “Presentation.” The idea of Alex Lifeson building a movement literally around the tuning of a guitar would be a nightmare scenario on Fly by Night or Caress of Steel, but he does it here with authority. His interplay with Lee and the buildup to “Presentation” serve as a plot device, but they may as well represent the band’s own simultaneous discovery of identity.

2112’s narrative is iconic as rock opera, but it also brought on a burden of guilt-by-association that Rush have never quite been able to escape. Ayn Rand was explicitly credited in the album’s liner notes as providing inspiration for the epic suite, something lazy rock writers never fail to bring up dismissively even to this day. The trio were decried as fascists (especially hilarious given that Lee is the son of Holocaust survivors), and have unwittingly served as libertarian icons for the last three-plus decades. The continued association is defensible only under the one circumstance Peart will admit to today: that the group found Rand’s brand of individualism applicable to their own struggle with their label’s demands. Their decision to risk going down in flames rather than writing another Rush-sounding album is one that Rand would likely applaud, but that’s more or less the extent of their affiliation with her politics.

2112 endures as perhaps the landmark Rush album not only because of the middle finger it gave to the record industry, but also because it displays Rush’s mastery of the concept suite, an art so many (including Rush themselves) have failed to do credibly. 2112 was the second Rush album I got as a preteen, which happened to be during the one summer I convinced myself I had any kind of talent for screenwriting. I spent several months attempting to adapt 2112 into a screenplay, which proved problematic because I didn’t realize that the songs on the album’s second side were completely unrelated to the epic title track. How was a 12-year-old to know that “A Passage to Bangkok” was actually just about traveling through the Middle East sampling different varieties of weed? Or that “The Twilight Zone” was simply an homage to the TV show? With the exception of the clunky “Lessons” (mercifully the only time Lifeson has attempted to write lyrics for Rush), side two is pretty great, and far more commercial that people give it credit for. The album can be looked to today as a starting point for the fully-formed version of Rush. There would be no more playing spot-the-influence with Zeppelin, Sabbath, or Yes on their record. From this point forward, the only band they sound like is Rush.

The prog-rock version of Rush hit its apex over the next two years, with 1977’s A Farewell to Kings and 1978’s Hemispheres. The lyrical themes were as lofty as ever (Greek mythology, union politics, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, space travel), but musically, they were expanding faster than they could keep up with. Hemispheres’ nine-minute instrumental “La Villa Strangiato” is the only argument anyone needs for the trio’s technical supremacy. It’s a literal clinic of harmonics and intricate, interconnected soloing that fully earns its subtitle “An Exercise in Self-Indulgence.” “La Villa” is, in a nutshell, why Rush are so polarizing. It’s hard for kids wired a certain way like me and, once upon a time, Kirk Hammett, not to be blown away. But those inclined to believe that instrumental flash is antithetical to musical soul or personality have a ready-made talking point.

Elsewhere on Kings and Hemispheres, Rush further honed and perfected every aspect of their identity. “The Trees” and “Closer to the Heart” got actual radio airplay and were unprecedented in the Rush canon for their genuine tunefulness, even if the former feels trite and forced today. Kings’ “Cygnus X-1” and Hemispheres’ 18-minute title track are the group’s crowning narrative achievements, both in storytelling and musical cohesion. “Xanadu” is a strong contender for best Rush song of all time, an 11-minute fever dream with a riff that spawned Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and Peart’s best drumming ever. The version found on 1981’s Exit…Stage Left is my favorite 13 minutes in the history of recorded sound, mostly because I have a thing for double-neck basses.

As awe-inspiring as Kings and Hemispheres were at their best, however, it was becoming clear that Rush were not long for prog rock in the conventional sense. They were beginning to find extended concept suites limiting, and the few that still prevailed on 1980’s Permanent Waves and 1981’s Moving Pictures were considerably shorter and more melodic. Of these, “Natural Science” is some of the band’s very finest work, and “The Camera Eye” foreshadowed their coming foray into keyboards.

Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures aren’t my favorite Rush albums, but I’d be hard-pressed not to call them their best. There has never been a more effective, filler-free synthesis of everything Rush does well than what can be found on these two albums. “Tom Sawyer” is Rush’s “Stairway to Heaven”—you can call it overrated because it’s the song you’re most likely to hear on a classic-rock station, but it’s really not. It’s the closest thing young drummers have to “Smoke on the Water,” something of a rite of passage. I never quite mastered it in high school. It’s a relentless, pulsating thing with a menacing earworm of a synth riff and a masterful repurposing of Mark Twain’s titular character into something not too different from 2112’s protagonist.

The rest of these two albums are largely responsible for what classic-rock relevance Rush does have. Waves’ “The Spirit of Radio” and “Freewill” tested the limits of the mainstream’s willingness to embrace odd time signatures. “YYZ” is their defining instrumental, “Limelight” is Lifeson’s pinnacle as a riff writer, and “Red Barchetta” is as strong a lyric as Peart’s ever penned. There’s a reason Rush performed Moving Pictures in its entirety on 2010’s Time Machine tour—it’s the one album that even the band’s detractors cannot deny, and the cap to one of the most quietly brilliant stretches of albums a rock band has ever hammered out.

NEXT: Rush greets the 1980s with open arms, embracing New Wave and synthesizers.

Wheels Within Wheels: A Completely Subjective History of Rush (Part I: 1974-75)

Illustration by Maddison Bond.

by Sean Highkin

I gave a complete stranger a high-five on the street recently. He was wearing a Rush shirt—one from 2007’s Snakes & Arrows tour, one of far too many that I own. There’s no other rock band I’d feel compelled to do this for, but there’s no other rock band quite like Rush. The career and body of work of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart are nothing if not unconventional. They are at once enormously influential and entirely marginalized in the classic-rock canon. The trio (and Peart in particular) are heroes to the types of people who read musicians’ magazines and dismissed by almost everyone else as soulless technicians. To publicly come out as a Rush fan is to invite a whole host of unfavorable associations, be they with the geeky, fanatical devotion of Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in I Love You, Man or with the Ayn Rand-and-D&D reputation that hasn’t had any basis in their recorded work since the mid-1970s but that the band has never quite been able to shake in the decades since. Lee’s characterization of Rush as “the world’s biggest cult band” is as accurate as any. This is a band with more gold and platinum and records than any other besides the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and KISS, who remain a huge concert draw in 2012 and count Dave Grohl, Jack Black, Lance Armstrong, Matt Stone, and Trey Parker as fans, but they never seems to “count” in any discussion of the rock elite.

They’re also the only band whose entire catalog I have committed to memory. It’s no small undertaking—this is a body of work that involves 19 (20 in a few weeks) studio albums, nine live albums, nearly that many video releases, and several lengthy books by Peart. I’ve bought every one of these, most twice or more. I’ve probably given these three men enough of my money over the past decade to put Peart’s two-year-old daughter through college. I owe some of my most meaningful friendships—not to mention some pretty significant work opportunities—to my teen years spent on the band’s forums, debating the merits of Caress of Steel and Vapor Trails with total strangers much like the one I briefly encountered the other day. However, I have yet to put a definitive version of my thoughts on Rush’s music and my own experiences with it down on internet-paper. With the trio set to release its 20th studio album, Clockwork Angels, on June 12 (check out the terrific first single, “Headlong Flight,” here), that’s what this series will be: part history, part reflection, and hopefully fully educational and entertaining.

I’ve often wondered how Rush’s career would have played out had original drummer John Rutsey stayed in the fold. Peart’s drum-god designation, even among the band’s many detractors, can be credited in no small part for their sustained cultural cache. The fact is that Rush’s self-titled 1974 debut album is derivative as hell—the origin story that former Cleveland radio DJ Donna Halper tells, which consists of her playing “Working Man” to a flurry of calls from listeners asking when the new Led Zeppelin album was coming out, checks out on record. But “Working Man” has endured as a canonical Rush song in large part because of the playing. Lifeson’s two searing guitar solos show emphatically that, whatever the trio lacked in originality as barely-out-of-their-teens Zep devotees, they made up for in raw talent. All over Rush, there’s a maturity and refinement about their playing, Lifeson’s in particular, completely uncharacteristic of a band that young. Lee’s vocals, probably single greatest deterrent to Rush’s prospects of mainstream acceptance over the course of their career, still betray a heavy Robert Plant influence. Lee had yet to develop Plant’s capacity for nuance (that would come in a few years), and his performances are occasionally clumsy (“Take a Friend,” “Before and After”), but on songs like “Here Again” and “What You’re Doing,” he showed a mastery of that kind of bluesy howl.

As for Rutsey, the de facto Pete Best of Canadian prog rock (who passed away in 2008), he does fine on Rush. His ouster from the band grew out of his reluctance to share Lee’s and Lifeson’s interest in Genesis and King Crimson, and certainly nothing on the album indicates that he would have been able to handle material that complex. His drumming is perfectly adequate for this album’s aims—it’s just hard not to be marginalized by history when your replacement happens to be one of the two or three most influential drummers in rock history.

Neil Peart is, unabashedly and unequivocally, the most important musical figure ever to enter my life. It was Ringo Starr and, later, Keith Moon that prompted me to beg my parents for a set of drums as a fifth-grader, but my introduction to Peart was something akin to discovering the existence of a higher power. It wasn’t just the gigantic drum kit or the seemingly limitless technical prowess—it was apparent even to my preadolescent self just how perfectly he utilized these resources. What sets Peart apart from imitators such as Mike Portnoy of the band Dream Theater (someone many Rush fans hold in equally high regard, but whom I do not), is how economical his drumming is, even as he plays parts that are insanely complex. He never gives off the air of showboating or attempting to shoehorn technical trickery into songs that don’t require it. “Bravado” and “Ghost Rider” are every bit as crucial in understanding his greatness as the flashier “YYZ” and “Xanadu.”

The opening bars of “Anthem,” the lead track on Fly by Night, signal the arrival of a band already light-years ahead of the one that made Rush. It’s a pattern Lee and Lifeson played during Peart’s audition, and they reportedly decided to hire him partially because of how quickly he latched onto it. This was Rush 2.0, a band that embraced unconventional time signatures and tricky instrumental interplay. But even their early dalliances with prog set them apart from contemporaries because of their unique musical upbringing. Many of the genre’s pioneers came from a place of classical music (Yes, ELP) or jazz (King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp); Rush, meanwhile, simply repurposed prog’s crucial tenets as a new method by which to attack their Sabbath-indebted blues metal. That’s why I gravitated to Rush in middle school. I was already into Yes and Jethro Tull by then, and Rush’s music was as complex as any of those bands. But they also fucking rocked in the way that matters to 13-year-olds.

Fly by Night is very much a transitional record. The addition of Peart radically transformed their approach and ambitions, and those growing pains were at times painfully evident on their early albums. In perhaps the most important development in the band’s history, Peart began taking over lyrical duties. His initial efforts drew heavily on literature and philosophy, with varying degrees of success. “Anthem” is a reference to the Ayn Rand novel of the same name (I’ll get to this particular association at a later date). The album’s strongest cut is “Beneath, Between & Behind,” a meditation on the American Revolution and the birth of the American dream. Its lofty lyrical aims are made all the more apparent by the fact that it directly follows the Lee-penned “Best I Can,” which comes off as little more than a throwaway from the debut album. In fact, I got this album shortly after the release of School of Rock, and the first thought I had upon hearing “Best I Can’s” chorus (“You can tell me that I got no class/Turn around and see who’s laughing last/Don’t give me speeches ‘cause they’re all so droll/Leave me alone and let me rock and roll!”) was that it sounded an awful lot like the kiss-off to No Vacancy that Jack Black taught to the fifth-graders at Horace Green. The band’s first extended epic, “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” remains a Rush classic, but “Rivendell” is a stilted Tolkien homage on which Lee blatantly imitated Yes vocalist Jon Anderson. But despite the awkward place Rush were at in their development, Fly by Night stands as a fascinating snapshot of a band with off-the-charts proficiency discovering its identity.

The “transitional album” designation applies tenfold to their quickly-recorded follow-up, Caress of Steel. The black sheep of the Rush catalog for a variety of reasons, this album saw them further sharpening their instrumental chops while silencing any instinct to practice restraint. Caress of Steel features two extended pieces, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth,” each inspired in places and laughably dated in others. The former is a quasi-sequel to “By-Tor” featuring ham-fisted spoken narration sections and a set of Tolkien-biting lyrics every bit as forced as “Rivendell.” The latter, meanwhile, is a side-long suite, an art Rush would perfect in the coming years. But for as flawed as these pieces are in concept and execution, they’re backed by some of the strongest music the trio had recorded to that point. Lifeson in particular was blossoming as a guitarist: the “Return of the Prince” movement of “The Necromancer” and “Lamneth’s” “No One at the Bridge” are some of his best work to date even now, to say nothing of the still-killer opening track “Bastille Day.” Lee was still learning how to sing melodies, but “Lakeside Park” and sections of “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain” showed rapid improvement.

As crucial as Caress of Steel was in Rush’s maturation process, it was almost the last album they ever made. When it predictably bombed, they hit the road for a demoralizing series of shows the band has since christened the Down the Tubes Tour. Mercury executives were on their case to make themselves more marketable, which they did, albeit not at all in the way the label had in mind. I love these early albums in spite of their greenness, but also because of it. My 16-year-old self, who attempted to fashion himself as his high-school newspaper’s authority on all things music and fought tooth and nail to run 2,000-word album reviews with no regard for audience or place, is who Fly by Night and Caress of Steel still resonate with. Fortunately, Rush eventually learned how to work within the system.

NEXT: Rush’s commercial and artistic breakthrough, 2112, kicks off the most prolific, fruitful period of their career.


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