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.