The R30 DVD set has an interview with Rush in Le Studio from sometime in this era, and it reminds you how young these guys really were. Heading into the studio after the Hemispheres tour, these guys were 26-27 years old and already had six albums to their credit, getting steadily bigger throughout.
Then they got huge.
A transitional effort of sorts, and yet it was their biggest album to date. Sure, 2112 has sold more over the years, but Waves made it into the Billboard top five (#4). And frankly, the people buying 2112 and NOT getting this one are a little misinformed.
This was a slightly more condensed Rush, with no song clocking in over 10 minutes. The longest, Natural Science, is an abstract take on circles of life built on a dizzying riff that has been a live favorite over the years. (Now’s a good time to plug the source on set lists — the comprehensive fan site Cygnus-X1.net)
It’s all but impossible to imagine a live set without the opener, The Spirit of Radio. It’s your prototypical riff-rock song with a few unexpected twists — a reggae-style bridge with lyrics giving a shoutout to Paul Simon. Rush realized by this point that its fans were willing to follow through a few experiments, particularly when they turned out as well as this one.
Freewill also was a live favorite, with some live recordings capturing a strong roar after Lifeson’s searing solo. It’s another good riff-rocker, though it alternates between a 6/4 and 7/4 beat. By this point, Rush — unlike some bands we could mention — could flip through different time signatures without making it sound too precious. The lyrics are another stone tablet in Neil Peart’s philosophy of the individual, featuring a direct shot at organized religion. (“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice / If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice / You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill / I will choose a path that’s clear, I will choose free will.”) Maybe not a song I want to have cranked up in the car when I pull into church, but it’s an eloquent statement against mindless faith at the very least.
While Freewill caught Rush in a philosophical mood, they were also getting sentimental. For all the Ayn Rand bluster, these guys are family men. Entre Nous, offered an intriguing take on relationships (“the spaces in between leave room for you and I to grow”), has finally re-emerged on the set list after decades of absence.
Only one of the six songs never appeared on a set list, and that’s the second love song here, Different Strings, featuring one of many terrific classical-style intros that I picked my way through in high school. Probably a bit too soft for a live show but a fine ballad to mix things up on the album.
The other mini-epic is Jacob’s Ladder, which is probably what they meant to do with Side 2 of Caress of Steel. It’s ominous, with a slow beat, but it gives way to a hopeful finale, mixing natural and supernatural.
Six songs, nary a weak one. This would be Rush’s masterpiece, if not for …
You’ve probably heard a few songs from this one. It distilled the best of Rush’s first eight albums into digestible radio-friendly pieces (plus one last 10-minute epic). It’s by far Rush’s biggest seller, and you won’t hear many fans whining that they sold out. No preposterous duet with Ann Wilson, no dipping into the Diane Warren well, no videos about making videos.
Sure, they were still dabbling with new-fangled synthesizers, but in the process, they created one of the strongest synth hooks in history.
When you see the guys singing Tom Sawyer on the late, underrated show The Knights of Prosperity, you may forget what a dazzlingly complex song it is. Prog rock has cranked out all sorts of complicated music, and it has given us a few simpler radio-friendly hits (think Owner of a Lonely Heart). I can’t think of a song that fits both descriptions better. From the spare opening over Neil Peart’s backbeat, it revs up through a couple of dramatic guitar hooks into a synth-and-guitar call-and-response over a rhythm that shifts through time signatures like a car on a winding race track.
Lyrically, it’s a series of intriguing abstractions. He knows changes aren’t permanent, but change is. What you say about his company is what you say about society. You can puzzle over them for a while or just think “that’s cool” and move on.
Red Barchetta is a guitar player’s dream, with Alex Lifeson showing off his gifts for coming up with winding arpeggios and some melodies on harmonics. (Explaining “harmonics” for non-guitarists — this is a technique in which you lightly touch a string over the 12th, 7th, 5th or 4th fret, then release just as you strum. Do it well, and it rings for a while.) Good story, too — it’s another tale of individual freedom sure to satisfy the Ayn Rand devotees, but it’s a bit more accessible than the older songs because it’s the story of a driver defying some sort of anti-car ban.
YYZ is a worthy successor to La Villa Strangiato, an instrumental that revs through several unusual yet memorable riffs. All three guys have space to show off, particularly in an entertaining bridge with Geddy Lee and Neil Peart alternating fills.
With Limelight, Peart manages to tell his fans that he’s uncomfortable with his celebrity without being an ass about it. (Ahem … did you notice, Billy Corgan?) Lifeson contributes a solid riff, Peart drops a Shakespeare reference and the shifts between 7/4 and 6/4 flow easily.
So that’s Side 1. It’s hard to imagine a stronger collection of four songs on one album side.
Side 2 isn’t as deeply ingrained in the general public’s ears (ouch!), but it’s more of the things Rush fans love about Rush. Lee’s synthesizers take their biggest role yet in Vital Signs, with a sequencer sounding like a fast heartbeat in the background. Witch Hunt, the first part of the Fear trilogy (later expanded to four), is a vivid depiction of vigilante justice and mob politics gone awry, set to an ominous riff and a few synth-and-percussion effects.
The epic is The Camera Eye. It’s not really fair to call it the “weakest” song on this album, but it is indeed overshadowed by the other songs on this album and by Rush’s other epics (2112, Xanadu, Natural Science). It’s an amiable bit of ear candy — you’ve never heard synths sound this good. Wikipedia tells us it frequently tops Internet polls of songs that ought to be restored to a live set at some point.
So that’s how strong this album really is. Rush could show up for a three-hour set and play six of the seven songs, yet fans will say they wish they’d heard the seventh.
Speaking of live sets, Rush wound up establishing a pattern of releasing a live album after every four studio albums. And so they were due for …
AllMusic’s normally reliable Greg Prado misses the boat here, saying this is the probably the weakest of their live sets. The sales figures would beg to differ. This album had a strong chart showing even though Rush fans were required to fork over money for a double album released a mere eight months after Moving Pictures. It’s recognized as one of the definitive live albums in rock.
The songs sell themselves, of course. The track listing is heavy on the golden period of the four most recent albums, with only a brief interlude of Fly By Night‘s Beneath, Between and Behind interrupting the flow on the original CD release. (A remaster restores A Passage to Bangkok, dropped in the transition from album to CD.)
Two band members get solos. Neil Peart, not yet incorporating electronics into his sizable drum kit, makes creative use of his toms and picks out some melodies on a set of cowbells that would make Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken drool. Lifeson gives an extended classical guitar intro to The Trees, called Broon’s Bane after producer Terry “Broon” Brown, that is a pleasing listen and a terrific piece for aspiring guitarists (like me, circa 1985-87) to learn and study.
So what next? Would Rush do what Def Leppard did a few years later and get even bigger with the next album? Would they implode in search of Moving Pictures II? Neither. This was Rush’s peak, but the path back down was neither steep nor boring.