The still-coherent guide to Rush, Part IX

The last part before the last part, which will be my long-awaited opinion on the new one, Snakes and Arrows.

So when we last left Rush, we thought we might be leaving them for the last time. Neil Peart had lost his daughter suddenly, then his wife after a few months that must have been sheer torment.

I haven’t read Peart’s account of his return from the brink, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, because I’d surely bawl every other page. But some folks of stronger constitution have read it, and they’ve put useful facts in the sprawling Wikipedia entries on Rush. Among them, from the Neil Peart entry: At his wife’s funeral in 1998, Peart told his bandmates to “consider me retired.”

From interviews I’ve seen with Lee and Lifeson (Peart, as far as I know, no longer gives interviews), they didn’t quite give up on their bandmate, but they were willing to give him all the time he needed. Lee did his solo album, which seemed less fun than, say, the weird little solo projects by members of Yes.

Peart proved resilient. In 2000, he remarried. In early 2001, as Lee or Lifeson put it in an interview on R30, he told his bandmates he was ready to be gainfully employed.

So, a new album in 2001, right? That’s five years after Test for Echo — not that speedy for a band that took two decades to slow from six-month gaps to a three-year gap, but not bad for a bunch of guys in their late 40s. When does it come out?

Not so fast. This one took so long you would’ve thought they were in the studio with Tom Scholz or Mutt Lange. (Digression: How did it ever take Scholz, Boston’s grouchy leader, seven years to come up with “I’m gonna take you by the hand and make you understand, Amanda / I loooooove you / (pause for awkward cymbal clink)”?)

Vapor Trails (2002)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

So I was in my living room at the old house, bouncing around after hearing Baltimore’s 98Rock (RIP, Lopez) tell me they’d have the new Rush song up next. I was actually nervous, as most Rush fans surely were. How would they sound? Would they be gloomy after Peart’s tragedy? And would Peart still be a monster on drums?

Listen for yourself. They didn’t waste a second in answering those questions. Peart unleashes a furious double-bass drum attack a la Alex Van Halen in Hot for Teacher — often duplicated by Peart wannabes on YouTube, to varying success. Lee is practically chortling through the song as he pounds out some propulsive bass.

That’s One Little Victory, an emphatic declaration that Rush was back, and they weren’t just ready to roll. They were ready to rock.

And the whole album rocks. Maybe a little too hard.

Perhaps it’s engineer-turned-producer Paul Northfield, perhaps it’s the non-Bob Ludwig mastering, perhaps it’s Alex Lifeson’s sudden romance with a “heavy” guitar sound, but this is absolutely not an album for audiophiles. Parts of it sound like my high school “band” (me, a four-track recorder and some “singers”) running everything through a Peavey amp with “compression.” Listening to this album from start to finish will give you a headache.

It’s not just the sound quality. Rush finally flushed the keyboards on this one, relying instead on a bunch of overdubs, particularly Lee’s voice. Ask anyone who dislikes Rush to name a least favorite aspect of the band, and “Lee’s voice” will be the answer. For 20 years or so, he pared down the screech and learned to make the most of what he has. But layers of Lee singing “whoooaaaaa” do not pleasant sounds make.

And that’s a pity, because on the whole, the songs here are as strong as any of the CD era:

One Little Victory is an instant classic, especially in the context of Rush’s return from the events of the past six years.

Ceiling Unlimited bogs down in the verses but soars toward the finale, doubling the positive vibe of the opener.

Ghost Rider, a little slower, is an engaging portrait of someone traveling a long road.

Peaceable Kingdom is a powerful song of despair and sympathy in the wake of 9/11. (Which happened eight months into the recording process — good thing they were taking their time.)

That’s the first four. The titletrack, Earthshine and Nocturne are all solid as well. All told, it’s Rush’s heaviest collection of songs in quite a while.

I’ll never understand why they released Secret Touch, one of the weakest songs in the Rush catalog. Sweet Miracle is just OK.

The flaws, other than the production — The Stars Look Down and How It Is push Lee out of his vocal range, and Lifeson’s odd insistence on foregoing guitar solos leaves a few unfilled spaces in songs that are a little too long at 5-6 minutes.

Aside from the sound quality, it’s a worthy comeback — stronger than Test for Echo at the very least.

They were almost derailed again with a bizarre incident in Naples, Fla., when Lifeson’s son was being removed from a New Year’s Eve celebration. Lifeson went to his aid. Somehow, the Collier County deputies needed several people and Tasers to subdue a bookish rock guitarist in his 50s. That doesn’t speak too well to their policing skills.

The local media at the time — why, why did I choose this profession? — sided with the deputies against letter-writing Rush fans, ignorantly figuring Lifeson was some no-good heavy metal star. Lifeson and his son wound up with probation in a plea deal. Then Lifeson ripped into them with some harsh words and legal action.

Thankfully, Rush was able to tour and enjoy the fruits of their comeback. They didn’t hop right back into the studio-tour grind. Instead, they had some fun with some novel releases …

Rush in Rio (2003)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Review)

I confess. I missed the boat. I was only vaguely aware that this was being released, and I didn’t see the point of releasing another live album only one studio album after Different Stages. (The old “four studio, one live” approach went out the window here.) Besides, I saw them live on this tour, which was a fantastic experience I figured couldn’t be duplicated.

But Rush did a few remarkable things here:

– They documented a complete show … and a huge one, with 40,000 fans revved up and singing along.

– They entered the age of new media. This album has gone gold (Vapor Trails, despite a #6 position on the charts and 1.6M in sales by Wikipedia’s count, has not). The video has gone multiplatinum.

So in short: My bad. This one’s obviously huge. The reviews above are ecstatic.

Feedback (2004)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Review)

Celebrate the 30th anniversary of the band’s debut by becoming the 8,784th band to record Summertime Blues? Why the hell not?

We’d all love to reunite with whatever passed for our high school band and rip through all the old standards, wouldn’t we? What better way to turn back the clock?

Now imagine if that band, rather than leaving instruments lying around in a basement for 20 years, could still play. Really, really well.

That’s Feedback. Eight ’60s tunes the guys all learned when they were teenagers in Canada, performed here with the gusto of a rollicking high school reunion and the skills of rock’s finest instrumentalists. It’s almost as much fun to hear as it must have to record.

All eight songs are pretty good — my pick is The Seeker.

Like a band fulfilling its contractual obligation before ditching its record company, I’m cheating a little bit here and going to the compilation …

R30 (2005)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia)

I may have missed the boat on Rush in Rio, but I made sure to get this one. The “meat” is a Rush show in Frankfurt, omitting a couple of Vapor Trails tunes already included on Rush in Rio. That’s entertaining in itself — a great live performance with solid camera work, starting with a peculiar introduction of Jerry Stiller griping that “they never do Bangkok.”

Only Rush, folks. OK, maybe Barenaked Ladies. Is Canada that much funnier than the U.S.?

Added to the mix here — a lot of rare clips from old performances, TV appearances, etc. Then some interviews showing the band as a bunch of thoughtful, self-effacing guys, plus their humor-injected induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

And if you want to hear the songs in your car or upload to your iPod, just take the CDs, also featuring the Frankfurt show.

Little wonder this one is also multiplatinum.

Rush has plenty of compilations — the inessential The Spirit of Radio: Greatest Hits 1974-1987 has gone gold even though most of the same songs were remastered on the Retrospective CDs, which are now combined onto one release ironically called Gold. With Rush, you’re cheating yourself if you’re just focusing on the “hits.” Get some of the studio albums, R30 and perhaps a couple of the live albums, then fill in the rest at iTunes.

I’ll wrap up with a quick guide to making your own Rush collection if you don’t already have one. But we’re not quite done. Because Rush itself isn’t quite done …


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