Last Friday, I announced the Rush Experiment, my attempt to explore the enigma of Canadian power-prog band, Rush: to discover what I was missing, to learn something new, and to understand what it was about their music that has kept me from being a fan. After receiving some helpful tips (both here and from friends—thanks!), I decided the best way to approach this was head-on—all 18 studio albums of original material and one covers EP from beginning to end in one weekend. As with most bands that started in the late '60s/early '70s and continued through the '80s to the present, I banked on the likelihood that Rush would follow some natural evolution to a level of creative greatness then eventually plateau and taper off. This assumption helped to better engage me in Rush’s development over time and be excited to see them grow as a band.
Having used Friday to induce a tabula rasa mind state via video games and TV (and also to acquire the 19 album discography), I set to work on Saturday at 10:30am and concluded at 11:05pm on Sunday night (with breaks, oh god, with breaks). Here is what I came up with.
The Beginning — 1974 to 1977: Rush started out sounding like some watered down version of already established blues rock/heavy metal acts of the time (Blue Cheer, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath), mixed with a few original ideas. For their first three albums, one gets an idea that what Rush is going for sound-wise is somewhere between folk and fantasy hard rock with interesting rhythms—but that they were just not able to achieve it. Yet, there is a noticeable evolution taking place. Then their fourth album, 2112, comes along out of left field. All of the momentum Rush was beginning to pick up in their songwriting was flushed down the drain by this severely over-hyped record (at the conclusion of which I actually slammed my fist down on my desk and decided to go take a walk for a bit—it was that disappointing). Fortunately, the band gets right back on course by album five, A Farewell to Kings, and one gets the notion that something wonderful (even for Rush) is about to happen on a creative level.
The Golden Era — 1978 to 1982: During this period, Rush released four albums that are indeed the best in their catalog: Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals. Here, the creativity is at an all time high and Rush seems fully realized as a band. Their longer songs are now more compositionally justified (rather than sounding like a bunch of lame parts tossed together) and their short/standard length songs show an amount of confidence and comfort (and, basically, RAWK!) not seen previously. More than anything, Geddy’s voice has smoothed out; having dropped some of that agitating growl he had been attacking the beginning of lyrical phrases with on previous efforts. Hemispheres was my personal favorite, but I would recommend a listen to all four of these albums.
The Dark Ages — 1984 to 1996: I will always hate the 1980s for the unforgivable things it did to a lot of otherwise decent bands, and to music in general. Sure, Rush is still displaying some of that Golden Era afterglow, but poorly chosen synth lines, drums with gated reverb, roto-toms, the active pickup sound of a Steinberger bass, and misguided leanings toward world music-ish passages pretty much permeate the Rush sound until the 1993 release of Counterparts, where the band reclaims some of its rock-centric sound. The '90s were not so great for the band, either (as they now sounded a lot like the big time alternative rock acts of the period, rather than like “Rush"), and they eventually went on a 5 year hiatus due to circumstances in Neil Peart’s life.
The Present — 2002 to current: With the exception of an 8 song covers EP, Rush’s most recent releases are packed with songs that are geared for an aged fan base: somewhat dance-y with a rock edge that might make middle-aged people feel “hip” and “with it.” Music existing in this kind of past-its-prime state can be really dreadful and depressing if one contemplates one's own future (of playing or observing music) while listening to it. All in all, the "new shit" comes off more like live show filler for the band to play in between getting to the hits of their Golden Era.
And now, I would like to address the band members:
Alex Lifeson, dude, you have some good influences and some guitar riffs Jimmy Page or Toni Iommi could probably sue you for stealing from them, but I have one question for you: What’s up with the fucking omnipresent chorus pedal? Seriously, this effect rarely sounds good. In fact, there are only two bands where chorus has ever been totally acceptable in application: The Police and The Cure. Did you see Rush listed there? No? Me either. But, you just decided to go ahead and make that god-awful sound “your thing” and leave it turned on throughout your whole career. Bad choice. It’s distracting, painful, and drove me close to having a goddamn aneurysm on many occasions during my weekend-long listening adventure. Your musicianship is decent, but I eventually hit a wall and gave up. I just kept thinking of building a time machine so I could go back to the day you bought that pedal, remove it from your effect chain and lodge it firmly in your rectal cavity. Without the chorus, your guitar work would have garnered so much more respect from me.
Neil Peart, I will never understand why people give you as much credit as they do. If the ability to mechanically keep tempo better than a metronome substantiates what it means to be an “amazing drummer,” then I am at a loss. I require personality and character from the drums, both of which you lack. There is some attention that needs to be paid to the other instruments, by YOU actually accenting their parts, instead of just hammering on a single beat with predictable, end of melodic phrase fills, all the time, every time. Boring. Look, if I need someone to show me (at all times with the snare drum) where beats 2 and 4 are in a a song, or if I want to listen to fills that are about as interesting as listening to a quint-tom player in the drum corps of a marching band, I will definitely come to you. Also, the sci-fi / fantasy / eastern philosophy / faith-based lyrics fucking suck. Like, really bad.
Geddy Geddy Geddy. You, my friend, are not the problem with your band. Even though you may be the constant butt of jokes regarding your rather iconic-hermaphroditic voice, you are still not the one to blame here. I appreciate how, as the band matured, so did your voice. It eventually gained clarity and lost some of that excited melodrama and gruff over-articulation of words that you seemed to champion in Rush’s earlier years. Your bass playing (especially when you used the Rickenbacker) and synth efforts show a high level of skill and competence as a musician. Honestly, you are the most important part of this band and should take this reality to heart. Unfortunately, you surrounded yourself with a couple of frustratingly snooze-inducing boobs, a fact I may never be able to totally forgive.
So, I didn’t come out of this a Rush fan, but nor do I feel it was a complete waste of time. It might also be good to mention that, outside of a couple late night listening reviews, this whole process was conducted with a sober mind in order to give Rush, and myself, a fair and objective chance. This was a great exercise to put myself through (Rush yoga?), as I now know exactly what albums to listen to if I ever get the urge to Rush-it-up again anytime soon. AND, I suppose I can now hold my own if anyone ever wants to get in a Rush debate with me. More than anything, I discovered that blaming the voice of Geddy Lee (as THE reason to not like Rush) to be a total cop out: don’t blame Canada’s answer to Gandalf for your dislike, blame the other two guys for their absolute and unified failure to bring anything remotely interesting to the table.
(Sorry to my friends who had to deal with me clogging up their news feeds with 19 Rush reviews over 36 hours. Thanks for putting up with that, you guys are great)