There was a period in the 1980s when, in some circles, Rush had lost the plot. Writers such as Martin Popoff have been very critical of this era, with its keyboards and shorter songs. In 1989, Rush began to turn the ship around with Presto. It and 1991’s Roll the Bones really ushered in the next phase of Rush, combining new and old. Fans (and Alex Lifeson) were happy that keyboards were toned down, at least in comparison to Hold Your Fire (1986).
The theme of the album is “take a chance”. Roll the Bones starts with a punch called “Dreamline”. Geddy Lee’s pulse pushes this into overdrive. The chorus goes into hyperspace. It’s hard to think of too many other Rush songs that are so concisely hot. “Dreamline” has it all: hooks, licks, force and grace.
Neil Peart is king on “Bravado”*, a sudden change of direction. His drumming, always hard, is unusually sharp. Yet it’s a slow song that might be termed a “ballad”. Whatever — it’s Rush. It’s incredible. It’s powerful in an understated, triumphant fashion. If you know somebody who says they hate Rush, play this.
The title track and first single is a Rush classic, but that rap section sounds dated today. That was always the danger of such an experiment, but fortunately the song is too strong for it to matter much. That’s Geddy rapping incidentally, with his voice lowered and effects added.
Side one also has “Face Up”; fast but not particularly memorable. But it also has “Where’s My Thing?”, a smashing instrumental featuring Geddy and Alex’s flying fingers. It’s subtitled “Part IV, ‘Gangster of Boats’ Trilogy” as a joke on past pretentiously prog-rock titles they’ve employed. Rush have always had a sense of humour, and also fun. “Where’s My Thing” is a fun instrumental, kept short and ever so slightly funky.
The second side of Roll the Bones isn’t as consistent as the first. “Ghost of a Chance” and “You Bet Your Life” are immediate standouts. An appropriate spectre-like keyboard part enhances “Ghost of a Chance” and justifies the use of the instrument. The other three songs (“The Big Wheel, “Neurotica” and “Heresy”) are fine for Rush deep cuts, but may or may not appeal to your specific tastes.
This 200 gram vinyl remaster is exquisite! Keyboard parts previously unnoticed are now audible, as if brand new. The drums have the punch missing on the old CD, and the bass hits the guts. Great dynamics and depth. If you are in the market for remastered Rush, these 200 gram vinyl reissues are pricey but a nice treat.
*At 3:50 of the song, Peart performs a drum roll that I can only describe as pure ecstasy. Chills up the spine.
I asked Aaron Lebold if he wouldn’t mind throwing in a few words about “Distant Early Warning” for my Grace Under Pressure review. He sent me 772 words! So here’s an entire separate post for you — Aaron Lebold on “Distant Early Warning”.
by Aaron Lebold
Mike has asked me to do a review on the song “Distant Early Warning” by Rush. When I first met Mike I quickly realized that Rush was one of his favorite bands,* and though he showed me a lot of their work, this song was the one that always stuck out to me the most.
My interpretation of the song may be a bit different now than it was when I first heard it; one of the greatest things about music is that its personal meaning can shift depending on what is going on in your own life. I find musical interpretation to be completely personal, and what you take from it may be completely different than what the artist even intended.**
I was always reluctant to hear the artists of the songs I enjoyed explain them, as it could feel very crushing if the impact it had on me was not the actual meaning. I will explain what this song means to me, but that doesn’t mean I’m right. It does mean that I am able to see why it had relevance to me, and if you have found a different interpretation, you are not wrong.
“An ill wind comes arising, Across the cities of the plain, There’s no swimming in the heavy water, No singing in the acid rain, Red alert, Red alert”
To me this is the ability to foresee an event, there is a metaphoric storm on its way, and it is serious enough for us to stop our own distractions, and unhealthy coping strategies in order to prepare for what is ahead.
“It’s so hard to stay together, Passing through revolving doors, We need someone to talk to, And someone to sweep the floors, Incomplete, Incomplete”
This talks about the separation among us as people to me; we all tend to find our own paths and some of us become relevant to each other, where others become lower class, and we may see them as nothing more than the person who is sweeping the floors for us. This type of discrimination makes us incomplete as a human race.
“Cruising under your radar, Watching from satellites, Take a page from the red book, And keep them in your sights, Red alert, Red alert”
This again is a reference to having greater insight than others may possess. Being able to observe a situation undetected and being able to gather forethought about what the results may be. The Red Book is a reference to Psychology, and this suggests using that manner of thinking as you move forward.
“Left and rights of passage, Black and whites of youth, Who can face the knowledge, That the truth is not the truth, Obsolete, Absolute, yeah”
To me this makes reference to our way of thinking, and things we may have misinterpreted as priority. Rights of passage is the idea of moving from one group to another, and relates to social classes and advancement. Separating the races of children is another method of creating a divide. The truth could refer to the idea that we are all one class and one collective group of people, and that a lot of our perceptions are obsolete in the big picture.
“The world weighs on my shoulders, But what am I to do? You sometimes drive me crazy, But I worry about you”
To me this means that even though I may have my own problems, and I don’t always agree with someone’s actions, I still care for them and can’t help but notice when they seem to be heading in a bad direction.
“I know it makes no difference, To what you’re going through, But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you”
This basically means to me, that I am aware that my insight does not change your situation, but I can see the bigger picture and it makes me worried about how it may end up affecting you. The Tip of the Iceberg is of course a reference to the Titanic, and how there is much more lurking under the water than is visible from the surface. The results can be potentially devastating, as they were for the historic vessel.
I can’t recall exactly what drew me to this song when I was younger, and I may have interpreted things differently back then, but the bottom line is that I found relevance and importance in the lyrics. You may have a completely different take on this song, which is great. The best thing about music is using it to find our own connections, and get us through our own lives.
* So he thought. In 1994 I was still a Rush poser. I only owned Chronicles.
** “Distant Early Warning” was written about the loneliness of someone who worked the DEW Line- a system of radar stations in the far northern Arctic region of Canada set up to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War, and provide early warning of any sea-and-land invasion. – wikipedia
Part one of a two-parter.
RUSH – Grace Under Pressure (1984 Anthem, 2011 Universal remaster)
When Rush followed 1982’s synth-driven Signals, they said goodbye to producer Terry Brown. The band weren’t satisfied with the sonics of Signals and wanted to try working with different people. They chose Steve Lillywhite, who wasn’t available, and so used Peter Henderson. The album Grace Under Pressure was one of their most difficult to make. Perhaps this is why it has such a cold, dark aura.
Even if Grace Under Pressure has a downer vibe, the first side is excellent. Few albums have a strong an opener as “Distant Early Warning”. Rush’s recent penchant for keyboards is front and center. It also boasts one of their most catchy choruses: “I see the tip of the iceberg and I worry about you.” This single is a perfect storm of hooks, tension and biting guitars.
The album as a whole shows new influences. “Afterimage” has a contemporary 80s new wave sound, but “Rushified”.* Alex Lifeson in particular seemed to draw new influence from Andy Summers of the Police. Reggae and ska became a part of the band’s arsenal, with Lifeson deftly handling those enigmatic chords. “The Enemy Within” is one track that shows off these tricky new rhythms, in a frantically rocking way. Synths and sequencers are a part of the picture on “Red Sector A”. This post-apocalyptic track utilizes robotic rhythms to paint a picture of a future world. “Are we the last ones left alive? Are we the only human beings to survive?” The lyrics are actually inspired by Geddy Lee’s mother, a holocaust survivor. With the digital pulse beneath, you could just as easily imagine it’s about The Terminator.**
The second side also has memorable tracks such as “The Body Electric”. This number definitely has a Blade Runner-like future setting. “One humanoid escapee, One android on the run, Seeking freedom beneath the lonely desert sun.” And how many songs can you name with lyrics in binary? A lesser Rush song, “Kid Gloves”, is upbeat but not legendary. “Red Lenses” is also somewhat forgettable, except for Peart fans who will savour every little moment of exotic and electronic percussion.
Rush saved the longest track for last, “Between the Wheels”, a melancholy but challenging track that reminds of the old school progressive Rush. Backing guitars are exchanged for keyboards, but Lifeson uses the guitar to make unorthodox sounds.
It’s unfortunate that Grace Under Pressure has a brittle and icy production. While that definitely works on “Red Sector A” and “Distant Early Warning”, one wonders what side two would sound like if it were a little fuller.
* “Rushified” is a word coined by Paul Rudd in the film I Love You Man.
** Aaron Lebold will return tomorrow to discuss Rush lyric interpretation.
Had I got it in time, this album could have made the Top Five of 2016 list.
Rik Emmett had a long productive career as 1/3rd of Triumph, but he has rarely looked back. Post-Triumph he has released a steady stream of jazz, rock, blues and acoustic music, sometimes revisiting Triumph songs in re-arranged form. Finally the ice thawed and Triumph successfully conquered Sweden Rock. In 2016 Rik released RES 9, a new rock album with his new band RESolution 9.
RES 9 is in fact a time machine. Dial up track 1. You will be transported back to 1990 with the rock boogie of “Stand Still”. This is a spiritual sequel to “Drive Time” from Rik’s first solo album Absolutely. Then punch track 2. “Human Race” (not a Red Rider cover) could have been a single from 1986’s The Sport of Kings. With Alex Lifeson guesting on guitar, Rik and the band tapped into the hookiness of 80’s Triumph, but with a modern integrity. When you hit up track 3, you will find yourself in the future. Accompanied by fellow Canadian James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Rik turns in a modern rock anthem with “I Sing”. Big and uplifting choruses preceded by mellow verses are built for radio. LaBrie’s vocals are the perfect compliment. Without a shred of hyperbole, “I Sing” is absolutely one of the best songs Rik’s ever recorded.
The bluesy soul ballad “My Cathedral” gives Rik a chance to show off his impeccable chops. His tone — unbelievable! Moving on to “The Ghost of Shadow Town” effectively dials up 1976 in the time machine, with a dark heavy Zepp-ish blues. “When You Were My Baby” continues down smoove blues street, throwing in some jazz licks. “Sweet Tooth” is turn down a brightly lit side avenue, a sweet treat indeed.
A hard Triumph-like vibe permeates “Heads Up”, another fine hard rocker for the radio. “Rest of My Life” adds the jangle of acoustic guitars to the rock and roll mixture, creating another fine concoction just begging to be a hit. Things toughen up with the pure rock power of “End of the Line”, featuring the returns of LaBrie and Lifeson. The sheer star power of all these Canucks in one studio must have driven the temperatures well below freezing. Still the track smokes, and if you’ve ever wanted to hear Emmett and Lifeson go head to head, then wish no more.
But it is not the end of the line. Back to the future, we have a bonafide Triumph reunion featuring the full trio of Emmett, Gil Moore and Mike Levine. This long awaited reunion happens on the bonus track “Grand Parade”. The genuine surprise here is that it’s not a hard old time hard rocker, but a thoughtful and musically deep blues ballad. It strikes me as appropriate that this much anticipated track sounds nothing like old Triumph. That was, after all, a long time ago.
With RES 9, Rik has re-established his rock credentials. Whether he does another album like this is beside the point. RES 9 is the point; a damn fine album indeed.
It’s the final instalment of GREATEST HITS WEEK! All week we were examining some pretty cool greatest hits albums. I saved the best for last — one of the very greatest, Greatest Hits albums ever. Once again, thanks to Aaron over at the KMA for the idea (which I stole). For his original Greatest Hits Week, click here!
If you missed a prior review, here they all are:
Monday: EXTREME – The Best of Extreme: An Accidental Collication of Atoms? (1997)
Tuesday: JUDAS PRIEST – The Best of Judas Priest (1978/2000 Insight Series)
Wednesday: JUDAS PRIEST – Greatest Hits (2008 Steel Box)
Thursday: HELIX – Over 60 Minutes With… (1989)
RUSH – Chronicles (1990 Anthem)
Yeah, oh yeah!
Ooh, said I, I’m comin’ out to get you
Ooh, sit down, I’m comin’ out to find you
Findin’ my way!
I just can’t stress how important this album is to me. I had always followed Rush, and been interested in what they were up to. I had never taken the plunge and bought any albums. I wouldn’t have had a clue where to begin anyway. In July 1994, I was hired at the Record Store thus kicking off the exponential growth of my music collection (and tastes). With birthday money, I finally acquired my first Rush: Chronicles, the massive 2 CD set that was released for Christmas of 1990.
For my first listen, I didn’t play the whole thing from front to back. I picked out the songs I liked best, and programmed the CD player. I revisited favourites like “Tom Sawyer” and especially “Subdivisions”, and then the next day, listened to the whole thing. One song jumped out at me immediately: “Red Sector A”. Holy shitballs! “The Temples of Syrinx” was the next one that grabbed me on second listen, along with “Freewill”, “Limelight”, “The Trees” and “What You’re Doing”. I had feared Rush would be a bit over my head if consumed in this quantity, but it turned up to be just my poison.
Even though Chronicles is the first Rush “greatest hits” compilation, and has arguably been replaced by the three volumes of Rush Retrospective, I still think that it is a perfect entry point. I think back to my early experience of trying to figure out where to start with this band. They seemed to have a lot of different sounds over the years. I know today that anybody looking to buy their first Rush album can comfortably start with Moving Pictures. But what about those who want a little bit more music than that, in the form of a detailed sampling? Then Chronicles is the one.
Appropriately, Chronicles goes chronologically which works for a band like Rush. Their evolution over the years has been very natural and organic, not at all jumpy. That makes for a smooth listen. Each studio album gets two tracks, with a few exceptions: Moving Pictures is represented by three, while the most recent Presto has one. Additionally, 2112 has one track, albeit actually the first two parts of “2112” itself. The neat thing, though, is that for its time Chronicles actually had three rare live tracks too. Back in the early days of CD, they couldn’t get as much music onto the disc as they can today. “What You’re Doing”, “A Passage to Bankok”, and “Mystic Rhythms” were all cut from their respective CD releases for time reasons. They were released on Chronicles, on CD, for the first time ever. All three are brilliant versions, especially the electrifying “What You’re Doing” from All the World’s a Stage.
I was hooked. Using the tracks and liner notes from Chronicles as a guide, I began adding more Rush to my collection: 2112, Signals, Moving Pictures, A Show of Hands, plus the more recent Counterparts and Roll the Bones too. I see no reason that new fans today can’t use the album as a gateway the same way I did. It’s still in print, even though the more recent Rush compilations are readily available.
There are minimal exclusions missing from Chronicles. Some notable songs are absent, such as later singles “Superconductor” and “The Pass” from Presto. This isn’t hard to understand. Rush wouldn’t have wanted to compete with the current studio album they were still promoting! The price is the only issue. Even after all these years, Chronicles is still found for over $20, unless you go for a used one, much like I did!
RUSH – 2112 (2012 Universal CD/Blu-ray 5.1 deluxe edition)
I received this deluxe CD/Blu-ray edition of Rush’s immortal 2112 for Christmas two years ago. I meant to review it back then, but it slipped between the cracks. Apologies.
The set includes: the entire album on Blu-ray in 5.1 surround sound, the entire album on CD, three live CD-only bonus tracks, hardcover packaging including a comic book, a new essay by David Fricke, and more. Not to mention that the Blu-ray is a motion comic that combines the album with the included comic, seamlessly.
2112 was Rush’s fourth album. It was make or break for Rush, and they went ahead and made an album with six songs, one of them being a side-long 20 minute epic! That side would go on to be Rush’s best known epic, “2112”, which itself is subdivided into seven chapters (but not tracks).
Any truly epic album should open with an instrumental, and “Overture” is one of the best you’re likely to find north of the 49th parallel. This regal anthem of guitars, bass and drums quickly leaps into action as an Iron Maiden gallop, long before Iron Maiden did gallop. In this one brief intro, there are as many as four great timeless riffs. It’s guitar riff nirvana. All these musical themes will re-emerge later on in the “2112” story, but here they are condensed into one maelstrom of awesome.
The story is pretty simple, and is also nicely laid forth in the comic. Our protagonist, who lives in the oppressive Solar Federation, has found an ancient guitar in a cave behind a waterfall. He brings it to the Priests (of the Temples of Syrinx), to show them this wonderful discovery and the sounds it brings forth. He is crushed to find that the Priests do not approve of this “music”!
Pretty highschool, right? Maybe, but certainly no worse than what passes for Hollywood fodder today!
“The Temples of Syrinx” is chapter II of the story. This is a ferocious metal assault, with Geddy in full-on scream mode, introducing the titular Priests. They are the law, on this planet. In my opinion, this is one of Rush’s finest musical achievements. It’s heavy, concise and blazing fast. In surround sound, I will admit I was expecting more. The music fills the room in 5.1, but it’s not as enveloping as I had hoped. It’s hard to specifically describe what’s missing. Whatever it is, chapter III “Discovery” works better. This takes place in the cave behind the aforementioned waterfall, and the water sounds have some depth to them.
“Presentation”, chapter IV, is when it all goes to shit for our protagonist. It is here that he brings his newly discovered guitar to the Priests. The motion comic makes it quite clear that the Priests do not approve! “Yes we know, it’s nothing new. It’s just a waste of time!” The hero pleads with them, and tries to convince them that the world could use the music as a positive force! But the Priest smashes the guitar on the ground and has no more to do with this nonsense. “Another toy that helped destroy the elder race of man!” he claims of the guitar’s history.
“Oracle: the Dream” is chapter V, a mellow moment at first. Then the character’s dream begins, and Geddy returns in full voice. He dreams of change. Alex’s guitars have a nice shimmer, as they fill the field directly in front and to the sides. Waking from his dream, chapter VI is “Soliloquy”. Like “The Dream”, guitars dominate. Geddy’s pleading lead vocal is an album highlight, as is Lifeson’s Sabbath-y guitar solo. It all ends in chapter VII: “Grand Finale”. In a nice twist to the motion comic, Geddy Neil and Alex appear as characters from the invading and returned elder race of man! The era of dominance of the Priests is over, as is side one.
“ATTENTION ALL PLANETS OF THE SOLAR FEDERATION! WE HAVE ASSUMED CONTROL.”
The motion comic does not end here. Each song from side two of 2112 receives its own panels, and the band appear in each one — a very cool touch that I did not expect. “A Passage to Bangkok” was the lead track from side two. This crushing anthem with an Oriental feel is one of Rush’s few drug songs. In fact it’s the only one I can think of right now. “Sweet Jamaican pipe dreams, golden Acapulco nights…” Rush somehow had a way of making this all sound classy and cultured, and perhaps from their perspective it was. In the comic appearance, the Professor has his nose buried in a book on a train, as he often did. Once again I’m underwhelmed by the 5.1 mix. I want to feel enveloped by the music, but I don’t get that as much as I’d like. I do hear more of Geddy’s bass, and that’s never a bad thing. I’m noticing licks I never picked up on before.
“The Twilight Zone” is a different song for Rush, as it has a slower sway to it. Lyrically, I can identify several of the old Twilight Zone episodes that Geddy is singing about. Can you? I don’t think this will top anybody’s charts of Rush’s best lyrics, but it’s goofy fun and sometimes that’s enough. A Zeppelin flavour inhabits “Lessons” which has the acoustic-electric mix that Zep mastered. Likewise, the backing mellotron in “Tears” reminds me of John Paul Jones. This is a mournful slow song, not at all what many people expect from Rush.
“Something for Nothing” ends the album on a solid hard rock note. Thematically, it is full circle, as the character in this song also seeks answers in life. Rush close the album on a furiously jamming note, ending with a song that has all the Rush trademarks rolled into one short ride. If the last couple songs just didn’t have enough juice, then “Something for Nothing” ends it right. Side 2 of 2112 isn’t perfect, it has its ups and downs, but this is an “up”.
The vintage live CD bonus tracks are all unreleased. They include the first two parts of “2112”, and “A Passage to Bangkok”. Geddy coyly says that this song “deals with foreign matter”. I’ve no doubt! Incidentally I’m of the belief that “Bangkok” is better live than on album. Having said that, the Exit…Stage Left version remains definitive. Blu-ray bonus features include a goofy photo gallery of blow-dried haircuts, kimono, mustaches and concert shots. Looking at these photos, I’m reminded that Rush were for all intents and purposes, just kids when they created 2112. With that in mind, it’s pretty impressive.
As for this reissue, I’m not very blown away by the forgettable 5.1 mix. Too bad. It’s a blown opportunity. On the other hand, I very much enjoyed the included comic. I think it’s excellent, and geared straight to Rush fans. So:
For the album: 4.5/5 stars
For the reissue: 3.5/5 stars
Average rating: 4/5 stars
GUEST SHOT by UNCLE MEAT
RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#340: A Tribute to Jeff Woods
When you meet someone who has some sort of “celebrity” status, you almost expect them to be stand-off ish with you. A few years ago Tom and I won the chance as per a radio contest to see an intimate-type interview with Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, which was conducted by Legends of Classic Rock/Q107 radio personality Jeff Woods. We met Geddy and Alex very briefly and had a quick picture taken. However the true joy of this experience was our meeting afterwards with Jeff Woods.
He was extremely accommodating to our request of a sound byte for our Sausagefest recordings. He has continued to participate for a few years now and I thought I would post this to show just for appreciation to the man.
After a first try, he himself offers to “take it from the top”. He had known us for all of 30 seconds. He excused himself to leave to get a pen, and come back and record so he could get it right.
Important side note…became Facebook friends with Mr. Woods a week after this was done. Looking over his timeline, I noticed a post he put up days before we met him. It read, “Integrity is how you treat people that can do nothing for you”. Good to know someone out there practices what he preaches.
I found this bootleg when I was unceremoniously transferred from one location to another. When I started at the other location, this was among the first CDs that came in that I just had to buy. It’s a Rush bootleg from the legendary Moving Pictures tour. In fact this CD is the audio of the Rush video Exit…Stage Left, which is a different audio from the LP. It sounds like a vinyl rip. Otherwise the sound quality is pretty good. The audience is shrill and very loud. There are also clearly speed/pitch issues with the audio. (This could be corrected in Audacity, but I don’t think I could do it by ear.) This CD is selling for over $70 currently on Discogs. I paid nowhere near that.
Between the songs are interview snippets from the band, same as the video. It features a few tracks that were not on the Exit…Stage Left album: “By-Tor”, “In the Mood”, “In the End”, and “2112” which is unlisted. The rest of the songs are completely different recordings, anyway. I guess that’s why the asking price is $70. They are no less perfect; no less electrifying.
“The Trees” and “Xanadu” take up one massive 17 minute track on the CD, and it’s a monument to perfection of performance and craft. I can barely remember the sequence of all the different parts of Xanadu; I can’t imagine how Rush can play a set full of this stuff with precision and feel all the time! All this while Geddy has to remember complex lyrics about searching for the lost Xanadu.
I love Peart’s slamming drums on “Red Barchetta”, a song I simply never tire of. What is it about Rush songs? They don’t burn out like so many other bands. Not even “Closer to the Heart” has burned out on me yet, and it’s always a pleasure hearing a less familiar version.
On to “By-Tor”: it features a nicely noisy and meandering Alex Lifeson solo, surely a highlight of the entire performance. This segues directly into a truncated “In the End”, also from Fly By Night. This then is butted against “In the Mood” from the first Rush album in an awkward transition. Geddy appears to change the lyrics from “Hey baby” to “Hey Cookie”. Even this song is shortened, and segues into “Grande Finale” from 2112. Alex ends it with some noise-laden blasting on his axe, almost stealing the spotlight from his two bandmates. It’s a perfect storm of musical excellence and heavy rock.
Sonically, Red Stars of the Solar Federation is vastly inferior to the current Exit…Stage Left DVD. Yet I have a geeky love for an oddball CD like this. While I can’t say it’s worth $70, I can say it’s worth:
You’ve heard of Epic Meal Time? They should call me Epic Review Time. Here’s a couple hours of music, text and video distilled down and covered in detail. This is a double-sized review for the price of one. Dive in and engorge!
RUSH – Snakes & Arrows (2007 Warner Music Interactive DVD album)
Rush’s Snakes & Arrows album was considered a progression from the previous record, Vapor Trails. The pummeling of Vapor Trails has been tempered with light and shade, bringing a more balanced Rush. It was also mixed in 5.1 for a special “Music Video Interactive” DVD by Richard Chycki and Alex Lifeson, who oversee most of Rush’s 5.1 mixes. I haven’t listened to any version of Snakes & Arrows for many moons, so this is a review from fresh ears.
First though, there is a 40+ minute documentary video called “The Game of Snakes & Arrows” so we can learn a bit about how the album came to be. Geddy Lee says that their priority for choosing a recording studio was that they wanted the best drum sound imaginable. They chose an old mansion out in the Adironacks. 47 individual microphones were used to record the entire drum kit. Neil Peart says that the isolation of the studio led to the three guys reconnecting as musicians and friends like the old days at Le Studio. According to Alex Lifeson, the plan for writing this time was to take it easy, working on the writing part only part time. Later on, more time was spent on just rehearsing and playing the new songs, which transformed them along them way. The documentary contains snippets of some intricate Lifeson acoustic 12-string, in the studio, where Alex makes it look easy.
Producer Nick Raskulinecz was not a passive participant; indeed there was give and take with the band in order to make the best out of each song. It was a process that worked well according to Alex. I enjoyed hearing Alex explain the suspended F chord in “Far Cry” — there’s a story behind it. There is some great footage of Geddy playing Mellotron on “Good News First” too. I also love a fly on the wall scene of Geddy jamming a bass lick on his brand-new-out-of-the-box Jaco Pastorius bass. The lick sounded good and Geddy says, “We’ll jam to it later. We’ll get the Big Guy on drums.” Chills up my spine. Raskulinecz asks, “Would it be bad if we had two instrumentals on the record?” Geddy immediately responds, “No, it’ll be a first.” Peart shows up and they start to jam, and when Alex arrives it only takes him a day to come up with his guitar part to the Grammy-nominated Rush bass-drum jam called “Malignant Narcissism”. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. This is how the big boys play.
Although this doc is only 40 minutes in length it’s well worth having. This is great stuff. Neil Peart crafting drum parts in front of our very eyes is a treat that few other DVDs deliver. Seeing Geddy applauding his bandmate shouting, “He’s killing it, woo!” is glorious.
As if all this isn’t enough, there is a many-paged (I lost count) essay by Peart called “The Game of Snakes & Arrows: Prize Every Time”. My favourite detail is what producer Nick Raskulinecz was nicknamed: “Boujze”, based on the sound he’d make when trying to convey to Peart a drum fill suggestion. “Bappitty-bap-bap-booooujze!”
The DVD photo gallery is a total joke: FIVE pictures. At least the package comes with an expanded booklet with lots of Hugh Syme’s surreal artwork. Since the photo gallery on the DVD was just shite photies, I’ll give you some shots from the documentary that are loads better.
So, let’s get on with the album then. Pushing play —
Delicacy and aggression describe album opener (and first single) “Far Cry”. The acoustics of Lifeson are easily overwhelmed by the pummeling band. “Far Cry” boasts one of those powerful 90’s-style Rush riffs that groove rather than exercise the brain. Immediately I am overwhelmed by a dense 5.1 riff. I do not know how many guitars I am hearing, but Alex has unique parts coming in from all sides, including an acoustic on the left that I never noticed before. I have loved “Far Cry” since its triumphant release in 2007; it is just as powerful and engaging today. New appreciation for Lifeson will be had on this mix.
“Armor & Sword” was a standout then and now, just as “Far Cry” before. The song has always shimmered, but more so in 5.1. This track has much more of Alex’s acoustic guitars, and more texture. It has a regal 80’s Rush-like quality without the keyboards. In fact there are no keyboards on Snakes & Arrows, only the Mellotron. The 5.1 mix becomes a little dense at times, and the layers of guitars oppressive, but it is indeed a massive song. Then, you can audibly hear the Mellotron on “Workin’ Them Angels”, a phrase taken from one of Peart’s books. It is a brighter song than either of the first two, and I like the reference to the “moving picture”. “Workin’ Them Angels” is an album highlight, particularly the mandolin near the end.
Somber moods inhabit “The Larger Bowl”, with Alex’s acoustics again giving it mood and texture. The hippy-ish chorus sounds like the 1960’s to me, and with the acoustics it paints a picture in my mind. This is a very good song, but Alex’s well composed guitar solo is the focal point for me. His tone is very different on the solo, very warm. It’s an excellent song. “Spindrift” is less overwhelming to me. There is nothing wrong with it; it is simply less enchanting than its predecessors since they set the bar quite high. The song was, however, performed on the Snakes & Arrows tour and kicks of CD 2 of the album Snakes & Arrows Live and there is no denying it is powerful.
“The Main Monkey Business” is the first instrumental, again featuring Geddy on Mellotron. The main melodic element to this song feels familiar to me — it reminds me of one of Ace Frehley’s “Fractured” instrumentals in terms of melody. In terms of playing and structure, it is nothing like Frehley. The 5.1 mix here is nicely balanced. I’m getting plenty of distinct acoustic parts, with Geddy and Neil front and center. The chiming guitars behind me envelope the listener in warmth. Then, suddenly during a solo guitar section, the mix retreats almost all way to stereo before returning again on all 5.1. Things bounce back and forth between intensely heavy and intensely heady. This is a masterpiece of instrumental craft.
“We can only go the way the wind blows,” claims Peart on the next song. “The Way the Wind Blows” has two distinct sections:one heavy and one with layered acoustics. I prefer the acoustic section and I’m not too much into the heavy parts which sounds a bit same-y to 90’s Rush stuff. Then, “Hope” is a short Lifeson acoustic showcase. This might be the point at which some Rush fans started to doze a bit. Admittedly Snakes & Arrows is the most acoustic-based Rush album I can think of. I just don’t think that’s a bad thing. Not when you have Alex Lifeson in your band. “Hope” leads into “Faithless”, a strong Rush composition. There seems to be some sort continuity of theme here, or perhaps it is all in my head? First Neil says we can only go the way the wind blows. Then we go from “Hope”, to a discussion of faith. On “Faithless”, Neil says that like the willow, he will quietly resist. Seems like a total 180 from going where the wind blows to me, and I don’t care if it’s not intentional because I think it’s cool. On the guitar end, Alex plays a cool bluesy solo, once again classing up the song several notches. What a player.
The song that doesn’t work for me is “Bravest Face”. I find the verses annoying. “Good News First” is better, returning us to the regal Rush territory I prefer. Alex’s magnificent chords are enhanced by the Mellotron. Weak verses are compensated for here by other elements. It sounds like an incomplete song to me, but better than “Bravest Face”. The aforementioned “Malignant Narcissism” is a mind-tornado as opposed to a mind-blow. But it’s actually a distraction; you’re about to be blown away by the sheer power of closer “We Hold On”. Rush closers usually just bowl me over, and “We Hold On” is one of those. Fucking awesome. This time, Alex concentrates on the electric guitar and comes up with numerous unique and enhancing licks. This is a complete Rush triumph. Neil is absolutely relentless. It leaves the album on an exhausted, satisfied note.
And a good thing, too — I was starting to worry as the song quality was dipping towards the end there. I’m happy Rush redeemed it with a stunner like “We Hold On”.