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”.