During the 1980s, the old guard prog bands had two choices – adapt or die. Some did to great success (Yes, Genesis) while others couldn’t go all the way and wound up making interesting, but tentative, strides (King Crimson.) Rush had the benefit of starting the earliest, scoring two major rock radio hits with “The Spirit of Radio” from Permanent Waves (1980) and the now ubiquitous “Tom Sawyer” from 1981’s Moving Pictures. After that, depending on who you asked, the band lapsed into goopy, synth-laden prog-pop, lost their bite and didn’t get it back until Counterparts in 1993, and still other quarters feel that album was a misfire as well.
While it is true that the more recent Vapor Trails and Snakes & Arrows were meatier and more guitar-based, I tend to think the band has lost something in their bid to be a power trio again, and that is because as maligned as those Eighties albums are, they often had the best melodies in the band’s discography. Let’s now take a look at Rush in the 1980s, starting at the point the where the pundits claim it all started going wrong.
Signals (1982) – The opening song of the album, and another respected rock radio staple, was “Subdivisions” and it clearly telegraphed where the band was going. Ominous synth chords kick it off even before Neil Peart’s first drum hit and the subject matter of high school cliques and social segregation was light years away from the old tales of warring trees and treks for really exotic weed. The breakout single from the recording was the lightly reggaefied “New World Man”, and it’s faint inference of things Police and Sting may have set the old fans onto the wrong impression. Longer tracks like “The Weapon” regarding the use of fear and religion as a threat that controls free will and the more guitar-focused “The Analog Kid” should have indicated the band hadn’t left their old ground that far behind.
Grace Under Pressure (1984) – As if to give a mulligan to the old crowd, still rebelling against the synth sound, Grace Under Pressure brought back Alex Lifeson’s guitar in a more pronounced way but did not leave Geddy Lee’s synths behind. The band managed a sizeable chart number with the single “Distant Early Warning” and, perhaps owing to the portentous date of the record’s release, the disc is filled with thinly veiled reports of governmental misdeeds and war machinery. That single and it’s message of impending environmental and nuclear doom, “Red Sector A” with it’s underpinnings of concentration camp victims, and the dark vision of “Between The Wheels” all touch upon aspects of an Orwellian understanding. Unfortunately, the album also has a major pothole in the form of the clunky “Red Lenses.” This album marks the departure of longtime producer Terry Brown, replaced by Peter Henderson, most recognized as the producer for Supertramp. This would be his first, and last, album for Rush.
Power Windows (1985) – If Power Windows has an overall concept, it would probably be the conflict of modernity over the natural scheme of life. As a concept, it is not strong or overpowering, instead it is a slight connective tissue, enough to hold it all together but not enough to get it slandered with the “concept album” tag. The first single, “The Big Money” has a veneer of satire, but only a veneer, keeping it from devolving into a full-fledged ‘capitalism run amok’ screed. The eerie, synth-driven “Mystic Rhythms” also became a song of note for the group, and while I enjoy the track quite a bit, it is easy to see why those old fans feared their favorites were fast becoming A Flock Of Seagulls. Even if the whole doesn’t hang together as well as the individual parts, Power Windows contains what is one of my personal picks for the group’s best work, the inspirational “Marathon” – a song that is a solid, if somewhat standard composition for the band until the last section where the unexpected gear-shift change takes the song to another place. Sure, it is a manipulative writing trick but, so what? It works. The album marks the band’s first with what would become a regular co-worker, Peter Collins.
Hold Your Fire (1987) – I’ve found this particular entry to be the most divisive among the fans. It starts with a nice kick in “Force Ten” and manages to convince one wing of the faithful that the rock-oriented tide had shifted once more. Immediately following it, “Time Stand Still” is an unabashed pop song, featuring counterpoint vocals by no less than Aimee Mann. Depending on how you’ve received the previous few albums, either of these tracks can represent hope or despair to the listener, but if the prejudices could only be set aside for a moment, Hold Your Fire is rightly viewed as a very good, albeit very quixotic, pop rock record. “Mission” is the uplifting song “Marathon” would have been without the big finish, a great melody and a great message, but lacking that extra emotional punch. “Tai Shan” seeks to explore similar ideas as “Mystic Rhythms” but doesn’t linger as strongly as the latter does in the brain.
Presto (1989) – Presto found Rush going through many changes, the first being their new US distributor Atlantic Records as they left behind Mercury, a label going through an identity crisis at the dawn of the 1990s. The second was the departure of Peter Collins, who would return later for Counterparts and Test for Echo, but at this time period was working with a hard rock/prog rock group not all that unlike Rush, Queensryche. Their choice for new producer was puzzling to many, but probably seemed a natural fit to the Atlantic brass, and so Rupert Hine, best known for The Fixx and Tina Turner’s ’80s hits, came in. The overall feel of the disc was much brighter, with synth become a little less prominent though not lost entirely. The piano sound gets a workout on tracks like “Red Tide” and the surprising closer, “Available Light.” The album’s title cut as well as “Show Don’t Tell” managed decent radio strides and, overall, the release marks itself as another good pop-prog entry. Note has to be made for what I consider the band’s worst track, not just on the album but in their catalog, “Scars.” If you couldn’t stand Rush before that song, you certainly wouldn’t have an affinity for them after as the tune sounds like a dance track gone horribly awry. Fortunately, it comes across as a one-shot experiment and, just like that, it’s on to the next test.
The new decade would find Hine returning for the band’s redefining Roll the Bones in 1991, and while that album still has the synths as a major player in the overall feel of the recording, it was clearly Alex Lifeson’s reclaiming of the melodic lead. Subsequent releases would see less and less of the keys until, once again, the group was a guitar/bass/drum trio not just in composition but in overall sound.
But as I alluded to before, the keys allowed Rush to explore different melodies and to not need to be so hard in their rock approach. Some will vehemently disagree with my analysis, especially classic rock radio programmers who still think the band died away in 1982 all the while endlessly replaying “Tom Sawyer” into the ground, but that is their subjective opinion. Mine is that there is still plenty of good to be found in the band’s 1980s output.