The Popdose Guide to Rush, Part One

Written by Music, Popdose Guides

[Note: As I mentioned last night, today’s Guide was written by my good friend Ted, who has been patiently and tirelessly defending Rush to me since we met. I take pains to point this out not because I think Ted’s Guide is poorly written — quite the contrary — but because he deserves the credit. –j]

They are a group who are reviled or worshiped, praised or pissed on, and loved or loathed. They’ve been writing and recording music since the early 1970s, have never graced the cover of Rolling Stone, and will probably never be inducted into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, nor win a Grammy for their contribution to rock music. However, they have sold millions of albums, for the most part consistently toured, and have millions of devoted fans worldwide whose admiration of their music goes beyond hero-worship into a realm where the complexity of the arrangements, the depth of the lyrics, and the level of musical virtuosity all combine into a Form that is unique in the rock genre. Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, and Alex Lifeson are the trio who have recorded under the moniker “Rush,â€? and are, for the most part, three regular guys from the Canadian suburbs who also happen to be at the top of the progressive rock pantheon.

Jefito’s “Complete Idiot’s Guidesâ€? usually explore a band’s catalogue in a linear fashion, but I thought I would do something a little different and compare tracks from Rush’s CDs in a kind of “Now and Thenâ€? manner. The comparisons don’t always hold up, but it’s interesting to hear how the band has (or hasn’t) changed in the 30 years they’ve been together.

Our first stop takes us to the very first and, to date, last studio CD Rush recorded. Rush and Feedback were released in 30 years apart, but the connection between the two CDs is pretty obvious. Rush, like almost all bands, owe a debt to bands who inspired them to become musicians. Led Zepplin, Cream, The Who, Yes, Blue Cheer, Love, and Buffalo Springfield’s influence can be heard in Rush’s music, and The Boys (as they are sometimes called by fans) pay tribute to them on Feedback (with mixed results).

Before we get to Feedback, let’s go way back to where it all started:


Rush (1974)

While Rush was written and recorded without Neil Peart (Peart joined the band after drummer John Rutsey left, after the album came out), it owes a great deal to the music of Led Zepplin and Cream. While tracks like “Finding My Wayâ€? (download) and “Working Man” stand out as the strongest tracks, others — like “Before and Afterâ€? or “What You’re Doingâ€? (download) — really channel Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in such a way that Rush could have easily become the poor man’s Canadian Zep. Indeed, when listening to Rush, one gets the distinct impression that they did quite well on the club/bar circuit when they were cutting their teeth as rockers. The music is loud, has a certain rawness to it, and would sound great while getting liquored up at your favorite watering hole. The music is a far cry from the kind of “math rockâ€? they would quickly become famous for.


Feedback (2004)

Unfortunately, Feedback is too polished an effort to adequately pay tribute to the artists who inspired Rush. One can either make a cover song “your own,â€? or do a pitch perfect version that sounds almost like the original with some minor flourishes. Personally, I love it when a band does the former. But when a faithful cover is done by a band who could, if they wanted to, make a cover their own, it makes me ask: “Why did you waste your time?â€? The exception to this rule on Feedback is “Summertime Bluesâ€? (download), which surpasses the Blue Cheer version mostly because Rush was able to accentuate the heaviness of the song with recording technology that was not available when Blue Cheer recorded their version. The biggest disappointment is “Seven and Seven Is.â€? Rush completely gutted the ferocity of the original (download), and Geddy Lee’s vocals are too tame to express the proto-punk spirit of Love’s brilliantly odd ode to:I have no idea what it’s an ode to.


Fly By Night (1975)

Fly By Night and Vapor Trails are two albums that have a great deal in common. Both can be seen as turning points: Fly By Night was the first album made after Neil Peart joined the group, and Vapor Trails was recorded after Peart ended a five-year hiatus — one prompted by the months-apart deaths of his wife and daughter. You can read about Peart’s struggle to heal from his tragic losses in his book Ghost Rider.

The first track on Fly By Night is “Anthemâ€? (download), whose lyrics owe a great deal to the writings of Ayn Rand. A celebration of the individual as the prime source in the construction of one’s lived reality, the lyrics are replete with Randian philosophical snippets that talk about selfishness, radical individualist humanism, and celebration of nameless Great Individuals. The song rocks! And the playing was much more complex than their previous effort. The musical growth shown by the band was quite impressive, and it’s pretty obvious that Rush was no long a bar band from suburban Toronto. This is most evident with songs like “By-Tor and the Snow Dogâ€? (download). But the album also has probably one of the worst songs recorded by Rush, the embarrassment that is “Rivendell.â€?


Vapor Trails (2002)

Vapor Trails — recorded in 2002 — found the band returning to its hard rock roots sans the Randian lyrics and long-form songs that had a mystical and science fiction quality to them. “One Little Victoryâ€? (download), like “Anthem,â€? rocks pretty hard, but the lyrics this time are not so full of bravado, and mostly signal the fact that the band is happy just to be making music again. The track “Vapor Trailâ€? (download) is probably my favorite; the lyrics are not necessarily the most personal for Peart, but Lee’s vocals reach heights of emotion reflecting a sense of loss — a rare quality for a Rush song.


Caress of Steel (1975)

Caress of Steel and Test for Echo find the band searching for their muse and, well, just not finding it. Caress of Steel is, for the most part, like “Rivendellâ€?: That is to say, it’s an embarrassment. “Bastille Dayâ€? (download) and “Lakeside Parkâ€? (download) save the album from being a complete joke, but “The Fountain of Lamnethâ€? and the “The Necromancerâ€? are long-form songs that Rush probably wishes they never recorded. Yes, they are that bad. I shouldn’t be too hard on those songs, because they paved the way for the album that will forever be one of the real anthems for Rush fans: 2112. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.


Test for Echo (1996)

Test for Echo isn’t embarrassing like Caress of Steel, but the band sounds like it was struggling to find its “voiceâ€? in the post-grunge landscape. They had taken some extended time off before recording this album (Peart worked on his drumming technique and produced a tribute to Buddy Rich, Lifeson recorded a solo CD entitled Victor, and Lee spent time with his family after his wife had a baby), but once they regrouped, it was like the chemistry and interplay among the band members wasn’t there. Peart’s lyrics were often uninspired and flat. It was as if he had very little to say about the world, and wound up writing songs about dogs, time, the Internet and TV. However, despite the lack of interesting topics, Rush was able to create some very good songs. “Resistâ€? (download) and “Drivenâ€? (download) are two of the strongest tracks on the CD.


2112 (1976)

2112 and Counterparts. Do these albums compare? Not really, but as I line up my “Now and Thenâ€? sets, I find that there are brilliant and mundane moments in each.

2112 is, as I said before, the anthem for early Rush fans. It’s a classic in their catalogue, and marks perhaps the arrival of Rush as a band whose music, lyrics, and conceptual creations struck a chord with free spirited individuals who felt a sense of oppression from forces that seemed large and impersonal. I’m not talking about counter-cultural types who get stoned and talk about how The Man is grinding all of us down. Okay, maybe I am. But seriously, it seems 2112 resonates with teenagers discovering the world, dreaming big dreams and feeling utterly depressed by the limits placed on them.

So kill the lights, crank up the speakers to 11, and play the entire “album sideâ€? of 2112. Don’t really bother with the other songs on “side 2,â€? because while they are good, they distract from the greatness of the album.


Counterparts (1993)

Counterparts is a groove album that explores the duality of humanity and the way in which that duality plays itself out within the individual, one-to-one relationships, and the larger world. From the get go — “Animate” (download) — the songs move away from the complex arrangements that are a Rush hallmark. “Double Agentâ€? (download) and “Cold Fireâ€? (download) alternate between a dark journey of the soul and “radio friendlyâ€? rock about misunderstandings in relationships. Overall, Counterparts is an album that, like 2112, is hit and miss. While 2112 signaled a new maturity for the band, Counterparts found them still maturing, but starting to miss the mark in terms of fresh song ideas. After this album and tour, the band took a break from each other to search for new musical horizons.

Part Two of my Complete Idiot’s Guide to Rush coming soon…