Friday, July 27, 2007

The prematurely senile man's guide to Rush, Part VI

(Spurred on by a link from my high school buddy medic8r, we're back ...)

After a prolific decade, Rush was ever so slightly slowing down -- almost two years elapsed between these two.

Perhaps that's because Rush was busy polishing their sound into a bright '80s sheen that would make Howard Jones envious. Neil Peart was trying to work every conceivable electric drum sound into each album, and the synthesizers were cranked to 11.

The results were hit and miss. Power Windows in particular has its fans, including medic8r and a now-defunct tribute band. But the days in which every song on a Rush album deserved some sort of response were fading. For here on, we'd talk mostly about great songs, not great albums.

Both of these were produced by Peter Collins. Remind me to bring him up again in Part VIII because he plays a surprising role in another change of direction.

Power Windows(1985)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

Rush was big enough to get MTV exposure in the early days, which surely helped in the short term. But their videos just added to the "geek" factor -- remember, "geek" was an insult in those days.

They tiptoed into video with Subdivisions and Countdown, and you may see some clips from Moving Pictures of the guys in Le Studio. The big push had come on Grace Under Pressure, particularly the memorable imagery on Distant Early Warning (kid riding the missile, Strangelove-style). They also made a compelling video for The Body Electric, and a performance clip for the haunting Afterimage was on an old video compilation if not on MTV.

Then there's The Big Money. Embedding is disabled, perhaps so it doesn't freeze-frame on some goofy shot of Geddy singing in Alex's face like they're dueting. Or that little rat-tail on Neil's hair. Or the dorky laugh Neil gives after tossing and catching his drumstick. Or Alex giving some guitar grimaces that would embarrass Aldo Nova. (At least Geddy had ditched the Steinberger (headless) bass -- it looked like a broom, which made Geddy look, well, like a witch.)

A little more interesting is the more abstract Mystic Rhythms. The Peter Gabriel-style video does well to capture the intrigue of the song, propelled by the best of Peart's electric-drum experiments and Lifeson's mysterious arpeggios.

The Cold War is still lurking here, with Peart again fretting over nuclear arms on the well-researched and urgently presented Manhattan Project. The overlooked Territories is a ripping anti-war anthem that would probably be shredded in the right-wing blogosphere if it were released today. ("Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world / Than the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled.")

The album title is also the concept (the songs are "windows" in the examination of "power"), and it's the last time one concept would echo so strongly throughout a Rush album. But Peart gets personal, effectively reaching out to the powerless (the dreary but poignant Middletown Dreams and the inspirational Marathon) and ineffectively expressing the power of love (Emotion Detector, every bit as clumsy as the title).

It's not a bad album at all. But the sound was starting to wear out its welcome, and a couple of weak songs were encroaching into the mix as Rush entered the CD era.

Hold Your Fire(1987)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

This is the Rush album to clock in at a CD-length 50 minutes instead of the usual 35-40 from the vinyl/cassette era. But they don't have enough songs to make it work.

From checking the reviews, this is a minority opinion. But this one was a relative flop. It didn't hit the top 10 (granted, these were the pre-Soundscan days, so the horde of Rush fans who buy each album on day of release couldn't give it a strong debut). And it broke the streak of platinum albums dating back to 2112.

It's a strong start. Force Ten is one of the classic Rush openers, with Lifeson's guitar and the synth effects creating a maelstrom behind Peart's lyrics on resilience and riding the waves in this turbulent world. Time Stand Still, with guest vocalist Aimee Mann, hits a familiar Peart theme of trying to cherish the good times.

Then, thanks to the new technology of CDs, you can skip Open Secrets and Second Nature, neither of which make much of an impression.

The next four are blustery, as if all trying to outdo each other as a mix of frenetic bass lines, guitar riffs and drums. They're all powerful and intriguing, but you won't often hear someone walking away from a Rush show saying, "Dang, I wish they'd played Lock and Key." They'd be an interesting change of pace, like the resurrected Between the Wheels, but nothing you'd necessarily demand.

Prime Mover would be a prime candidate for a remake without the goofy synthesizers, Lock and Key lacks a definitive hook, and Mission overreaches with a guitar and glockenspiel break (yes, I said glockenspiel) that doesn't fit. The best of this bunch is Turn the Page, a high-energy effort that builds dramatically throughout.

Then skip Tai Shan, which isn't about the panda. The closer High Water drowns solid work from Peart and Lifeson in a morass of synthesizer nonsense.

Cut out a couple of songs, tone down the synths here and there, and you'd have a perfectly good Rush album. In yesteryear, it'd be a tough call whether or not to purchase it. Today, if you don't have Force Ten and a couple of favorites in some sort of compilation, just go to iTunes and you're set.

That's another set of four studio albums, and we know what that means ...

A Show of Hands (1989)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Review)

Rush would have to work really hard to make a bad live album -- you'd need to have some act of sabotage. There's nothing at all wrong with this one, and Peart's drum solo is particularly playful. The only downside is that the flurry of live releases in the last couple of years has made this one a little redundant. That makes this another album worth a few picks at iTunes -- Peart's The Rhythm Method and perhaps Marathon or Turn the Page, neither of which would survive much longer on the Rush set list.

While Rush had been sliding slowly through the decade since Moving Pictures, they found a plateau here. The next couple of albums would continue in the same vein -- heavy synthesizers and strong but inconsistent releases. Yet we're not far from the best latter-day Rush album.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

New York stories

Apologies to the New York readership of Mostly Modern Media for failing to alert you before the fact, but I passed through your densely populated neck of the woods yesterday. I was only in the city itself for about an hour while transferring from Amtrak to NJ Transit, but between that and a subsequent stint in Secaucus, I think I had a good stereotypical New York experience.

First, I saw not one but two people talking emphatically to no one in particular. One just seemed to be narrating harmlessly. The other was making specific threats about how the black man isn't going to stand for this and so forth. For a minute or two, I thought he was talking with customer support of some kind, but then I noticed he had no phone.

After venturing out to Montclair State, I wound up in Secaucus. That was fine, but everything ran a little long, and I wasn't sure how I'd get back to Penn Station in time. After the cab company listed on the hotel kiosk bailed out ("We're actually in Teaneck, so we'd have to go all the way to Secaucus to get you ..."), I waited desperately at the front desk and scaled back my request from the Penn Station in Manhattan to the Penn Station in Newark. (Gotta love Amtrak's flexibility.)

Enter a cab traveling maybe 60 mph in a hotel driveway. I made my train with enough time left to have my first snack of the day.

Along the way, we were stopped alongside a car with an attractive young Hispanic woman. The taxi driver: "Mmmm ... Spanish p----."

He quickly realized the voice in his head had connected with the voice in his mouth, and he deftly shifted into a public-service announcement on the diversity of Newark.

My day was certainly productive. After writing this story Tuesday night, I wrote the bulk of this one on the train. All that while working on another story I hope we'll see next week.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The hairspray-eating-into-brain guide to Rush, Part V

Things you can do when you've released a massive hit ...

1. Spend about five years holed up in a studio with Mutt Lange trying to expand ever so slightly on what you did last time so you can have an even greater hit. See Leppard, Def.

2. Annihilate your image with something experimental. See Dylan, Bob. Or Morissette, Alanis. Maybe even Reed, Lou (sorry, Jason), though it's hard to say he ever got that huge outside New York.

3. Quit. See Bruford, Bill, who didn't want to do "Close to the Edge II" with Yes and instead embarked on making weird noises under the strict gaze of Robert Fripp in King Crimson. Killjoy.

4. Keep refining your music as if nothing ever happened.

Rush went for option 4. And though it meant they'd never again hit the artistic or commercial peak of Moving Pictures (barring a sudden avalanche of interest in Snakes & Arrows, which so far hasn't even hit gold), the roller-coaster ride since then has been far from boring.

Quick personal tangent: These albums fell just as I went through my musical awakening. Until 1982-83, I just had a couple of pop albums -- Blondie, Go-Gos, Village People (my first concert!). Then the cable company got MTV just as I switched schools, got a boombox and started spending evenings in my room fiddling with an antenna to pick up Atlanta's 96Rock. That's why, in my mind, these two albums are lumped together as a trilogy with Moving Pictures.

In retrospect, that's not true. This was the start of something new.

Signals (1982)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics)

Let's come right out and say this: Following up your biggest hit with a synth-laden song about teen outcasts is a strange career move for what was then one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

The song is Subdivisions, accompanied by the first Rush video (to my knowledge) that isn't simply a few shots of the guys at Le Studio or on stage.

It's a good song, still warmly received at live shows. But only a courageous band would reach out to lonely geeks after the band has become wildly popular and well before lonely geeks have become wildly popular. I could identify just fine with the kid in the video, though I was better about doing my homework and didn't wander downtown streets alone. Most kids my age did not.

You could say Rush either went out to alienate everyone with this album -- popularity-conscious kids weren't going to crank up Subdivisions, guitar aficionados had to grimace over Alex Lifeson's subdued presence, prog-rock snobs couldn't have enjoyed the pop/reggae influence on Digital Man and those who enjoyed the mythic tales of previous works may have been surprised by Neil Peart's more direct lyrics here.

Or maybe Rush figured it had built an audience that would follow it through new directions. Going by Wikipedia's figuring, this album sold less than any album since Caress of Steel and one-fifth as many copies as Moving Pictures. Yet that's still enough to go platinum, and that's the fan base that continued to buy everything Rush released through the '80s and '90s.

And I, for one, will defend Signals as an intriguing album that showed Rush could find some gold (platinum, technically) down this new path.

Lyrically, perhaps it's not Peart's best work, with the abrupt shift from abstract to concrete pushing him into a few cliches -- "excitement so thick you could cut it with a knife" is one clunker from Countdown, the homage to a space shuttle launch. Yet it's not a total loss -- The Weapon is a compelling take on fear as a means of controlling the masses.

(Peart also contributed a couple of good yearbook quotes. One of my classmates took a line from The Analog Kid -- "When I leave, I don't know what I'm hoping to find, and when I leave, I don't know what I'm leaving behind." Another dug back to Xanadu. Here's the spooky part -- another classmate said "I can resist everything but temptation," which would show up on a Rush album nine years later.)

Musically, this album should be praised, not buried. I recall reading a review from a few years later that said Lifeson had recovered from the "creative nosedive" he took with Signals, and that's completely unfair. While it's true Lifeson doesn't contribute many memorable solos other than the poignant harmonics of Subdivisions, he quickly masters the new sound. Think about that transition -- you've been playing your whole career with just a bass occupying a lower register and the occasional synth effect. Now you've got synthesizers all over the place, occupying the frequencies you used to have to yourself. To see how Lifeson fares, listen to The Weapon, where he plays a sharp counterpoint against Geddy Lee's synth.

My favorite here, musically, is Digital Man, though Wikipedia tells us that caused a fallout between the band and longtime producer Terry Brown. It's built a subtle polyrhythms -- it's might be written as 4/4, but at times it's 12/8 and 6/4 simultaneously, with Lee's bass and Peart's ride cymbal sometimes playing against the prevailing pattern. (I know I've lapsed into music geekspeak, but I'm almost done.)

While Signals isn't the bad's biggest commercial success by any stretch, it provided the band's only top 40 hit in New World Man. With years of retrospect, the song is a little flimsy. That's the pop chart for you.

Grace Under Pressure (1984)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia)

Rarely has an album cover captured the music so well. This is Rush's bleakest album.

I reviewed this one for my high school paper and said it was fine if you didn't mind depression. To give some idea -- the two standout tracks here are the Cold War-inspired "oh crap, they've launched the missiles" Distant Early Warning and a stirring tale of concentration-camp life called Red Sector A. Sandwiched by those two is Afterimage, a song about being haunted by the memory of a recently deceased (in real life) friend of the band.


So is it worth the descent into despair? To an extent.

The sound is so dated. Funny story behind that -- the tour book details their search for a producer, which took a few twists as people backed out. (One guy not named in the book was, according to the Wikis, Steve Lillywhite, and I didn't realize until just now that he was the father of the kids Kirsty MacColl died saving. If you ever want to get angry but can't think of anything, just read the account of MacColl's death.) Peter Henderson did a fine job, but listening 20 years after the fact, it often sounds like someone banging on a Casio.

Yet the songs stand up. Distant Early Warning may have seemed like a Cold War relic 10 years ago, but in this age of fear, it's powerful. For the last couple of tours, Rush resurrected Between the Wheels, a strong mixed-tempo song with the typical Peart treatment, using one word ("wheels") in several metaphors, mostly having to do with the breathtaking speed of progress and hoping it doesn't run right over us pathetic humans.

Grace Under Pressure kept up Rush's streak of platinum albums, and the band had successfully adapted to the MTV and synthesizer age. The next transition would be to the CD era, and that's where the band started to run into trouble producing consistently interesting work.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Guitar heroes, '80s video style

Apologies to Captain Video, Aldo Nova, Chevy Nova ... heck, just about everybody.

"Greetings, Mr. Nova. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to star in a video convincing viewers of a new network called MTV that you are a guitar god.

"You will be given a low budget for this video, most of which will be spent on the helicopter.

"The rest of the budget will be spent on the laser you'll shoot from your guitar to open the warehouse.

"You will be joined in the mission by a nerd carrying that guitar ...

"... plus a big-haired emoting drummer ...

"... a keyboardist who seems surprised by his five seconds of screen time ...

"... and a generic guitarist, generic bassist and maybe 10 people gathered in the warehouse.

"Be warned that you may be attacked by a crazed woman following director's orders to, quote, go nuts, unquote.

"We suggest that you attempt to escape using the following methods. First, go out into the street to pontificate on material excess. To demonstrate the bling-bling lifestyle, we have procured one bad-ass Pontiac.

"You may also use the famous Nova disappearing act ...

"... or you may simply dissolve into what we call the pre-Photoshop vortex.

"If that fails, we suggest you misdirect the attacker with a single-entendre lyric mimicking the timing of Krusty the Klown's 'Tonight, I'm going to suck ... (pause) ... your blood!'

"Oh, wait, we're sorry. That's Heather Nova.

"Good luck with the mission. Or whatever -- hey, do you have her number?"

Enjoy ...

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The evolved human's guide to Rush, Part IV

The R30 DVD set has an interview with Rush in Le Studio from sometime in this era, and it reminds you how young these guys really were. Heading into the studio after the Hemispheres tour, these guys were 26-27 years old and already had six albums to their credit, getting steadily bigger throughout.

Then they got huge.

Permanent Waves (1980)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia)

A transitional effort of sorts, and yet it was their biggest album to date. Sure, 2112 has sold more over the years, but Waves made it into the Billboard top five (#4). And frankly, the people buying 2112 and NOT getting this one are a little misinformed.

This was a slightly more condensed Rush, with no song clocking in over 10 minutes. The longest, Natural Science, is an abstract take on circles of life built on a dizzying riff that has been a live favorite over the years. (Now's a good time to plug the source on set lists -- the comprehensive fan site

It's all but impossible to imagine a live set without the opener, The Spirit of Radio. It's your prototypical riff-rock song with a few unexpected twists -- a reggae-style bridge with lyrics giving a shoutout to Paul Simon. Rush realized by this point that its fans were willing to follow through a few experiments, particularly when they turned out as well as this one.

Freewill also was a live favorite, with some live recordings capturing a strong roar after Lifeson's searing solo. It's another good riff-rocker, though it alternates between a 6/4 and 7/4 beat. By this point, Rush -- unlike some bands we could mention -- could flip through different time signatures without making it sound too precious. The lyrics are another stone tablet in Neil Peart's philosophy of the individual, featuring a direct shot at organized religion. ("You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice / If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice / You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill / I will choose a path that's clear, I will choose free will.") Maybe not a song I want to have cranked up in the car when I pull into church, but it's an eloquent statement against mindless faith at the very least.

While Freewill caught Rush in a philosophical mood, they were also getting sentimental. For all the Ayn Rand bluster, these guys are family men. Entre Nous, offered an intriguing take on relationships ("the spaces in between leave room for you and I to grow"), has finally re-emerged on the set list after decades of absence.

Only one of the six songs never appeared on a set list, and that's the second love song here, Different Strings, featuring one of many terrific classical-style intros that I picked my way through in high school. Probably a bit too soft for a live show but a fine ballad to mix things up on the album.

The other mini-epic is Jacob's Ladder, which is probably what they meant to do with Side 2 of Caress of Steel. It's ominous, with a slow beat, but it gives way to a hopeful finale, mixing natural and supernatural.

Six songs, nary a weak one. This would be Rush's masterpiece, if not for ...

Moving Pictures (1981)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia)

You've probably heard a few songs from this one. It distilled the best of Rush's first eight albums into digestible radio-friendly pieces (plus one last 10-minute epic). It's by far Rush's biggest seller, and you won't hear many fans whining that they sold out. No preposterous duet with Ann Wilson, no dipping into the Diane Warren well, no videos about making videos.

Sure, they were still dabbling with new-fangled synthesizers, but in the process, they created one of the strongest synth hooks in history.

When you see the guys singing Tom Sawyer on the late, underrated show The Knights of Prosperity, you may forget what a dazzlingly complex song it is. Prog rock has cranked out all sorts of complicated music, and it has given us a few simpler radio-friendly hits (think Owner of a Lonely Heart). I can't think of a song that fits both descriptions better. From the spare opening over Neil Peart's backbeat, it revs up through a couple of dramatic guitar hooks into a synth-and-guitar call-and-response over a rhythm that shifts through time signatures like a car on a winding race track.

Lyrically, it's a series of intriguing abstractions. He knows changes aren't permanent, but change is. What you say about his company is what you say about society. You can puzzle over them for a while or just think "that's cool" and move on.

Red Barchetta is a guitar player's dream, with Alex Lifeson showing off his gifts for coming up with winding arpeggios and some melodies on harmonics. (Explaining "harmonics" for non-guitarists -- this is a technique in which you lightly touch a string over the 12th, 7th, 5th or 4th fret, then release just as you strum. Do it well, and it rings for a while.) Good story, too -- it's another tale of individual freedom sure to satisfy the Ayn Rand devotees, but it's a bit more accessible than the older songs because it's the story of a driver defying some sort of anti-car ban.

YYZ is a worthy successor to La Villa Strangiato, an instrumental that revs through several unusual yet memorable riffs. All three guys have space to show off, particularly in an entertaining bridge with Geddy Lee and Neil Peart alternating fills.

With Limelight, Peart manages to tell his fans that he's uncomfortable with his celebrity without being an ass about it. (Ahem ... did you notice, Billy Corgan?) Lifeson contributes a solid riff, Peart drops a Shakespeare reference and the shifts between 7/4 and 6/4 flow easily.

So that's Side 1. It's hard to imagine a stronger collection of four songs on one album side.

Side 2 isn't as deeply ingrained in the general public's ears (ouch!), but it's more of the things Rush fans love about Rush. Lee's synthesizers take their biggest role yet in Vital Signs, with a sequencer sounding like a fast heartbeat in the background. Witch Hunt, the first part of the Fear trilogy (later expanded to four), is a vivid depiction of vigilante justice and mob politics gone awry, set to an ominous riff and a few synth-and-percussion effects.

The epic is The Camera Eye. It's not really fair to call it the "weakest" song on this album, but it is indeed overshadowed by the other songs on this album and by Rush's other epics (2112, Xanadu, Natural Science). It's an amiable bit of ear candy -- you've never heard synths sound this good. Wikipedia tells us it frequently tops Internet polls of songs that ought to be restored to a live set at some point.

So that's how strong this album really is. Rush could show up for a three-hour set and play six of the seven songs, yet fans will say they wish they'd heard the seventh.

Speaking of live sets, Rush wound up establishing a pattern of releasing a live album after every four studio albums. And so they were due for ...

Exit ... Stage Left (1981)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia)

AllMusic's normally reliable Greg Prado misses the boat here, saying this is the probably the weakest of their live sets. The sales figures would beg to differ. This album had a strong chart showing even though Rush fans were required to fork over money for a double album released a mere eight months after Moving Pictures. It's recognized as one of the definitive live albums in rock.

The songs sell themselves, of course. The track listing is heavy on the golden period of the four most recent albums, with only a brief interlude of Fly By Night's Beneath, Between and Behind interrupting the flow on the original CD release. (A remaster restores A Passage to Bangkok, dropped in the transition from album to CD.)

Two band members get solos. Neil Peart, not yet incorporating electronics into his sizable drum kit, makes creative use of his toms and picks out some melodies on a set of cowbells that would make Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken drool. Lifeson gives an extended classical guitar intro to The Trees, called Broon's Bane after producer Terry "Broon" Brown, that is a pleasing listen and a terrific piece for aspiring guitarists (like me, circa 1985-87) to learn and study.

So what next? Would Rush do what Def Leppard did a few years later and get even bigger with the next album? Would they implode in search of Moving Pictures II? Neither. This was Rush's peak, but the path back down was neither steep nor boring.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Almost live from Antarctica

No idea why these guys aren't getting more play, but I really liked Nunatak, the Antarctic band at Live Earth. So much so that I'm including a link here to MSN's dubious Live Earth site so you can see them in their official video glory.

I'm being polite. The MSN site is utter shit, about as easy to navigate and about as functional as a big mud pit.

Which is why I'm saving you the trouble and going to YouTube for Spinal Tap's truly excellent performance. Hello, Wimbledon!

That clip stops before they bring out about 20 bass players for Big Bottom, so check this clip if you haven't already seen that.

The best Genesis video

Late Genesis records shared two traits with Phil Collins' solo efforts, though Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks could bring out more of Collins' artsy, prog-rock side. Those traits:

1. Goofiness. All those "videos about making a video." Light-hearted pop fare like Invisible Touch.

2. Sanctimony. Collins seemed desperate to make social statements with a bludgeon. "Hey, homelessness is bad!" Thanks for the update, Mr. Brokaw.

On rare occasion, those two traits combined -- and worked.

And here it is ... Jesus He Knows Me.

First of all, the song works. The fast tempo suggests a con-artist preacher waving his hands and speaking quickly in the hopes that you don't notice his message is drivel. The lyrics dish out plenty of zingers without dwelling on them as if they're carved on stone tablets.

It's not a great showcase for Rutherford and Banks, but it's a funny thing about Genesis -- for all their prog-rock history, have you ever thought of these guys in the same company as Rick Wakeman, Geddy Lee, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, etc., in terms of instrumental mastery? The "prog" in their prog-rock comes from the concepts, not the skills.

The video builds nicely on the concept, in part because all three guys rise to the acting challenge and are willing to have fun with themselves. Collins accurately captures televangelical affectations, and the sequence of Rutherford being caught with a woman who's not his wife and "the man I met last night" is priceless.

Land of Confusion makes good use of the briefly popular Spitting Image puppets and is almost as effective, but I'd give the slight edge to this one.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The opposable-thumbs guide to Rush, Part III

I don't usually apologize for lack of posting -- people here generally realize I come home from a long day of work and chase two kids around, so I can't always dash something out, particularly if it involves some ... um ... what do you call it? ... oh ... thought.

(I know -- what thought?)

But I should apologize to Ed here for taking so long to get to what he calls "the meat of it." That's one way of describing the next four Rush albums. The other -- this is Rush's Golden Age.

A Farewell to Kings (1977)

If you viewed Rush as a metal band, this one might have been a little bit of a shock. Grab the album -- hey, the cover's mix of medieval and modern industrial themes looks like something Ozzy and the boys might do -- and plop it on the turntable. Then you hear a classical guitar intro with a synthesizer counterpoint. Not just a bunch of synthesizer effects like you heard on 2112. Geddy Lee has put down the bass to play keyboards.

Not permanently, of course. For the next 15 years or so, Lee would hop back and forth between instruments like Elaine hopping back and forth between Puddy and the rest of New York. He would be recognized as rock's best bassist and best keyboardist, the latter by default unless you really dug the dorky intro to Bon Jovi's Runaway.

Lee wasn't alone in adding new sounds. Check Wikipedia's list of the instrumentation, taken straight from the liner notes. Alex Lifeson isn't just "guitar" anymore; he's "electric, acoustic and classical guitars, bass pedal synthesizer." Lee gets credit for an occasional 12-string strum, plus Mini-Moog AND bass pedal synthesizers. Oh yeah, plus vocals. Neil Peart: "drums, cowbells, orchestra bells, wind chimes, triangle, bell tree, vibra-slap, tubular bells, temple blocks."

(Cowbell AND temple blocks? Can you tell the difference?)

Peart plays most of that in the intro to Xanadu, one of two 10/11-minute songs here and a certifiable Rush classic. It's an ethereal intro, with a low synthesizer drone and a few quiet guitar notes as Peart drifts between instruments with unusual subtlety. Then Lifeson slowly cranks up a circular riff playing in and against the rhythm -- a riff that Ed Robertson has been known to toss into a Barenaked Ladies medley -- and boom! We're in classic rock nirvana.

While Rush was extending its sound palette in this album, the literary references also were broader. The Wikipedia entry notes a few of them -- Xanadu from Coleridge, the titletrack loosely derived from Hemingway, Cinderella Man (one of Lee's last lyrical contributions) from Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Omitted from Wikipedia -- the nod to Don Quixote in Cygnus X-1, with the La Mancha man's horse sharing a name with the protagonist's ship as he steers into a black hole.

The other songs aspired to poetry. Madrigal -- the only song on this album not to feature on any live release -- was the sort of sonnet any Renaissance Faire fan would love to sing to a loved one. Closer to the Heart, like Xanadu, emerged as a Rush standard, a singalong favorite at live shows for the next 25 years or so.

Though 2112 is the megaseller, Wikipedia claims A Farewell to Kings was Rush's first gold album. That seems slightly fishy, though who knows how the RIAA arrived at its numbers pre-Soundscan.

The AllMusic review sums it up well: "A Farewell to Kings successfully built on the promise of their breakthrough 2112, and helped broaden their audience." Overall, this album was their strongest to this point -- two classics of diverse styles and amiable songs throughout. Perhaps the titletrack and the Cinderella Man/Madrigal duo were a little subdued for some tastes, and Cygnus X-1 could strike you as awfully silly if you're not in the mood, particularly when Geddy Lee hits the highest note/screech you've ever heard.

But that was just part one ...

Hemispheres (1978)

Strange cover, isn't it? Frankly, that may have held back this album. 2112's cover may have made some parents squeamish if they'd been exposed to some of Bible Belt propaganda about satanic influences, but most parents were too smart to buy into it. This one would make your parents and your schoolmates wonder what the heck you were buying.

The other thing holding back this album is the lack of a killer hook. You can blast into the power chords of The Temples of Syrinx, and a lot of rock fans know it's 2112. There are several memorable guitar licks on Xanadu and a singalong melody on Closer to the Heart. The next two albums were textbook classic rock hooks -- The Spirit of Radio, Freewill, Tom Sawyer, YYZ, Limelight. On this album, you might get a glimmer of recognition from a fellow Rush fan if you pick out the main theme from La Villa Strangiato on your guitar. That's about it.

And that's a shame, because on a sheer artistic level, Rush never topped this one. It's a masterpiece.

Start with the end -- La Villa Strangiato, one of the strangest songs you'll ever love. It's the first full-fledged Rush instrumental, and it's almost 10 minutes long. (That helped me when I ran cross-country in high school -- to take my mind off various aches and nausea, I would try to play the whole song in my head as I ran. Get through it twice, and I should be finished with a 5K run.)

This is Rush at its most playful, with all three guys showing off their dexterity with a bunch of crazy riffs and fills that somehow worked in combination. The subtitle is "An exercise in Self-Indulgence," but most prog-rock bands were far worse when it came to showing off. This is a fun listen, not some excruciating exercise conceived to impress a guitar geek.

Working backwards -- the middle song on Side 2 is The Trees, a neat allegory on overpursuing equality. (See the lyrics.) Perhaps that's the Ayn Rand influence, but it's more restrained than Anthem. After a classical guitar intro (extended live, as we'll see later), Geddy Lee chimes in about "unrest in the forest." It seems the maples are upset because the oaks are too tall, blocking all the sunlight. After an abrupt shift to 12/8 time, our third time signature in a relatively short song, we learn that the creatures have fled. We get a brief musical interlude and then the punch line: "the trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe and saw."

You can find a bit of debate in various corners of the Web about the interpretation, but to me it's pretty simple: Equality shouldn't mean that the most exceptional among us are cut down.

Still working backwards to finish off the three-song Side 2: Circumstances is the least substantial song here but still an interesting power-rock listen. Wikipedia says it has made a stirring comeback in Rush's live show after a 28-year absence.

That leaves Rush's second and final 20-minute, full-side epic: the titletrack, or Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres. It's largely forgotten, not appearing in any form on any Rush live album or compilation until a few bars popped into the R30 Overture on the 30th anniversary DVD.

And yet, I'd argue that it's a better piece of music than 2112. There's much more to it, lyrically and musically.

The "hemispheres" are the left brain and right brain. They're represented here, as in Greek mythology, by Apollo and Dionysus. They struggle for supremacy until the guy who fell into the black hole shows up in some of Peart's best imagery -- "I have memory and awareness, but I have no shape or form. As a disembodied spirit, I am dead and yet unborn. I have passed into Olympus as was told in tales of old. To the city of immortals, marble white and purest gold."

From his outsiders' point of view, he's able to convince the gods that they need both reason and emotion. They call him Cygnus, the god of balance, and Geddy sings an acoustic-guitar final movement to reminds us what we've learned.

More Rand? Well, maybe and maybe not, as Wikipedia notes. Though Rand also argued for the union of heart and mind, she may have been paying lip service to the "heart" part. From the Wikis: "Peart is quoted in his view of the events of Woodstock and Apollo II as being mutually beneficial (notably, against the opinion of Rand, who was not a fan of Woodstock.)"

Take that, frat-boy libertarians.

AllMusic's Greg Prado argues that Hemispheres deserves mention along with Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures as one of Rush's best albums. Perhaps, although this one didn't have the impact of the next two. After working through four albums of prog-rock experimentation, the last three quite successful artistically, Rush was ready to pare it down a little and put its grand ideas in more digestible chunks. And that would make them megastars, at least for a few years.

We'll talk about that in Part IV.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Strange search terms

I checked out the page counter today and discovered that someone arrived at this blog by searching for "megyn price lesbian."

Not sure why anyone would be searching along those lines. I haven't seen any rumors, and she and her husband are apparently expecting.

(A hazy memory from Grounded for Life, one of Price's former shows: Donal Logue tells a nun his life has been difficult because he had three kids so young. Nun: "And whose fault is that?" Logue: "Yours!")

She was also one of USA TODAY's Top 20 High School Students back in the day, which is impressive. Not exactly an airheaded blonde sitcom star.

Also apparently not a lesbian.

Grounded for Life had its moments, but I never really got into it. I liked the premise -- two parents who are far too young, trying to be fun-loving young adults while dealing with a house full of kids -- and Logue and Price are terrific. But it was held back by the occasional sitcom cliche, and some of the supporting cast was truly horrible.

I haven't seen Rules of Engagement, her new show, and I know I should. I like Patrick Warburton, and I need to see Bianca Kajlich to be truly up-to-date with U.S. soccer.

(Why? Meet Kajlich's husband.)

Anyway, back to Price -- at Yahoo, this blog is the 19th result for "megyn price lesbian." But in 16th, it's ... my work blog?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The pseudo-intellectual's guide to Rush, Part II

From The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (PDF): "Put more bluntly, if the early progressive rockers' conceptions of utopia reflected Marxian and neo-Marxian totalistic visions of the 60s, the utopianism of Rush's work (both lyrically and musically) reflects the more decentralized, individualist and less totalizing visions of Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, and F.A. Hayek that gained intellectual currency in the 70s."

The writer briefly tackles the idea of whether Rush drifted away from Rand over the decades, but he omits Geddy Lee's appearance on a charity work (Tears Are Not Enough, Canada's answer to We Are the World, which was the U.S. answer to Band Aid) and the bleeding-heart compassion that infused their more recent albums. He also forgets to mention that Ayn Rand sucks. (Trust me -- I was a philosophy major. And music.)

And yet Rand inspired their breakthrough. And it's not bad.

2112 (1976)

"Hey, kids! Check this out! It's a 20-minute sci-fi epic inspired by a philosopher you'll pretend to understand and then pretend to like until you finally wake up your senior year and realize most of her followers are frat boys just name-dropping to excuse their habit of pissing out the dorm window! The big red star on the cover will be just enough to make your parents worry that you're dabbling in satanism! It covers a lot of the same territory as Styx's Kilroy Was Here, though Tommy Shaw probably likes this one better."

I'm underselling it. This is a classic album -- the second-biggest seller of Rush's career -- with good reason.

The titletrack is an inherently silly story, the now-cliche tale of someone in a repressive society discovering rock as a liberating force. The saving grace is that it's told well. The overture effectively builds the drama with a series of stirring riffs. Then come the bad guys -- "the priests at the Temple of Syrinx" -- with an appropriately menacing power-chord riff. The good guy then finds a guitar -- still plugged in, apparently -- and quickly teaches himself everything from harmonics to bar chords before rushing off to show the priests. They don't like it, he somehow dies, and then we have a revolution.

It's mind-blowing stuff with a lot of terrific guitar lines and some of Neil Peart's best drum fills. That's saying a lot.

Side 2 offers five unrelated songs of varying quality. Something for Nothing has more solid classic-rock fundamentals from Alex Lifeson but is ultimately forgettable. Lessons is kind of amusing. The much quieter Tears -- a ballad more traditional than just about anything Rush would do in the next three decades -- features a mellotron NOT played by Geddy Lee, though Geddy tiptoes into keyboards on the titletrack. I see a listed song called The Twilight Zone, but I honestly can't remember it.

That leaves A Passage to Bangkok, which is curious in that it's a drug song by a band known for spending most of its offstage hours reading and working out. But it's a killer guitar riff. I've always had a vague sense that Rush fans consider this an overlooked gem, which would explain the opening bit in the R30 DVD in which Jerry Stiller (yes, THAT Jerry Stiller) laments that "they never do Bangkok."

Rush had hit the big time, which made this an opportune time to start a tradition of releasing a live album after every four studio albums ...

All the World's a Stage (1976)

Which is interesting only for collectors or anyone trying to trace the evolution of Peart's drum solos. Rush wound up releasing several more live performances from this era, undercutting the value of this one.

At the time, though, it was useful, giving Rush its highest-charting album to date at a lofty #40. Yes, 2112 actually never got that high on the charts, which were skewed in those pre-Soundscan days, even though it's gone platinum several times over.

If Rush had never scaled such heights again, 2112 may have been forgotten. Instead, this was the beginning of what you'd have to consider Rush's Golden Age. (OK, Platinum, to be picky -- 2112 started a run of 10 straight platinums.) For the next four albums, Rush would rarely hit a bad note.