The albums that make up Rush’s so-called “synth era” may not be as universally hailed as their 70s prog rock behemoths, but it would be unfair to lump them all under the same umbrella. From the reggae tinges on Signals to the densely produced Power Windows, each one has a distinct identity with its own atmosphere and tone. Grace Under Pressure, Rush’s tenth album, is certainly no exception. I wager that it is not only the most unique of the band’s 80s outings but also the most distinct album they ever recorded.
Grace Under Pressure could hardly be called Rush’s heaviest or most aggressive album but they’ve never sounded this nihilistic. The atmosphere is incredibly cold as Alex Lifeson’s guitar work has an icy tinge to it, the drums are robotic yet intricate in classic Neil Peart fashion, and Geddy Lee’s keyboard patches are piercingly abrasive. The songs are often driven by basslines that have a certain hollowness to them and Lee’s vocals have an underlying sense of urgency despite largely continuing the more restrained approach first seen on Permanent Waves. If Moving Pictures and Signals sounded too much like The Police, then the guys must’ve been listening to a lot of The Cure and Sisters of Mercy when crafting this one.
On top of that, the lyrics are among the most apocalyptic that Peart ever penned. The band was never afraid to tackle dark subjects before, but this album is fully immersed in it. Songs like “Distant Early Warning” and “The Enemy Within” reflect the Cold War fears so common at the time while the prison camp theme of “Red Sector A,” hits horrifyingly close to home as Lee’s parents having survived the Holocaust served as prominent inspiration. Even the android escapee narrative on “The Body Electric” fits right in with the real-world paranoia.
But what makes the album truly unnerving is how upbeat the songwriting stays throughout the whole ordeal. “Distant Early Warning” starts things off like a bizarro successor to “The Spirit of Radio” with its happy warnings of acid rain and it’s pretty uncanny to hear “Afterimage” deliver its mournful condolences to such groovy beats, but the themes on “Red Sector A” get even more morbid when set to such danceable beats. Things do slow down toward the end with “Red Lenses” and “Between the Wheels” serving as brooding denouements, but they oddly end up being the album’s lesser tracks.
Overall, Grace Under Pressure isn’t Rush’s best or most significant album, but they never made anything else like it. The emphasis on synth arrangements and catchy songwriting is right in line with everything else they did in the 80s, but the brittle yet caustic attitude that permeates throughout could never be replicated in the years to follow. It’s not the best entry point but I could see fans of post-punk or goth rock finding it relevant to their interests. Definitely one worth exploring once you’ve acquainted yourself with those 70s prog classics.
“Distant Early Warning”
“Red Sector A”
“The Enemy Within”