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Features Rank and File

Rank and File: Rush

Rush have something of a love it or hate it reputation, but their talents and achievements were absolutely undeniable. They had the songwriting chops to rise above the prog-rock niche as well as the technical skill to impress casual listeners and fellow musicians alike. Neil Peart’s awe-inspiring drums and lyrical aptitude shaped the rock world on multiple fronts, Geddy Lee made up for his controversial shrillness with intricate bass and keyboard work, and guitarist Alex Lifeson would be the undisputed top player in any other ensemble by a country mile. They may have been one of the first ‘nerd rock’ bands out there, but this only proves that the music world has a shitload of nerds in it.

Rush may be best known for the concepts of the late 70s and early 80s, but they were never a group to rest on their laurels. Their near half-century run saw constant evolution and a legacy defined by generations of fans with degrees of fondness for the varying eras that encompass their works. In honor of Neil Peart’s recent passing and my subsequent reflection on Rush’s overwhelming influence, it only makes sense to see how their various efforts stack up against one another.

19) Hold Your Fire
Like Power Windows before it, Hold Your Fire sees Rush at the height of their fixation with synthesizers and electronic drum effects. The production is slightly less overbearing in comparison thanks to a more noticeable push for atmosphere but still ends up feeling just as dated. It doesn’t help that there aren’t many standouts beyond the Aimee Mann cameo on “Time Stands Still” or the East Asian flavor of “Tai Shan.” I might have some bias since this is the Rush album that I’m the least familiar with, but it’s probably the hardest to get a feel for.
Final Grade: C+

18) Power Windows
As much as I mostly look past the detractors that decry the albums of Rush’s so-called ‘synth era,’ Power Windows is when I honestly start to see where they’re coming from. The musicianship is as great as ever, but the production is a little too dense for its own good. The hook on “Territories” is engaging enough, but the rest of the album gets exhausting after a while. It could be a whole lot worse, but it gets rather overwhelming as is.
Final Grade: C+

17) Caress of Steel
Most of Rush’s lesser albums tend to be straight middle of the road affairs, but their first stab at honest to gods prog-rock ends up being full of peaks and valleys. On one hand, the opening “Bastille Day” just might be the heaviest song they ever put together, and “Lakeside Park” is an enjoyable bit of saccharine nostalgia. On the other hand, “I Think I’m Going Bald” is a little too awkwardly executed for its humorous intent, and the two epics are haphazardly constructed with a lot of cheesy moments. It’s not a disaster by any means, but its cheesiness is really only endearing for the most diehard fans. We can all be glad that Caress of Steel didn’t kill the band, but it’s understandable as to why it almost happened.
Final Grade: C+

16) Roll the Bones
The most memorable thing about Roll the Bones is that weird pseudo-rap bridge in the title track. Beyond that, the album mostly sees Rush entering the 90s with the lightheartedness of Presto with a touch more guitar prominence. It’s not a major standout in the grand scheme of things, but tracks like “Dreamline” and “Face Up” have a nice drive to them, and “Neurotica” is prone to getting stuck in my head. It’s a pleasant listen that might’ve benefitted from a little extra grit.
Final Grade: B-

15) Test for Echo
In a discography defined by near-constant evolution, Test for Echo is the closest that Rush ever got to hitting creative stagnancy. True to title, the album’s style is a clear echo of the preceding Counterparts, albeit with a slightly more active production job. The lyrics also feel blunter than usual or dealing in sillier metaphors, as seen in “Dog Years” and “Virtuality.” On the flip side, “Drive” is one of the band’s hardest hitting latter-day numbers, and there is goodness to be found in “Time and Motion” and “Resist.”
Final Grade: B-

14) Counterparts
I wouldn’t go so far as to label Counterparts a grunge album, but that early 90s attitude seemed to rub off on Rush at the time. Lifeson shines more than he has in some time as the guitars get a more prominent say in the mix, and the riffs have a noticeably blunter edge. The heavy swagger of songs like “Animate” and “Stick It Out” are met with the earnest balladry of “Nobody’s Hero” while “Alien Shore” and “The Speed of Love” put in memorable refrains. It can admittedly still feel vanilla at times, but it is easily the most striking album of their 90s trilogy.
Final Grade: B

13) Vapor Trails
Despite being the first album coming out of a six-year hiatus, Vapor Trails isn’t exactly a triumphant comeback. The mood is decidedly somber, no doubt reflecting the personal tragedies that Peart experienced in the years prior to its release as well as his uncertainties in returning to the band. Thankfully the music itself is solid, slightly marred by the Loudness War production but featuring staples such as the drum-heavy “One Little Victory,” the riffy “Earthshine,” and the pleasant “Secret Touch” and “Sweet Miracle.” It’s a good album though one best served by the 2013 remix.
Final Grade: B

12) 2112
2112’s title track is the greatest epic ever composed by a rock band. The overall sequencing is absolutely phenomenal, with perfect buildups and natural flow between the suite’s movements. Each movement never outstays its welcome with a slew of memorable melodies that are stellar in their own right and play gracefully into the greater whole. The narrative is also compelling, offering an individualistic theme that is brilliantly conveyed even if you hate Ayn Rand’s philosophy with a fiery passion.

The rest of it certainly exists. I have a soft spot for 2112 as it was the first Rush album I ever heard, but that epic greatly overshadows the other songs. “A Passage to Bangkok” is pretty cool, I guess. I like “Tears.”
Final Grade: B

11) Presto
Presto is the sort of album that makes sense in Rush’s overall evolution but still feels like an anomaly. It sees the band moving away from the synths that dominated their 80s efforts yet haven’t committed to the more grounded sound of their 90s material. This can make the album feel awkward, but the band offers their usual mix of classy musicianship and songwriting. “Scars” may be one of the band’s most jarring tracks ever, but I love how atmospherically hypnotic and downright danceable it gets. “The Pass” and “War Paint” are also great introspective numbers, and “Hand Over Fist” is quite the earworm. It’s easy to overlook but worth checking out.
Final Grade: B+

10) Snakes & Arrows
Snakes & Arrows is probably the most relaxed album in Rush’s catalog. There hadn’t been this much acoustic guitar playing since Hemispheres, and even the heavier songs on here have a laid-back slant to them. But rather than getting too milquetoast, the band uses this format to cast a contemplative attitude through a more worldly lens. Songs like “The Way the Wind Blows” and “The Larger Bowl (Pantoum)” show somber concern while others like “Far Cry” and “We Hold On” allow for weary hope to shine through. It’s common for bands to get reflective so late in their careers, but there’s more nuance here than one would expect.
Final Grade: A-

9) Fly by Night
The first of several transitional efforts, Fly by Night, doesn’t go full-on prog-rock but rather serves as a slightly progressive extension of their debut. Songs like “Anthem” and “Beneath, Between & Behind” have their inherent heaviness enhanced even further by Peart’s drumming firepower and heady lyrics. “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” shows the band still finetuning their more elaborate structures, but “Rivendell” and “In the End” make stellar use of their broadened dynamics. Round it out with the pleasant title track, and you’ve got the makings of a sleeper hit.
Final Grade: A-

8) Rush
Forever known as the one album that doesn’t have Neil Peart on it, Rush handled their debut awkwardness a lot better than most other bands. Their Cream and Zeppelin influences are upfront and center, but they are backed up by plenty of distinct riffs and hooks. John Rutsey may not have been a drumming prodigy, but the band’s musicianship is already exemplary if only for the sheer muscle behind it. Even the more conventionally minded lyrics aren’t quite as boneheaded as one would assume. It may not have the unique edge that would come with follow-up efforts, but it’s damned good at what it does.
Final Grade: A-

7) A Farewell to Kings
After the uphill climb seen on their first four albums, things seemed to finally level out on A Farewell to Kings. The band really knew what they were capable of here; “Xanadu” and “Cygnus Book X-1” may be the points of interest with their ten-minute lengths and sweeping deliveries, but the opening title track’s fanfare and “Closer to the Heart” are just as worthy of the listener’s attention. It’s the middle child of what I like to call the band’s ‘epic trilogy,’ but it did a fantastic job of sustaining their momentum.
Final Grade: A-

6) Signals
While Signals is often remembered as the album where the synths started taking over, it also carries on the accessible spirit of Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures. There is a shift toward more atmospheric textures on songs like “The Weapon” and “Losing It,” but tracks like the hit “Subdivisions” and “The Analog Kid” keep focused on upbeat tempos and busy riff work. I can even appreciate the reggae tinges on “Digital Man” and “New World Man,” redundant titles aside. It just might be a better Police album than anything the actual Police ever did.
Final Grade: A

5) Grace Under Pressure
There are certainly somber and depressing songs throughout Rush’s catalog, but Grace Under Pressure is where the band descended into full-on nihilism. The domineering synths craft an icy atmosphere while the lyrics are rife with Cold War tension, Holocaust flashbacks, and androids on the run. Everything sounds clinical, but in a way that is intriguing rather than alienating. You’ll find plenty of the band’s signature tropes, but there’s just as much that reminds me of what the post-punk and goth rock scenes had going at the time. It’s often grouped in with the group’s synth era but has a mood unlike any other.
Final Grade: A

4) Clockwork Angels
Rush’s last album is not only the best possible effort that they could’ve produced so late in their career but also one of the best they ever made. It marries the contemplations of Vapor Trails and Snakes & Arrows with the heaviest riffs they’ve written since the 70s and an intriguing coming of age steampunk adventure. Songs like “Seven Cities of Gold” and “Headlong Flight” are intense as hell while the hooks on “The Halo Effect” and “Wish Them Well” make equally deep impressions. As much as I could’ve wished for one more album before their 2015 retirement, “The Garden” is such a dignified closer that resonates more than just about any other song they’ve ever written. We really couldn’t have asked for better.
Final Grade: A

3) Moving Pictures
Moving Pictures may have the same balance of mainstream appeal and structural complexities as the preceding Permanent Waves, but priorities on the former led to it becoming a commercial juggernaut. The album is a breezy listen as “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight” earn their overplayed statuses while “Red Barchetta,” “YYZ,” and “The Camera Eye” navigate their buildups with peppy enthusiasm. “Witch Hunt” also stands out for its ominous atmosphere, and “Vital Signs” predicts the reggae tinges that would be better executed on the following Signals. My preference between Moving Pictures or Permanent Waves ultimately amounts to a coin flip, but both are mandatory listens.
Final Grade: A

2) Permanent Waves
While 2112 and Moving Pictures made mind-blowing first impressions on me as a burgeoning Rush fan, Permanent Waves didn’t quite make the same impact. This can be attributed to fifteen-year-old me being a bit of a dum-dum, but this album can be a slow burn despite its mainstream crossover. The lengths may be more accessible than the 70s efforts, but the structures remain unorthodox, and the melodies have a certain subtlety.

The scopes of “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Natural Science” make this clear, but “The Spirit of Radio” is wonkily structured for a hit single while “Freewill” and “Entre Nous” have a few odd quirks behind their catchy hooks. These ingredients ultimately work in the album’s favor, giving it timeless appeal. I might’ve been one of the few that had this issue, but don’t let this album pass you by if you’ve experienced the same.
Final Grade: A+

1) Hemispheres
As much as 2112 is justifiably acclaimed for its role in Rush’s development, Hemisphere simply does it better. “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres” lives up to its delightfully pretentious title with a series of striking motifs and imaginative lyrics that detail the battle between the heart and the mind. The other songs don’t slouch as “Circumstances” is one of the band’s best heavy rockers, “The Trees” is the best of their philosophical numbers, and “La Villa Strangiato” strikes the perfect balance between technicality and catchiness in instrumental form.

As corny as it is to say, that balance is why Hemispheres is Rush’s best album. It is complex without losing sight of catchiness and thematically grandiose without going too far or losing the point. It is the ultimate culmination of their 70s prog trajectory as well as their grandest achievement as a band. It’s no wonder they toned it down after this one…
Final Grade: A+

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1 comment

MightyK January 18, 2020 at 9:21 pm

Rush, forever the Best !


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