Paul Heinz

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Rush Recap: 20 Albums in 20 Days

Well, it sure has been a fun journey.  Rush is a band that for forty years now has pushed the envelope, evolved with the times, challenged themselves, and produced some terrific albums.  Simply put, there isn’t one original album they’ve released that doesn’t have some redeeming qualities.  Even the worst Rush (except for Feedback) is better than many other bands’ best efforts.

Comparing all twenty albums is a bit ridiculous, because it’s like comparing four or five bands in one.  It’s like contrasting The Beatles of 1964 to The Beatles of 1968 (and that there’s only four years separating “She Loves You” and The White Album is absolutely mind-boggling to me).  When I’m in the mood for progressive Rush, A Farewell to Kings is the ultimate album for me.  A more poppy Rush?  Presto fits the bill.  Something in between, then Permanent Waves is just about perfect. A more rocking album, and you can’t go wrong with Counterparts or Clockwork Angels.  And if you want down-home blues rock, then Rush ain’t too shabby. 

Nonetheless, I will put in order all twenty albums, recognizing that moods and tastes can change on yearly, if not daily, basis.  Suffice it to say that my top five albums will probably be more or less consistent, and my bottom five albums are likely to stay the same (and even some of those aren’t all that bad).  Everything in between is open wide for debate depending on the day.  Here goes…

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#1 Permanent Waves.  Aside from a few production quibbles, a perfect album, the ultimate blend of accessible, exciting rock and roll, thought-provoking ballads and complex, progressive pieces.  

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#2 A Farewell to Kings.  Such an interesting, exciting album, full of intricatacies that keep the listener's attention, yet still melodic and accessible with some wonderful shorter pieces.

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#3 Moving Pictures.  Side two wavers just a bit, but side one is among the most perfect album sides ever recorded.  It's also a standout for it's clean yet full production.

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#4 Presto.  An accessible album that still has a bit of an edge to it.  Exciting and moving, with some especially poignant lyrics by Peart.  The band wishes they could record this album again.  I have no idea what they would change.

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#5 Hemispheres.  A close second to its predessessor for best progressive album by Rush. The band manages a couple of short pieces as well, along with their best instrumental (or is it YYZ?  Close call).

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 #6 Test For Echo.  Yeah, I could have picked Counterparts, and maybe should have.  Both are great albums as Rush began to explore a harder-edged sound.  This is an oft-overlooked album that deserves a second look

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#7 Roll The Bones.  Good almost from start to finish, with relatable lyrics about fate and chance.  Don't think it belongs here?  Think again.  

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#8 2112.  The first side is almost as good as Moving Pictures' first side.  A near-perfect epic.  Side two not as much, but a terrific album that turned things around for the wavering band.

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#9 Counterparts.  A great album whose middle sections loses it just a bit for me.  "Double Agent" gets my vote for the worst original Rush song ever recorded.  Holy crap.

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#10 Clockwork Angels.  That Rush can still produce an album of this quality is remarkable.  A great effort, with shifting moods and instrumentation, with melody and riffs to boot.

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#11 Grace Under Pressure.  One of those albums that used to bug me.  I still don't like "Afterimage," but oh well.  A great bridge between guitar-Rush and synth-Rush.

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#12 Hold Your Fire.  A great poppy album with inspiring lyrics.  The band may vote for "Tai Shan" is its worst song, but I accept it as a mild hiccup on a terrific effort.

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 #13 Signals.  A better album than I expected, with some songs I'd forgotten about and perhaps didn't appreciate years ago.  Men and boys rule the album - be them digital, analog or new world.

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#14 Rush.  A surprisingly good effort, with ridiculous lyrics but oh so sweet riffs and guitar solos.  Better than most of the rock drivel that sold millions in the 70s.

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#15 Power Windows.  Some wonderful tracks that suffocate under the weight of exhausting synth-heavy production.  I'm a keyboardist, and I know a thing or two about the synthesizer, but this goes way over the top.  "Territories" is the standout here.

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#16 Fly By Night.  Yes, a few hiccups here and there, but some terrificly accessible rock songs and a few lengthy numbers that set the stage for what's to come. 

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#17 Vapor Trails.  A tiring, endless album that sabotages its finest moments with terrible sections.  The first two tracks save this album from last place. 

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#18 Caress of Steel.  Some interesting parts, but ultimately an inconsistent release.

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#19 Snakes and Arrows.  I know several Rush fans who would put this album in their top five.  For me it's an endless, morose, unvarying effort.

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#20 Feedback.  Absolutely pointless and unredeeming.

 So there you are.  Disagree?  Chime in and let me know.  After all, Rush fans can disagree.  As Peart penned, "Everybody got to deviate from the norm."

20 Rush Albums in 20 Days: Caress of Steel

DAY TWENTY: Caress of Steel, running time 44:59, released September 24, 1975

Caress of Steel, an album I’ve long considered to be Rush’s worst, is not as bad as I remember.  In fact, it has a lot of things going for it, though I admit I won’t likely be listening to it again anytime soon.  This is an ambitious effort, a full 7 minutes longer than Fly by Night, with the band’s first side-long song, “The Fountain of Lamneth.”

The opening song “Bastille Days” is basically “Athem 2,” a rip-roaring number that was a live favorite for a number of tours.  The band shows its first signs of a sense of humor on the throw-away track, “I Think I’m Going Bald,” a song that would have been better suited on Rush despite it being penned by Peart, and the very accessible “Lakeside Park” is a pleasant tune, oddly out of place considering what’s to transpire (and the guitar is annoyingly panned all the way left during the verses for some inexplicable reason).

“The Necromancer” is Rush’s second venture into the land of extended, multi-section pieces, and it’s an effective one save for the warped, slow-tape narration.  The first movement – the song’s best – is a moody, repetitious, minor-keyed movement reminiscent of a Pink Floyd jam, and the second section brings to mind “Cygnus X-1” with its sudden starts and stops.  The growl of By-Tor come back briefly, but unlike on the Fly By Night album, Geddy wisely get’s out of the way of Lifeson’s solos (regrettably panned back and forth, an amateurish and unnecessary production trick), and the last section has a fine, three-chord outro (think “Sweet Jane”) that gives the song a melodic, positive lift.

Hearing “The Fountain of Lamneth” for the first time in years, I found it alternately brilliant and regrettable.  The first section, “In the Valley,” opens with a beautiful descending acoustic guitar pattern and melodic lyric that would play very well live as part of a largely medley, but then Geddy screeches his way through the next part.  The minute-long “Didacts and Narpets” is unfortunate in every way except that it’s only a minute long.  “No One At The Bridge” recalls the first section of “The Necromancer,” with a moody, hypnotic verse and terrific guitar solo; the only issue is the bridge when Geddy sounds like he’s about to tear his vocal chords apart (and not in a good way).  He takes it down several registers in the next two sections, and they are better for it.  “Panacea” is a flowing ballad, and “Bacchus Plateau” is the album’s most accessible tune, a three-chord pop song at its essence; if this were separate from the rest of the side-song piece it might have been a modest radio hit, and if Geddy could still hit the notes, it would be a great live piece. “The Fountain” ends the album side where it began, offering the listener some familiar territory, a helpful bookend.

So where does it stand head-to-head against other Rush albums?  It's hard to say.  Comparing Caress of Steel to, say, Snakes and Arrows, is like comparing two different bands.  In a way, they are two different bands.

Twenty albums in twenty days!  Tomorrow, I’ll be summarizing my journey, and then I’m taking a week to listen to some other music.

20 Rush Albums in 20 Days: Clockwork Angels

DAY NINETEEN: Clockwork Angels, running time 66:04, released June 12, 2012

Listening to Clockwork Angels, one gets the feeling that Rush enjoyed writing and recording this album.  Unlike Snakes and Arrows, there’s a sense of exploration and joy on this effort, with shifting moods, exciting riffs, some great hooks and plenty of moments that challenge each member of the band.  It’s easily the band’s best effort since Test for Echo, and quite possibly their best album since the early 80s.

The opening “Caravan” immediately provides the hook and infectious chorus so often lacking in later Rush material, setting the stage with the universal chorus of “I can’t stop thinking big,” and “BU2B” provides an exciting opening riff and a memorable refrain. 

The album gets bogged down a bit with the unnecessary effects and interludes.   There’s hardly a guitar part that isn’t bathed in effects, filling up the entire stereo spectrum, and beginnings and endings of songs are extended with traces of vocal and guitar parts swept with ethereal effects, sometimes serving to give the listener a respite from the onslaught of sound, other times doing nothing but prolonging what should have been a much shorter effort.  This isn’t Rush of 1981, after all; they are not at their prolific best.  An album of 50 minutes would have been preferred.

A silly megaphone effect is employed on two successive songs: the title track, and again at 1:55 of “The Anarchist” before going back to a terrific chorus.  As with many recent Rush songs, too often they write great parts of songs without writing an effective piece from beginning to end.  “Carnies” is an example of a track whose verse is a complete mess, but whose other sections work extremely well.

“The Halo Effect” is a complete song – probably the album’s best – melodic from the start, accessible, with universal lyrics, and one of the few times in recent memory that a Rush song ends exactly when it should at just over three minutes.  “The Wreckers” is another gem, perhaps going on a minute too long (particularly at the bridge at 2:50), but again a very good verse and chorus with a contagious guitar intro.

“Headlong Flight” is a blistering seven minutes of pure joy, employing brief allusions to Rush of yesteryear, including riffs from “Bastille Days” and “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.”  It’s a powerhouse that I would expect to be included in any future tours the band might make, though I wonder if Clockwork Angels might be Rush’s swan-song.  It wouldn’t be a bad way to cap off a forty-year career.

As with so many hard-rock albums these days, Rush squashed the sound too much in the mastering process.  You can practically hear the limiter pumping at 1:10 of “Seven Cities of Gold” as Geddy reaches for the high notes.  I also noticed it at 2:43 of “Carnies.”  Not a preferred production technique, but it’s unfortunately been the trend of heavy rock music for the past decade.  Listen to A Farewell to Kings back to back with Clockwork Angels and you’ll hear just how much production has changed since the 70s, and not all for the better.

“The Garden” ends the album with an touching summary of what one takes away after a long life of ups and downs.  And then…it says it again and again, for almost seven minutes.  But oh well.  Such is the reality of an ambitious band in the CD age (though we’re almost out of that age, I would suspect).  

Tomorrow, I’ll be listening to Caress of Steel, a very weird way to end a twenty-day journey.

20 Rush Albums in 20 Days: Snakes and Arrows

DAY EIGHTEEN: Snakes and Arrows, running time 62:45, released May 1, 2007

Snakes and Arrows has been compared with the Rush recordings of the late 70s.  It is anything but.  Four huge distinctions: the busier, grungier production; the less melodic vocal parts over meterless poetry; the minor-key leanings; and the overall length of the recording.  Now, that doesn’t necessarily suggest that it’s a poor effort, and there is a younger generation of Rush fans who love this album.  For me, Snakes and Arrows is a laborious listening experience, like wading through an endless sea of mud.  Sure, it feels kind of cool during those first few steps, all squishy and thick, but before too long, your calves hurt and your toenails are full of gook.

My major gripe is the minor key drudgery of the songs.  So dark, so monotone, so unsingable, one after another after another.  Nearly every song begins and ends in a minor key, each sounding much like the one that preceded it.  As I’ve stated before, I’m a melody guy for the most part, but the lyrics here – like many of those on Vapor Trails – once again feel like they were jerry-rigged into the songs; meterless, rhymeless poetry that doesn’t lend itself well to tunes.  Try singing the verses to “Armor and Sword.”  If you can do it, you are a better man that I (or maybe just a bigger Rush fan).  And the verses of “The Way the Wind Blows” are an absolute mess, undermining a fine chorus.  Now, nothing says you can’t have lyrics that are difficult to sing and that don’t lend themselves to traditional melodic phrasing, and Rush seems to have embraced this technique as of late, but for me, it simply doesn’t provide for a pleasurable listening experience.

The album starts off strong with “Far Cry” and there’s enough good stuff happening in “Spindrift” for me to recommend that song (I love the simplicity of the musical theme and the chorus), but even this song loses its way during a wretched bridge with Geddy backing himself up on vocals (a technique he employs way too often).  That’s about as much as I’d care to return to if I was compiling a best-of Rush mix tape.   Rush’s nineteenth album is clearly a superior effort than Vapor Trails in terms of production, but as far as the songs go, I actually prefer the earlier release.

Snakes and Arrows features three instrumentals, which isn’t a bad idea for an aging band known for its virtuoso instrumentalists.  If they worked at it, Rush could actually make an album entirely of instrumentals.  But here, they’re just okay, lacking the melodic themes of a “YYZ” or even a “Where’s My Thing,” serving more as interludes between vocal songs than as features.  “The Main Monkey Business” goes on forever without going anywhere, but “Hope” is a nice Lifeson piece, again aimless, but short and pleasant.

Tomorrow, I’ll be listening to…drum roll, please…number 20, Rush’s latest, Clockwork Angels, which means that in two days I’ll be ending my journey with the polarizing Caress of Steel.  That outta be interesting.

20 Rush Albums in 20 Days: A Farewell to Kings

DAY SEVENTEEN: A Farewell to Kings, running time 37:13, released September 1, 1977

2112 was a very good album with great musicianship, but the compositions were harmonically and rhythmically basic.  Not so on Rush's followup, A Farewell to Kings.  Here, the band pushes the envelope, shifting moods with the effective use of tuned percussion and synthesizers, juggling time signatures and producing one of its finest albums to date.

A Farewell to Kings is all about creating atmosphere, and it often takes its time getting there.  Lifeson’s classical guitar that opens the album brings to mind Old England, and the guitar swells that open “Xanadu” evoke mystery and wonder (and lead to my second-favorite Lifeson guitar part of all-time at 1:48).  It takes a full five minutes before Geddy sings a note, and it’s this deliberate pace that works so well on the album.  Despite the album’s brief length, Rush is in no hurry to get anywhere, each track transpiring all in good time.  The marriage of tuned percussion and synthesizer at various points (5:59 of “Xanadu,” for instance) work well, and the musicianship is stunningly good throughout.

Side two opens with a radio-friendly tune (I can only imagine the relief Mercury Records must have felt upon hearing it), “Closer to the Heart,” with its universal lyrics and terrific solo by Lifeson, and “Cinderella Man” is another gem (the cheesy use of panning during the guitar solo notwithstanding) penned by Lee.  Both of these tunes are better than any of the shorter tracks on 2112 with the possible exception of ”A Passage to Bangkok.”  The band had grown in leaps and bounds in one year.  Even the ballad “Madrigal” works beautifully and benefits from brevity, something Rush should have considered with “Rivendell” just a few years prior, and it also works better than the ballad “Tears” from 2112.

The album ends with another ambitious effort, “Cygnus X-1,” and once again the pacing is superb.  After a brief spoken introduction, it isn’t until minute five that Geddy begins to sing.  The song rocks at that point, only to recede at 7:15, building the tension required to highlight the song’s inevitable, blistering conclusion. The strummed guitar chords at the song's end leave the listener with a sense of mystery and suggest the song's sequel, ”Hemispheres."

In short, A Farewell to Kings may not be the album you want to listen to in the car between errands after work, but if you’ve got some time to sit back and take it all in, you might not find a better Rush album.  It’s likely going to be number two on my list.

Tomorrow, I’ll be listening to…drum roll, please…number 19, Snakes and Arrows, one of those efforts that newer Rush fans worship.  We’ll see what this old guy thinks of it.

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