Seminal progressive rockers refuse to
retire, make career album
In their 33 years as a band, Rush has made permanent
waves in the annals of rock, going from Zeppelin spin-offs
to synthesizer sultans and ultimately prog-rock progenitors.
And after more than three decades, the Canadian power trio has
managed to survive with little internal bleeding, remaining
relevant and refusing to burn out even as their modern spirit
of radio has faded away.
Despite the scores of hits the group has produced throughout
its longstanding career, many of Rush's albums have tended to
be relatively short, top-heavy, and imbalanced, with the best
tracks sitting at the top. On their 18th original album, Snakes
& Arrows, Rush picks up where 2002's Vapor Trails
left off in reversing this trend. While some of S&A's
best cuts ("Far Cry" and "Armor And Sword")
lead things off, the album as a whole is a balanced and filler-less
affair that suffers only occasionally from power-chord vapidity.
And although there is no "Tom Sawyer" or "Limelight"
present, S&A is one of the band's most consistently
strong albums from start to finish.
After spending a good part of their career experimenting with
complex time signatures set to esoteric science-fiction narratives,
Rush has followed the more direct route of songwriting over its
last few albums. S&A is no exception, delivering some
of the group's most hard-hitting songs that border on baroque,
striking a balance between the Rush of old and New World Rush.
Intricate arrangements and performances (especially by drumming
demigod Neil Peart) remain intact, but S&A's
songs are structured in basic hard rock and blues forms, and most
of the synthesizers that were so salient even in their 90's palette
are virtually absent here. In their stead are healthy doses of
various acoustic instruments (including mandolin and 12-string
guitar) that Alex Lifeson uses to complement his electric
counterpart and flesh out Rush's sound. In fact, there are enough
guitar overdubs here to make you wonder if Rush will consider
adding a second guitarist for their summer tour. But the multiple
guitar tracks are mixed carefully so as to not crowd the performance,
leaving room for Geddy Lee's snappy-groove bass playing
to persist as a prominent dynamic.
The album title Snakes & Arrows was originally something
Peart came up with by combining the phrase "slings and
arrows" from Hamlet with the board game Snakes
and Ladders. But serendipity struck when Peart discovered
an uncanny connection to a 2,000-year-old Hindu game of the
same name that served as a karmic metaphor for life. With that
in mind, Snakes' lyrics focus on spirituality, world-weary
zeitgeist, and the inner and outer battles we all face. Peart
is a relatively good lyricist but has occasional misfires ("All
my life I've been workin' them angels - overtime") and
prefers to be a bit broad in his word choice. His writing here
would have more lasting appeal if he stepped out of his safe
house and named names more frequently.
S&A opens with the rip-roaring "Far Cry",
which sets the tone for the outing. "It's a far cry from
the world we thought we'd inherit," bemoans Lee, speaking
of the status quo. From there on out, Peart plays devil's advocate
as his lyrics reveal the yin to every yang, particularly in
"Bravest Face": "In the sweetest child there's
a vicious streak/In the strongest man there's a child so weak."
Peart also recognizes how the forces of nature are at work in
ultimately deciding our fate, particularly on the surprisingly
bluesy "The Way The Wind Blows": "We can only
grow the way the wind blows/We can only bow to the here and
now/In our elemental war/Or be broken down blow by blow."
In all, it's clear that Peart draws S&A's negativity
from our negative times and the possibly growing cynicism found
in his 55 years. In the end though, Peart is an optimist who
"clings to hope" and believes that despite life's
struggles, "we hold on." Nothing groundbreaking for
sure, but Peart's words - even when bland - work well enough
for a Rush record.
Like other Rush albums, there are times when S&A feels
calculated due to the band's technical precision and the fact
that Lee's not singing his own lyrics. But S&A's best
moments come when Lee channels enough emotion into his eunuch-pitched
vocals to transcend those bounds and propel the music into a fit
of sonic intensity. The final verses that precede the choruses
of "Far Cry" and "We Hold On" are just such
moments. Other highlights include the album's three instrumental
tracks, which provide pleasant surprises along the way. Not only
are the multiple instrumentals a first for a Rush record, but
"Hope" and "Malignant Narcissism" are the
two shortest songs the band has ever recorded, wrapping at just
over the two-minute mark. After previously losing out on two Grammys
for Best Instrumental Rock Performance, Rush's chances have never
With the test of time, S&A will likely go down as
one of Rush's best albums, even if not the most memorable. But
as a mature and diverse rock experience, S&A is something
that only a band who's been together for as long as Rush has could
create. As Peart writes in an essay about S&A, "It
combines everything we know about making music with everything
we love about making music."
With no signs of inner turmoil or deficiency in playing proficiency,
it's anyone's guess as to how much longer Rush will press on
in their old age. One thing, however, is clear: These dinosaurs
are anything but extinct.
Download: "Far Cry", "Armor
And Sword", "The Main Monkey Business"
01. Far Cry
02. Armor And Sword
03. Workin' Them Angels
04. The Larger Bowl
06. The Main Monkey Business
07. The Way The Wind Blows
10. Bravest Face
11. Good News First
12. Malignant Narcissism
13. We Hold On
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