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Snakes & Arrows
Anthem Records

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 been better.

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.

-Ken Devine

Download: "Far Cry", "Armor And Sword", "The Main Monkey Business"

Track Listing:
01. Far Cry
02. Armor And Sword
03. Workin' Them Angels
04. The Larger Bowl
05. Spindrift
06. The Main Monkey Business
07. The Way The Wind Blows
08. Hope
09. Faithless
10. Bravest Face
11. Good News First
12. Malignant Narcissism
13. We Hold On

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