Rush’s Finest Album? (Hold Your Fire until you’ve read my analysis!)

The boys were most stylish in 1987.

The boys were most stylish in 1987.

The first Rush album I bought was A Farewell To Kings – it was a cutout*, and I had heard they were a pretty good progressive rock trio. Geddy’s vocals turned me off initially, but Neil’s lyrics were very intriguing. The next album I acquired was Permanent Waves, because “Spirit of Radio” was all over the radio, and Geddy’s voice had mellowed a bit. That album remained in permanent rotation on my dorm room’s turntable for months, and I still listen to it often. Moving Pictures upped the ante even more, and Rush were becoming one of my all-time favorite bands. However, to my ears Signals was a letdown – the pervasive whoosh of synthesizers seemed to overwhelm Alex’s guitars, and the melodies weren’t as memorable as those in Moving Pictures. So I skipped Grace Under Pressure, convinced that Rush’s best days were behind them in the Permanent Waves/ Moving Pictures era. (In case you’re inclined to quit reading, in disgust at my ignorance of the greatness of Grace Under Pressure, I did eventually get it!)

In the mid-‘80s, I worked in record store, and we prided ourselves on listening to the cutting edge of everything new wave and postpunk: Cocteau Twins, The The, Simple Minds, The Smiths, R.E.M., The Cure, Talk Talk, etc. One day, our import buyer (who was the hippest employee in the store) was very excited, because it was the release date for Rush’s new album, Power Windows. I was surprised, to say the least, because Rush was not cool, like a 4AD band automatically was. But when he put it on the store’s sound system, and those glorious “Big Money” power chords poured out of the speakers, I was hooked. Rush was back! I played the cassette in my car constantly, and when the compact disc came out, I immediately got a copy. Power Windows was the first and only album of which I owned the cassette, the Lp, and the CD.

Which is my long-winded way of setting the stage for when I first encountered Hold Your Fire. The day before the official release date, I unpacked the box in which our store’s copies were packed, and gazed in admiration at the cover:

rush-holdyo_07 This was something unprecedented in Rush album cover art – instead of a meticulously detailed Hugh Syme painting containing visual puns, there were just three red spheres suspended over a red background. The obvious conclusion was that Alex, Geddy, and Neil were now reduced to the simplest, most perfect solid in geometry – polished and ready to bounce off of each other like billiard balls. Visually, at least, Hold Your Fire was sleek and minimalist. Peter Collins, who produced Power Windows, was back in the saddle, which boded well. I couldn’t wait to hear the music.

 

Inside the booklet, there was a spread that was more like what Rush fans expected: a man juggled three flaming balls (hold your fire, indeed), the building behind him vaguely resembled the façade in the Moving Pictures cover, in one of the windows you could make out the three vintage television sets from Power Windows, on the sidewalk stood the red fire hydrant from Signals, and the Chinese restaurant’s clock read 21:12 in military time (it turns out the restaurant’s sign reads Tai Shan, as well).

holdyourfire-1-s The first track, “Force Ten”, opens with a bone-rattling jackhammer and sampled choir, quickly followed by a straight-ahead drumbeat while the bassline leaps and bounds. Alex’s guitar is punk-like in its simplistic riffing – this is one of the most aggressive songs Rush has written up to this point in their career. Which makes the second track such a surprise. “Time Stand Still” features Aimee Mann, leader of the pop group ‘Til Tuesday, on vocals. Aimee Mann?? Once the shock of hearing someone besides Geddy sing on a Rush song, it’s clear this is actually a nicely constructed, interesting tune. Alex’s arpeggiated, brittle guitar sound is great in this context, and “Time Stand Still” stands the test of time as one of Rush’s most radio-friendly tunes. Neil’s wistful lyrics are very touching:

“Summer’s going fast- Nights growing colder Children growing up- Old friends growing older Experience slips away…”

“Open Secrets” is a bass/synthesizer dominated song with Alex providing some tasteful guitar filigrees as Geddy sings about how true communication is difficult between two people, due to their reluctance to be open and honest. As a matter of fact, the entire album’s theme is one of restraint. Where Power Windows was about power and the use of it, Hold Your Fire is about controlling that power – exercising restraint, in other words.

“Second Nature” begins with a nice keyboard riff, and slowly builds in intensity. Neil’s drums are excellent on this track, as he lends a touch of exotic rhythm to it. The song has a laconic pace to it, with lots of swirling synthesizer washes throughout.

Things definitely pick up in “Prime Mover”, which features some of Geddy’s finest bass work ever. In the same way New Order’s bassist Peter Hook often plays lead, Geddy carries this tune while Neil and Alex play over, under, and around him. This one of the strongest tracks on the album, and it benefits from a nice balance of keyboards vs. guitar/bass/drums.

“Lock and Key” was the first single off the album, and it’s a very good track. [Update: a Progarchy reader has informed me that "Force Ten" is actually the first single off of HYF. Thanks, Will!] Alex gets to rock out with some fat power chords and a fine solo, while Neil really shines on drums. This track will give your subwoofer a workout! The lyrics deal with how everyone keeps their “real” feelings under lock and key, in order to maintain civility:

“We don’t want to be victims On that we all agree So we lock up the killer instinct And throw away the key”

“Mission” contains the album title: “Hold your fire/Keep it burning bright/Hold the flame/’Til the flame ignites/A spirit with a vision/Is a dream with a mission.” Not one of my favorite tracks, but it is still an enjoyable listen.

“Turn the Page” is a whole ‘nother matter, though! This song is one of the best Alex, Geddy, and Neil have ever recorded. An unaccompanied bass riff starts things off, until Alex enters with some slashing guitar, and Neil lays down a rapid pulse. When the chorus begins, there is an atmosphere of time being suspended as Neil hits every other beat, then suddenly kicks it into overdrive with his patented bass pedal and cross-rhythmic work. After Alex’s solo, a stomach-churning bass synth explodes (at the 3:43 mark), and there is a mad dash to the end.

“Tai Shan” is an oddity – it has a too-obvious Asian influence musically, and the lyrics concern a fabled mountain in China where supposedly you are granted long life if you reach the top and raise your arms. It doesn’t exactly fit the tone of the rest of the album, though.

“High Water” closes things out on a relatively subdued note. A fitting conclusion to an album full of dynamic contrasts. By 1987, compact discs had become popular enough that Geddy, Alex, and Neil no longer felt constrained by vinyl’s time limitations. Hence, Hold Your Fire clocks in at a generous 50:30 minutes. It was followed by their third live album, A Show Of Hands. The DVD of that album is available as part of the Replay set, and it is an excellent summary of Rush’s “Synthesizer Period”. The Hold Your Fire tour was the first time I saw Rush live, so it holds a special place in my journey with Rush.RushTicket After A Show Of Hands, Rush left their longtime label, Mercury, and signed to Atlantic. They eventually scaled back the keyboards, and returned to a more guitar-based sound. Hold Your Fire was the culmination of elements they had been developing since Signals, and they wisely stepped back from going down a synth-heavy pop/rock path.

Do I believe Hold Your Fire to be Rush’s finest album? No, I give that honor to Permanent Waves. However, I don’t think Hold Your Fire has ever gotten the respect it deserves. Rush plays relatively few songs from it on their tours, and it peaked at #13 on the charts when it was released. If listened to in conjunction with Power Windows, it completes what that album began. Enough time has passed to listen to it with fresh ears, and we can appreciate it for what it is: a successful attempt to craft a radio-friendly album filled with accessible songs. Sometimes you just have to have some fun!

* For our younger readers, a cutout was an Lp that the label deeply discounted because the title was overstocked. The label would cut a notch in the cover, and stores would sell it for 70% – 80% off the retail price.

“Turn The Page”, from A Show Of Hands:

 

[Ed. note--Tad's is the first in a series of posts celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our beloved Rush]

 

For more from Progarchy on Rush

The first Rush album reviewed by Craig Breaden

http://progarchy.com/2014/02/22/rushs-first/

A review of A Farewell to Kings by Kevin McCormick

http://progarchy.com/2013/01/21/rush-a-farewell-to-hemispheres-part-i/

A review of Power Windows by Brad Birzer

http://progarchy.com/2013/12/14/power-windows-rush-and-excellence-against-conformity/

Kevin Williams on Clockwork Angels Tour

http://progarchy.com/2013/11/24/rushs-clockwork-angels-tour-straddles-the-80s-and-the-now/

Brad Birzer on Clockwork Angels Tour

http://progarchy.com/2013/11/27/rush-2-0-clockwork-angels-tour-2013-review/

Erik Heter on Clockwork Angels Tour Concert in Texas

http://progarchy.com/2013/04/24/you-can-do-a-lot-in-a-lifetime-if-you-dont-burn-out-too-fast-rush-april-23-2013-at-the-frank-erwin-center-austin-texas/

A review of Vapor Trails Remixed by Birzer

http://progarchy.com/2013/10/05/resignated-joy-rush-and-vapor-trails-2013/

A review of Grace Under Pressure by Birzer

http://progarchy.com/2013/02/21/wind-blown-notes-rush-and-grace-under-pressure/

About Thaddeus Wert

High school math teacher and fan of all kinds of music, but most of all prog.

Posted on April 24, 2014, in Progarchy, progressive rock music and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.

  1. Nice read ….. Ironically POWER WINDOWS was the first RUSH album I really got :-) iwas coming at it from being a big 70′s BOWIE fan
    Power windows sealed the deal , however as a complete album stand alone… My favourite is still MOVING PICTURES… But like like my other musical likes , it depends on my mood which is my current fave however the weakest of Rush tracks is still more interesting than the Strongest of most other artists

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  2. Nice job. However, Force Ten was the first single off HYF (I was a record store guy at the time myself)…

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  3. totally agree about Prime Mover being one of Geddy’s strongest songs on bass

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  4. Thank you for taking the time to review an often dismissed Rush record. Tai Shan stands out as being odd because historically Rush always had a song with a similar vibe for each album starting with Hugh Syme as guest keyboardistat on 2112 with Tears. Madrigal on Farewell To Kings, I think Circumstances on Hemispheres had Hugh or someone helping out? Don’t have my music collection handy, not sure. Permanent Waves Different Strings I think Hugh on piano? Moving Pictures again I think Hugh on synths or piano on Witch Hunt? Followed by Losing It with Ben Mink on violin. Can’t remember with Grace and Power but Tai Shan has Hugh one of their old friends on it also? Also Geddy in an interview said its least favorite song that he would never want to do again. (In his own words)

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    • Interesting take on that song, Jon. I think “Different Strings” works really well on Permanent Waves, but I’m not a big fan of “Tai Shan”. Glad to hear that Geddy agrees with me!

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    • I do think it was Rush’s finest album. I know I am in a minority with this, and that’s ok. I feel it was Neil’s finest lyrics and his finest drum sound. The Snare is tight and crisp. Alex’s guitar sounds were incredible, as was his performance on the album. The studio mix was as good as I ever have heard. Geddy started to change how he both sang and played , playing cords on his bass vs. Single notes. I just feel they all were at their very best at the same time along with an incredible studio recording as far as tune and mix. Will always be my favorite.

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      • David, Hold Your Fire is in my Top 3, based simply on which albums do I listen to the most. I agree with all of your points, especially with regards to the production. I’ve always liked Peter Collins’ work with them.

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  5. As a Rush fan since my first purchases.. 2112 and All The World’s A Stage, I really agree with your assessment of where the band was with Hold Your Fire, and I received it with about as much love as I had for Moving Pics.. my thoroughly overplayed but still most beloved Rush album. I was a huge fan of Hold Your Fire. I even liked Tai Shan despite being panned by Geddy, Alex, and Neil as a song that was just all wrong and never should be played live in concert because they just don’t like it. Hold Your Fire came along at a time in my life when I was really ready for it, and it filled a void I didn’t know I had.
    Where I beg to differ is “Mission”. It’s not just “an enjoyable track” to me. That song has followed me around ever since. I hum it in my head for days after each time I hear it. Just love that song. Makes me feel great. Mission, Marathon, and Bravado have always felt like that for me. Then.. The Garden came out just before I held my Dad’s hand as he breathed his last breath, and that song makes me feel nice now too. It’s Neil’s song for me to help me move on.

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  6. This happens to be one of my favorite Rush albums. It brought together everything I enjoyed about Rush: virtuosity, well crafted music, intelligent lyrics and cutting edge sound…Great review Thaddeus.

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  7. Thank you for the awesome article. I think that Hold Your Fire is the best album they have done. I have heard Geddy and Alex say that HYF was one of the albums they did not like and that’s why they don’t play much from it out on tour. I have been a Rush fan since 1980 and love all their music but there are albums where I cannot officially say I love every song on the album but with HYF I can truly say I love every song. This album is very important to me as it had come out at the same time I met my wife and for that alone it will always be my favorite.

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  8. Excellent article (as always), Tad. I very much liked ‘Time Stand Still’ despite its oddness of having another vocalist participate. I distinctly remember sitting and listening to this on cassette through a Walkman one nice afternoon in the barracks at the naval base in Pearl Harbor, and contemplating my mortality while listening to ‘Time Stand Still’ … at the ripe old age of 23!!!

    ‘Second Nature’, ‘Turn the Page’, and ‘High Water’ are also favorites from this album.

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  9. You people definitely have not been fans that long if you think HYF is even in the top 10. The last 3 cd’s alone would push it out of the top ten, how about some comments from people who know music. Original fan from 1974, but that is not your fault for being younger than 50, but you can buy and listen to every cd.

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    • Danny, I’m with you on this as I too am a fan since 74. The top ten Rush studio albums are the first nine and Clockwork Angels. The only weak period from Rush were the Synth albums of Grace, Power and HYF. Alex virtually disappeared during that time.

      I really have the inverse opinion of the author on this one as I really liked Signals but it was clearly the beginning of the synth period. For me, Power Windows is the single worst Rush studio album ever made and its the only one I don’t (and won’t) own. This last tour was bitter sweet for me (my 11th show) because the Clockwork set was so good but the night feature four Power Windows songs.

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      • Dave, you’re a loyal fan to stick with Rush all the way from Moving Pictures to Clockwork Angels! I agree that Clockwork Angels is a tremendous work – a real return to form in my opinion. It’s a measure of the band’s greatness that their music appeals to so many different tastes.

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  10. David Chadwick

    Interesting article and I enjoyed the passion you communicated. I saw them on the tour of that album and they played time stand still live which was great. I love the way different albums mean different things to different Rush fans, although I like the album it wouldn’t be in my top ten but neither would the last three either although it would certainly contain Moving Pictures and Power Windows. Interested in your observations on Signals as I had been a fan for years when that came out, it was the first tour i saw them on, and i detested it for years but when I listen now I realise I reacted badly to their change of direction and Losing It is one of my favourite Rush tracks to this day. Nice article

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  11. So in an awesome coincidence, I decided to throw on Hold Your Fire today for my commute home from work. I came home, saw this, and readily agreed with a lot of your points. Hold Your Fire came late in my Rush experience (my drum teacher introduced me to “Closer to the Heart” and the rest of A Farewell to Kings, and then I heard Moving Pictures and was instantly hooked and started hunting for the entire discography – this was only ten years ago, so I got to take all of their style changes in rapid sequence, which was cool). I definitely agree on the blowout awesomeness that is “Turn the Page.”

    Also, recent tours have brought “Mission” back to a live setting and make me appreciate it a lot more than when I first listened to it.

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  12. Good review of HYF. This brought back memories of the LP and how it was so crisp sounding when I first played it. I also had the cassette and later the CD. I will revisit this again. Never really hated Tai Shan but I agree it felt out of place on this record. I really like High Water which was a good closer to the album. Thanks for the read… Cheers!

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  13. HYF is one of my fav’s. Has been for a long time..!!!

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  14. great piece of work! I’m a long way off being able to know whether this is the best.

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  15. if you switch ‘high water’ and ‘prime mover’- totally different record for my money.

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  16. GREAT synopsis on this album and I completely agree with virtually everything You had to say about it as welll!!! “Hold Your Fire” was ALSO the very FIRST Rush concert I ever attended as well,so I know precisely how You feel when You say that this album sort of holds a “special” place in your Heart regarding all of Rush’s work,as it holds that same-level for me as well!!! For the memory of when I FIRST saw them live back in early 1988,STILL holds true to me,and when they went on their “PRESTO” tour,I was FIRST IN LINE to buy tickets for THAT concert as well,and have seen them Live for every album AFTER Hold Your Fire as well!!! YAAAY!!!

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    • Thanks for your enthusiastic endorsement, Drew! I’m really gratified with the overwhelmingly positive response this post has received. There are many HYF fans out there, after all!

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      • LOL. Well,your certainly MORE than Welcome Thaddeus,and YES INDEED……..there ARE quite a FEW OF US “HYF” Fans out here still!!!

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  17. Err, maybe it depends on the country, but I thought “Time Stand Still” was the first single from HYF? Actually, I think “Time Stand Still” went to pop radio while “Force Ten” went to album rock radio around the same time.

    Anyway, the important thing is that this article is great. Power Windows and Hold Your Fire are my two favorite Rush albums, without question!

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    • You might be correct, Don. Wikipedia doesn’t have an official release date for “Time Stand Still”. I’m glad you liked the article – Power Windows and Hold Your Fire are an incredible pair of albums.

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