Testing for Echo: Rush’s Odd but Brilliant 1996 Masterpiece

While I’ve mentioned this in passing, i’ve yet to announce formally that I’m writing a book on the words and ideas of Neil Peart.  So, if you’ll permit me, I’ll do it here.

I’m writing a book on Neil Peart.

There.  Done.  Announced.

And, I’m having a blast, not surprisingly.  The book will come out this fall (2015) from WordFire Press under the editorial expertise of Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta.

At the moment, the place-holder title is The Neil Peart Generation.  I’m hoping to come up with something better.

In the meantime, here’s an excerpt–a raw, unedited version of my section on Peart and Rush in 1996-1997, just before all of the tragedies hit.  I hope you enjoy.  This is about 2,000 words of the ca. 40,000 word book.  At least as I see it now.–Brad

***

Neil Peart, ca. 1987.
Neil Peart, ca. 1987.

Rush 1.3.5

Test for Echo, the band’s sixteenth studio album, is an anomaly and a beautiful transition from the first full stage of Rush (1.0) to the final stage of Rush (2.0).  Arriving a full three years after Counterparts, Rush fandom had never had to wait so long for a new album from the band.  “During that time,” Peart notes in the official tourbook, “Geddy and his wife produced a baby girl, Alex produced a solo album [Victor], and I produced a tribute to the big-band music of Buddy Rich.  We worked; we traveled; we lived our lives; and it was fine.”[1]  The title of the album even reflects the time away from one another and from their fans.  “Test for Echo,” Peart explains, was a means of Rush both asking and assuring its fan base that neither was alone.  “Everybody needs an ‘echo,’ some affirmation to know they’re not alone.”[2]

Test for Echo possessed neither the overall hardness of the 1993 album nor the denseness of a Power Windows (1985).  Neither, however, was it as light and sleek as Presto (1989) had been.  Instead, it sounds like almost nothing Rush had done before, and yet, it sounds almost like nothing Rush did after.  In the context of the history Rush, “Test for Echo” is, to be sure, its own creature.  Certainly, Lifeson had never played such a strong and assertive role in the creation of an album as he did with this one.  Peter Collins, English producer of Power Windows (1985), Hold Your Fire (1987), and Counterparts, returned to produce this album, keeping his view on the overall structure of the full album, with Clif Norrell (Catherine Wheel) serving as recording engineer and Andy Wallace (Faith No More) as mixing engineer.[3]  While Test for Echo contains driving songs, it also contains a lot of whimsy and humor.  Lee explains why the album needed both as to best reflect the meaning of the album as a whole:

“It’s about the numbing process that happens when we are exposed to great tragedies and then we’re exposed to moments of hilarity,” said singer-bassist Geddy Lee, whose band returns Tuesday to Target Center in Minneapolis. “I feel that that’s the condition of contemporary man now – when we read the paper or when we watch TV, we’re not sure if we’re supposed to laugh.”[4]

Despite being the most “progressive” album the band had produced in a decade or so, Test for Echo also has a relaxed, comfortable feel to it, something rarely found on a Rush album.  Strangely, the band, especially Lee and Lifeson, felt real tension with one another during the recording of the album.  There were, according to Lifeson, even a few explosions at and with one another.  Lee remembers the process of making the album with little fondness.

Test for Echo was a strange record in a sense. It doesn’t really have a defined direction. I kind of felt like we were a bit burnt creatively. It was a creative low time for us.[5]

Peart, however, downplays the tensions, at least in his remembrances, and, instead, focuses on the new drumming technique he had learned from Freddy Gruber between this album and Counterparts.  “I could feel I had brought my playing to a whole new level, both technically and musically. ”[6]  Indeed, by the following summer, Peart was so enthusiastic about the album and the tour that he claimed “we’re already planning our next studio album.”[7]  In an interview with Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times, Peart thought the band had reached its peak.  “Over the years, we learned how to write, how to play and how to arrange and now we have a full toolbox.  Time and experience. . . [in original] there’s no substitute for that.”  With previous albums, the drummer claims, he “struggled to find new ways of challenging” himself.  With Test for Echo, however, he believes he “came in with so much,” he had to “edit” himself.[8]

After three years of the three members of the band being apart, though, it took more than a bit of time and patience for the band to come back together as a whole.  As mentioned above, Lee expressed frustration for the beginning of the project.  “Neil was being Mr. Aloof a little bit.  So we kind of circled each other and we talked.”[9]

Whatever the tension, the end result is a thing of wonder.  Beginning with an airy atmosphere and almost pleading guitar, the opening track, the title track, resolves into a progressive grunge.  The lyrics express shock at a world that has become completely commodified in the images the media presents to the world.  The result, vertigo.

Don’t touch that dial

We’re in denial

Lyrically, the song compliments “Show Don’t Tell,” from Presto.  Yet, unlike that deeply personal and self-judgmental song, this one asks how all of what was once private is now public?

As if Peart has to respond to the intrusion and commercialized weaponization of mass media, he offers a statement of integrity in the following song, “Driven.”  Unlike earlier Rush songs that deal with similar themes, Driven leaves lingering questions.  Can a person be so driven that he finds himself “driven to the edge of a deep dark hole”?  Yet, Peart (and the listener) avoids the abyss, determined not to linger in any one place too long.  “And I go riding on,” the song concludes.  “Driven” offers Rush at its best: great lyrics; a perfectly progressive rhythm; and Lifeson’s tastefully-grungy guitar sound.  Lee considers it a “quintessential Rush song.”[10]

It’s worth noting that the video Rush produced for this song is possibly the most interesting video the band ever made.  Visually, it anticipates the grime of the Matrix, but it also combines elements of Blade Runner and The Road Warrior.  Armed with measures of the bizarre and carnival-esque, it is pure punk dystopia.

The third song, “Half the World,” enters a heavy candy-pop-rock world of music.  Lyrically, however, Peart continues to express shock at the state of the world, a world divided by so many things.  Some trivial, some major.  Taking the lyrics literally, the listener cannot help but believe the world will always remain divided.  The ultimate division: those who lie and steal; and those who live honorably.

The fourth song, “The Color of Right,” offers a more positive take on similar notions, noting that right (and righteousness, properly understood) can transcend all differences in this world.  This is Peart at his Platonic and Aristotelian best.

Track five, “Time and Motion,” returns the listener to the style of the first two tracks of the album, offering nothing less than a mini-prog gem.  As the title indicates, the song plays with the modernist ideas of time and movement, similar to Permanent Waves’ Natural Science.

Time and motion

Flesh and blood and fire

Lives connect in webs of gold and razor wire

Everything is connected to everything else in this world, and, yet, this can mean we’re each attached to both the good and the ill.  Thus, man must be:

Superman in Supernature

Needs all the comfort he can find

Spontaneous motion

And the long-enduring kind

“Totem” looks, rather whimsically and mockingly, at all types of religions, meshing Christianity with Hinduism with a variety of pagan practices.  The song ends, ominously, with “Sweet chariot, swing low, coming for me.”

“Dog Years,” the seventh track, again revealing Rush’s rather humorous side and considers exactly what the title claims: the life of a dog, complete with fleas, sniffs, and howls.  That this song appears after totem is not accidental.  Both explore irrationality and instinct.  Peart, however, considered the song a “feast” at the time of its release, arguing at length about its own depths.

Well, no. As always I try to weave it in on several levels, so certainly the listener is welcome to take it just as a piece of throwaway foolishness. That’s certainly in there. Even the story of its writing is kind of amusing, because it was right when we got together for the first time, the three of us, after quite a long break apart. We did a little celebrating the first night and the following day I was a bit the worse for wear, and a little dull-witted, and I thought, “Gee, I don’t think I’m going to get much done today, but I’m a professional, I’d better try.” So I sat down all muzzy-headed like that and started trying to stitch words together – that’s what I was there for, after all. “Dog Years” is what came out of that kind of mentality, and born of observations over the years too, of looking at my dog thinking, “What’s going through his brain?” and I would think, “Just a low-level zzzzz static.” “Food. Walk.” The basic elemental things. When I look at my dog that’s how I see his brainwaves moving. Other elements in there of dog behavior, and I’ve had this discussion with other dog owners too: “What do you think your dog is really thinking about?” I say, “I don’t think he’s thinking about too much.” That was certainly woven into it as well.[11]

A heavy track that would not appear out of place on Counterparts, “Virtuality” considers the reality and unreality of the world wide web, connecting all things intangibly, one to another.

“Resist” is a deeply personal anthem, a restatement of Peartian principles of individualism, but done so in a very acoustic, singer-song writer friendly way.  Inspired by the dark romantic, Oscar Wilde, Resist never crosses the line into melodrama.[12]  Rather, it successfully embraces a bardic feel.  “I can learn to close my eyes/to anything bug injustice.”  Combining humor with a progressive rhythm, “Limbo,” offers an instrumental Rush version of the “Monster Mash,” complete with Frankenstein sound effects. Interestingly enough, it’s also a play on and against a more infamous Rush, Rush Limbaugh–Rush Limbo.[13]

“Carve Away That Stone,” finishes the album on an uplifiting note, rewriting the tragic Greek myth of Sisyphus.  In the traditional story, the gods punish Sisyphus for his deceit, making him roll a stone up a mountain, only to have it roll back down, forcing Sisyphus to start all over again, endlessly.  In the ancient version, the gods punish Sisyphus not just for his deceit but also for his hubris, that is, his very challenge of and to the power of the gods.  Peart’s extremely Stoic lyrics call for the good person to accept the fate of the gods, and to push the stone with all his best effort and integrity, thus showing to the gods and all of humanity that man can indeed best them.  The song ends with the wry note: “If you could just move yours/I could get working on my own.”  In other words, every man, woman, and child shares the fate of Sisyphus in this world.  Accept it and move on.

Notes:

[1] Peart, The Test for Echo Tour Book: Official Guidebook and User’s Manual (1996).

[2] Peart, Test for Echo Tour Book.

[3] Peart, Test for Echo Tour Book.

[4] Lee quoted in Jim Abbott, “Echo Has More than One Meaning,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 27, 1996.

[5] Lee quoted in Vinay Meon, Rush: An Oral History, Uncensored (Stardispatches, 2012, iBooks).  At the time of the album release, Lifeson felt great about it.  See his interview with Steven Batten, “Testing for Echo: Rush Return After Two Years in Hiding,” Northeast Ohio Scene (October 31-November 6, 1996).  Lifeson especially liked the “aggressiveness” of his guitar.  Peart thought that the tension came from Lifeson, as he had the experience of producing Victor on his own and wanted to assert much of what he’d learned from that.  See Alan Sculley, “Rushing Back Into the Spotlight,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 5, 1997.

[6] Peart, Traveling Music, 34.

[7] Peart quoted in Betsy Powell, “Peart is a Different Drummer,” Toronto Star, June 30, 1997, pg. E4.

[8] Peart quoted in Eric Deggans, “Rush Recharged,” St. Petersburg Times, December 6, 1996, pg. 18.

[9] Lee interview, “Text for Echo World Premier, WKSC-FM (Chicago), September 5, 1996.

[10] Lee interview, “Text for Echo World Premier, WKSC-FM (Chicago), September 5, 1996.

[11] Peart interview, “Test for Echo World Premier,” WKSC-FM, September 5, 1996.

[12] Peart, Test for Echo Tour Book.

[13] Paul Verna, “After a 3-Year Break, Trio Regroups for New Atlantic Set,” Billboard (August 3, 1996).

28 thoughts on “Testing for Echo: Rush’s Odd but Brilliant 1996 Masterpiece

  1. Pat Thomson

    Thanks for the book excerpt. Test for Echo is one of my favorite albums, but I have to admit, I never cared for ‘Dog Years’. It’s one of those songs I’ve just skipped over (for the last 20 years). After reading this, I’ll have to give it another whirl.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Ironically………..as odd as this may sound……………RIGHT AROUND that exact TIME,this album came out,my Beloved German-Shepherd/Collie mix,had passed after a Long life……….and each time I listen to that song…………it ALWAYS makes me smile and fills my head with wonderful memories for me,back to when she was just a puppy!!! As over the years,I TOO have often sat there,watching her,wondering to myself “WHAT in the WORLD could she POSSIBLY be thinking about right now? ” I WILL tell You this,even if her thinking was nothing more than a basic,rudimentary survival list of “basics”………..the Love,warmth and affection she BROUGHT to me over the years,was definitely worth it’s weight in GOLD!!! 🙂

        Like

  2. HYF and TfE contain some of my favorite Rush, containing dynamic contrasts and brilliant play not found anywhere else in their work. I am glad to see that appreciated! This excerpt comes accross as too dense. I hope it will be significantly expanded before publication.

    Like

  3. Enjoyed reading this and that sounds like a book I’d be interested in reading. I had a much different interpretation of the Carve Away the Stone lyrics… which is fine of course. In the verses I think he’s saying that to accept an unsatisfactory fate is to live in denial (“You can try to deny the weight of the load”) and just like Sisyphus with the stone the progress you think you’re making is just an illusion and you only wind up going in circles (“You will still find the past right behind you”). It reminds me of the saying that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In the chorus, Peart says that instead of accepting that supposed fate, look for other alternatives. Sisyphus’s stone represents the heavy burdens we carry in our life, and instead of carrying them with us we should take active steps to remove them. Carve away at them.

    Liked by 1 person

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