Rolling Back the Clock With Rush’s “Roll the Bones”

Rush roll the bones-coverIf I had to pick one Rush album between 1984-1996 to be my favorite, I would pick Roll the Bones without hesitation. I grew up with the early era of Rush (through Moving Pictures), and I didn’t come to the 80s (meaning post MP, which I consider to be more like their 70s output) music until I was in college. I’m in my late 20s, to give you a little perspective on where I’m coming from. I was drawn to the hard and heavy music and the rough philosophical and fantastical lyrics of that era of the band.

After Moving Pictures, the band’s sounds changed to reflect the times, although they changed very gracefully, which is more than I’ll say for other progressive rock bands in the 80s. The keyboards were far more prominent than they had been, with Lifeson’s stunning guitar work dropping back into the mix or taking on a more synthesized tone.

Neil Peart’s lyrics also changed. They remained philosophical, but his philosophy was maturing. It was less Ayn Randian and more Aristotelian. It was also far more poetic than his 70s lyrics, making it far more difficult to absorb, in my opinion. (I’m borrowing rather heavily from Brad Birzer’s Neil Peart: Cultural RePercussions. He has spent more years than I’ve been alive absorbing this era of Rush’s music, and he understands it far better than I do.)

I believe Roll the Bones marks a big change in direction for Rush. After a decade of the keyboards dominating, and arguably softening, Rush’s sound, the band returned to a heavier sound. “Dreamline,” the opening track, brings the rock back into the forefront. The first thing you hear is a simple drum beat quickly followed by Lifeson’s guitar. The guitar has an arena sound to it with a little bit of reverb – perhaps influenced by the larger and larger shows the band was playing over the previous decade.

Peart’s drums punch throughout, and Lifeson’s guitar leads the musical way with his signature tone. Instead of the swirling keyboard sounds, the band turned back to their core of drums, bass, and guitar. It sounds more like the Rush I originally fell in love with. While I have come to appreciate every Rush album, I much prefer their heavier rock side.

We even get the band’s first instrumental since “YYZ” with “Where’s My Thing?, Pt. 4: Gangster Of Boats Trilogy.” Geddy, Alex, and Neil all slay on this. We get some great guitar shredding, we get some in-your-face basslines, and we get Neil showing us why he’s the best drummer who ever lived.

With “The Big Wheel,” we get two very distinct styles. The chorus has a very pleasant and hummable melody, but the verses, are pure prog with complex musicality and jarring arrangements. The album is full of surprises.

Roll the Bones doesn’t really have the proto-metal elements of some of their early work, but it does have some unexpected influences that at least keep the album sounding fresh. I don’t think anyone was expecting a mild rap and funk influence on the title track, yet it totally works. Sure it may not be my favorite Rush song, but it’s certainly memorable – and not in a bad way. Lifeson’s guitar really brings things together on the title track. The inclusion of acoustic guitar was also a nice touch. The keyboards add flourishes, much like they did in their 70s music, rather than leading the way.

When we are young
Wandering the face of the Earth
Wondering what our dreams might be worth
Learning that we’re only immortal
For a limited time

– “Dreamline”

Peart’s lyrics are more practical and less poetic, although they remain as philosophical as ever. His lyrics on the record are the words of someone who has traveled and lived. Someone who has reached an age (late 30s) where he realizes that we don’t have forever, as the late David Longdon wisely told Progarchy last summer, just a handful of months before his untimely passing last November.

Peart’s Stoicism really starts to become more prominent on Roll the Bones. He wrestles with themes of fate, free will, dealing with tragedy, and understanding our role within all that. The title track bluntly tells us to deal with the fact that we exist.

We go out in the world and take our chances
Fate is just the weight of circumstances
That’s the way that lady luck dances
Roll the bones

Why are we here? 
Because we’re here.

Roll the bones
Why does it happen? 
Because it happens.

Roll the bones

“Ghost of a Chance” is perhaps the most interesting love song I’ve ever heard. Or as Birzer writes in his book, it is “a rationalist love song.” It’s a love song missing the typical emotional flares. Peart rejects notions of fate or a deity’s predestining while pondering the multitude of choices that our ancestors had to make in order for two people to come together in love.

I don’t believe in destiny
Or the guiding hand of fate
I don’t believe in forever
Or love as a mystical state
I don’t believe in the stars or the planets
Or angels watching from above
But I believe there’s a ghost of a chance we can find someone to love
And make it last…

– “Ghost of a Chance”

Later on in the album, Peart reflects on youth and how little we actually know and understand when we are young. Being young myself, I think that’s one of the frustrating things about youth, especially if you’re self-conscious about how little you know. You have to talk a big game and pretend you know it all just to survive these days. You have to convince an employer that you’re worth hiring or not firing because you have all the answers, even if you know very well that you don’t. (Beware the young ones who think they really do have all the answers. They’re called “woke” these days.)

Well, I was only a kid — didn’t know enough to be afraid
Playing the game, but not the way the big boys played
Nothing to lose — maybe I had something to trade
The way the big wheel spins

– “The Big Wheel”

I love the lyrics of “Hersey,” which contemplates on the suffering people experienced under Soviet communism and the years and lives wasted to that system. At its core, the song wrestles with themes of materialism and forgiveness. The people have lost so much, but can they really gain it back through acquiring material goods? Who should pay for all the suffering? Peart concludes that forgiveness is the only way to move forward. Perhaps that’s why the song is called “Heresy,” since what he proposes runs counter to society’s values, especially after the world spent decades wrestling with the Soviets.

All around that dull gray world
From Moscow to Berlin
People storm the barricades
Walls go tumbling in

The counter-revolution
People smiling through their tears
Who can give them back their lives
And all those wasted years?
All those precious wasted years — 
Who will pay?

All around that dull gray world
Of ideology
People storm the marketplace
And buy up fantasy

The counter-revolution
At the counter of a store
People buy the things they want
And borrow for a little more
All those wasted years
All those precious, wasted years 
Who will pay?

Do we have to be forgiving at last?

What else can we do? 
Do we have to say goodbye to the past?

Yes, I guess we do

All around this great big world
All the crap we had to take
Bombs and basement fallout shelters
All our lives at stake

The bloody revolution
All the warheads in its wake
All the fear and suffering —
All a big mistake
All those wasted years
All those precious, wasted years 
Who will pay?

– “Heresy”

If anything, Peart asks us to slow down and think about our initial reactions to situations. Should we go with our gut instinct, or should we take the time to reflect? Like Peart, I think we should slow down before making brash judgments or actions. Perhaps the world would be a more loving place if we all did that.

Rush provide seemingly infinite amounts of material to talk, think, and write about. My purpose with this post was to shine a little light on an album that seems to go under the radar when people talk about Rush. I think that’s a shame, because it finds the band returning to their heavier rock roots, which set the stage for the rest of their career. In many ways I think it is their best album since Signals, or maybe even since Moving Pictures. Their final three albums might not have been what they were if Rush hadn’t chosen to change things up a bit back in 1991 on Roll the Bones. If it’s been a while since you’ve listened to it, take some time and give it a spin.

3 thoughts on “Rolling Back the Clock With Rush’s “Roll the Bones”

  1. kruekutt

    This is my fave Rush album as well. It was a period when I wasn’t following them, and my best friend sent me a cassette with selected songs from Presto and Roll the Bones to convince me that they’d improved their songwriting chops. And they had!

    Liked by 1 person


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