Synergistic Perfection: First – and Lasting – Impressions of Moving Pictures

I. Blown Away

ImageIt was a beautiful spring day.

At least so it seemed. The calendar said it was still February, so officially we were still in winter. But Winter 1981 in Lexington, KY, was unseasonably warm.

On that fateful afternoon, I met up with my friend Greg Sims at the end of the school day. We hopped into his Chevy Monza (or, ‘The Monza-rati’ as we called it) and he drove me over to the K-Mart on New Circle Road. I went in, quickly located a copy of the new Rush album, Moving Pictures, made my purchase, and headed back out to the car. Greg gave me a ride home, and then took off, as he had to work while I had the night off from my job.

 I don’t remember the exact day it was when I made this purchase, but it likely was the same day the album was released. While that detail is fuzzy through the haze of thirty three years, I can say with confidence that I hadn’t heard so much as a single note of the record yet. At that time, listening to FM rock radio was a big part of my music consumption, and songs from Moving Pictures (especially Tom Sawyer) were in heavy rotation almost as soon as the album was released. Knowing that I had not heard any of the album before I listened to it on that fateful day tells me that it most likely was its release date.

 I opened the window in my bedroom to get in some of that nice spring-like air and then quickly removed the cellophane from the album cover. The vinyl record was removed from its sleeve, and put on the turntable. I set it in motion to start playing before quickly but comfortably implanting myself into an oversized beanbag chair I had in my room. As I pulled out the liner to look at the lyrics, I heard the needle make contact with vinyl, hearing the first few cracks and pops that were so common to music lovers of that era. And then …

 … the synthesizer intro to Tom Sawyer, the drums pacing things underneath. Oh my God.

 Right then and there I knew I was listening to a great album – Rush’s masterwork. To some, it might have seemed like I was jumping the gun. But there are some things you just know. And based on nothing more than the first few seconds of Tom Sawyer, I knew. Oh man. This is going to be a great album.

A modern day warrior

Mean, mean stride

Today’s Tom Sawyer

Mean, mean pride

Duh duh duh duh duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnhhhhhhhhhhhh

 (oh man, this is AWESOME!!)

Duh duh duh duh duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnnhhhhhhhhhhhh

Duh duh duh duh DUUUUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNHHHHHHHHH

I was soooooo hooked and I wasn’t even one minute into the first song. With every Alex Lifeson power chord, with every pluck of the Geddy Lee’s bass, every keyboard note, with every drum beat from Neil Peart, my conclusion of greatness was confirmed and reconfirmed.

 Today’s Tom Sawyer

He gets high on you

And the space he invades

He gets by on you

 And then came the synthesizer solo. There are no words that can describe my state of mind at this point. ‘Ecstatic’ … ‘thrilled’ … ‘mesmerized’ … all were inadequate. The rapture of a Rush fan.

Nevertheless, the rational part of my brain was still fully functioning. As I listened through the rest of Tom Sawyer, it was clear that Rush was in the process of making a quantum leap forward. This didn’t just sound like any other Rush album … it sounded like all the Rush albums. But I knew would have to distill that thought a bit to bring it into focus.

 Red Barchetta was up next. I loved it immediately. It was more guitar driven than the previous song, but still had a certain refinement not heard on some of their earlier guitar-heavy works. And it didn’t take long to recognize the lyrical themes of freedom vs. tyranny, the individual vs. the collective, and the free man vs. the state that I had first encountered on 2112 (discussed here). One of the things I had loved about Rush when I first heard them was all right here in one neat little package.

 Then came YYZ. Another instrumental, just as they had done on Hemispheres with La Villa Strangiato. However, this one was much more focused, much tighter. It certainly could not be called “an exercise in self-indulgence” as the band had referred to its previous instrumental. Full of great riffs and great playing, this one is still instantly recognizable all these years later, and still one of their live centerpieces.

 Side one drew to a close with Limelight, and again I knew I was listening to an instant classic. The music included some thick power chords from Lifeson’s guitar, not unlike some of their earliest works. Yet, it still seemed very fresh and new. The whole feel of this song was great. Something new and yet something familiar. The song ended and the needle returned to the resting position, but my state of euphoric shock continued.

 After flipping the vinyl record over and starting the turntable for side 2, I noticed that the first song, The Camera Eye, was a bit extended in length. Not a sidelong suite like 2112 or Hemispheres, but more comparable in length to the excellent Natural Science from their previous album, Permanent Waves.

 I kicked back again to the comfort of the beanbag and listened to the city noises that preceded some random synth buzzing before some proper keyboard lines made their appearance. Eventually, Lifeson joined the party, as the song moved forward with some heavy grace. A brief pause intervened, and then a more frantic keyboard line announced “here we go!” And just like that, Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were off to the races.

Duuuuuuuun dun dun DAAAAAN dun dun

Duuuuuuuun dun dun DAAAAAN dun dun

DAAAN dun dun

DAAAN dun dun

DAAAN dun dun

DAAAN dun dun

(Yeah, we are cruisin’ now, baby!!)

 It was as if we were being transported somewhere. We arrived when the instrumental section gave way to Geddy’s vocals. He delivered lyrical imagery of life in New York City from the point of a detached observer contemplating it all. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but I loved it nonetheless.

 After that, the cycle repeated, and off we were transported to London for some images and observations of that city, and a contrast with New York.

 A more fantastic beginning to Side 2 would have been impossible. Five songs in, and my hastily drawn conclusion of the album’s greatness didn’t seem so hasty now. On the contrary, my initial gut feeling had been right on target.

 The mood of the music definitely took a shift with Witch Hunt. With this song, I followed the lyrics more closely than I had with any other. While I was never one to be particularly rebellious, I have long had a skepticism for authority and for others who “knew what was best” for me. Thus, when Geddy delivered the line “those who know what’s best for us must rise and save us from ourselves,” it hit home.

 I had some ideas of the particular intolerant a**holes to whom the lyrics referred at the time, but as I’ve learned over the years, the lyrics are broadly applicable to intolerance from all across the political spectrum.

 Six tracks up, six tracks down. Every damn one of them incredible. Only one left to go.

 Vital Signs made it seven for seven. A quirky synthesizer and guitar with a reggae beat? Who can pull that off? Well, Rush can. I laid back and enjoyed the music as the album I had dubbed a masterwork in its opening bar raced to its conclusion.

 The familiar cracks and pops returned for a few seconds before I heard the needle lift and the arm move to its resting spot. I sat there and contemplated what I had just experienced, and drew a few more conclusions.Image

 I knew this album was going to be huge. Every Rush fan and their grandmother was going to want a copy, and it would also bring in legions of new fans. While the hipster critics would hate it (but who cares about them, anyway?), the fans, both new and old, were going to love it. I knew Tom Sawyer would be their signature song. It was played at each of the four Rush concerts I witnessed subsequent to the release of Moving Pictures and appears on every video concert of Rush that I have watched. I knew that this would be the end of one era and the beginning of another for Rush. And I definitely knew that in my little bedroom on Marlboro Drive, on my modest stereo, this album was going to spend a lot of time on the turntable. Through the remainder of 1981, there was not another album that even came close.

 Rush albums generally take a few listens before they truly sink in with me. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, it’s something I like about Rush. Having the various layers revealed through multiple listens can be very rewarding it its own right. This album, on the other hand, did not. It strongly resonated with me right out of the gate. Just one listen, and I truly was blown away.

 

II. The Sum and The Whole

 Moving Pictures was many things. For one, it was an album that took the best of everything Rush had done before then, combined it, and distilled it into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. It was a culmination of their previous work in the same way that Close to the Edge was for Yes; it was the album that made the statement “we have arrived” the same way Dark Side of the Moon did for Pink Floyd.

 The music of the first few Rush albums were centered around heavy guitar. As the band honed their chops, they began writing extended pieces, first with The Fountain of Lamenth and then hitting big with 2112. In A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, the role of keyboards in Rush music changed from simply providing atmospheric background to a more prominent role in the melodic discourse, often times being a featured instrument for sections of songs. In the meantime, the band took a more experimental approach, both musically and lyrically. And on Permanent Waves, the band pared back some of the excesses of previous albums while tightening up their songwriting.

Image Moving Pictures takes something from all of the previous Rush albums and combines it into something new – and greater. Here, Rush took pieces from every one of their previous albums and put it together into something that sounded both fresh and familiar. On the outstanding documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, Peart states “As I define it, that’s when be became us … I think Rush was born with Moving Pictures.” He further states “It represents so much that we learned up to that time about songwriting, about arrangement, that’s when we brought our band identity together.” Both statements – but especially the second – really hit home for me. Moving Pictures pulled it all together into one package that is both synergistic and perfect.

III. And Ending and a Beginning

 Given that Moving Pictures is a culmination of everything the band had produced up to that time, it represented (at least to me) an ending to the first phase of Rush music. But as much as it was an ending, it was also a beginning. Moving Pictures also served as a segue to and a launching pad for Rush’s output in the 1980’s. Particularly notable on Moving Pictures was the integration of the keyboards into the music. To be sure, most Rush albums prior to Moving Pictures had included at least some keyboards. However, keyboards seemed to be featured primarily when the other instruments stopped, most notably evident in keyboard solos that appears in songs such as Xanadu, Circumstances, and Jacob’s Ladder. This has been the source of a significant amount of controversy among Rush fans, with Moving Pictures being the dividing line. Nevertheless, anecdotally anyway, most Rush fans I have known like this album, irrespective of where they stand on their prior or subsequent work.

 For my money, Moving Pictures was the first in a sequence of four albums that marked a portion of Rush’s career that was creatively very fertile. Following with Signals, Grace Under Pressure, and Power Windows, the tighter integration of the keyboards that began with Moving Pictures continued even further, while the number of outside influences that made their way into the music continued to increased. This trend eventually played itself out in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Rush began to return to a more guitar-centric sound, with 1993’s Counterparts being most emblematic of that shift.   However, in the twelve years leading up to that album, the echoes of Moving Pictures could be heard in every intervening release.

 IV. Lasting Impact

 I’ve heard every album of original Rush music (I have not heard Feedback, their album of remakes … but I’ll get to it). None of them are bad, most of them are at least good, and a number of them are truly great. I’ve been astonished at their ability to produce so much good music over the course of their career. I’m even more astonished that they have been able to produce such excellent music so late in their career (Clockwork Angels, anybody?) at a time when other bands are typically doing nothing more than rehashing their glory days or producing sub-par output.

 Still, no Rush album has ever had an impact on me that is as lasting as Moving Pictures. If I had to choose only one Rush album to take to a desert island with me, this would be it and it wouldn’t even be a tough decision. Now as you can guess from what I’ve written above, that is not a criticism of any of their other albums. It’s just a simple recognition that not only did Moving Pictures have an immediate and powerful effect on me on that February day in 1981, it’s that the effect has never faded. Higher praise than that is simply not possible.

 

Neil Peart: The Most Endangered Species

Some songs just scream “let me reach perfection.”  

Every note, every pause, every ebb, every swell, every silence, and every word just gravitates towards its right place.  It’s as though the cardinal and Platonic virtue of Justice becomes manifest, real, and tangible in this world.

There probably are very few perfect tracks—tracks that never grow old and never cease to cause wonder.  From the 70s and 80s the following immediately spring to mind as candidates: The Battle of Evermore, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, Close to the Edge, In Your Eyes, Thick as a Brick, Cinema Show, Take a Chance with Me, Echoes, and The Killing Moon.

Of all of these great possibilities from those two wild and wholly decades, the one song that comes closest to attaining perfection, such as perfection is understood in this rather bent world, is Natural Science, the final track on Rush’s Permanent Waves.

Well, at least in my humble opinion.  Ok, not so humble of an opinion.

Rush PW cover

Unobjectively Rushed

In a number of previous posts here at progarchy and elsewhere, I’ve talked about my love for all things Rush, perhaps even putting myself in a position in which I simply can’t be objective about them.  Frankly, at age 46, I’m tired of trying to be objective about the things I love.  In fact, I want to be subjective.  Really, really subjective.  I want to spend the rest of my life promoting things of excellence and beauty, and not wasting my time analyzing what I don’t like.  I want to explore how various forms of art have shaped my own life, how they’ve guided me, how they’ve given me strength and comfort, and how best to pass on such nuggets of insight to my children and my students.

So, purely subjectively: I’ve always thought of Neil Peart as the older brother I never had—the cool kid with all the great ideas and, equally important, the guy with all of the good friends.  Most importantly, however, Peart has always had the courage of his convictions.  What an appealing combination of qualities.  Creativity, intelligence, integrity and perserverance.

As much as any person in my life I’ve never met (from Plato to St. Augustine to Friedrich Hayek to T.S. Eliot to J.R.R. Tolkien), Peart has profoundly shaped my view of the world.  I’ve known this since the spring of 1981, when, as a seventh grader, I first encountered Moving Pictures.

And, coming from a very (happily) nerdy and intellectual family which encouraged a love of music as much as it encouraged a love of reading and writing, I started writing my own first little essays on Rush while still in high school.

Perhaps my professors in college shouldn’t have allowed me to do this or encouraged me, but I did get to help lead a discussion on the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, using the song “Tom Sawyer” to explain the significance of the end of Twain’s novel.  The end of that complex novel tries to examine the motivations of Huck and Tom as they decided whether or not to free Jim from his enslavement.  Their humanity tells them one thing, but their cultural upbringing tells them another.

I also, as I’ve mentioned before, wrote my major paper for my sophomore liberal-arts core course examining the philosophy of Neil Peart, using nothing but the lyrics of Grace Under Pressure.  Sadly, I don’t have a copy of that paper any longer, though I might attempt to reconstruct it at some point.

Rush 1980 by Todd Caudle

Natural Science

I can identify almost every single moment in my post-1980 life with a Rush album—noting when I first encountered that album, how it shaped my own thoughts, life, and actions, and what else was going on in my life at the same time.  Certainly, Rush has served as the soundtrack of my own existence for over three decades.  Strangely, the one album in Rush’s entire catalogue I can’t place perfectly—at least when I first encountered it—is Permanent Waves.  I’m guessing that I first heard it shortly after Spring 1981, but I’m not positive.  It just seems to have always been “there.”  There, meaning my life.  This is impossible, of course, as I was 11 when the album first came out, but it does seem to have an uncertain yet certain position in my memory.

I still regard the entire album as a work of artistic intensity and creative genius.  There’s a confidence that exists in every note of this album that had not yet appeared in Rush’s music.  Don’t get me wrong—up to Permanent Waves, Rush had always possessed audacity and integrity.  But, they’d not possessed this level of confidence before.  Songs such as Anthem—so openly declaring confidence—reveal youthful anxiety.  But, the personal aspects of Permanent Waves, such as in “Free Will,” carry with them a rather clear maturity.

To my mind, none of the songs carry as much confidence, however, as does Natural Science.  Originally, as is well known by Rush fans, Peart had hoped to write a saga, epic, or edda about the Court of King Arthur and especially about the character of Sir Gawain.

I had also been working on making a song out of a medieval epic from King Arthur’s time, called ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. It was a real story written around the 14th century, and I was trying to transform it while retaining it’s original form and style. Eventually it came to seem too awkwardly out of place with the other material we were working on, so we decided to shelve that project for the time being…with the departure of ‘Gawain’ we had left ourselves nothing with which to replace him!…something new began to take shape. It was the product of a whole host of unconnected experiences, books, images, thoughts, feelings, observations, and confirmed principles, that somehow took the form of ‘Natural Science’…forged from some bits from ‘Gawain’, some instrumental ideas that were still unused, and some parts newly-written. – Neil Peart, “Personal Waves, The Story Of An Album” [taken from: http://www.2112.net/powerwindows/main/RushInspirations.htm]

Though I don’t know this for certain, I assume that Peart was still in a bit of a myth/fantasy/Tolkien stage as he considered the lyrics for this song.  Best known by the world for his fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien was in his professional life the leading scholar of the medieval literature of Beowulf, Sir Gawain, and others.  In the late 1970s, Tolkien’s publisher attempted to capitalize on success of The Silmarillion by re-publishing almost everything Tolkien had ever written, including his academic work, repackaged for a popular audience.

Many of the ideas in Natural Science, at least musically, also came from a “mass of ideas called Uncle Tounouse” [Popoff, CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE, 76; http://rushvault.com/2011/02/05/natural-science/; and http://www.2112.net/powerwindows/main/PeWlyrics.htm%5D

At 9 minutes, 17 seconds, “Natural Science” consists of three parts: Tide Pools; Hyperspace; and Permanent Waves.  These might have also have been titled, less poetically, Nature; Science; and Integrity.

In Part I, “Tide Pools,” Peart offers a vision of community.  Each person is born into a myriad of factors.  As the great Irishman, Edmund Burke, once said before Parliament: “Dark and inscrutable are the ways in which we come into the world.”  Each person is born into a family, an environment, a language, a set of morality, a religious system (even if atheist), etc.  Each of these factors shapes and delimits our very beings, and we must—from our earliest infancy—learn to move from one realm into another.  From, for example, our family to our school.  We must transition, we must bridge, we must understand, and we must integrate our experiences.  Such a world of communities brings us security, but it might also allow for an insular kind of inbreeding and sloth.  Looking at all of the connections and interactions, though, overwhelms us.

Wheels within wheels in a spiral array,

A pattern so grand and complex,

Time after time we lose sight of the way,

Our causes can’t see their effects.

Part II, “Hyperspace,” reveals how insane an integrated, uniform culture might before.  Peart’s vision of conformity here is not of a communist or fascist variety, but instead of a capitalist, consumerist variety.  It might metastasize uncontrollably.

A mechanized world out of hand.

Computerized clinic

For superior cynics

Who dance to a synthetic band.

In their own image,

Their world is fashion.

No wonder they don’t understand.

Part III, “Permanent Waves,” brings the story and listener to a stoic resignation, a realization that one must somehow and in some way recognize the limits as well as the advantages of an insular natural community and a hyper collectivist consumerism, brought together by (I presume) colossal bureaucracies of corporations, educational systems, and governments.

The true man, whatever the odds against him, will survive.

The most endangered species,

The honest man,

Will still survive annihilation.

Forming a world

State of integrity,

Sensitive, open and strong.

These are quintessentially Peartian themes, and he will return to them again and again in his lyrics.  “Subdivisions,” for example, offers almost all of the same sentiments, but it does so in lyrics that are much more direct.  The lyrics for Natural Science remain far more poetic than intellectual, far more artistic than philosophical.  And yet, they are poetic, intellectual, artistic, and philosophical all at once.

They are. . . well, Peartian. Very Peartian.

Signals Cover

Words of Friendship and Wisdom

In the summer of 1987, having completed my first year of college, I returned back to my hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas.  It was one of the best summers of my life, as all of my high school friends were home, and I had the best job possible—I was the overnight DJ at a local radio station.  In my mind, this really was the last year of my youth.  I didn’t realize that at the time, but I do now.  It was also, though, a summer of immense upheaval.  The following school year, I wouldn’t be returning to the University of Notre Dame.  Instead, I moved to Innsbruck, Austria, for a year.  At home, a number of domestic crises would lead to a divorce.  As much as I loved my mom, I needed to get away from the home front quickly.  All of this added up to a summer of craziness, me being a little more wild than I should have been.

Trying to get me back on track, one of my two closest college friends sent me a letter toward the end of that summer.  Inside, written on rice paper, neatly folded, were the lyrics to Natural Science, with a note of encouragement.

I carried that piece of folded rice paper with me—tucked in my wallet—for about two decades. It’s very hard to put into words what Peart’s thoughts in “Natural Science” did for me.  “Natural Science” did for me in my 20s and 30s, what “Subdivisions” had done for me at 14.  They gave me no easy answers or platitudes, but honesty and courage.  They got me through many, many tough times, never failing to remind me that right has absolutely nothing to do with winning or losing.  Right, instead, has to do with being right.  Nothing more, nothing less.  We do the right thing not for advantage, but merely and simply because it’s right.  It’s not subjective.  It’s either right, or it’s not.  It’s not partially right or almost right.  It’s either right, or it’s not.

Sometimes, we just need a big brother or a friend to remind us of these things.

Neil Peart, moral philosopher, “sensitive, open, and strong.”

 

*******

For more from Progarchy on Rush

The first Rush album reviewed by Craig Breaden

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

A review of A Farewell to Kings by Kevin McCormick

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

A review of Power Windows by Brad Birzer

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

Kevin Williams on Clockwork Angels Tour

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

Brad Birzer on Clockwork Angels Tour

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

Erik Heter on Clockwork Angels Tour Concert in Texas

https://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

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

A review of Grace Under Pressure by Birzer

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

RETRORUSHgallery

Rush’s First

Image
Early Rush: John Rutsey, Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson

Rush landed in my life like a broken window when I was thirteen, that weird, shard-like spiral guitar intro to The Spirit of Radio busting things open for me in 1980.  It wasn’t an easy sell at first — Rush is a studied taste and I’d still say on most Rush records for every moment of musical or lyrical poetry there are two that are just brainy.  What maybe distinguishes the band, though, is their absolute, all-in commitment to THEIR muse as a trio.  It’s been mentioned in these pages before, but worth reiterating: Rush is as powerful now as they were 40 years ago, despite just about every obstacle you can throw at an artist.

Forty years ago next month Rush released its first, self-titled album.  In its way it’s one of the most intriguing records in their catalog because, unlike almost every other one of their albums, it is a product of its time and shows it.  That it’s also a prime example of early 70s hard rock is often lost in the various fanboy legends of Rush, where all songs are anthems and where first drummer John Rutsey is alternately pitied or maligned for not being Neil Peart.  Rush the album is a tight, finely-walked tour of guitar rock, a thick, sludgy, power trio slab that screams North American midwest, 1974.  There are odes to hard working folks, stoner rock birds flipped at the Man, ballads and blues boogie admonitions to the ladies, and hard luck stories from the rock and roll road.  This was not a lightly-traveled terrain: Mountain, Robin Trower, and armies of Uriah Heep-ish bands were all pounding to dust the path blazed by the Yardbirds then Cream then Zep, and Rush was very much a part of the meat-and-potatoes rock circuit that included bands like REO Speedwagon and the Amboy Dukes.

But Rush intrigues for a number of reasons, not least of which because as a record it shows a working rock band fully constructed.  They were young but had paid their dues, there was no doubt, witnessed by the super tight performances.  And looking back at the record 40 years on, there are moments when Alex Lifeson’s chord voicings or Geddy Lee’s bass patterns seem to jump forward to their present work.  They had a kernel of a sound and a whole lot of chops, and I’d argue that when they replaced Rutsey with Peart they possessed an uncommon strength, which allowed them to deconstruct their sound and build it up again, to eventually realize a vision absolutely unique in rock.

Technically, too, the record has a lot to recommend it.  Working with limited technology, even for the era, the band created an album with a saturated, present guitar sound that was clearly evolving with what could be reproduced on a record.  The separation is very good, although the drums don’t always pop like they could, probably as a result of the guitar’s appetite for bandwidth, rather than Rutsey’s playing, which swings with the best hard rock records of the time.  The extended soloing space, too, is defined and disciplined, guitar-focused and deriving more than a little from the studio recordings of Led Zeppelin, one of Rush’s early beacons.  Rush had their ears on this recording, and I don’t think it’s any mistake that more recent stoner and heavy rock records have a lot in common sonically with Rush’s first.

Thirty years after Rush released its first record, they recorded Feedback, an homage to their influences.  Played back to back with Rush, the two albums almost seem of a pair, their respective sounds not that unlike, and as if the songs on Feedback might have made up the rest of the set had you seen the band in ‘72-73.  Feedback arrived two years after Vapor Trails, when Rush re-asserted its harder, guitar-focused edge, and began a phase of fine work that continues up to their most recent record, Clockwork Angels.  As the title of that album suggests, this is a band that appreciates the spiral and the cycle of their art, the seed of which can be heard, if you’re listening for it, on Rush.

Power Windows: Rush and Excellence against Conformity

It’s the power and the glory

It’s a war in paradise

It’s a cinderella story

On the tumble of the dice

—Neil Peart, “The Big Money,” 1985

***

rpw

Power Money

It would have been impossible to avoid Power Windows in the Fall of 1985, I being a senior in a Kansas high school, even if I had wanted to.

And, I didn’t.

Every where I turned that fall—in ways far more than any other Rush song since Tom Sawyer—I heard “The Big Money.”  MTV played the video repeatedly (we didn’t have MTV, but friends did), and our wonderful local radio station—KICT95 out of Wichita—had it in constant rotation.  Of course, being a massively obsessed Rush fan since first encountering them in 7th grade detention, I was thrilled to see Rush get so much attention.

Sadly, though, I became overly saturated with “The Big Money.”  It’s the only Rush song that has ever grown tiring for me.  For years, it stood up there with “Stairway to Heaven.”  I just shut both out of my mind, flipped the radio dial when either played.  As Power Windows is one of my all-time favorite albums, this has been rather difficult for me to accomplish.  For nearly two decades, though, I merely started the album with the second track, “Grand Designs.”

Then, on September 18, 2012, at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan, standing next to my good friend, Dom, Rush played it as the second track of the Clockwork Angels tour.  Straight from Subdivisions to The Big Money to Force Ten and then, three songs from Power Windows in a row: Grand Designs; Middletown Dreams; and Territories.  Half of the album!  Freaking brilliant.  Poor Dom.  He’s only a college student, and he had to hear my sound byte reminiscences for every track.  I was reliving a huge part of my high school experience.

Seeing “The Big Money” live made me realize why that song is so wonderful.  Alex, Geddy, and Neil brought immense energy to it (and Force Ten, as well—the most rocking version I’d heard from Rush; Alex even played one of his best guitar solos for this song on this tour).  Suddenly, whatever tiredness and reluctance I’d felt about “The Big Money” over the last several decades dissipated at the moment the opening few notes began.  Add video of spinning and printing dollars as well as the Three Stooges, and I was sold.  (Sorry, bad choice of words).  But, really, everything was perfect—the drumming, the bass, the guitar solo.  And, of course, the Austin Powers moment at the end: “One million dollars!”

Now, as of the end of 2013, I’m back in and with those autumn days of 1985.  Let “The Big Money” reign.  I’ve also re-discovered my love of Led Zeppelin 4.

But, the point of the post is not to praise “The Big Money” specifically, but to remember Power Windows.  I’m happy to praise both!  And, frankly, I’ve been offering praise of Power Windows since it came out, but only with the caveat that The Big Money is a weak point.  Now, in 2013, I realize how wrong I was.  The whole thing deserves praise, and one cannot separate any song from the whole.  It is what it is, and it’s a thing of immense beauty.

pw boy

Power Jazz

In Contents Under Pressure (by Martin Popoff), Neil argues that he sees Power Windows and Hold Your Fire as two sides of the same coin, separate from Grace Under Press, but also from Presto.  Certainly, there’s an argument to be made here.  In terms of bass and drums, Power Windows and Hold Your Fire, have the most distinctly jazz feel of any Rush albums.  At times, taking the rhythm section alone, the listener might be enjoying a Chick Corea album from the same time period.  In production, though, Power Windows comes across as rather raw power, while Hold Your Fire feels rather lush.  Whatever similarities—and they are many—the albums seem very different to the listener.    Again, as Neil states, the first is an extrovert, while the second an introvert.

As a fan, though, I tend to hear consistent themes in Moving Pictures through Hold Your Fire.  Moving Pictures stresses the need to be an individual against the crowd; Signals warns that being such an individual will cause pain, but is worth it; Grace Under Press deals with recovery from such persecution (sometimes in the hallway, sometimes in the concentration camp); Power Windows deals with excellence against conformity; and Hold Your Fire pleads for restraint in the now comfortable individual looking at those he’s made uncomfortable.

Granted, these themes are, for me, autobiographical, in the sense that I grew up with them, and each album plays a key role in my own understanding of the world.  That is, these themes might not have been intended by Peart, and, admittedly, perhaps I’m alone in seeing them this way.  As I’ve mentioned before, Neil Peart has influenced me as much as anyone in my life—ranging from Plato (I teach western civ for a living, so allow me a little pretense here) to St. Paul to my mother.  Plato-Paul-Peart!!!  The three Ps.

For me:

  • Moving Pictures: 7th Grade
  • Signals: 9th Grade
  • Grace Under Pressure: 11th (Junior) Grade
  • Power Windows: 12th (Senior) Grade
  • Hold Your Fire: sophomore year of college.

imagesPower Themes 

In terms of wordplay and poetry, Neil is at his best on Power Windows.

In The Big Money, Peart considers the good and the evils of what we now refer quite commonly as “Crony Captialism.”  As with much of this album, the shadow of cultural critic, socialist-turned-libertarian and anti-war novelist, John Dos Passos, hangs over The Big Money.   Dos Passos also called his style “The Camera Eye.” 1936’s The Big Money concluded Dos Passos’s famous U.S.A. Trilogy.  Much like Peart, Dos Passos traveled incessantly, offering a fine cultural criticism over everything he surveyed.

Grand Designs, track two, comes from the final part of the “District of Columbia,” trilogy published by Dos Passos in 1949.  It examines individual genius in line with nature and against nature.  In the conflict of style and substance, Peart is also referencing the grand Anglo-American poet, T.S. Eliot, and his 1925 poem, The Hollow Men.

The third track, Manhattan Project, anticipates the history-telling prog of Big Big Train, offering a rather neutral analysis of the development of the first three atomic bombs.  Interestingly enough for Peart, he continues to harken back to religious language and themes, specially Catholic, referring again and again to “a world without end.”

Marathon echoes a number of other Peart songs, but it does it with extraordinary energy.  A celebration of the battle of the Athenians over the Persians in the Fifth Century, BC, it also, of course, deals with the virtue of fortitude.

Territories offers a scathing criticism of propaganda, nationalisms, and nation states.  In his criticisms and in the clever examples, Peart echoes the anti-statism of Mark Twain.

Taken, most likely, from the famous 1925 sociological report of Muncie, Indiana, entitled Middletown.  Not surprisingly, given the state of sociology in the 1920s, the report considers the every day habits and desires of rural Americans.  In his own Middletown, Peart examines the life of rural America as well as the dreams of those wishing to escape, generally unfulfilled.

Emotion Decter is one of Peart’s most Stoic songs, offering something against both the extremes of optimism and the cynicism of despair.  In the end, in a common Peart theme, man must restrain his reaction toward others, recognizing that one does not need approval of another should integrity already exist in the original act.  A true man judges himself.

The final and most proggish/artistic song of the album is Mystic Rhythms.  Rush ends with wonder at the intense diversity of the world and of all of the universe.

alex and geddy

Power New Wave

Finding a producer for Power Windows proved difficult at first.  After replacing the long-lived Terry Brown (every album up through Signals) with Peter Henderson (Grace Under Pressure), Rush found their third producer in Peter Collins, best known for his work with Nik Kershaw and Blancmange.  Making the connection to Britain even stronger, Rush recorded much of the album at Abbey Road Studios and in parts of London.  They also worked with Anne Dudley of the Art of Noise, who directed the strings.

Though Power Windows rocks with full force throughout almost all of the album (the final track, Mystic Rhythms, being the very proggy standout), it has also a strange New Wave feel to it.  Ok, this needs explaining.  Neil and Geddy sound as though they’re playing in a rocking jazz band from the 1980s, but Alex sounds as though he could be playing for The Fixx.  Alex, like Jamie West-Oram, seems to be creating immense but punctuated guitarscapes.  One of the things that makes Power Windows so effective, is this strange but powerful synthesis of jazz bass and drums with New Wave guitar.  In ways that Drama (some of the same production crew worked on both) attempted to be for Yes in 1980, Power Windows succeeds at bridging prog, rock, New Wave, and jazz.  I think Drama is a fine album (in fact, a favorite), but I think that Power Windows is truly successful at this attempt to bridge genres.  Perhaps, of course, Power Windows couldn’t have come about without Drama first—but an exploration of this would be well beyond the intent of this post.

Suffice it say, I love both.

prog-35

Power Sources: 

  • Martin Popoff, Contents Under Pressure (2004).
  • Jerry Ewing, ed., Prog #35, Special Edition (April 2013).
  • Neil Peart, Roadshow (2006).
  • Power Windows liner notes (1985).
  • Jim Berti and Durrell Bowman, Rush and Philosophy (2011).  This book includes an essay by the brilliant economist (and philosopher), Steve Horwitz.

Rush 2.0: Clockwork Angels Tour (2013) Review

rush clockwork tourA friend of mine said to me—in response to my obvious glee that Rush’s Clockwork Angels Tour Blu-ray had just arrived in the mail—“it’s good to be childlike every once in a while.”  Well, maybe it was the reaction of a 13-year old trapped in a 46 year-old body.  Regardless, the reaction was sincere.  Rush!

Three thoughts and images (images as thoughts, and thoughts as images) come to me whenever I think of Rush.  Rush—brilliance.  Rush—inspiration.  Rush—comfort.  For thirty-three years, they’ve been all of these things to me.  Thank the Good Lord for that detention in seventh grade, and thank the Good Lord again for sharing that detention with Brad and Troy, the two guys who introduced me to Moving Pictures and, consequently, to Rush.  That was a heady spring.  I had also heard The Wall for the first time, the U.S. had just defeated the Soviets in hockey, and some idiots tried to kill the U.S. president and the Pope and came damn close to succeeding.  7th grade.  Prog Rock, Dr. Who, and Dungeons and Dragons.  But, most of all, Rush.

Maybe I never grew up.  These are still the things I love and share with my own kids (the oldest, now 14; he proudly wears a “prog rock—all else is noise” t-shirt; he and my twelve-year old daughter will be seeing that majesty that is Transatlantic in Chicago this coming February).

Oh, fair reader, back to the subject at hand.  Rush, Clockwork Angels Tour Blu-ray.  Holy schnikees.  Yep, God rest Chris Farley’s soul.  Holy schnikees.  What a work of absolute joy.  Over three hours of absolute joy.  A precious document of their massive tour, 2012-2013, the blu-ray captures them for a Dallas, Texas, show.

As Kev pointed out in his review of the same, there was a time when Rush fans could calculate an era by what live CD had been or was just about to be released.  All the World’s a Stage for the hard prog stage; Exit Stage Left for the melodic prog stage; A Show of Hands for the synth prog stage; and Different Stages for the return to guitar/alt rock stage.

But, this was all for Rush 1.0, testing for echo.

After the horrific tragedies in Peart’s life, his purgatory and redemption (symbolically), we’re at Rush 2.0.

I would argue rather forcefully that this is a different band, a band that finally (yes, these guys are truly humble and always have been despite their driving ambition) realizes its more than a mere band.  You can see this realization dawn, finally (again, finally!) on them in Beyond on the Lighted Stage and on the Colbert Show.

They have nothing to prove anymore when it comes to acceptance.  They never really did, but they always thought they did.  They only have to prove their excellence.  And, to me, they’ve done this in spades.  As one of my favorite Rush writers, Rob Freedman, wrote about a year ago (and I quote this whenever I can)

The story of Rush is a story of validation. When the band first started out, the mainstream music establishment largely ignored them. Geddy’s voice was the brunt of jokes, Alex’s guitar playing got no respect, Neil’s lyrics were pretentious and channeled a kooky Ayn Randian ideology, and he played too many drums, all of them with the passion of a mathematician. Meanwhile, musicians and music aficionados loved them, so you had this great narrative tension. Now they’re nearing their 40-year anniversary, their old critics are in nursing homes, their fans are in leadership positions in business, science, government, and the arts, and they’re looked to as elder statesmen of rock.

Amen, Rob.  Amen.  On this issue, I can speak from some personal experience.  As I look back over my own life as a historian, a writer, and an academic, I can easily claim that Peart has had as much influence on my own thinking as any of the other greats I looks to for ideas and inspiration: Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury. . . .  A whole generation of us can claim to be Peart’s little brothers.  Like any older brother, Neil almost certainly will not agree with all of my own views, or with what I’ve done with his ideas.  But, then, Neil never—in any way—sought to conform the world.  One of the greatest things Neil gave to a generation was the advice to develop and hone what is best in each of us, whatever that best might be.

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Not content to fade, Rush 2.0 has decided to shimmer with excellence.  I can’t help but think of Neil’s words off of Signals, “Losing It.”

Some are born to move the world

To live their fantasies

But most of us just dream about

The things we’d like to be

Sadder still to watch it die

Than never to have known it

For you, the blind who once could see

The bell tolls for thee….

Rush is proving that greatness can beget greatness.  As I see it, Rush’s last three studio albums have done nothing if not prove this.  Vapor Trails, Snakes and Arrows, and, especially, Clockwork Angels.  While building upon everything from Rush to Test for Echo, the last three Rush albums come with a confidence, not of resignation, but assertion.  Nature has given us this time, I’ll be damned if I let it fly by unused and unappreciated.  Indeed, one can say with the last three albums, Rush looked at the world not just with confidence, but with gratitude.

So, when the band decides to release a live album for each tour, I can only shout “hooray.”  Give us as much as you can, Rush.  So many of us want to keep journeying with you in any way we can.

As with the previous tour, this one is a massive production.  Explosions, lasers, weird sets, and, best of all, incredible film clips add to the already stunning music.  The background story for the Clockwork Angels Tour film clips—an IRS agent looking for the Watchmaker is just outstanding, drop-down, gut-wrenching funny.  Geddy, Alex, and Neil appear as rather mischievous “G”nomes.

And, it’s just a joy to watch these guys perform.  They obviously love each other and what they’re doing.  In terms of playing, none of the members of Rush have ever been this good.  They are each in top form.  Watching each of them play guitar, bass, and drums is nothing if not humbling.  I hope I give as much in my lectures as these guys give in their playing.  Phew.

Musically, of course, what more could we want?  Knowing that they’ve been releasing lots of tour material over the last decade, Rush chose to play a significant portion of their 1980s material—stuff that’s not appeared on any of their live releases in a long time.  It’s worth remembering, however, that this is Rush 2.0.  They bring the sensibilities of the last three albums to the previous multitude of albums.  There’s not a dud in the live set, but songs that stand out in ways the originals didn’t: Force Ten; The Body Electric; and The Analog Kids.  Schnikees (again, apologies to Chris Farley), these are amazing.  Rocking, rocking, rocking.

It’s set two, however, that boggles the mind, the set that includes almost all of Clockwork Angels and—gasp!—a string quartet.  Phew.  Amazing.   So much energy emerges from the blu-ray in set two, it’s actually a bit wonderfully overwhelming.  YYZ is especially spectacular with the strings.

Bonus material on the blu-ray includes: Limelight, Middletown Dreams, The Pass, and Manhattan Project, as well as all of the movie clips from the tour and some documentaries.

For me, this is pretty much perfection itself.  33 years of loving this band comes down to this 3plus hour set.  Yes, Geddy, Neil, and Alex, I could never thank you enough for the confidence you’ve given me, the excellence you’ve shown me, and the hope you embody.  Whether you ever expected to get here or not, you are the embodiment of the best of rock, you are now the elder statesmen of culture.  You have persevered, and we have as well!

May the journey long continue.

Pavlov’s Dog: Midwestern Rush

Pavlovs-Dog-band

Pavlov’s Dog was a little known band from St. Louis, Missouri. Over the years, they have been compared to Rush, mainly because singer David Surkamp’s voice is eerily similar to Geddy Lee’s. With that said, this is a band that you will either love or hate, because Surkamp’s voice is even higher and has more vibrato than Geddy Lee’s voice. Even if you are not a fan of Lee’s voice, do not let that deter you from listening to Pavlov’s Dog because they have a very unique sound. The original band was made up of David Surkamp (Lead vocals and guitar), Rick Stockton (Bass guitar and vocals), Mike Safron (drums), Steve Scorfina (lead guitar), David Hamilton (keyboards), Doug Rayburn (mellotron and flute), and Siegfried Carver (violin). This band offers a little bit for everyone, with great guitar, bass, and the violin as a nice added touch.

Their first album was “Pampered Menial,” released in 1975. The soaring vocals on this album truly stand out above all else, but musically it is very good as well. From their use of flute to the use of the violin, they create a distinctive sound. While their lyrics are similar in style to that of Rush pre-Peart (Rush’s self-titled album), they create a more complex sound than early Rush did with their utilization of many different instruments. Their second album was “At the Sound of the Bell.” This album is remarkably quieter than their first, with Surkamp’s vocals blending in with music more. On “Pampered Menial,” the vocals sounded distinct from the rest of the music, but not so in their second album. His voice seems to be a little more refined and in sync with the rest of the music. All in all, Pavlov’s Dog was a very good American Prog band that never really caught on. Maybe if they had hit their stride in Rush’s wake they could have made it big, but it is what it is. Give this band a listen, and let the music speak for itself. For those of you that are early Rush fans, Pavlov’s Dog just might be right up your alley.

Listen to “Pampered Menial” here: 

Listen to “At the Sound of the Bell” here: 

Resignated Joy: Rush and Vapor Trails (2013)

rush vapor trails remixedIf only. . . .

Listening to the re-released and remixed version of Vapor Trails (originally released May 14, 2002) over the last several days has been akin to a great hike in the Rockies with my brothers.  Clean air, deep conversation, and almost ceaseless movement through ever-changing vistas.

Indeed, I often think how much I’d love to have Neil Peart as an older brother.  He’s 15 years old than I am, and I doubt if any figure (and, be prepared to be shocked–I was a nerd kid; I read everything I could find) influenced my own view of life and the world more than did Peart, especially between my 13th birthday and my 21st.

During the most troubling parts of my childhood, the Canadian drummer always seemed to offer some of the best advice I received in those days.  And, without exaggeration, I can say that some of the lyrics on Moving Pictures, Signals, Grace Under Pressure, and Power Windows saved my life–quite literally and truly.

I owe Peart a lot.

I know I’m not alone.  There are, at the very least, a generation of us North Americans who were guided far more by Peart than by any of our teachers, our pastors and ministers, and, even, our extended relatives.  Certainly, between roughly 1981 and 1986, given a choice between spending time with headphones on listening to Rush or watching TV, I would’ve (and did) choose Rush every time.  The images Geddy, Alex, and Neil evoked had far more power–at least in my mind, heart, and soul–than that of any exec, writer, or actor associated with the small screen.

I’ve never lost my love of or appreciation of Rush.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve only grown with them.

In particular, I’m happy to note, I’ve celebrated with them.  Much of what I knew in the 1990s (those somewhat dreary, pre-marriage graduate school years) came from the internet forum (new in those days), the National Midnight Star and the long-involved discussions of Rush, the lyrics, and the music.  The three members of Rush continued to guide me–again, much like my older brothers, always a bit ahead of me in life, always willing to share wisdom with the pesky, somewhat annoying, little brother.

And, of course, as we all did, I mourned with them.  When word arrived of Neil’s double losses in the late 1990s–the death of his daughter and his wife–I was devastated for him.

At the time, Neil disappeared, and we all, more or less, assumed Rush was done.  Rumors abounded that Neil had gotten on his motorcycle and just taken off.  Several friends and I looked for him in the news–an odd announcement here or there might reveal a small detail or a hint.  Could he be in Texas, hiding out, looking for a small band to form, perhaps to heal?  Perhaps he’d driven to Argentina or Chile.

As it turns out, we were partially right.  Neil, as he soon revealed, had indeed been traveling throughout North America on his touring motorcycle, looking for solitude and solace.

After reemerging from a year on the road, he rejoined Geddy and Alex, and the band recorded one of its best albums, an album, as Neil has explained, of victory and redemption.

This would be reason enough to love Vapor Trails.  But, the album is also a stunning work of art.

Little did I know when Vapor Trails came out in 2002 that my wife and I would experience something similar, losing our third daughter, Cecilia Rose, named after a great aunt as well as the patron saint of music, in August 2007.  Neil would once again–though at a distance–serve as older brother, helping me understand our own terrible and confusing loss.  But, this is not the post to go into this.  Suffice it say, I understand what Neil experienced.

vt-remix-boxVapor Trails

Vapor Trails, as I saw it then, and still do, is three very important things.

First, it’s the most intense album Rush had written and produced since Grace Under Pressure (my favorite Rush album; an album that defined the rather broken, tense world of the 1980s for me).

Second, what’s not to love?  The album, even in its resignation and mixed tone, is nothing if not a celebration of life, a tribute of two brothers, supporting and loving the third, helping Neil grieve and helping him overcome.  Geddy and Alex throw themselves into this album, as does Neil.

Third, the album is the beginning of an entire re-emergence of Rush, a more rocking as well as more progressive Rush.  It’s nearly impossible for me to separate Vapor Trails from Snakes and Arrows and Snakes and Arrows from Clockwork Angels.  It’s as though Rush tapped into the very essence of the third wave of prog, having been early pioneers in the genre in the 1970s, and adding their own very Rushian spirit to the movement in the first and second decades of the twenty-first century.

Complaints–but not from me

A lot of long-time Rush fans complained about Vapor Trails when it came out, and many still do.  For the diehard Rush fan, Vapor Trails is accepted, but it rarely ranks high.  The key excuse for not liking the album has always been, first and foremost, that it was poorly mixed and mastered.

I would never have even considered this as an issue unless others had told me it was.  Perhaps I just don’t have the right ears, but I’d always assumed the album was meant to have a bit of a post-grunge, hollowish, sound.  I’d assumed this sound quality was a part of its charm.

If, however, the remixed and released version of Vapor Trails is what Rush originally had wanted, then, I finally understand some of the grumblings over the last 11 years.

The remixed 2013 version is a piece of sonic brilliance, an audiophile’s equivalent of an 8- pound bag of peanut M&Ms from Costco, even with the blue dye number 3.

Whatever my own aural limitations, I’m hearing things with the 2013 release that I’d never even imagined with the 2002 version.  Every instrument is punctuated and individually enhanced while yet remaining rather seamless in its integration with every other instrument.  This is one tight band.

Themes

Not surprisingly, the emotional tone of the lyrics is all over the place.  One Little Victory: exactly what it states, victory of life over death.  Ceiling Unlimited: hope.  Ghost Rider: resignation and penance.  Peaceable Kingdom: wishes.  The Stars Look Down and How It Is: fate and acceptance.  Vapor Trail: fleeting and ephemeral.  Secret Touch: stoic fortitude.  Earthshine and Sweet Miracle: wonder and grace.  Nocturne and Freeze Part IV: unworthiness.  Out of the Cradle: victory and pronouncement.

If anything, the 2013 version only highlights Neil’s very personal and confessional lyrics.  Indeed, if Grace Under Pressure examines the state of the world and laments, Vapor Trails examines the state of the soul and rejoices. . . mostly.

neil four corners

Rush’s “Clockwork Angels” Concert Video To Be Released November 19th

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Attention Rush fans: Have room on your media shelf for yet another Rush concert tour video?

In what is now a familiar pattern of documenting every tour, the recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees announced a concert video from their 2012-13 Clockwork Angels tour over the summer.  Today, the 2-DVD/single BluRay received a release date: November 19th.

Captured in November 2012 at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, the “Clockwork Angels” setlist pulls heavily from Rush’s 80’s output with tracks such as “Middletown Dreams,” “The Body Electric” and “Grand Designs,” as well as a predictable, heavy dose of material from “Clockwork Angels,” Rush’s first-ever concept album, released last year.

Of course, Rush fans know that a highlight of this tour was the eight-piece string ensemble that added their touch to the “Clockwork Angels” music as well as classic Rush tracks such as “YYZ,” marking the first time in their career that the trio brought additional musicians on tour to enhance their music.

Another big highlight was not one, but three drum solos from Neil Peart, all of which are featured in the video.  What’s more, fans will be treated to numerous special features including a new documentary, “Can’t Stop Thinking Big,” profiling the behind the scenes goings-on.

For years, Rush fans lamented how few DVD’s the group released, but since “Vapor Trails,” the group has been prolific in getting both current and past releases out. “Clockwork Angels” figures to be a must-have for both hardcore Rush fans and prog enthusiasts.

You can view the trailer here.

DVD/Bluray tracklisting:

Set One
Subdivisions
The Big Money
Force Ten
Grand Designs
The Body Electric
Territories
The Analog Kid
Bravado
Where’s My Thing?/Drum Solo #1
Far Cry

Set Two
Caravan
Clockwork Angels
The Anarchist
Carnies
The Wreckers
Headlong Flight/Drum Solo #2
Peke’s Repose/Halo Effect
Seven Cities of Gold
Wish Them Well
The Garden
Dreamline
Drum Solo #3
Red Sector A
YYZ
The Spirit of Radio
Encore
Tom Sawyer
2112

Bonus Tracks
Limelight (soundcheck recording)
Middletown Dreams
The Pass
Manhattan Project

Special Features
Can’t Stop Thinking Big (tour documentary)
Behind The Scenes
Outtakes
Interview With Dwush
Family Goy
Family Sawyer
The Watchmaker (intermission tour film)
Office Of The Watchmaker (closing tour film)

You Can Do a Lot in a Lifetime, If You Don’t Burn Out Too Fast – Rush, April 23, 2013 at the Frank Erwin Center, Austin, Texas

ImageJust one week after a long-overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rush opened the second leg of their ‘Clockwork Angels’ tour – and fortunately for myself and thousands of other Texans, they did it right here in Austin.

For long-time Rush fans, a Rush concert is more than just an event where we see musicians performing their catalog in a live setting.  For us, it is something that gets into us the way dye gets into a shirt and alters its color; something that affects each of us right down to the molecular level.  This show certainly did that for me, more for reasons I will get into below.

The steampunk aesthetic of the stage setup was spectacular.  It was refreshing to see a big visual presentation to accompany the music, which is a rare thing these days.  In contrast to the 70’s, when progressive rock was bigger and had more backing by the record companies, most contemporary prog shows are played in smaller venues without the type of visuals as were present in some of the gargantuan shows of that earlier time (think ‘Yes’ on the ‘Relayer’ tour).  Rush is the rare band from that era that can still play large venues with a corresponding stage set and light show that turns the presentation into more of an event than just a live music performance.

After a long break from the road, the band seemed rested, recharged, and ready to go.  Some of Rush’s typically humorous opening video greeted the audience when the lights went down, featuring the band’s trademarked slightly bizarre humor.  The concert proper then opened with a rousing version of ‘Subdivisions’, followed a number of 80’s works.  In the first set, they did three songs from ‘Power Windows’, including ‘The Big Money’, ‘Grand Designs’, and ‘Territories’, while also managing to squeeze in ‘Limelight’, ‘Force Ten’, and ‘The Analog Kid’.  After the latter tune, the band moved into the 90’s with ‘Bravado’ and ‘Where’s My Thing’ and then into the 00’s with ‘Far Cry’, which closed out the first set.

After a short break, the band returned to the stage, this time with eight additional musicians collectively known as ‘The Clockwork Angels String Ensemble’.  This tour has been the first in which Rush has brought extra musicians on stage, and they were used to good effect here.  The string ensemble filled in some spaces while enhancing others, remaining on stage throughout the performance of ‘Clockwork Angels’ and for several songs afterwards, including a blistering performance of ‘YYZ’, which is captured through a smartphone (not mine) here.

Beginning with another entertaining bizarro-humor video (with Neil, Alex, and Geddy playing dwarfs) the second half of the show kicked off with ‘Caravan’, and followed through with most of the songs from ‘Clockwork Angels’.  Regrettably missing from that list was ‘BU2B’ and ‘Wish Them Well’, the latter being a favorite of mine not only for the music but for the life lesson within the lyrics.  A guitar snafu during ‘The Anarchist’ was a minor hiccup that left Geddy alone without melodic accompaniment for a moment, but Alex and his guitar tech had the presence of mind to quickly swap out instruments.  The performance of ‘Clockwork Angels’ concluded with a spectacular performance of ‘The Garden’, the visuals of video working great with the music here.

After concluding ‘Clockwork Angels’, the band went back into the 80’s again, with ‘Manhattan Project’, a short drum solo, ‘Red Sector A’, and ‘YYZ’.  The string ensemble exited the stage and the band closed out the set with ‘The Spirit of Radio’.  The band returned for an encore including ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘2112’ (‘Overture’, ‘The Temples of Syrinx’, and ‘Grand Finale’) before calling it a night for good.

I don’t have much to critique for the show, but I do have to say that the soundman could have done a better job with the mix.  It was very bass-heavy, and this caused a bit of muffling of notes, particularly on a few of Alex’s guitar solos.  But overall, that wasn’t enough to dampen the experience, which was still overwhelmingly positive.

All in all, an outstanding show, played with the energy and intensity that belied their age.

ImageAfterward, according to their Facebook page, Neil, Alex, and Geddy got in touch with their inner cavemen by devouring some Texas barbeque, as shown in the photo.  At this point of the review, you’ll have to excuse me while I go off on a tangent, but there is something in that photo that I think I need to address with the band members.  Geddy, Alex, Neil – I’m glad you enjoyed your barbeque during your most recent visit to the Republic of Texas.  The ribs and brisket are hard to beat.  However, I have to say I am a little disturbed in looking at some of the bottles on the table.  You three are Canadian boys, and therefore have Canadian genes – which means like other great Canadians, such as Bob and Doug McKenzie, you are drinkers of hearty beer.  Thus, seeing several bottles of Corona on the table gives me pause.  Corona is more or less a summertime beer – I could give you a pass on this if the gig was an outdoor gig during the sweltering months of July or August.  But last night was an unseasonably cool April night, and thus I just cannot understand the Corona.  Even more disturbing is what appears to be a bottle of Bud Light on the table.  Perhaps one of you reached for a water bottle and didn’t notice the difference?  Now, in fairness, toward the upper right corner, it does appear that some redemption is present, as I am about 90% confident that’s a bottle of Shiner Blonde.  I’ve compared the portion of the label I can see in the picture to an actual bottle of the same in my refrigerator, and the lack of a bar code on my bottle appears to be the only difference.  I’ll do more research of the label tomorrow night as I watch the NFL draft – just to be sure, you know.  Nevertheless, Shiner Blonde is a beer befitting of your Canadian DNA, guys, so I would recommend you use that to wash down your next Texas barbeque dinner.  Ok, tangent over.

This Rush concert was special in a way that says something both about Rush and their fans alike.  Not only was this my fifth Rush show, but it was the fifth different decade in which I had seen them.  Previously I had seen them in 1979 (Rupp Arena, Lexington, KY, Hemispheres tour), 1984 (Hampton Coliseum, Hampton VA, Grace Under Pressure tour), 1990 (Charlotte Coliseum, Charlotte, NC, Presto tour) and 2007 (Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, San Antonio, TX, Snakes and Arrows tour).  The 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s. Now I can add the 10’s.  I’m comfortable in saying that I’m not alone among the Rush fan base, and in fact know there are fans that have seen many, many more shows than I have, and moreover, within the same five decades.  There are not many bands out there that one can say the same about.  There are even fewer (if any bands) that one can say that about while also saying that it was with the same lineup each time.  That’s a testimony to their longevity, as well as to the loyalty of the fans that have stuck with them all of these years.  As many of you will recognize, the title of this piece is drawn from the lyrics of ‘Marathon’ off of the ‘Power Windows’ album.  And those words, written by their philosopher-drummer nearly 30 years ago, appear to be even more true now than when that album was released.  Rush, despite some serious ups and downs, has persevered and continued to make great music far beyond the time when most bands lose their creative edge.  And fans like myself and countless others, we’ve lived our lives and had our own ups and downs for all of these years, and yet we kept coming back, keep buying the albums, and keep going to the concerts because we appreciate the excellence, the professionalism, the creativity, and the wisdom inherent in the lyrics. That neither Rush nor their fans have burned out, that both have shown the endurance to stick with one another throughout the decades only proves the wisdom of the lyrics from which this review draws its title.

Thanks, guys.  Not just for last night’s show. But for everything over all of these years.

Short reviews of new music from Asia, Proto-kaw, Mystery, and Godstick

I’ll skip my usual apologia attempting to explain my long absence from this fine blog and instead spend my limited, if not valuable time, remarking on four recent prog and proggy albums that have been found a home on my regular iTunes rotation. I may write longer reviews of a couple of these albums, but some short remarks are better than none.asia_resonance

Asia — Resonance (The Omega Tour, 2010; released 2012): After Kansas, Asia was the group that first introduced me into the world of prog, back in the early to mid-1980s, when I was an innocent small town Montana boy making my way through high school. I recall seeking out books and magazines that explained the musical pedigree of Downes, Howe, Palmer, and Wetton, and thus being introduced to early King Crimson, ELP, Yes, and more. I know that Asia has been a source of debate among prog fans, some of whom dismiss and even deride the group; I’ll just say that I really liked and still do like the first two albums, Asia and Alpha, and make no excuses for the warm and gratifying nostalgia they bring to the surface whenever I play them. And, truth be told, I’m partial to the third album, Astra, which marked the first of two billion line-up changes (Mandy Meyer took over guitar from Howe, who had departed), as it is actually a good, hook-heavy example of what might be call “arena prog” or “pop prog” or something similar. Anyhow, the original line-up has been back for a while—and getting solid to excellent reviews—and this live album documents the group’s 2010 tour. I’ve heard cuts from earlier live albums by Asia, and have found most of them disappointing, especially in the vocal department. But this album, dare I say it, is rather stunning, both in terms of the outstanding sound quality and the amazing power and clarity of Wetton’s voice. Wetton, to my ear, sounds just as good as he did on the studio cuts from the early and mid ’80s, which is saying something. The playing is excellent, of course; my only small beef is that the drums seem a bit back in the mix, although there is an extended and fine drum solo on “The Heat Goes On”. Otherwise, a great mix of cuts, with some nice acoustic-oriented variations of old hits such as “Don’t Cry” and “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes”.

• Proto-kaw: Forth (2011): Speaking of Kansas, the group Proto-kaw was the second of three early incarnations of what eventually became simply “Kansas” in 1973. The key constant in protokaw_forththose groups was songwriter, lyricist, guitarist, and keyboardist Kerry Livgren, who conquered the world with Kansas in the 1970s (“Dust in the Wind”, anyone?), had a run of contemporary Christian rock albums in the 1980s (both solo and with the group AD), and then reformed Kansas and Proto-kaw in the 1990s. (Fun fact: metal legend Ronny James Dio sang lead on two songs on Livgren’s first solo album, “Seeds of Change”, in 1980.) All three of the newer Proto-kaw albums are worth checking out, and that is especially true of Forth, the most cohesive and fully realized album yet by the group. What strikes me, as a longtime fan of Kansas, is how much classical influence there is in Livgren’s writing, as his songs often have a suite-like quality that builds on either strings or keyboards/guitars that act as a strings section. Proto-kaw, like all Livgren-led bands, has dual lead singers (yes, Steve Walsh was a the primary singer in Kansas, but Robby Steinhardt sang lead or co-lead on numerous songs), and features excellent and often complex harmonies, masterfully constructed arrangements, and strong songwriting. One distinctive element is the presence of saxophone and flute (John Bolton), used to great affect in song such as “Pilgrim’s Wake”, one of my favorite cuts on Forth. A must listen for anyone with a soft spot for 1970s Kansas. And, speaking of Kansas (again!), this year marks the 40th anniversary of the group’s founding; I plan a couple of posts about the group and some of my favorite Kansas albums and songs.

• Mystery: The World Is a Game (2012): How embarrassing it is to admit that prior to the Yes album, Fly From Here (2011), I had no idea who Benoît David was. Having replaced Jon Anderson and toured with Yes—and then having himself been replaced due to his own respiratory issues—the talented vocalist worked on his third album with veteran Canadian proggers mystery_worldMystery, a group he had joined in 1999. Having not heard any of his work with Mystery (which my iTunes annoyingly tagged as “The Mystery”), I was surprised—in a good way—that David did not sound like Anderson and that the group does not sound much like Yes, although the influence is present. In fact, at times David sounds more like another great Canadian singer, Geddy Lee. The two words that keep coming to mind after repeated listens of this exceptional album are “melodic” and “soaring”. The vocals soar, the guitars (by band founder, guitarist, lyricist, and producer Michel St-Père) soar, and the songs soar with a wonderful sense of discovery, melancholy, joy, and introspection, a not-so-easy mixture to navigate. And then there is the drumming of Nick D’Virgilio, who is rightly revered as one of the finest drummers in the prog/rock world. His drumming is, in a word, orchestral, and it is reason alone for buying this fine release. But, for me (a vocalist junkie), it is David who is the revelation here, especially after hearing his solid but rather emotionless performance on Fly From Here. In the words of a reviewer on ProgArchives.com, “Finally vocalist Benoit David proves what a versatile and commanding singer he is, a million miles away from the Yes/Jon Anderson clone dismissals. It’s also great to hear his voice so full of human feeling and compassion again after being so over-produced and rendered mostly lifeless on the Yes album `Fly From Here’!” Exactly right.

Godsticks: The Envisage Conundrum (2013): Here is a group (from South Wales) I knew nothing about a week ago, but has captured my attention in a way that only a few groups have on first listen. Explaining why is a bit difficult; the difficulty arises, in part, from the most enjoyable fact this is a group that is very hard to describe or label or situate in the universe of godsticks_conundrumprog/rock music. Nearly every review I’ve read says the same, and rightly so. One of those reviews, by Adrian Bloxham, puts it well: ” The world of Godsticks is not straightforward; they seem to have baffled other reviewers trying to pigeon hole them. They make their own brand of what they describe as ‘progressive rock/pop, but it is very much their own take on the sound. You get the idea that this is exactly the music they have inside their heads trying to get out and if you like it they will be pleased but that’s not why they do what they do.” The one influence I hear is later King Crimson, but even that is hard to pinpoint, although the angular, often astonishing guitar work by guitarist/singer Darran Charles brings it to mind in several places. None of the songs are longer than seven minutes in length, but some of them pack in more twists, turns, veers, swerves, and surprises in five or six minutes than many bands can pack into songs three times as long. The title cut is a perfect example. It begins with a chugging, almost “boogie” riff out of which emerges a spider-like flurry of notes, leading into a wall of harmonized vocals over a heavy, grunge-like riff backed by the tight, slightly funky, never quite straight forward rhythm section of Steve Roberts (drums, keys) and Dan Nelson (bass). Charles’ voice is part of the mystery here, a strong, clear instrument that manages to be intense, detached, soulful, and slyly humorous (and occasionally darkly smirking) all at once. There is an abundance of odd chords, meters, notes, and harmonies, sometimes, to my ear, sounding like a Robert Fripp-inspired space alien sibling of Soundgarden. And did I mention the album features a 3:49 piano solo by Roberts that could easily have made it onto one of Keith Jarrett’s solo albums? Followed by a three-part suite—”Borderstomp”, parts 1-3—that sometimes calls to mind Steve Vai? Not straightforward, indeed!