Rush’s GRACE UNDER PRESSURE at 34

rush gup
Arrival: April 12, 1984

My favorite Rush album has been, at least going back to April 1984, Grace Under Pressure.  I realize that among Rush fans and among prog fans, this might serve as a contentious choice.  My praise of GUP is not in any way meant to denigrate any other Rush albums.  Frankly, I love them all.  Rush has offered us an outrageous wealth of blessings, and I won’t even pretend objectivity.

I love Rush.  I love Grace Under Pressure.

I still remember opening Grace Under Pressure for the first time.  Gently knifing the cellophane so as not to crease the cardboard, slowly pulling out the vinyl wrapped in a paper sleeve, the hues of gray, pink, blue, and granite and that egg caught in a vicegrip, the distinctive smell of a brand new album. . . . the crackle as the needle hit . . . .

I was sixteen.

Continue reading “Rush’s GRACE UNDER PRESSURE at 34”

If I Can Only Pick Ten, Well Then …

 

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Ok, so I’m sitting at work today just minding my own business and getting things done when an email comes in from WordPress. It asks me to approve a couple of pingbacks to a piece I had written about the incredible Rush album, Moving Pictures. Well, the next thing you know, I’m seeing several posts about Rush’s top 10 albums, as well as a few regarding top prog albums or top long-form prog pieces. So now, instead of working, I’m spending at least an hour reading Progarchy posts instead of working. You guys are destroyers of discipline!!!
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Although I’m usually not one for lists that require ranking, the invitation to rank the top 10 Rush albums has proven to be irresistible to me. So, without further ado, here we go:

1) Moving Pictures: I’ve written extensively about this one, so I’ll just add the link here.

2) Grace Under Pressure: When this album came out, I was a few months shy of 20 years old, and in the Navy. At the time, I was stationed in Newport News, VA, as the submarine upon which I would serve, the USS Olympia, SSN 717 (Este Paratus) was under construction in the docks at Newport News Shipbuilding. While an attack submarine and not a ballistic missile sub, the Olympia would be configured to carry Tomahawk land attack missiles with nuclear warheads. The Cold War was heating up, and our main adversaries, the Soviet Union, had three submarines for every one of ours. And my job, as a sonar technician, was going to be to find theirs before they found us. In short, there was a certain “heaviness” in my life at the time. That made the timing of this album absolutely perfect. Lyrically, this is the heaviest album Rush has ever done. The pressures of life, both great and small, weave their way through this album. Indeed, like many of my shipmates, I felt like “the world weighs on my shoulders” at that time. This album resonated. It also has some outstanding music on it, and like Moving Pictures, it has an almost perfect balance between guitars and keyboards.

3) 2112: The theme of resonating continues here. There are a number Rush albums other than those listed that I like better than this from a musical perspective. But this one resonates on a different level and thus gets a high ranking on this list. As I recounted here, around the same time I first heard this album, I had numerous conversations with my maternal grandmother, who along with the rest my mother’s immediate family, was a refugee from what was then communist East Germany. The individual vs. the state, freedom vs. tyranny, individualism vs. collectivism – all those themes of the conversations with my grandmother were echoed in the lyrics of the title suite. This was the first time I had really contemplated lyrics that were about larger things in the world. And because of this, I always paid more attention to Rush lyrics than I would with other bands, always looking for deeper meaning and larger truths. This carried over to side 2 of the album, as the messages contained within Lessons and Something for Nothing led me to realize that while I was fortunate enough to have been born in a relatively free country, it was my own responsibility to make the most, and best, of that freedom.

4) Clockwork Angels: I am simply gobsmacked that a band that has been around as long as Rush can be this creative this late in their career. My first true prog love, Yes, was a great band for a while, but they haven’t been creatively great in decades, instead mostly living off of past glories (although what incredible glories they were). Rush on the other hand, despite having some incredibly glorious moments in their own musical past, has never rested on them. Instead, they pushed themselves forward and continued to create great music, and really hit a home run here. I love the lyrics in this album, which open themselves to a number of interpretations. Whereas Brad has found themes of small-r republican liberty and individualism within them, I have found a lot of Stoic wisdom weaving its way through Neil’s words, particularly in the latter half of the album as the protagonist starts to have one epiphany after another. I have little doubt that Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius would readily understand messages contained within The Garden. Throw in some great guitar work, the excellent bass work, and the always stellar drums, and you’ve got a recipe for greatness, age of the cooks be damned.

5) Power Windows: Controversial to some because of the keyboards, but not to these ears. This is a great collection of songs. With all of the malfeasance in the financial markets and corruption of the political system, The Big Money seems even more relevant today than when it was released. Middletown Dreams is a great meditation on the quiet desperation of some ordinary lives. I loved Marathon when this album was first released and the wisdom contained in the lyrics has only become more evident as I have piled on the years. And Grand Designs is a great critique of lowest common denominator pop culture and the struggle to maintain integrity within. There is some great playing on this album, such as Geddy Lee’s bass during Marathon and some blistering guitar work by Alex Lifeson on The Big Money. This album has definitely earned its place in the top 5.

6) Hemispheres: This is the most overtly prog album Rush ever did, at least in the 70’s sense of the word. The title suite that encompasses the side 1 of the original LP was a thing of beauty, with excellence in all phases: guitar, bass, drums, and lyrics. In the overarching theme of Hemispheres, Peart provides more wisdom to latch onto and live by. The Trees is a great metaphor for the perils of enforced equality. And La Villa Strangiato is one of the most fascinatingly complex instrumentals ever done by any rock band.

7) Permanent Waves: Like Moving Pictures, this is a transitional album, as the transition of Rush from the 70’s to the 80’s really took two steps. The first step was here, as they pared down some of the excess of the previous three albums. The most well-known song is, of course, The Spirit of Radio, about the tension between art and commerce and maintaining one’s integrity through the same.  Several other great tracks are here too. The thunderstorm imagery invoked by Jacob’s Ladder is a thing of lyrical beauty, while Free Will, Different Strings, and Entre Nous are all excellent in their own right. But it is the mini-epic Natural Science that really puts this album over the top for me. I was finally able to witness the performance of this song live on the Snakes and Arrows tour, and it was one of those moments I will never forget.

8) Vapor Trails: This album just screams TRIUMPH!!! After the well-documented tragedies, travels, and searching for answers, Rush returned from a near death of their own with a spectacular album. One Little Victory taught us to take joy in even the smallest victories, while the title song reminds us of our transitory nature. Ghost Rider takes us on the road with Neil, while Secret Touch implores us to have the fortitude to endure. The underrated gem and favorite track for me on this album is Earthshine, with it’s amazement at nature’s beauty. This is a statement album by Rush, and that statement was, emphatically, “we are BACK!”

9) A Farewell to Kings: The title track, Cinderella Man, Cygnus X-1 and Madrigal are all excellent tracks in their own right. But the two tracks that really make this albums are the anthem Closer to the Heart and the epic Xanadu. These became two of my favorite Rush tracks upon initially hearing them and they remain so to this day. That being said, the one downside of this album for me is the production, which was a bit harsh and dry. Particularly with Xanadu, I’ve always preferred the live version from Exit Stage Left over the studio version.

10) Signals: This is a difficult album for some, mainly due to the fact that it is probably the most keyboard dominated Rush album, and thus Lifeson’s guitar often gets lost in the mix. That’s still not enough to knock it out of my top 10, as the songs are still just too good. Subdivisions is another Rush anthem, one full of great insights and even more wisdom. For guitar excellence, The Analog Kid and New World Man are two tracks where it didn’t get lost in the mix. And while few others would mention it, the heart of my inner space geek is warmed to no end by Countdown, which ultimately celebrates humanity’s ability to create and do great things.

Looking at the other lists of best Rush albums here, it’s evident that each of us differs somewhat from one another in our preferences. And I myself will agonize over some of the albums left off the list.  I’ve listed ten albums above which I consider to be truly great albums, and I’ve had to wonder if I should have had others on the list. But how many bands ever release ten great albums? Neither The Beatles, nor prog-gods Yes, nor 70’s icons Led Zeppelin can claim to have ten great albums in their catalog (Zeppelin didn’t even get ten studio albums total, unless you count the posthumous Coda). In comparison, some of the albums that didn’t make my list (or that of others) are truly great albums. And therein lies yet another testament to the true greatness, the unparalleled excellence that is Rush.

On a Silver Salver: The Miracle of 1984, Part I

As I mentioned yesterday (https://progarchy.com/2014/03/19/1994-a-pretty-good-year/), I thought 1994 was a “pretty good year” for music.  Thinking about 1994 made me think about 1984, and, methinks (don’t you hate it when writers use such pretentious words!  Ha), 1984 puts 1994 to shame.    In fact, it puts many, many years to shame.

As a product of midwestern America, Ronald Reagan will always dominate my main image and memory of 1984.  I write this nonpolitically. Whatever you thought of Reagan as a leader, the man wielded supernatural charisma.   He was, simply put, a presence.

But, other images emerge as well from 1984: movies such as 16 Candles, Red Dawn, and The Killing Fields.  Chernyanko becoming head of the Soviets.  Paul McCartney arrested for possession of pot.  The fall of AT&T.  The arrival of the first Macintosh.  What a year.

Beyond the above, I most remember the music.  What a year of greatness for those of us who love innovation and beauty in music.  So without further bloviation, I offer my favorites of that august year.

***

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Rush, Grace Under Pressure.  This is not only my favorite Rush album, it was and remains my favorite album of 1984.  I’ve written about this elsewhere,  but it’s worth noting again that I think Rush perfectly captured the tensions of that year: the horrors of the gulags; the destruction of the environment; the loss of a friend; and so on.

I hear the echoes, I learned your love for life
I feel the way that you would

***

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Thomas Dolby, The Flat Earth.  I’ve written about this album as well.  So brilliant.  As deep and as meaningful as Dolby’s first album was interesting and novel.

Suicide in the hills above old Hollywood
Is never gonna change the world

***

Ultravox_-_Lament

Ultravox, Lament.  My favorite Ultravox album?  Maybe.  As much as Rush captured the spirit of the year, so did Ultravox.  From the worry expressed in “White China” to the longing of “When the Time Comes,” Lament is a masterpiece.

Will you stand or fall, with your future in another’s hands
Will you stand or fall, when your life is not your own

***

talk talk it's my lifeTalk Talk, It’s My Life.  While this is certainly not Talk Talk’s best album, it is quite good.  In particular, Hollis reveals much of his genius in songwriting, whatever the “new wave” trappings of the song.  Underneath whatever flesh the band gave the music, the lyrics cry out with a poetic lamentation of both confusion and hope.

The dice decide my fate, that’s a shame
In these trembling hands my faith
Tells me to react, I don’t care
Maybe it’s unkind if I should change
A feeling that we share, it’s a shame

***

Simple_Minds-Sparkle_In_The_Rain-Frontal

Simple Minds, Sparkle in the Rain.  Again, while this isn’t the best Simple Minds had to offer, it was the last great gasp of the band before entering into an overwhelming celebrity.  Kerr’s Catholicism especially reveals itself in songs such “Book of Brilliant Things” and “East at Easter.”

 I thank you for the shadows
It takes two or three to make company
I thank you for the lightning that shoots up and sparkles in the rain

Seize the Day: Galahad, BATTLE SCARS

[N.B.  Due to weather, our internet is out, and I’ve typed this and posted it using our cell connection.  Spotty at best.  If there are errors and typos in the post, please don’t let it reflect on all of progarchy.  When I have a real connection, I’ll clean it up.  Promise!–Brad, ed.]

I hate to admit it, but I didn’t know the music of Galahad until about a year and a half ago.

Alison Henderson, first lady of prog and a fellow progarchist, introduced me to the music at the time that Battle Scars (April 2012) came out.  “Brad, you have to check out the new Galahad album.  It’s brilliant.”  Actually, I’m paraphrasing, not quoting.  But, I bet I’m really close when remembering her email that day.

I never fail to follow the advice of Lady Henderson, and I downloaded the music that day.

From the opening plaintive words to the direct pleading lines of “Battle Scars, Battle Scars,” I was rather taken.  I wrote back to her almost immediately, “This is what Ultravox should’ve been!”  She replied that she would have to take my word for it.

Granted, I really dislike it when reviewers compare Big Big Train to Genesis, as though Genesis needed completing or as though Big Big Train exists to fill the void left by 1977 Genesis.  So, please don’t take my comparison as anything more than a joyful comparison.  Stu Nicholson’s voice has, in the best sense, a Midge Ure quality—bringing just the perfect amount of emotion and emphasis to a song.  So, imagine if Ultravox had decided to explore the farthest reaches of its potential after releasing Rage in Eden (especially side 2 of that amazing work).  Imagining such a  beautiful thing, I can see—far into the distance—Battle Scars or Beyond the Realms of Euphoria.

After the brief discussion with Alison, being the obsessive prog fan that I’m sure many progarchists are, I looked up everything I could find regarding Galahad.  I’d heard the name, many times, of course, before April 2012, but always in the context of “neo-prog.”

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Neo-Progressive Rock

As much as I pride myself (always dangerous) on my knowledge of prog, ca. 1971 to the present, I’m really weak on what’s called “neo prog” or “second-wave prog.”  At the time that second-wave prog emerged, my junior high, high school, and college years (Class of 1990), I was listening to so-called new wave such as Thomas Dolby, The Cure, and XTC, presuming them to be the rightful inheritors of Yes and Genesis.  For me, the ultimate prog album of the 1980s is Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden.  Next to Talk Talk, Rush was my favorite band.  I didn’t even know about Marillion until a friend introduced me to them in 1993.  He handed me a copy of Misplaced Childhood, and I was stunned such a group had existed without my knowledge (there’s that pride again).  I very much liked what I heard, but this was just before Brave, The Light, and The Flower King appeared—which almost completely stole my attention.

Needless to write at this point, my knowledge of Pallas, IQ, and Galahad—all supposed neo-prog—was pretty poor.  About eight or nine years ago, I started collecting the back catalogues of Pallas and IQ, but Galahad still remained off my radar.  I’m pretty much a complete “newbie” when it comes to other neo-prog artists.

I’m not sure if neo-prog is a sub-genre of progressive rock or really the “second wave of prog.”  Whatever it is, I like what I’ve heard. . . .

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Battle Scars

. . . . especially when it comes to Galahad.  I like it very much.  Indeed, this is an understatement.  From the moment I first heard Battle Scars, I knew this was a band I would come to cherish.  And, I have.  Though I regret having missed out on so much since 1985 when it comes to this band, I’m also really happy to have it all to explore again.  As I love to tell my students, I’m jealous that so many of them get to read The Lord of the Rings for the first time.  I would give a lot for that “first time” again.  I feel I’ve been given a gift by coming to Galahad late in life.

I really have no idea if Battle Scars is a “proper” neo-progressive album or not.  I don’t have the tools to judge, and I’m more than content to know it’s brilliant music, whatever label might adhere to it.

In terms of tone, Battle Scars is the Grace Under Pressure of our present age  In 1984, Rush explored—in a rather dour, harried, poetic fashion—the final days of the Cold War, though most of us didn’t know the days of the Soviet empire were numbered.  Gulags, holocaust camps, the loss of a friend, fear, acid rain, and rabbits running under are squealing wheels all haunted Grace Under Pressure.  Listening to this album while devouring various dystopian novels fundamentally shaped my perceptions of what I saw in the news.

With Battle Scars, Nicholson has equalled Peart in quality and tone, asking what a post-9/11, a post-Bush, world might mean.  But, just as with Grace Under Pressure, the events of the world offer a symbol for the events of the soul.  Disorder in one is disorder in the other.

The album opens with haunting words—even in delivery—of St. Paul.  Do our actions reap corruption and death or life everlasting?

I’m not sure if Nicholson wants his listeners to take these words literally or not, but they fit ominously and perfectly, setting the stage for some of the most important and meaningful questions we can ever ask ourselves, Greek or Jew, male or female, bond or free.

How to you want to live in this world.  With integrity and purpose or without?  Do you want to achieve and strive or do you want to glide and get by?  Do you want the message on your tombstone to read “he lived” or to read “he lived well”?

Though only seven tracks at 44 minutes, Battle Scars packs a serious punch.  After the contemplative opening moments quoting St. Paul in hushed tones, Battle Scars becomes relentless.  Indeed, a wave of strings and respectful vocals become pounding bass and drums, crying against vanity.  “Hollow words count for nothing.”

An explosion or implosion ends the first track, and it glides into some nice reverb and more pounding bass, guitar, and drums in the shortest track of the album, “Reach for the Sun,” the lyrics reminding the listener that “battle scars are real.”

Track three, “Singularity,” begins with some appropriate spacey ethereal washes of keyboards, and the distant angular guitar is especially good.  It breaks into a full rock song a little over a minute into the track, and the listener is propelled forward again.  Having reached beyond the pain and suffering of this world, the protagonist of “Battle Scars” has transcended reality in his imagination and integrity.  “You can’t touch me now.” The track ends with some beautiful, romantic piano.

“Bitter and Twisted,” track four, brings the listener back to the world, with every instrument back in full, driving play.  It’s in this track that the band displays their full strength, as individual players and as an artistic whole.  This is one very tight band.  Lyrically, it’s difficult to know if Nicholson is identifying with the protagonist here, expressing shock at betrayal, or if we’re given the standpoint of an observer misperceiving and misunderstanding the protagonist.  “You’re just a little piece of nothing at all.”

With track five, “Suspended Animation,” the protagonist identifies the evil that is in himself and the world around him.  Here, we find a movement toward reconciling the order of the inward and outer person.  The protagonist must reconcile his own troubles and problems, seeking some kind of forgiveness and atonement.  Another driving rock song.  Nicholson’s vocals are particularly good, especially as he proclaims and enunciates the words, “suspended animation.”

My favorite song on the album is the sixth, “Beyond the Barbed Wire.”  As one would expect with such a title, the song is not a happy one, though it might be a resigned one.  One of the quieter songs on the album, at least for its first minute or so, it reminds the listener that though the Nazis and Soviets might be gone, other evils remain in the world.  At least, as I’m understanding the lyrics, this is what I’m hearing.  The holocausts and gulags have just taken on new shape and new form, but the essence of such evils remains.  “I’m just thinking, just thinking, beyond the barbed wire.”  The protagonist, however, finds great strength in those who came before him.

The spirits of the lost reinforce my will

Their souls reunite in pure defiance

We will not disappear in mournful smoke.

This is a stunningly beautiful lyric, and Nicholson delivers it not just ably, but expertly.  The voice reminds the listener of the opening lines of the album, the words from Paul.

The final song, “Seize the Day,” is the longest track and it successfully ties the whole work together, allowing all to end in real joy.  The track also prepares the listener for the second Galahad release of the 2012, Beyond the Realms of Euphoria.  Still very much a rock song, “Seize the Day,” also embraces, very well, forms of electronica.  “Seize the day/relish every moment.”

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Thank you, Stu, Roy, Spencer, Dean, and Neil.  You have created a thing of beauty.  Long may the creativity and virtue of Galahad continue.

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.

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Wind-blown Notes: Rush and Grace Under Pressure

graceunderpressure-cover-sMy favorite Rush album has been, at least going back to April 1984, Grace Under Pressure.  I realize that among Rush fans and among prog fans, this might serve as a contentious choice.  My praise of GUP is not in any way meant to denigrate any other Rush albums.  Frankly, I love them all.  Rush has offered us an outrageous wealth of blessings, and I won’t even pretend objectivity.

I love Rush.  I love Grace Under Pressure.

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I still remember opening Grace Under Pressure for the first time.  Gently knifing the cellophane so as not to crease the cardboard, slowly pulling out the vinyl wrapped in a paper sleeve, the hues of gray, pink, blue, and granite and that egg caught in a vicegrip, the distinctive smell of a brand new album. . . . the crackle as the needle hit . . . .

I was sixteen.

From the opening wind-blown notes, sound effects, and men, I was hooked, completely.  I had loved Moving Pictures and Signals–each giving me great comfort personally, perhaps even saving my life during some pretty horrific junior high and early high school moments.

But this Grace Under Pressure.  This was something else.

If Moving Pictures and Signals taught me to be myself and pursue excellence, Grace Under Pressure taught me that once I knew myself, I had the high duty to go into the world and fight for what’s good and right, no matter the cost.  At sixteen, I desperately needed to believe that, and I thank God that Peart provided that lesson.  There are so many other lessons a young energetic boy could have picked up from the rather fragile culture of the time and the incredibly dysfunctional home in which I was raised.  With Grace Under Pressure, though, I was certainly ready to follow Peart into Hell and back for the right cause.  Peart certainly became one of the most foundational influences on my life, along with other authors I was reading at the time, such as Orwell and Bradbury.

Though I’m sure that Peart did not intend for the album to have any kind of overriding story such as the first sides of  2112 or Hemispheres had told, GUP holds together as a concept album brilliantly.

The opening calls to us: beware!  Wake up!  Shake off your slumbers!  The world is near its doom.

Or so it seems.

Geddy’s voice, strong with anxiety, begins: “An ill wind comes arising. . .”  In the pressures of chaos, Pearts suggests, we so easily see the world fall apart, ourselves not only caught in the maelstrom, but possibly aggravating it.  “Red Alert” ends with possibly the most desperate cry of the Old Testament: “Absalom, Absalom!”  Certainly, there is no hope merely in the self.  Again, so it seems.

The second song, gut wrenching to the extreme, deals with the loss of a person, his imprint is all that remains after bodily removed from this existence.  Yet, despite the topic, there is more hope in this song than in the first.  Despite loss, memory allows life to continue, to “feel the way you would.”  I had recently lost my maternal grandfather–the finest man  I ever knew–before first hearing this album.  His image will always be my “Afterimage.”

It seems, though, that more than one have died.  The third song takes us to the inside of a prison camp.  Whether a Holocaust camp or a Gulag, it’s unclear.  Frankly, it’s probably not important if the owners of the camp are Communists or Fascists.  Either way, those inside are most likely doomed.  Not only had I been reading lots of dystopian literature in 1984 (appropriate, I suppose, given the date), but I was reading everything I could find by and about Solzhenitzyn.  This made the Gulag even more real and more terrifying.

Just when the brooding might become unbearable, the three men of Rush seem to offer a Gothic, not quite hellish, smile as the fourth song, “The Enemy Within” begins.  Part One of “Fear,” the fourth track offers a psychological insight into the paranoia of a person.  Perhaps we should first look at our own problems before we place them whole cloth upon the world.

Pick needle up, turn album over, clean with dust sponge, and drop needle. . . .

Funk.  Sci-fi funk emerges after the needle has crackled and founds its groove.  A robot has escaped, perhaps yearning for or even having attained sentience.  I could never count how many hours of conversation these lyrics prompted, as Kevin McCormick and I discussed the nature of free will.  It’s the stuff of Philip K. Dick, the liberal arts, and the best of theology.

More bass funk for track six and a return to psychological introspection, “Kid Gloves.”  But, we move out quickly into the larger world again with the seventh track, “Red Lenses,” taking the listener back to the themes of paranoia.  When the man emerges for action, will he do so in reaction to the personal pain he has experienced, or will he do so with an objective truth set to enliven the common good?

grace_under_pressure_0In the end, this is the choice for those who do not lose themselves to the cathode rays.  Is man fighting for what should be or he is reacting merely to what has happened, “to live between a rock and a hardplace.”

Unlike the previous albums which end with narrative certainty, Grace Under Pressure leaves the listener with more questions than it does answers, though tellingly it harkens to Hemingway and to T.S. Eliot.

Given the album as a whole, one might take this as Stoic resignation–merely accepting the flaws of the world.  “Can you spare another war?  Another waste land?”

Wheels can take you around

Wheels can cut you down. . . .

We’ve all got to try and fill the void.

But, this doesn’t fit Peart.  We all know whatever blows life has dealt Peart, he has stood back up, practiced twenty times harder, and read 20 more books.  That man does not go down for long.  And, neither should we.

In the spring of 1987, much to my surprise, one of my humanities professors allowed me to write on the ideas of Peart.  I can no longer find that essay (swallowed up and now painfully lonely on some primitive MacPlus harddrive or 3.5 floppy disk most likely rotting in a landfill in central Kansas), but it was the kind of writing and thinking that opened up whole new worlds to me.  My only quotes were from “Grace Under Pressure,” drawing a distinction between nature of the liberal arts and the loss of humanity through the mechanizing of the human person.  It dealt, understandably, with environmental and cultural degradation, the dangers of conformist thinking, and the brutal inhumanity of ideologies.  It was probably the smartest thing I’d written up to that point in my life, and even my professor liked it.

Of course, the ideas were all Peart’s, and I once again fondly imagined him as that really great older brother–the one who knows what an annoying pain I am, but who sees promise in me anyway, giving me just enough space to find my own way.

I’m forty five, and I still want Neil to be my older brother.