May 11th, 2007
I first really got into Rush back in 1987 or thereabouts. Hold Your Fire was released that year and I recall very well seeing the video for “Time Stand Still” which featured Aimee Mann. Until that point I knew “Tom Sawyer”, “Spirit of Radio”, et al – the songs you’d hear on classic rock radio. Despite being very different from their 70s/early 80s stuff, I really liked Hold Your Fire. That album’s follow-up, 1989’s Presto, was, in my humble opinion, was equally as strong. I first saw the band live that same year at Alpine Valley. During this time I explored the band’s back catalogue and discovered their Zeppelin-esque beginnings which led them into progressive rock territory in the last half of the 70s. in 1980-81 came Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures which provided most of the fodder for classic rock radio. Then synthesizers began to really loom over the band’s sound with Signals from 1982. Despite the changes in the sound, I really enjoyed every album the band had done.
Then in 1991 they released Roll the Bones. I loved the lead track, “Dreamline”, and thought there were a few other songs that were good but, for the most part, I found it an uninspired effort. A couple years later Counterparts was released and I it came across to me much as its predecessor – a couple great songs with the rest being merely OK. Rush came to Madison in support of the album in the spring of ‘94 and I was there. (Select songs from that show can be found on a couple of my shows here – #78 and #81.) When Test for Echo came out a couple years later, I barely took notice. 2002’s Vapor Trails held more interest for me as it was supposedly a return to form and, after all, it was a bit of a comeback for them after the deaths of Neil Peart’s daughter and wife. I saw then that year in Milwaukee and liked most of the new material. Not super-mega-maxi fantastic, but much better than most of the material from their past 3 albums. And so I’ll have to be forgiven if I approached the band’s latest, Snakes and Arrows, with a bit of trepidation. Could they still make exciting music? More importantly, could they make an album’s worth of it? In a word, yes.
Listening to Snakes and Arrows for the first time was a great treat. If you lost interest when Alex Lifeson turned down his amps so the synthesizers could be heard, this album is a nice return to form. If you thought Vapor Trails was a muddled heavy metal mess, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s plenty of slashing chords here but it’s all very melodic and there’s perhaps a greater diversity of sounds here than on any previous album.
The single “Far Cry” starts things off with some thundering drums hammering out a martial beat and some acoustic(!) guitar flailing away. The song soon settles in with the band’s trademark guitar & bass combo. Geddy’s bass isn’t as high in the mix as it was 20+ years ago but you can hear it in the background going off on its own tangent. He’s also not screaming like he was back in the 70s but his vocals here are very strong. Plus there’s the guitar solo which is mostly feedback. To top it all off, the chorus is just blatantly catchy. “Armor and Sword” follows. I read an interview with Neil Peart a month or so ago and he remarked that he feels this album has his best drumming ever. While the dorks like me who air drum to every fill in “Tom Sawyer” in concert (or in front of the stereo at home – alone) might be disappointed that he’s not all over the kit here, I believe him when says there was something about the sessions that was particular favorable to his drumming. “Armor and Sword” begins yet again with Peart thrashing away. This time he’s making good use of a splash cymbal and those bass drums. Electric guitar enters and the song sounds a lot like the band in the late-80s with those guitars having a purer, less distorted sounds. Then it slows down and we’re left with only acoustic guitar. After the first verse, the amps go up to 11 again. Honestly, the second verse sounds a lot like something from Moving Pictures not only with the guitar, but also with Geddy’s percussive bass playing. The song is also the first to directly touch on what was hinted at in “Far Cry” – spirituality. In this case, it’s Peart’s lack of affection for religion:
“The Larger Bowl” is the first rock song I’ve heard of whose lyrics are a pantoum. This is, as the Wikipedia states, where “the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next”. As the lyrics question inequality in the world, the music is some of the most conventional the band has produced in a while. An acoustic guitar is strummed throughout and Lifeson adds a nice electric solo. Not really a highlight of the album but it’s got a good chorus.
Some backwards looping hangs in the background while a hesitant-sounding guitar is picked to open “Spindrift”. Fierce winds from the east are contrasted with waves crashing on the western shore and I get the impression that the lyrics here are about Islam and the West generally. But it’s not criticism here, it’s a plea for understanding.
The boys manage to whip up some good drama here, especially in the last minute or so with some alternately crashing and howling guitar. The first of three instrumentals, “The Main Monkey Business”, comes next. It resembles “La Villa Strangiato” in the way it alternates heavy and soft sections, though it’s not quite as fragmented as its predecessor. Easily their best instrumental since “YYZ”. Lifeson’s soloing really shines and Peart’s playing harkens back to the days when he used every drum in his kit in every song. The drummer can be found noodling a bit before a bluesy guitar eases us into “The Way the Wind Blows”. Gears shift and the song is out of the gate as Peart’s lyrics pull no punches:
The chorus slows things down with its gentle acoustic guitar. Soon enough, the band is off and running again with more commentary on religion. While this is a great song, I have to wonder why there’s the Stevie Ray Vaughn imitation thrown in at the beginning which is reprised midway as well. Observations of religion permeating our lives like “a plague that resists all science” is countered with a first for the band – a solo acoustic guitar piece called “Hope”. No singing here, just some very beautiful playing that is miles away from the classically styled “Broon’s Bane”, which was only ever performed live. “Faithless” is lyrically a counterpart to “Freewill” for here Peart asserts his rejection of religion most directly:
This is the chorus which sounds most like their mid-80s output with the soaring keyboards. However, I highly suspect that the keyboard here is the prog rock stalwart, the Mellotron. It sounds like they tweaked its famous string sound. “Faithless” is one of my favorites from the album. In addition to sharing the lyrics’ sentiments, Geddy’s singing is confident but not angry. Musically, the melody is great and, although it doesn’t rock as hard as some of the previous songs, the slower pace betrays something a bit more serious, a bit more open. Where “Freewill” was assertive and defiant, “Faithless” is reflective and matter-of-fact.
After a classic slab of late-period Rush, “Bravest Face” is a bit of an anti-climax. I’m warming up to it with repeated listenings with its quiet acoustic guitar sections contrasted with ones full of heavier guitar and cymbals going off everywhere. That mysterious SRV thing reappears briefly too. The rumbling guitar rears its head again in “Good News First” along with a rather angry tone. Is that the Mellotron in background again? The penultimate song on the album is also the final instrumental – “Malignant Narcissism”. Geddy’s on fretless bass and it is way up front in the mix here. For his part, Alex shreds. With the brief bass and drums breaks, the song will bring “YYZ” immediately to mind. “We Hold On” closes the set. Lifeson’s angular riff breeds an immediate sense of urgency which turns into barely restrained chaos amidst the raw screeching and crying of his guitar. The solo finds Lerxt curling Middle Eastern tinged notes into and over one another. And he does this as Peart finally finds a chance to use the rest of his kit. The bass drums punctuate the rhythm before he takes to the toms. Seriously, this is some of the best and most exciting music Rush has made since 1980.
Snakes and Arrows finds Rush seamlessly mixing various elements from the band’s history with a renewed vigor and sense of purpose. It seems that the fun of making their EP of cover songs, Feedback, has seeped in and injected new life into the group. While there are a handful of weaker songs here, there’s not a stinker amongst them and the album is littered with great melodies and there’s great playing throughout. Geddy Lee’s singing sounds more confident than it has in years. For too long he’s sounded like he going through the motions but here he sings like he really means it. I’d like his bass up in the mix but this is a minor quibble. Peart is known for having the most melodic drum fills in all of rockdom and they’re most missing here. But his playing is still fabulous and propels the songs forward just as it always has. In certain ways, it is Alex Lifeson’s playing here which is the real revelation. In addition to the mandolin appearing from out of nowhere, there’s heaps of acoustic guitar as never before. It’s taken ages but I think he’s finally figured out how to balance his riffing of days of old with the cleaner tones of his rhythm playing. These styles don’t seem at odds any longer. Perhaps the best thing about Snakes and Arrows is it doesn’t sound like they’re struggling to integrate synthesizers into the sound nor are they worrying whether there’s enough riffing. It just sounds like the band is having fun again.