By 1989, the four album cycles of Rush’s creative enterprise were more or less set in stone. These kinds of rhythms are often a surprise to the artist; rarely do people set out to have an overall structure to a lifetime of work. These structures are apparent only in retrospect, at their worst imposed by over-hungry critics and fans looking to make sense and find patterns in the haphazard organicism of creativity. As this series has explored already, this four-album cyclical pattern is only one of the underlying structures that becomes apparent when looking at Rush’s work as a whole. Another is their dialectical responsive nature, each album a response to the one before and a predicate to the one after in a way only artists always on the move can summon.
Following the live record A Show of Hands which chronicled their synth period, Rush decided a change was in order. Alex Lifeson had long been agitating even as far back as Signals that, while greater incorporation of synthesizers was filling out their sound and expanding their compositional range—not to mention bridging their prog inclinations with their desires to consistently integrate contemporary music—it all had begun to crowd out the guitar. Hold Your Fire was intended as a step in that direction but, a few riveting guitar moments aside, it proved not to be the return to guitar-oriented composition he desired. It became prudent on the band’s end to attempt to pursue his desire. Hence the birth of their ’90s period, where the overriding theme is a continuously greater emphasis on the heavy guitar rock the group held in their hearts.
Presto, the first of this period (released just before the dawn of the ‘90s), was their first stab at guitar-driven work in some time. The general shape of the record can best be understood as the songwriting skeleton that remains from Rush material from the close of their synth period (Power Windows and Hold Your Fire in particular) when the layers of synthesizers are subtracted. The fundamental hook-driven pop-rock songwriting remains here and even certain elements, such as the cutting treble of the Stratocaster’s tone and the jangly strum Lifeson had picked up in order to better integrate with overwhelming beds of synthesizers here, become instead the fundamental beds upon which songs are built. Peart’s playing on Presto is his most beautifully architectural, seemingly following a sudden epiphany to pursue empty space in compositions where he once filled every nook with tremendous flowing rolls and chops-heavy beats. The songs on Presto are marked more often by their economy than their virtuosity. The production is tuned to match this intent; instead of going for a warm and rich production aesthetic that would fill the empty spaces between notes with amplifier hum and the gentle resonance of the room, Rush instead opted for antiseptic production endemic to mainstream rock records of the late ’80s and early ’90s. The result makes the gaps expand radically, feeling often like oceans or eternities between the notes. All this was done to make greater room for the vocals of Geddy Lee, who deliberately requested a more vocal-oriented approach to their material.
The group was well aware that, iconic stature aside, Lee’s vocals were often the weakest part of the band’s work. They were known primarily for their insane, almost incomprehensible level of not only chops but taste in a rock trio format, being perhaps the three single most influential musicians of their kind in the prog and hard rock world since the rise of Led Zeppelin. Lee’s approach to keyboard playing, and even the way in which they incorporated increasing electronic elements and pop-driven hooks and enormity into their work, was the next thing to get the buff-and-shine treatment. This left, for their fourth period, only the vocal lines and delivery to be tightened. For this angle, they largely built off the work in their synth period, seeing the vocal lines gradually lowered until they sat in a more natural and resonant range of Lee’s voice. This allowed them to apply the same hook-driven melody writing they had already imbued their songs with (and, formerly, their synth lines) to give their songs at last a strong, potent vocal center that before had been occupied by virtuosic displays of instrumental prowess.
The songs on Presto are not only the most accomplished of the pop-rock writing idiom of the band up to this point but of the band’s entire career. This is not to say, for those seeking lush synthesizer beds or chops-heavy panoramic prog epics, that there may not be better places to venture. But for those interested in Rush as a songwriting unit, capable of producing hooks, this is their pinnacle. The spaciousness in the arrangements aids in this tremendously, giving Lee maximal control over the melodic shape of the songs with his vocal performances, which are kept free from strain save for peaking moments of catharsis in bridges, his upper range reserved for cries of passion such as the sharp “Christ, what have you done?” of “The Pass” or the keening of the end of the line “I want to look at life / in the available light” from the song “Available Light.”
The hidden excellence of this album is partly due to the lyrics, among the best and most affecting Peart would write. It’s strange to think, but for as either celebrated or maligned a lyricist Neil Peart is, this album is criminally overlooked. “The Pass” is a tender and painful examination of teenage suicide (a growing anxiety of the group, given the ages of their own children). Even the song “Anagram (For Mongo)”, a song whose premise is specifically pure wordplay, each couplet or line containing an anagram made from words in the line or phrase previous, has sharp and profound lines, such as “There’s no safe seat at the feast” and “The cosmic is largely comic / a con they couldn’t conceal.” The primary concern on Presto is craft, on form and function rather than style over substance. These tweaks, little by little, add up; when it comes to the adult-oriented, thoughtful, sophisticated but still well-played and inventively arranged music, Presto is peak Rush. It is the raw songwriting skeleton that had begun to be assembled under the cloak of massive walls of synthesizers lifted up and allowed to be displayed in full. There is no end to great examples of Rush as players. Presto is a testament to Rush as songwriters.
Confoundingly, Presto is often ranked by fans and critics as one of Rush’s worst. Time spent alone with the album reveals confusing contradictions in both the critical and fan response to this record that, unlike how their synth period was massive dismissed by fans of one generation only to be lauded and considered perhaps the pinnacle of the band’s career by another, has yet to see major restitution. The critical response is the easiest to account for. Ever since the early days of Peart’s time with the band, as the music grew more ambitious (sometimes beyond what the group was capable of at the time) and the lyrics dabbled inconsistently with Objectivist-inspired writing, the group had become a laughing stock and a scapegoat of the critical body that was increasingly interested in punk music. This is understandable to some degree, but that critical perception of the group remained fixed in place even as the group reneged on their former infatuation with right-wing ideologies for more broadly libertarian left-wing ones informed by their travels over the world and first-hand experience with the suffering and conditions of people beyond their normal sphere. Likewise, their persistent evolution and sense of modernity, fusing prog chops and concepts with the textures of rock’s contemporary shape, was mocked by critics of the time where other groups pursuing the same ends were met with reward, likely because younger bands didn’t carry the baggage of a prog-era group in their third decade together. While the overall critical understanding of Rush and their place in the history of rock (not to mention the place of prog in general in that same history) would inevitably shift, it didn’t in 1989.
More confounding is the fan response. It often feels like a recurring key critical error, judging a work for what it isn’t rather than what it is and applying metrics to it that the work is uninterested in. This is the same error that led older, more conservative Rush fans to spurn the synthesizer period, viewing the band as fundamental hard rock or symphonic prog, seeing the new wave, ska and synth pop influences as failures or abandonments rather than assertions of a new direction (or, even more frightening to these types, a revelation of an element that had always been there). Likewise, Presto seems to consistently fall prey to fans who view Rush as somehow beyond adult-contemporary motives and material, despite the adult-oriented pop and rock elements present on Power Windows and Hold Your Fire, records which have since climbed in esteem. As for myself, Presto is one of my three favorite records from the group, along with the previously mentioned Power Windows, with the third of that trio coming up later in this same period. My initial response was similar to many fans, wanting Rush either to be full of bombast or grit, be that the Yes-driven sidelong prog epics, the prog metal-inspiring technical workouts or the warmth and meat of their return to hard rock in their final period. But as years wore on, the value of the pure songcraft of Presto shone through. Time with the lyric sheet revealed a thoughtfulness and literary discipline that people seemed to never discuss. Perhaps it was its underdog status that inevitably appealed to me; Rush is, after all, a band for underdogs and whose greatest work seems to always arise from the pure heart-on-sleeve affectations of the social underdog, neither hip enough for the punk and indie set nor cool enough for the mainstream crowd. Presto is like a figuring of Rush within themselves, something pure and honest and criminally overlooked, punished unduly for not being something it never sought out to be. It’s hard not to find that endearing. The closing trio of “Red Tide,” “Hand Over Fist” and “Available Light” is hard to argue with, to boot; it’s perfect pop-rock.
Roll the Bones
Roll the Bones is a strange and difficult response to Presto. As evidenced with these songs, the group still felt a great affinity for the pop-rock skeletal structure they had unearthed with their previous record. But the march toward their heavy rock return continued apace, here shown by more prominent bass grooves and interlocking drummer/bassist reveries expected more from a hard rock record than a pop-rock album. Oddly enough, synthesizers return in a big way on Roll the Bones, returning from their largely background role on Presto. Despite the more major placement of keyboards across the album, Roll the Bones feels like a more definitive step back toward being an out-and-out rock band largely through Lifeson’s guitar work. The arrangements allow for more prominent guitar work across the record and Lifeson chooses to make the most of this space by ditching the largely clinical and studio-sheen guitar tone of Presto for a livelier rock tone. It wouldn’t stand up to Tony Iommi or the early death metal records dropping in 1991, but it’s a much more aggressive sound than on their few albums prior to this.
Contributing to the heightened rockness of the record are the looser arrangements both on an instrumental and vocal end. Rush proved themselves capable and gifted pop songsmiths with the tail end of their synth period and the twin apexes of pop-rock songwriting of Power Windows and Presto, but there was an undeniable stiffness to the material as a natural result of that song-oriented work. Serving a vocal line and a pure songcraft notion in the manner a studio musician might requires you by definition to sublimate the desire to go off on one, to cut the licks that are wild and tasty if they distract from the central impulse of the song. This is perhaps the greatest delineating element that separates pure pop from pure rock, the former focused with laser intent on the song as idealized form while the later focuses on performance. It’s also why, in turn, live performances of pop songs tend to either come with big pageantry and choreography or else totally different and more lively arrangements. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that as a form, but Rush being a live rock band clearly felt an amount of friction after pursuing this method for some time. Roll the Bones isn’t substantially different in terms of the songwriting core from Presto, but the arrangement shift allowing more jamming between Lee and Peart, as well as the marginally more aggressive approach from Lifeson, highlights rock more than pop.
The looseness carries over to the vocals. Lee builds upon the more natural and vocal-driven approach he began on Presto, digging into a new-found comfort zone for his voice. The lines seem suddenly less considered and constructed, words tumbling out closer to how they might in a live setting or singing a semi-improvised lyrical line. Sometimes, the result of this is more of that sense of Roll the Bones being a rock album. However, there are more than a few times where it can make a line seem clumsy or inadvertently highlights some of the awkwardness in the lyrics, which have a greater tendency toward goofiness and annoyance than on Presto. Admittedly, part of being a Rush fan is learning to come to terms with the way Peart sometimes deploys a poetic and profound line right next to one that makes your eyes roll—even coming eventually to love the sincerity of it all. Still, there are moments when Peart will belabor the symbolic conceptual frame of gambling imagery this record has in a way that can be tedious and annoying, which his lyrics hadn’t been since dropping his fixation on Ayn Rand.
This can be especially frustrating because there is a secondary lyrical concept threading through the songs concerning mortality and fragility that feels not unlike Grace Under Pressure in the frankness he uses in exploring those more intimate spaces. In these moments, such as the opening salvo of “Dreamline,” “Bravado” and “Roll the Bones,” or the closing trio of “Ghost of a Chance,” “Neurotica” and “You Bet Your Life,” the combination of a returning rock sensibility and the vocal looseness adds a sense of rawness and confessional flair ranging from the fractional to the deep. “Ghost of a Chance” in particular takes this meditative theme on the fragility of life and the persistence of loss and applies it to romance, at once a somber and heartfelt love song that embraces the profound unlikelihood of finding a soulmate in a vast and cruel world and the fruits of the labor of cultivating that love. This is all played against a loose and bluesy approach to the cybernetic prog/pop Rush had been perfecting, the sudden juxtaposition plus Lee’s relaxed and ruminative voice making the song feel closer to a confession than an overwrought pretentious mess. This human emotive dread percolates through a number of the other songs, such as the chorus of the title track (“Why are we here? / Because we’re here / Roll the bones“) which cuts through the endearing but not necessarily fully successful rap verses tacked on. (The group, in their defense, included these parts not in jest but from an earnest love of rap, which was aging into young adulthood as a genre by this point. The fact that the verses are textually performed by a rapping skeleton certainly helps as well.) It’s hard to hear the songs that lean harder on this more existential and ruminative angle—such as the live staple “Dreamline” with its memento mori outlook on youth that would find a recapitulation in the 2010s with the rise of YOLO—and not feel frustrated that they were made secondary to the obnoxious gambling theme. Hell, the cover even has a kid kicking a skull as a figure set against a field of dice, indicating the group was even aware of this unbalanced dualism where they chose to foreground the weaker over the stronger.
This mixed tonality of Roll the Bones is cited by its defenders as one of the reasons it’s great, with the common refrain that it’s the last truly great Rush album. This sentiment tends to be shared by the contingent of fans who, in contrast to the most conservative Rush fan, enjoys the synth period, often finding it the highest caliber of Rush output, but then finds themselves turned off by both the very earliest and very latest Rush material, seemingly due to the increased presence of hard rock and classic rock in both periods. A major component of the record is its inclusion of an instrumental with the cheekily-titled “Where’s My Thing? (Part IV: ‘Gangster of Boats’ Trilogy)”, the first Rush album to do so since Moving Pictures with “YYZ”. Presto famously was set to include an instrumental, making the ’90s the first full period in the band’s entire body of work to include an instrumental on every release, before Geddy applied some unused lyrics to one of their pieces, which became “Hand Over Fist”. Its acclaim seems to largely rise from the way Roll the Bones, by dialing down the impossible polish and sheen of Presto, returns the band to an exciting jaggedness and unevenness that occasionally causes great creative sparks to fly, all without sacrificing the incredible pop songcraft polish they had attained up to this point.
In early years, I would have strongly rebutted this claim. The first mix of this record as well as its first remaster rendered the songs flat and plasticine in a manner that felt more like the worst of both worlds than the best regarding its mixture of dark, ruminative rock and bright, playful pop. Songs like “Face Up” and “Big Wheel” felt almost like cartoon caricatures of ’90s rock, images of zany shades and wacky sound effects and the weird fixation on color-clashing geometric shapes suddenly bursting from the new wave aesthetics of the early ’80s but with the added cocaine bleariness of the early ’90s. The most recent remaster—from the 2013 box set, The Studio Albums: 1989-2007, which makes the Rupert Hine-produced albums suddenly feel alive and, frankly, like Rush again—seems to have been deliberately carried out with these more sinking critiques in mind, restoring not just a sense of air and vibrancy to the mixes but dulling the brittle brightness they had. There are still more cloying moments on this record than I would like, but the underlying affective heft of the yearning chords and subtly suppressed terror in the lyrics and melodies feels closer to the surface. There is a merit, of course, to respecting records and production/composition choices of the eras they are from, even if they are not always to our taste. After all, there is a quintessential grain that we associate with early blues recordings, without which they lose a certain definable element of their charm, likewise with the early instrumental surf rock of the 1960s. But in the case of Roll the Bones, that sonic adjustment to return its soundfield to one closer to what we might expect from Rush made it suddenly apparent to me that this was a much better record than I had long viewed it. Live performances of this material always provided a certain heft and darkness and emotional strain that made it feel at once uplifting and trembling; see any recorded live versions of “Dreamline” for a great example of this.
Counterparts saw the group returning to work with Peter Collins, who previously had produced the group’s final two synth period records Power Windows and Hold Your Fire. The sonic profile of Counterparts compared to those two earlier records, however, could not be more different, at least on the surface. By 1993, Rush had regained a great deal of faith in themselves and in the value of their earlier works. They had toured with a young and still-upcoming Primus in support of Roll the Bones, a band which notably opened their debut record Frizzle Fry with a brief quote of “YYZ”. On this tour, the members of Rush and Primus would jam every single night after the show backstage in loose freeform fun-oriented improvisations, something the members of Rush cited as creatively energizing. It clearly helped the members of Rush that the rising crop of grunge bands, long viewed by some critics and fans as spurning the music around and before them, were all near uniformly citing Rush as a major influence. Everything from Billy Corgan sporting a Rush sticker on his guitar in a music video to the members of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains singing their praises, the music of the first two eras of Rush suddenly started to seem a lot more viable. The grunge era in general is viewed as a period where players shunned the over-the-top chops and shred-oriented mentality of ’80s metal and hard rock, but this hasn’t ever been fully true; it’s hard to listen to peak Soundgarden, for instance, with all of its shifting time signatures and tricky phrasing and not hear a great deal of chops, albeit ones that, like Rush, are aimed more at the song than mere demonstrations. This general shifting social relation to rock music, the returning esteem of Rush and their body of work within the hard rock sphere, as well as Rush’s continued commitment to restoring to prominence Alex’s guitar created a perfect storm for the conditions of Counterparts.
The first few seconds of the opening track immediately make it clear that Counterparts is, by and large, a rock record. The drums have a sudden heft to them that had been missing, at least in a studio capacity, since Moving Pictures or earlier. The bass erupts with a growl to it that feels more akin to The Who or a Jimi Hendrix record than The Police. When Lifeson’s guitars come in, they have a distorted, imperfect fuzz to them, palm-muted plucks bringing the tone in line with something like what the previously mentioned Billy Corgan, Kim Thayill or Jerry Cantrell might have pursued. Keyboards are still present on the album, but they are turned to the timbre of organs, string patches and staccato stabs, a far cry from the sophisticated layers of melodically and harmonically driving synthesizers from the previous Collins-produced albums. All of this is presented with a laid-back groove situated deeper in the pocket than the past few records, which had become increasingly stiffened through adherence to sequencers (notoriously incapable of the flexibility of live players). The heft is not just relegated to the drums, either; there is a level of drive and weight to the guitars and bass, not to mention Lee’s increasing strength in the lower portions of his register, having regained the same snap and flair of his early days but with the more sustainable and less strained portion of his range.
“Stick It Out,” the second track on the record, is not only the heaviest track that Rush had tracked up to this point in their career, displacing the previous seemingly unmovable “Working Man” from its position, it is arguably the heaviest song they have ever put to tape. (Only “BU2B” from their career-closing Clockwork Angels comes close.) Between the drop D tuning, the heavy focus on tritones, dissonant chords, feedback and eerie ringing notes, it is lightyears away from the pop perfection of Presto or the tentative shift back toward hard rock found on Roll the Bones. The way the riffs live between Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin feel on paper like a return to the Rush demonstrated on their debut record, an image of the band that faded over time as interest in progressive rock, new wave and other spaces would slowly displace these originating impulses. But there is something else there, too. At first, it feels like the presence of grunge. After all, “Stick It Out” could be recorded by Soundgarden and placed on the tracklisting of an album like Down on the Upside or Louder Than Love and not feel out of place, given their similar inspirational palette. But quickly, that lingering X factor reveals itself to be, pleasantly enough, Rush themselves, the pop songcraft and sense of pop polish rearing its head again but in this clearly heavier rock-driven context. It is not that the group forbade keyboards or overdubs as much as their purpose was redefined, the desired shape and direction of the album taking the center of the production rather than exploration for its own sake. Through this, Counterparts becomes the first record of the stream of thought which would define the remainder of their career, that of applying lessons learned to the initial fundamental concept of the band.
A surprising yet unsurprising influence rears its head across the compositions and production of Counterparts: The Who. The reasons why this would be unsurprising are obvious. The Who was one of the biggest bands in the world when the group was founded, mentioned in the same breath as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the like which made up the group’s earliest influences. Rush had also not exactly been silent about appreciating the group over the years, something you would expect from a band formed in the wake of such an enormous and influential group. Despite these elements pointing toward some kind of latent influence from The Who, the playing of Rush prior to Counterparts never seemed to show a great deal in the way of influence from that vector.
On Counterparts, their serious and hefty return to their rock roots suddenly unveils that obscured key vector of influence, especially on songs such as “Nobody’s Hero” and “Between Sun & Moon,” which offers a post-blues twang and swerve to the guitars that feels more common to The Who’s approach to classic rock than it does the traditionally hi-tech chops-heavy mental image most have of Rush. This pops out more due to the way the years impressed upon the members of Rush the value of clarity, often misread as mere simplicity. Rush by 1993 were composing less intimidating chops-heavy figures not because they couldn’t play them anymore (live material, be it the setlists or the recordings, quickly dispels that notion) but because they’d honed their approach to songcraft to the point of knowing when it was extraneous or potentially distracting. This in turn is a closer mirror to The Who than to the other big hard rock groups of their time such as Deep Purple. In each instance, the players certainly had the chops to go wild and, in a live setting, often allowed themselves to cut loose with ferocious fleet figures, but tended to keep recordings pure and concentrated on the central conceit rather than spooling off into the hinterlands.
Another shocking-yet-not development was the sudden rise of influence from the world of Stevie Ray Vaughan. There is a pronounced increase in bluesy bends and phrasing across Counterparts, a set of sonic conceits Rush hadn’t seriously dabbled with since their debut record in the years before Peart joined. But Counterparts is a guitar-rock driven record and Lifeson, being a guitarist, was deeply in love with the playing of Stevie, as all the world was at that time. There were hints of unexpected bluesiness on Roll the Bones, elements lifted closer to the surface with the most recent remaster, but it was still comparatively a muted element, sublimated against the adult contemporary pop-rock engine that still largely drove their material. Counterparts shows an Alex Lifeson ready to rip out the latent blues rock and even country licks (specifically on album highlight “Cold Fire”) that he had waiting in the wings, learned as a youth cutting his teeth on British blues rock of the ’60s and resharpened in the period when every guitarist worth his salt was learning Stevie licks. These elements add a salt to the band’s playing, an earthiness that their biggest critics largely couch themselves on accusing the band of not possessing. It’s hard to hear these tracks and square them against the common complaints, like that they focus on chops more than hooks and song structures or that they care more about virtuosity than human and emotive playing. If the synth period and its eruptive and emotionally-riveting work derived from new wave ideas was the stroke against complaints that Rush had no melodic sensibility, then this era, and Counterparts in specific, is the stroke against the notion that they aren’t human.
The lyrical approach of Counterparts is also a notable highlight. The keenness of Peart’s pen is once again at the heights he reached on Presto, giving himself a much more workable conceptual thrust for the record of, of course, “counterparts.” The notion he pulls from, that of the juxtapositional definitions of the word as meaning either an oppositional figure or a perfect pair. Peart’s approach to the concept is more dialectical, reading the notion of a counterpart more as a partner in the dialectical process, something that fills out the starting figure and vice versa rather than something that contradicts it totally or validates it entirely. This leads to a more robust and mature set of thoughtful lyrics than their occasionally cringey us-versus-them approach centered around individualism they built up for themselves more than a decade prior. The running theme here is largely built around letting other people in, listening to other voices, whether the countercultural figure of “Stick It Out” offering broader society something necessary or, in a shocking turn for the band, a number of songs dedicated to the navigation of romance and domestic partnerships.
This shift turned off a lot of fans at the time; in their minds, Rush was a band of big ideas, science fiction and a certain kind of nerdish ennui, not a group that would trouble themselves by writing about romance. By this point in the lives of the band, they not only had been married for quite some time but also had children that were becoming teenagers. The breaks from touring and recording, which had only increased over time, were largely driven by a growing desire to see and experience their growing families. This shift to seriously tackle the more supple, nuanced and textured world of what makes marriage and family work over years and decades in many ways becomes more intellectually challenging than merely another song about the evils of big money or nuclear threats, especially for a group that had covered one of these spaces but not the other. It also led to the writing of pieces like “Cold Fire,” the country-tinged standout, as well as offering insight on tracks like “Nobody’s Hero,” a song against homophobia drawn from Neil’s experiences in London with a gay bandmate who impressed on him young the tribulations and joys of their queer life only to tragically pass from the scourging plague of AIDS in the late ’80s. This greater sense of engaging with the human, be it their romance or the romance of others such as in “Nobody’s Hero,” finally seemed to fully address one of the lingering critiques of the group, that of their perennial unapproachable nature and occasional tendency to well-meant pretension in pursuit of big concept flair. Counterparts is a heavy, proggy rock album that lives on earth; it’s hard to argue with that.
I mentioned previously that this era would feature the two last of my top 3 Rush albums. This is that last lingering Rush record. More often than not, this one sits at the very top, ruling the roost with imperious glare. It feels for me like a perfect synthesis of all the things I love about Rush and a keen-eyed adjustment to the elements I had found cloying before. My love for the record was instant; the first few seconds of the opening track blew my hair back and pinned it to my head and the remainder more acted to validate what it was that I felt. It has that heavy rock magic, punched up by prog chops and smart, moving lyrics. It is, to me, perfect.
Test for Echo
It makes sense then, given the success of Counterparts not only on its own merits but also in terms of settling with the current markets, having reached number 2 in the US charts and giving them a number 1 single on the rock charts, that they would continue in that direction with its followup Test for Echo. The proceedings take the darkness and heaviness of Counterparts and push it farther, deeper, with tracks like “Test for Echo,” “Driven” and “Time and Motion” feeling at times linked to the same bleak metallic darkness that groups like King Crimson had dabbled with before and groups like Tool were dabbling with in the present. Tritones and downtuned guitars drive those moments, all propelled by a substantially more aggressive and full bass tone from Lee thanks to his return to the world of Fender basses as well as a shockingly deep sense of groove from Peart who seemed suddenly to shift his favor from cerebral arrangements to substantially more bodily ones that dug deep into the pocket. Those big tracks on Test for Echo offer the first indication that while on paper it is an album of continuation, of replicating the successful thoughts and actions of Counterparts, it was also one with subtle but powerful changes.
These largely came from the solo explorations the group took between the two records. Rush notoriously had vanishingly little solo work. There was a guest spot from Lee on a comedy album in the ’80s and a scant two solo drum singles Peart had written that were sent out with some drumming magazines (as well as the first of Neil’s nonfiction books about bicycling). But aside from those few examples, the group poured their communal efforts into group material. They had long joked that they didn’t have solo records largely because each studio album from them was a solo album, each of them feeling confident in having given all their current thoughts to the material. This was, in fact, what caused the group to meander across genre lines the way they did; they didn’t sit around telling themselves Rush was a hard rock or a pop-rock band, and this allowed them to go wherever inspiration or interest was driving them. But between Counterparts and Test for Echo, the itch became too great, and so off they went in their own directions. Lifeson produced a solo album titled Victor featuring the vocalist of I Mother Earth that lingered largely in the worlds of alternative metal, industrial rock and grunge. Peart studied jazz drumming and recorded material with the Buddy Rich Big Band.
These adjustments are brought to bear on Test for Echo. They account suddenly for the greater groove behind Neil’s hands and feet, which already had eye-watering brain-burning levels of chops from their heavy rock/high prog days and keen arrangement acumen from their pop-rock days. They account for the at-times shocking heaviness from Rush, Lifeson bringing to bear his increasing love of the world of contemporary prog and heavy music as well as his growing confidence in his returning lead role in the band. All of this is set against the rising growl of Geddy’s J-Bass, having returned to the fabled shores of that most perfect of basses on their previous record and so having spent an entire recording and touring cycle fine-tuning his approach to its tone. The assemblage of these elements expands on the natural sonic concept of Counterparts, that of a rich and full return to heavy rock, offering more dynamic angles to it.
For the most part, this sense of looseness and heft adds value the material. It serves as a perfect culmination of this period of Rush’s career, where the thesis seemed to be a progressive return to the world of rock music. The juxtaposition of Test for Echo against Presto, let alone the previous era-ending record Hold Your Fire, is a sharp one, one a hoary ramshackle melange of rock ideal and the other a sharp and precise pop-rock monument. To the band, the sound present on Test for Echo is the one they’d largely wanted for this entire period; a recurrent complaint of theirs was that the material captured on the early records of this period had a power and threat to it in the practice room and when played live that wasn’t translating to the recorded versions. The production shift certainly helped. Lifeson’s approach to guitar shifted from functionally a proto-direct input dry signal recording method to the tried-and-true method of diming the amps, cutting the gain on an array of mics to keep them from clipping and recording a super-saturated sound. The adjustment the group made in terms of where they placed their keyboards in the sonic field opened up more bottom end for Geddy’s bass to fill out, suddenly giving it a girth and growl that frankly we want from a player like Geddy, who often plays like a hard rock Chris Squire. The inherent slight stiffness to Neil’s beat-perfect playing worked wonders in those more sequenced periods of the group, but him learning how to inject breath and pocket into his playing does wonders to tap into the inherent swagger of rock, perhaps the one element Counterparts was lacking.
There are foibles on Test for Echo, however. The looseness sometimes works against their favor, leaving songs feeling less sharply defined than their predecessors. Shockingly, this ends a streak starting roughly at 2112 up to Counterparts where songs that felt slightly ill-defined were the exception rather than the rule. Previously, a track like “red lenses” stuck out like a sore thumb on the otherwise sharp and tight Grace Under Pressure while here the slightly strummy and almost aimless “Dog Years” feels more like a common and accepted shape. This seems to be the slight price played for a progressively looser group shaking the stiffness from their limbs and cutting a record that feels more like a live on-the-floor rock band grooving away; that is not commonly the domain of the same impeccably tight songcraft they demonstrated on earlier records.
This issue was compounded for years by the mix the album received, both initially and in its 2004 remaster, which often muddied the sound considerably. The mixture of a muddy tone and these looser arrangements is a major component that led a certain contingent of Rush fans to reject the album initially and it’s not hard to see why; comparing it to the perfect mixture of taut songcraft and proggy explorationism of Permanent Waves, it’s not hard to see why people vastly preferred the latter to the former. Thankfully, this is the second of the albums of this period, after Roll the Bones, that feels absolutely revolutionary in its 2013 remaster. The suddenly clear definition of the instrumental lines, each afforded their own space and presence, makes the interplay much less muddy and through that the song forms suddenly feel much more physical and immediate. The big issue with those muddy mixes was a subconscious one, detaching the songs from the pure physical impact music has when the volume and mix are just right. It’s hard to sink deep into songs when it feels like there is a static wall between us and them, separating us from that pure psychic bath music can be. I spent years rolling my eyes at this record, a few songs plucked out and put on a playlist but nothing more, until hearing the newer mixes. Suddenly, the values of songs like “Totem” and “Half the World” revealed themselves, albeit on more like a billowing flag than their previous cybernetic hi-tech prog metal. This wasn’t the first nor would it be the last time a remaster would salvage a record for the band.
The other major shortcoming of the record is in the lyrics. Peart’s writing has always been a mixture of sharp insight and cloying lyrics but, for the most part, those frustrations were left when he stepped away from Objectivism following a radical change of heart through the ’80s. Presto and Counterparts each were masterclasses and Roll the Bones largely had more charms than foibles, but Test for Echo suddenly decides to employ bizarre and frankly unlikeable lines like “Net boy / net girl / send your impulse ’round the world” as well as basically the entirety of the chorus of “Dog Years,” making it hard to stand firmly behind the record on those grounds. Even the title track which featured the now-standard lyrical collaboration with Pye Dubois, who previously had cowritten songs such as “Tom Sawyer” and “Force Ten,” suddenly had some truly dreadful lines, clearly meant to be stark, spare and evocative but instead coming across more like a writing exercise never smoothed out into proper lines than a decent set of lyrics. This is especially frustrating because these dull moments stand next to songs like “Resist” and “Carve Away The Stone,” the former an elaboration of an Oscar Wilde quote and the latter’s Presto-style approach being far and away the best song on the album both on a lyrical and musical level.
Thankfully, the final summation is still largely positive. Between the group’s return to a loose and grooving heavy rock unit a la their debut record and a new mix making the benefits of this approach suddenly legible again, the group’s desire over the ’90s to return to this sensibility is clear. Test for Echo, more than any of the other records of this period, suddenly sounds like the group having pure-hearted fun again. This isn’t meant as a knock to increasingly perfected compositions and playing from their debut up to Hold Your Fire, nor is it a knock to the gradually loosening vise-grip evidenced over the records of this period, as each of those produced wonders. But, as intended from the start of the ’90s, Test for Echo‘s heavy guitar-driven rock approach suddenly felt on record what the group had sounded like live more or less the whole time. This sense of return must have been deep for the band, because they included “2112” in its entirety on the tour for this record. They’d never dropped their earliest material, even having a dedicated spot for songs from their debut for over a decade, but it’s hard not to read their redebuting of the entirety of that major epic prog ripper of theirs as anything but a nod that this was where the group wanted to be. This sense would be borne out in the final phase of their career, which largely is built from the framework that Test for Echo built, embracing this as functionally the final culmination of their sonic ideal, plus or minus a few tweaks along the way.
Rush had slowed their output considerably by this point. Their first period from Rush to 2112 took almost exactly two years; the period from A Farewell to Kings to Moving Pictures took four; from Signals to Hold Your Fire took five. Meanwhile, the span from Presto to Test for Echo took a full seven, including the longest gap between studio releases in the band’s career thus far. There were rumbling rumors that the group was on its last legs, rumors the band brushed off but nevertheless seemed to be somewhat true. Interviews between Counterparts and Test for Echo showed a band that were at turns reinvigorated and tired, excited and anxious. Test for Echo saw not just the transformation of the group into the prototype of their final hard rock-driven form but also the shift of perception of the band to “classic rock,” the traditional death knell for groups maintaining a persistent influence over the contemporary musical environment. Peart had always been reclusive, but the time off and his rising writing career plus the advances of age and the mere desire to see his family more seemed to be pulling him further away. The group was frank that any given record might be their last, albeit this being a statement the group had been reiterating in some form or another since the ’80s, typically meaning it more in a “don’t take us for granted” sense rather than “this one’s the swansong.” In a certain way, the three-hour shows with no opener band and featuring their big breakthrough epic were read as perhaps a quiet farewell tour.
Then, in 1997, following the conclusion of the Test for Echo tour, Neil and his wife Jacqueline Taylor received the worst news you can ever hear. Their 19-year old daughter had died in a single-car accident on the highway. Less than 10 months later, Jacqueline would succumb to cancer. The loss of both his daughter and his wife in such a short period saw Peart tender his resignation to his bandmates, effective for the foreseeable future. He would get on his motorcycle and drive south from Canada all the way to Belize, aimless and hurting. Geddy would assemble the now-typical live album to close out their four-LP period, including in the liner notes the line “Suddenly, you were gone / from all the lives you left your marks upon” in memory of Neil’s family. But the band was, as far as they and everyone else knew, done, ended on a dual note of bitter and agonizing tragedy and a critically-acclaimed encyclopedic multi-hour show. It felt like the extremist bittersweet finale, pure pain on end and pure triumph on the other.
But, as we know, there was still one more chapter.
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Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.