Neil Elwood Peart passed away on January 7, 2020 at the age of 67. One could fixate on the nature of his passing, or how long he suffered, but to do so would be to privilege the disease over the life, the dying over the living. And while those things are certainly important, they mean more to his direct friends and family than they do to outsiders. Understanding the nature of a person of interest’s passing can help us grapple with the finite amount of time we ourselves have, a fact that at once seems trite and like it will choke us to death, cluttering up the bad inspirational writing of empty authors while keeping those of us past a certain age up at night shaking and weeping in quiet contempt of what often feels like time wasted in disease and addiction and idleness. But we mustn’t view dying as a singularity that blossoms out to encompass the whole of life, even if in many ways that’s what art making is: a staunch rebellion against the coming tide of night, quiet dark waves lapping at our ankles and growing closer to our lips and nose and ears and eyes with each passing breath. Terror is not abstracted and immaterial; we feel this pressing anxiety, one that parsing the deaths of those we care about seems to be able to address if not perfectly solve, because of the firm materiality of life, of living. We do not create and value creation merely because they staunchly reject death but on their own merits; there is a power and privilege to life and experience for its own sake, divorced from those darkling anxieties which roar out in the silence of 3 a.m. bedrooms and solitary evenings.
One can’t conceive of Neil Peart’s life as anything short of well-lived. He was the drummer for Rush, one of the greatest rock bands of history, and with them became one of the top three drummers rock music has ever produced, alongside John Bonham and Keith Moon. They produced 20 albums, 19 of which featured Peart behind the kit. There is no true telling of the history of progressive rock or even just rock ‘n’ roll more broadly without mention of Rush. They influenced goddamn near everybody, from Metallica to Rage Against the Machine to Dream Theater to Mastodon and more. Every single progressive rock and metal player and band in the years after would come to cite them as a major influence. Almost every serious musician of rock and metal has drawn from them. They were even one of the few prog bands to break through into punk and hardcore spaces in the years when prog was deeply unfashionable, partly off of the back of their musical mercuriality that never sacrificed their playing, only adapted it to new surfaces and contours and textures.
Rush’s history, of course, begins prior to Peart’s introduction to the band. The earliest lineup didn’t even include Geddy Lee, the group’s iconic bassist, vocalist, and synth player, who would only come to replace initial bassist Jeff Jones some few months after the band’s proper founding. Like most rock ‘n’ roll bands formed in the late ’60s, the early days of Rush were marked by influence from the same remarkably broad list of influences you might expect to find elsewhere, from Cream to the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix to the Beach Boys and more, witnessing the sea changes of rock music as it was sanitized by white players then reinvigorated by psychedelics, witnessing Hendrix burgeon, blossom and die, the coming of Led Zeppelin, and the shift from straight ahead pop to haggard and hoary rock to psychedelic music to art music and eventually onward to prog. History has since recast that time period as being more musically striated than it was in practice; there was musical segregation, but it was typically of the much more ignominious and reprehensible racial sort, with black music relegated to venues and radio stations counter to white ones. It was at once taboo and incredibly common for listeners or musicians to cross those aisles, either openly as in the case of Hendrix bringing a resolute Blackness to heavy psychedelic rock or in the influx of white rock music ideas into a young Parliament and Funkadelic. Rush’s debut self-titled album presented a group at the crossroads of those ambient racial tensions in rock music, featuring at once a more soulful and rich blues vein juxtaposed against riffs that seemed somewhere between The Who, Black Sabbath and a whole lot of Led Zeppelin.
It’s easy in retrospect to view their debut as a marginal work. It is, after all, the only album of theirs not to feature Peart, a player whose presence would immediately, starkly reshape the direction and timbre of the group. Additionally it only has one song that survived in live settings with “Working Man,” although “Finding My Way,” “In The Mood” and “What You’re Doing” would appear infrequently in the years that followed. This is an unfair read however, one that casts the work as lesser more due to its dissimilarity with most of the work that would follow rather than any shortcoming in the record itself. Divorced from the name of the group, it’s not impossible to view Rush as the kind of album that, say, the works of ’70s hard rock/heavy metal band Cactus have become, beloved by collectors of the style if not necessarily well-known outside of those spaces. Further vindication for their debut comes from the shape of the final four releases of the band’s career, from 2002′s Vapor Trails to 2012′s Clockwork Angels, all of which featured a return to a raw and rootsy rock, albeit one touched up by the art rock and prog rock flourishes the band had developed over the course of their career.
The dismissiveness regarding this early record tends to crop up within a certain sector of the fanbase who strongly prefer the run from Fly By Night to Signals for their prog leanings and largely discount their work outside of these bounds. Judged against groups like Captain Beyond, Golden Earring, Atomic Rooster and other jazzier, artsier, proggier hard rock groups of the early ’70s, Rush’s debut more than acquits itself, underscoring that part of what made their approach to prog in the dog years of the genre in the late ’70s so commercially viable was partly the firm grounding in heavy rock ‘n’ roll they had explored for the six years prior to this and had finally put to tape with their debut. In this light, the group’s debut is no longer an easily dismissable historical fluke but is, instead, imbued with precisely the power a debut album typically holds for an artist. Here, it represents the ultimate foundation and fundament of the group which is not necessarily prog or art rock but instead a pure rock and roll, here portrayed without the filigree and character the group would develop over time but nonetheless remained present even in their most synth-drenched years.
Fly By Night
Even the most strident defense of the music found on the group’s debut can’t help but pale in comparison to its follow-up, Fly By Night. The replacement of original drummer John Rutsey for Neil Peart is immediately palpable on opening track “Anthem,” which features a powerful unison opening with trick sticking for the drumming and a groove seemingly pinched from Zeppelin at their most art rock. Six of the eight songs feature lyrics by Neil Peart, an early sign that his future role as sole lyricist was already well underway. A lot of writing about Fly By Night tends to focus on that lyrical shift but not always on the particulars of why it’s intriguing or notable. To understand this, look at the two songs with leftover lyrics by Geddy Lee; both are musical holdovers from the sessions for their debut record, a habit the band would never again repeat, instead including every song written during a session on the record the sessions were for. We can immediately compare the music of a song like “Best I Can” versus “Beneath, Between, Behind.” They are not, despite what we might tell ourselves, light years apart. The prog flourishes of the latter are certainly more keenly felt than the former, leaning a bit harder on influence from Yes than Led Zeppelin, but the shift is more incremental rather than revolutionary, with the former having its own tricksy flourishes that would likely have flummoxed more meatheaded rock guitar players.
The bigger shift is felt more in how the more mundane and earthly lyrics frame the music versus the more ephemeral, cerebral, poetic lyrics of Peart. We don’t singularly judge music on tonality alone, after all; we do, it turns out, absorb some sentiment of the contained lyrics when we do understand them. The simpler and more direct lyrics of Lee recast the music and refocus the tougher, distorted chug and booty-wiggling groove, making out those tunes to be more direct and radio-friendly than they really are. Meanwhile, the pseudo-mystical poeticism of Peart’s lyrics seem to make the implicit fantasy of the cover image, all swooping talons and gleaming giant’s eye, feel all the more present in the music itself, triggering a kind of soft synaesthetic response that makes the guitars glimmer and drums bounce just a bit more than they had prior. After all, creating art is often less about the obvious large blocks and more about measuring increasingly finer-grain elements up into the intangibles, where subtle shifts like finding the right sound engineer and cover artist can finally unlock some long-hidden creative door to artistic avenues a band never necessarily knew they had in them. The band has long been open about loving progressive rock from the moment the genre burst open, even picking up those early proto-prog records by Procol Harum and the Moody Blues and the Nice. Their debut came five years after the opening of the doors of prog while this came a mere 11 months later. What changed in that time? Not their love, nor their inspiration, but the subtle frame. That’s what the lyrical shift enabled.
That and, well, the intense acrobaticism of Peart’s playing. We are often unkind to Rutsey in discussing the history of the group, leaning so heavily on Peart’s ability that it makes Rutsey out to be some lumbering buffoon behind the kit. To understand why that perception is untrue, just listen to the album opener and closer of Rush again; the man clearly could play and, were Rush to continue down the path they had laid out for themselves with that debut more directly, he would have cemented himself as a powerful ally to that. The issue was that the band clearly always fancied themselves equally as influenced by the hard rock of The Who as the art rock of The Who, equally drawn to tracks like “Dazed and Confused” and “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin, viewing Hendrix as great not just because of scorchers like “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” and “Crosstown Traffic” but also longer, more cerebral pieces like “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” and “If 6 Was 9″. To achieve those ends, they needed a drummer with a more virtuosic, acrobatic flair. What’s more, they wanted those same ends for themselves, wanting to rival players like Chris Squire and Steve Howe at their respective instruments. To get there, they needed a peer who would push them, not merely accompany them.
The fruits of this switch are most obviously measured on “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” the group’s first proper prog rock epic. While the explorations on later albums would achieve longer runtimes, all the hallmarks of a proper Rush prog suite were laid down here and, it must be noted, laid down successfully. “By-Tor” never loses steam despite its near nine-minute runtime and four sections, of which the third section is broken into four even smaller sections. Musically, the tune situates itself halfway between Yes and Led Zeppelin, more or less the conceptual sweet spot for the band at this point in their career, and uses the narrative fantasy lyrics less as a conceptual thrust as is sometimes described and more as inspiration to venture more boldly beyond the constraints they’d been working in before. At last they had justification to explore programmatic elements such as simulating battle sounds with dueling guitars and bass or to string along multiple different moods in a song to better score some invisible film, all standard tricks of the trade going all the way back to Romantic composers of orchestral music where arrangements were meant to create the sound image of a decapitated head falling down a set of stairs or, in the case of Beethoven, to evoke the common life of workers in the fields in his sixth symphony. “By-Tor” and its poetic lyrics provided by Peart didn’t necessarily generate the riffs but did necessitate the arrangement we hear on the record, the way they are strung together and some repeat while others do not, all in the interests of best telling the story. These lessons, it turns out, parallel simple good songwriting lessons, a methodology to deepen one’s understanding of songcraft more generally even when not writing knotty prog epics, a more sophisticated manner of stringing otherwise unconnected riffs together into finished pieces by making them serve an intended goal rather than merely whether they sound nice in the moment.
Interestingly, “By-Tor” is not the longest track of the band’s at this time by much. Two of the songs on their debut clock in over seven minutes compared to “By-Tor”‘s eight-and-a-half, of which “Working Man” is one. The closing track on Fly By Night as well comes in at nearly seven. But despite having approached these lengths before, it is more the complexity and ambition of songwriting in “By-Tor” that makes the most obvious impact. It is not that the shorter songs on the record are unsuccessful; sure, the title track is a bit overrated, but “Rivendell” is thoughtful prog folk ballad that sounds an awful lot like early Collins-era Genesis when they still had Steve Hackett in tow, and album opener “Anthem,” Rand-inspired lyrics aside, is a thrilling piece of sophisticated hard rock, arriving at the same nearly-prog sentiment as groups like Captain Beyond and Atomic Rooster, who were not as complex, conceptual and virtuosic as others in the prog world while still being clearly a cut above, at least cerebrally, others in the hard rock world of the early ’70s. The Rand influence also is somewhat milder on “Anthem” than on later work, despite lifting the title directly from one of her works; that deliberate connection aside, the lyrics can easily be read quite generally as an ode to creativity, cutting out the pernicious stain of the lugheaded and dim right-wing libertarian nonsense Rand trucks in and that the band themselves would in time come to disavow themselves as they became more worldly and experienced and saw the limits of those thoughts.
It is worth addressing that bugbear head-on early, in fact. One of the bigger smears against Rush is, unfortunately, one they provided ample ammo for, that of their position as a vaguely right-wing or at least capitalist libertarian group. For years, the group did little to fight these associations, doubling down on their stances opposing socialism and defending Rand in interviews. But it is worth contextualizing these stances with their middle-class upbringing. Alex Lifeson, given name Alexander Zivojinovich, is the son of Serbian immigrants while Geddy Lee, given name Gary Lee Weinrib, is the son of two Holocaust survivors. It is not to say that they do not come from families who experienced hardship but instead that they themselves were mercifully spared the unique hardships their parents faced, instead experiencing the comparatively milder, more normalized sufferings of the banality of middle-class life, with its heart disease and suburban sprawl and conformist thugs and careerist rat race. Many of the things they would find themselves boldly and bare-chestedly resisting are, it turns out, generated by capitalism and not the bugbear of socialism they stood so proudly against at the time.
But we cannot hold at once that the propaganda of the imperial capitalist regimes of the West can be all-encompassing and soak media to the bone and then fault those raised in those walls for believing it, and given that the members of Rush came of age in the earliest days of the Cold War, it’s no wonder that, at least for a while, capitalism’s artist-poet Ayn Rand and her paeans against conforming to the will of society appealed to them. In time and with age, they would see the world and, noting the disparity of the kinds of suffering those in the global south faced compared to them and noting as well many of the origins of those sufferings, the band would recant their support of Ayn Rand, instead describing themselves as left-libertarians, a term that seems suspicious to American eyes but in the political parlance of the rest of the world signifies general left-anarchist sentiments. Knowing that they turned their backs on the ugly and stupid and victimizing philosophies of Rand over time spares an amount of malice that otherwise would be fare to their earlier work, especially here when the influence feels its most mild.
Caress of Steel
Caress of Steel came only seven months later, with the writing of the two albums separated by a mere six months. This density of time accounts for the feeling of this album, which noted clear the success particularly of songs like “Anthem,” “Beneath, Between, Behind” and “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” building the vast majority of the album around those concepts. There is a general sentiment among fans that persisted for years that this was one of their weaker efforts, but that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Opener “Bastille Day,” for instance, is one of their best fusions of hard rock and prog, featuring a metallic and very nearly punk rock chord progression for the verses before shifting to a highbrow and sophisticated set of chord and melody choices for the chorus that gives things a nearly classical European feel. This fusion of low- and high-art rock music in the worlds of punk and prog feels especially fitting given the subject matter of the song, one of the earliest and dearest celebrations of Marxist and anarchistic intent made manifest in the public destruction and utter dismantling of the political prison Bastille of France during its revolution. Rush’s politics in their early days may have skewed substantially more toward Objectivist libertarianism, but this was one of the first glimmers of a strident anti-monarchistic intent that would one day reorient the group to more acceptable and less annoying political pastures.
“Bastille Day” has another distinction in that it is the song that inspired Majesty, the first name that progressive metal band Dream Theater would use. Mike Portnoy, John Petrucci and John Myung, the initial trio of the group, were in line waiting for tickets to a concert outside the venue in the days before Ticketmaster or even ordering by phone and had brought a boombox to keep themselves company during the wait. All huge Rush fans, they were listening through the group’s first eight records on cassette when, during “Bastille Day,” Portnoy described the group as “the sound of majesty.” This phrase stuck and inspired the group to name themselves Majesty. Combine this with the often overlooked fact that the song’s foray into simple punkier chordal ideas for the verse simultaneously harkened back to their simpler rock tunes of their debut and forward to the New Wave and pop-rock driven directionalities of their ’80s and ’90s material and “Bastille Day” winds up becoming a terribly important song buried on an otherwise overlooked album.
Closers “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth” likewise are often misrepresented as less successful prog epics than they truly are. The issue comes in two places. First and most obviously, the sequencing of these longer tracks sacrifices the wondrous and engrossing fluidity of the earlier “By-Tor and the Snow Dog,” which they would regain literally on the very next album. This lack of clear and clean transitions and segues between the sections of these tracks is likely due to the shorter period between albums, leaving them with not quite enough time to smooth the pacing of the pieces that they sought to enjoin. The second and less commented-on barrier is that these two tracks take on a substantially more metallic tone. We can see their influence more keenly when viewing progressive black metal artists such as Mare Cognitum, Spectral Lore and the like than by looking either at hard rock or contemporary prog groups. We sometimes forget when discussing Rush that heavy metal of the ’70s was often intermingled on the same records as hard rock and prog with the genre often not having full albums devoted to the style until late in the decade. As beloved a prog band Rush is, they are also considered the singular most foundational progressive metal band. Songs like “Anthem” and “By-Tor” from previous records can hint at this esteem, but songs like “The Necromancer,” one which is quietly one of their very best epics, draw most obviously the connection between Rush and Metallica, Megadeth, Voivod, Coroner and nearly every great black and death metal band to come, not to mention the explicitly prog metal ones. “The Fountain of Lamneth” in particular has a driving punctuated riff that appears in the opening and closing segments that seems to presage the similar angularity the group would explore in lengthy sections of the later “Cygnus X-1″ duology of epics.
“I Think I’m Going Bald” is one weak spot on the album. It recalls the direct Who-inspired hard rock of their debut but already feels starkly outdated next to the other tracks. This is partly because it lacks the programmatic flourishes that Peart summoned up out of the band and, while the riffs and solos of the piece are strong, the lyrics and vocal melody feel a bit too much like a soon-to-be-forgotten pub rock band of weekend warriors than a future prog rock great. “Lakeside Park” is likewise often cited as a weak link of the record and perhaps compared to the more illustrious opener or “The Necromancer” it fails to measure up, but it is at least a more successful ’70s rock song than “I Think I’m Going Bald.” It’s hard to believe that the band would have survived the decade had they continued to sound like this, however; the greatest songs of this record have the visionary and naive fantastical sense of ‘70s hard rock, heavy metal, and prog greats, feeling at once of their time while also threatening to spill inward into the seeming and seething beauty of paperback fantasy novel covers. “Lakeside Park” meanwhile, aside from a few chorused and flanged guitar parts near its close, feels like bell-bottom jeans and raglan t-shirts. Oddly enough, this was the precise sentiment the band themselves would directly aim for in their final four albums together, devoting a full EP to the style near the close of their career, indicating that even Geddy Lee’s own notable distaste for the song was perhaps mislaid when reckoning the group’s true interior identity.
Rush’s breakthrough record 2112 followed their earlier trend, arriving seven months after Caress of Steel—25 months since the release of their debut, just over two complete calendar years, a span in which most groups would have released only a single additional record. It is perhaps because of this incredible density of material that the group largely considers these records to more or less live as one together, despite the two and a half hours of music. Rush were never the type to demo out ideas extensively and sort out material to develop more fully in the studio, instead committing to every idea as worthy of the record once they put enough work into it. This retroactively renders these early albums as equivalent to what for other bands would have been the demo years, scouring and searching for identity. It is especially noteworthy then that they produced as much quality music between the four of them as they did, with rarely more than a song or two on any given record that really don’t hold up in retrospect.
The title track of 2112 has had more than enough words spilled over it in the nearly five decades since its initial release and for good reason. While it is not the group’s greatest side-long prog epic—which had not yet been penned—it is a satisfying and rich development of the ideas laid down in tracks like “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.” A shift to the science fictional rather than the fantastical seemed to help the group get a greater grasp of synthesizers, a texture they’d wanted to explore from their earliest days. The opening two movements are rightfully legendary, featuring a knotty and rigorous instrumental prog metal workout before bursting into a similarly ecstatic prog metal vocal section. The following four sections have the occasional stumble, largely in marrying the more programmatic and dramaturgical ideas such as the sounds of the waterfall and the tuning of the guitar to the overall flow of a prog epic.
The biggest issue with those sections, however, is in how they foreground the group’s most strident conservative politics, immersed as they were in the necessary individualism of youth and the Cold War sentiments of the mid-’70s. It’s forgivable, obviously, and the tremendous music behind the lyrics does wonders, but it’s hard not to be annoyed by how thudding and obvious it all can be, especially when compared to the lushness and intoxicating strangeness of the narratives of their three earlier epics. The closing segment, thankfully, does a good job of cleansing the palette of the frustrations of the earlier few, focusing once more on intense and angular progressive metal instrumental workouts. It is no wonder the group would err toward playing the first two movements and segueing immediately to the final movement when performing this song live on almost every subsequent tour; it concentrates the strengths of the piece and focuses more keenly on the elements of Rush that would go on to define necessary elements of great rock and metal bands from this point forward, from Rage Against the Machine to Iron Maiden to the Smashing Pumpkins to Alice In Chains.
As much as the opening epic of 2112 is praised, the second half is ignored. This has to do, it seems, with how the second half of the record feels incoherent from the image of Rush that many Rush fans would see fit to propagate, one in which the group resolutely went downhill sometime after the release of Signals and departure of longtime producer Terry Brown, never to fully recover, a sentiment which does a wild and radical disservice to the lifetime of great rock and prog records the group has produced. “A Passage To Bangkok” for instance, annoying and twice-appearing Orientalist guitar phrase aside, is another track alongside “Anthem” and “Bastille Day” that demonstrates how keenly Rush could fuse prog and hard rock within digestible timeframes even from their early days with Peart, marrying a surprisingly sophisticated set of chords to a song about getting very extremely fucking high all around the globe
“The Twilight Zone”, “Lessons” and “Tears” are closer in composition, execution and mood to Permanent Waves, demonstrating a truncation of lengths but not vision. It’s frustrating how little attention those three receive, either from the band or from fans, given their relative strength. Oddly, it’s on this trio that you can best hear the elements of Rush’s sound they would zero in on from Moving Pictures forward, abandoning the longform suites that a certain stripe of fan had declared to be their bread and butter to instead focus on these smaller, more disparate and ultimately more modern and integrated pieces of music. It is also on these tracks that we can begin to hear Alex Lifeson employing quintessential Rush guitar voicings of suspended chords, added 9s and 11s, slash chords and voice doublings, underscoring the kind of inventiveness that richly filled out the group’s sound prior to their dive into the world of synthesizers. “Tears” also holds the distinction of being the group’s loving nod both to the Moody Blues as well as the more somber and Mellotron-driven works of Genesis such as the main body of A Trick of the Tail, their first record with Phil Collins as vocalist. Even the weakest song of the side, closer “Something for Nothing,” demonstrates the group producing another early prog metal workout a la “Anthem,” which is hardly a bad thing.
Rush then released their first live record, All The World’s A Stage. I don’t feel a particular keenness to dive too deep into the record itself; Rush were consummate professionals of the rock world but erred away from improvisation for the most part, which meant that the live sound was more or less the studio but with the added verve of being there, something this and every live document after would capture well. This is a component of prog that sometimes gets willfully misrepresented by those who merely dislike its compositions, that of the groups being boring and stilted and precious on stage, eschewing the wildness and intensity of live rock for something more prim and proper, as per the punkish view of prog groups. Rush was in good company with groups like Yes and King Crimson, who I’ve written about before, each of which demonstrated a necessary rawness to their sound and performances live while still nailing the fine details and filigree that make their complex compositions so compelling, marrying well the worlds of virtuosity and raw rock power.
What’s interesting about All The World’s A Stage is the precedent it set and the implication about how Rush viewed their own work. The album came after four studio albums and covered in fair spread the albums of that period. This sense of 4+1 periodicity would be repeated three more times up through 1996’s Test for Echo and 1998’s Different Stages/Live. This offers clear brackets of four LPs that the group suggests make up a bound set or exploration, which they felt necessary to underline with a live document. Even if the notion of these sets were not intentiona, they still function as interesting avenues of critical evaluation and produce through them a set of accident insightful truths.
This first set covers a span of just over two years, but already comparing songs like “Tears” and “2112″ with “In The Mood” and “Finding My Way” feel like two completely different bands. They seemed ito work emphatically hard to shed the looseness of their early sound, a sensibility they’d spend much of the final phase of their career seeking to regain. Rush never abandoned more traditional song lengths, and each album of this era features compact standouts. Rush clearly wanted to explore the same sprawl as Yes, one of their biggest influences and one continuously cited in every era up to and including Geddy Lee’s recent replacement of the dearly departed Chris Squire on bass for Yes’ performance at their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (an induction likely in no small part due to Rush being able to lobby and vote given their own recent induction). As much as those longform explorations take up attention by most writers covering this period as well as fan interest, the smaller pieces most keenly presage where the band would go later. This undercuts the sentiment we see bandied about that the group lost their way in the ’80s with increasing focus on synthesizers and pop-rock songwriting modalities. This four-album set certainly shows a band becoming more keenly aware of how best to compose, pace and smooth out longform epics, but overly fixating on those pieces for the sake of constructing some pithy narrative undercuts the similar successes songs like “Anthem,” “Bastille Day” and “Tears” demonstrate.
It is striking given the simultaneous dynamism of Rush’s career juxtaposed with just how much of their future ideas they would later explore were contained in these first four albums. The lengthy and knotty prog epics sit alongside the denser and shorter prog rock tunes that contain just about as many twists and turns, odd times and clever lyrics. The next four-LP phase of Rush’s career would come at a slower pace, with no record coming any closer than 13 months after the previous. Never again would the group match this whirlwind pace of rapid evolution and productivity.
Still, it is hard to feel that Rush had found themselves at this point. This is perhaps more a scandalous statement for the fans who were with them from the beginning and remember keenly picking up 2112 with its iconic cover and listening to it in smoke-filled ’70s bedrooms as a necessary panacea against the tedium and banality of rock radio. But as a listener who discovered them much later than that, having had the blessed vantage of being able to view all of the bands work in a stacked hologram of records, it’s hard to view Rush as having fully achieved themselves here.
These first four Rush albums have always felt to me something comparable to the demo years of an extreme metal band, the group working out in real time before a live audience the various shards of their influences they wanted to internalize without fully committing to any one concept or sound as their defining component. There is clear shrapnel here, from the sharpness, precision and alacrity of Peart’s figures, beats and fills to the rigorous and jaw-dropping grooves Geddy would develop on bass, clearly drawing more from the Entwistle, Jack Bruce and Chris Squire school of thought for the instrument, to the rich and unique chord voicings and arpeggios of Alex Lifeson.
Likewise, the perpetual influence of pop-rock and contemporanea is seemingly downplayed by fans even when looking back on these records because of some pernicious desire to always want to set Rush or even prog bands in general apart from the broader musical landscape rather than immersing them fully within it. Rush were not embarrassed of the pop and rock of their time, whether that be Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, The Police or Til Tuesday. They clearly did not see it as combative with their desires to pursue progressive music; despite the quality of their epic-length pieces in this era, they feel more like an evolutionary distraction compared to the developments they made on shorter tracks which would become their primary focus from 1980 on. It’s hard not to agree with Rush’s own well-tread opinion of the matter that they spent the ’70s exploring their influences and only ever fully came into their own in the 80s.
I still have a palpable fondness for this era. Beginnings are important; even if a twist comes in the path in later years, it is a twist in the path set by these early ones. It’s endearing to me to hear a young Rush so ardently and quickly pursue music that must have seemed beyond them, especially in the waning years of the commercial viability of this type of music. That speaks to the passion and sincerity behind it. I may not get on with the politics of these early Rush albums, but I’ve always shared the sentiment behind them, that of youthful petulance and pride spitting back at a cynical adult world telling the young not to dream and not to strive. In vindication of their youthful pride, they got better as they went along. Much, much better.
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