Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 5: The Advent of the Synth

In the 70s, Rush was fascinated with the conventions of progressive rock and became a defining force in the genre by sheer force of will.  In the 80s, the smart, direct style of bands like The Police and The Talking Heads exerted a similar influence. Rush's deference for the music around them did not result in obvious reinventions, but some dramatic changes in their sound were certainly generated by their interests in the artistic successes of these new wave bands.

Integrating new technologies into their music also contributed to Rush's evolution. The band had been toying with synthesizers since 2112, but Subdivisions, the lead track from 1982's Signals, clearly announced the beginning of what I call their "synth period."

This particular era was divisive amongst Rush's more conservative fanbase. Some felt convinced that the band was selling out and losing connection with their progressive roots, but I find this prejudice troubling. Rush’s skills as open-minded music listeners proved to be a benefit to their longevity, and their interest in absorbing technological and stylistic conventions in their music was, and is, progressive in the truest sense. I do concede that there was a point in their career when the synths swallowed Lifeson’s guitar voice, but Signals is not when it happened. Lifeson’s guitar coexists and compliments Lee’s synthesizer interests when they arise, but by and large the album features some truly amazing guitar (and bass) playing.  Listen to Lifeson punish his whammy bar at the beginning of this blistering solo.

The Analog Kid by Rush on Grooveshark

Although it is an amazing document of the band’s long career, the recent Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage suffers from this anti-synth bias. The filmmakers did a respectable job of organizing live footage and interviews, particularly of the band’s early days, into a cohesive narrative, but there is a feeling that as Rush’s experimentation with synthesizers grew, the filmmaker’s interest in representing the band waned, as if these albums were somehow beneath notice.

I think that’s a tragic oversight. Rush was pushing themselves into incredibly creative territory in the 80s, and not only musically. Peart began writing lyrics that were loosely organized around a concept or theme, and by Signals, a lyric style had clearly emerged into a form that would pervade Rush’s work to the present day.  Taken as a whole, Signals is a somewhat bittersweet commentary of the friction that often exists between the expectation of society and the isolation of the individual. Grace Under Pressure, on the other hand, captures the stressful zeitgeist of the late cold war in 1984, when computers began creeping into our homes and the threat of nuclear war sent people desperately scrambling for bunkers.

Grace Under Pressure is one of Rush’s most programmatic albums. The relationship between lyrics in music in Rush's past work was relatively incidental, but Grace Under Pressure, with its further inclusion of synthesizers, sequencers, and, for the first time, electric drums, reflects the band’s intent to harness technology rather than submit to it. As a result, the album leans more in favor of a more synthetic, keyboard-driven incarnation of the band, but Rush retains their energy and fervor and adds an unexplored atmospheric depth. Anyone who has seen the band in recent tours has probably gained some respect for the power of Between the Wheels.

Between the Wheels by Rush on Grooveshark

Although I can see how fans whose loyalties lie with Rush's more classically progressive albums might have had a had time accepting the work from their synth period, I am a staunch advocate of this era. The precision, intensity, and imagination of these albums won me over into Rush's camp.  Still, neither Signals or Grace Under Pressure had the distinction of opening the door in the first place.  That fortuitous event wouldn't happen until 1985....

The previous post in this series is here.
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