Monday, June 11, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 9: New Uses of Space and Time

As Rush’s timeline lengthened, the distance between their releases got wider and wider, but it wasn’t filled with empty space. In the six years leading up to Vapor Trails, Peart worked through an emotional burden that could have ended his career, an ordeal that is best recounted in his own words. My world radically changed in this gap, as well. The band I was playing in broke up, I graduated, began teaching in public schools, got married, and was subsequently divorced. I was a much different person by the time Vapor Trails was released in 2002. When it was announced, I was, of course, elated, but also skeptical. I had six years to get used to the idea that Rush was done, and after leaving on what I saw as a particularly low note in their catalog, I was uneasy about their return.

Vapor Trails, however, ended up being a compelling entry into Rush's canon. It is, admittedly, a casualty in the “loudness war” that producers were waging in the 00s, but that doesn’t hide the strengths of its distinctive compositional approach. Rush was focusing on creating a singular, synergistic sound to support Peart’s lyricsm, which now carried a noticeable emotionalism borne of experience. There were few guitar solos and noticeably dense chordal bass work from Lee. Traditional structures like choruses and verses were downplayed in favor of a more egalitarian flow from one musical idea to the next.

Most often, this approach worked. The overwhelming majority of the songs on Vapor Trails are gripping, and in some cases, the album’s cacophonous production enhances the vital drive that is a key element to Rush’s finest work. I find the explosive stabs of noise in Peaceable Kingdom to be particularly electrifying.

Peaceable Kingdom by Rush on Grooveshark

When they began their support tour, however, the issues of production melted away, and the band’s characteristic energy emerged. When I saw them on this tour, and the ones that followed throughout the decade, I felt that not only were they playing better than ever, but the quality of their sound continued to improve exponentially, as if stage sound had finally caught up to what they had been doing in the studio since the late 70s.

Although many of my memory episodes connected to previous Rush albums were of the people that I shared the actual listening experience with, their post – 2000 material brings contemporaneous experiences as a music teacher to the surface. Vapor Trails, for example, will always remind me of moving percussion equipment around the campus of Texas State University during All-State Solo and Ensemble contest in 2002. Additionally, the cultural impact of Guitar Hero had a positive influence on Rush’s relevance, and I sometimes engaged in critical discussions with students about Rush’s newer releases. In 2006 I went so far as to assign one of my jazz band drummers, who was musically studious but academically ineligible, to write a written review of Peart’s playing on Snakes and Arrows.

He pointed out, quite correctly, that overall, Snakes and Arrows has a noticeably relaxed feel. More subtly, however, the prominent appearance of the "Hemispheres chord" in the introduction of Far Cry indicates an intentional move to evoke nostalgia for the devoted fan, a strategy that extends into the song’s attendant video, as well as the album as a whole.

Although in some ways, Rush was self-sampling on Snakes and Arrows, their relaxed and confident playing is also reified in the album’s formatting. It is a unique mélange of songs and freestanding instrumentals that is unprecedented in the band’s catalog. Some of these tracks are quite short. In the distant past, these tidbits would have found their way into Rush’s extended work as connective tissue between larger ideas, but on Snakes and Arrows they find a life of their own as standalone compositions. 

As Rush and I grew up together, I often wondered how they would be able to maintain their intensity in a believable way as the years passed. Snakes and Arrows is a perfect example of what a mature version of the band I loved since I was a teen would sound like. More than any other album it is a culmination of everything Rush had done up to the point of its release. Its intensity is tempered by an unperturbed self-assurance that kept my passion for the band alive as a devout, if cautious, fan.

The Way the Wind Blows by Rush on Grooveshark

This fervor makes tomorrow a particularly exciting day, then, because Rush’s newest album, Clockwork Angels, is going to be released. There is the opportunity to hear nearly this entire album online, but I have tried to keep myself in the dark as much as possible to preserve the experience. Of course, my willpower has cracked a couple of times, and what I have heard has only whetted my appetite. The final entry for this project will be a review of Clockwork Angels, and I hope that I can be patient enough with myself to reserve judgment until the excitement of new Rush material dies down – just a little.

The previous post in the series is right here.
The next, and last (?) post is here.

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