Monday, June 4, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 8: Reflecting on the Alternative

In the 90s, the password was "alternative" - a music category that represented a shift in ideology rather than in style. In the years during and after Nirvana’s popularity this term was repurposed and widened by the music press to promote the heavier sounds of bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. When these grunge bands started to hit the airwaves it was apparent, at least to me, that a generation of musicians raised on the fiery riffs of 2112 were finally assuming control.

Still, there was an inexplicable stigma that went along with being a Rush fan during the 90s.  I remained loyal, but I harbored a secret hope that the band might find inspiration in this wave of overdriven guitars and thunderous drums and go for a more vintage sound. I was nothing short of elated when the Carlos Casteneda book I was reading on the job as a bowling alley pin boy was interrupted by the dissonant riffing of Stick it Out.

In the media, however, the generation gap between Rush and their younger grunge contemporaries was impassable.  Ever on the ready to bash the band, the music press criticized Counterparts for jumping on the "alternative" bandwagon when it was released in 1993, a position that I find laughable. Even at the height of their popularity, Rush had never been a mainstream act. In my book, they were always and already the alternative.

In any case, Counterparts was, and is, easily their best album since Power Windows, perhaps even since Moving Pictures, depending on the degree of synth bias you, the listener, harbor.  It carries the succinct songwriting fingerprint of their early 90s work, but also has the vitality and adventurousness that attracted me to the band in the first place. It was also their most consistent release in a very long time. There were no tracks to merely tolerate, because even the weakest tracks on the album were actually tear-jerkingly good.

I saw Counterparts as an artistic comeback for Rush and a return to form that I hoped would gain momentum as their career progressed.  Even today, I count is as one of Rush's finest albums, and probably their most underrated.

Three years after its release, however, I was disappointed with its successor Test for Echo. Although the album retained the heavier sound of its predecessor, and incorporated some use of non-standard song forms, overall it just seemed forced. For the first time, I began to consider the possibility that perhaps Rush’s best work was actually behind them.

The most surprising flaw of the album was, uncharacteristically, Peart’s lyrics. After his revealing take on interpersonal relationships on Counterparts, Test for Echo seemed aloof and removed. This did very little, however, to tame his playing, which he was famously reworking under the tutelage of jazz drummer Freddie Gruber.

Now I admit that by 1996, I had pretty much given up on progressive rock and was delving into the artistic potentials of power pop. Listening back to Test for Echo today, I think that perhaps my initial judgment was a bit harsh and shaped by my tastes (and peers) at the time.  Although it lacks the consistency and confidence of Counterparts, it does have some standout moments in terms of musicianship and studio craft.

Even though Test for Echo was uneven, it ended up playing an important role in Rush's longevity.  For nearly thirty years, Rush kept regenerating based on the music that Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were listening to at the time, but these late 90s albums were different.  Counterparts brought the band's broad influence on music in general to light, but Test for Echo was self-referential.  Its most obvious inspiration was culled from the vast catalog of music that Rush had generated since their inception, and less from external sources.  This was a new perspective that would successfully reinvigorate the band after a series of personal events would put them on an unfortunate hiatus for over five years.  

To go back to the previous post in the series, click here
The next entry is here.

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