Welcome to my Rush tribute, in celebration of the band’s new album to be released this spring. These three guys — Neal Peart, Geddy Lee, and Alex Lifeson — are just amazing, still going strong after three decades, still evolving in creative ways. Peart is sheer legend, a powerhouse drummer and brilliant lyricist; Lifeson still revered for what he can do with the guitar; and Lee’s voice, well, it’s as high and defining as ever.
They gave us four distinct eras of music — hard rock (’74-’76), progressive rock (’77-’81), synthesizer rock (’82-’87), alternative rock (’89-’96) — and are now in the middle of a fifth (’02+), defining itself as we watch it unfold. Four albums belong to each era, save the unfinished last, for a total of 18, or soon to be 19. (And that’s not including live and compilation albums.) The question of the best era — let alone the best albums from any era — is fiercely contested battleground, as you can glean from some of the bickering over at The Rush Forum. That’s a fun forum to browse if you ever liked Rush.
With the exception of one, every Rush album is dominated by a theme represented by the title, and all songs on an album point to the theme in some way — a testimony to Peart’s lyrical smarts. Here are the albums in chronological order, grouped by era, with their respective themes listed. The links point to the excellent Power Windows site, where all of the albums are displayed, with the lyrics to each song. The lyrics are worth reading for poetry alone, even if you don’t know the music.
The Hard Rock Era (’74-’76)
The fledgling years. I’m not wild about this era, though a lot of Rush geeks love it. I can tolerate the albums if I’m in a rare Zeppelinesque mood, but none have found their way into my CD collection.
Rush (’74). Theme: getting a “rush” from rock n’ roll.
Fly By Night (’75). Theme: the spirit of the moment.
Caress of Steel (’75). Theme: swords, guillotines, midway rides.
2112 (’76). Theme: freedom and independence; anti-collectivism.
The Progressive Rock Era (’77-’81)
The era for which the band is renowned, especially the tail-end. Moving Pictures remains their most popular album. Who hasn’t heard Tom Sawyer and Limelight played left and right on the radio? Other landmark songs include Closer to the Heart (Farewell to Kings), and Spirit of the Radio (Permanent Waves) — two of the most pristine hits the group ever came out with. Spirit of the Radio, moreover, is listed as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock.
A Farewell to Kings (’77). Theme: the doom of monarchies.
Hemispheres (’78). Theme: subconscious drives; the duality of the mind (reason/emotion).
Permanent Waves (’80). Theme: the relationship between nature and technology; being true, and outlasting fads and fashions.
Moving Pictures (’81). Theme: musical portraits (each song a mini-movie); the effect of the spotlight.
The Synthesizer Rock Era (’82-’87)
The era loved or despised. Most 70s bands trying to adapt in the 80s went nowhere, but Rush soared to new heights (I obviously like this era). Hard-sounding guitar gave way to tight, stylish keyboard performances and a darker tone to the music overall. Noteworthy songs include the addictively minimalist Subdivisions (Signals), the bleak Distant Early Warning (Grace Under Pressure), the hard-hitting Big Money (Power Windows), and the ethereal Time Stand Still (Hold Your Fire).
Signals (’82). Theme: new generations vs. the old; the success and failure of communication.
Grace Under Pressure (’83). Theme: surviving horrors and learning from them; the human response to external stress.
Power Windows (’85). Theme: the power of money, government, emotion, dreams, mysticism.
Hold Your Fire (’87). Theme: time and events; turning dreams and goals into reality; controlling instincts (“fire” = “instinct”; thus “hold your fire”).
The Alternative Rock Era (’89-’96)
The difficult era to define, when the band tried returning to its roots while also breaking new ground in an alternative direction. Foes of the synthesizer period rejoiced to hear more guitar and less keyboards. The era was marred by the widely hated Roll the Bones (a truly horrible album), then saved by the raging comeback, Counterparts. The emotional Pass (Presto) and sharply acoustical Nobody’s Hero (Counterparts) are examples of what makes this era almost (if not quite) as strong as the others.
Presto (’89). Theme: appearances vs. reality; illusions; the ways we pretend to be magical (problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand”).
Roll the Bones (’91). Theme: fate, chance, taking risks. (Ironically fitting: the album itself was a risk — there’s not a single decent song on it.)
Counterparts (’93). Theme: opposites and pairs; the “nuts and bolts” of human life; the mysteries of relationships.
Test for Echo (’96). Theme: the importance of communication and the need for feedback [thanks to the anonymous commenter].
Rush in the New Millenium (’02+)
Soon after the Test for Echo album, Neal Peart lost his daughter (and only child) in a car accident, and then his wife to cancer ten months later. That resulted in a six-year hiatus, and no surprise, the new album (Vapor Trails) centered on themes of loss and tragedy. A couple years later the band did a tribute to their favorite bands from the 60s and 70s (Feedback), with songs by artists like Eddie Cochran, The Who, and Robert Johnson. In a few months we’ll get to hear the next album, which is apparently about religious faith. Time will tell how this new era is categorized.
Vapor Trails (’02). Theme: vivid memories; loss, finality, and finding the determination to carry on in an uncaring world.
Feedback (’04). (Rush’s tribute to other rock bands.)
Snakes and Arrows (’07). Theme: the good and bad sides of religious faith.