The Rush band members are over 60 years old now, with 20 albums to their name. It seems like yesterday they were in their twenties balling out “The Spirit of Radio” for the first time. Time doesn’t stand still, as they insist; it zings by. So here’s my homage to their five periods of music, at four albums a piece. Every album has a theme to which the songs point in some way, which I’ve listed. Following that I have bravely attempted to rank the albums, which will probably draw plenty of fire and counter-opinions.
The fledgling years. When I’m in a Zeppelinesque mood, I go to the first album, and when I want Rush at its best ever, I go to the last.
Rush (’74). Getting a rush from rock n’ roll: “Let’s be Led Zeppelin.”
Fly By Night (’75). The spirit of the moment.
Caress of Steel (’75). Swords, guillotines, midway rides.
2112 (’76). Freedom, liberty, and independence; anti-collectivism.
As the previous era tamed hard rock with prog, in this period the progressive style becomes disciplined and more accessible, culminating in the famous Moving Pictures.
A Farewell to Kings (’77). The doom of monarchies.
Hemispheres (’78). Subconscious drives; the duality of the mind (reason/emotion).
Permanent Waves (’80). The relationship between nature and technology; being true, and outlasting fads and fashions.
Moving Pictures (’81). Musical portraits (each song a mini-movie); the effect of the spotlight.
The era loved or despised. I’m with the former. Rush evolved by taking cues from the more talented bands of the ’80s — Peter Gabriel, U2, The Police, Talking Heads. Hard-sounding guitar gave way to tight, stylish keyboard performances and a darker tone to the music. On whole I consider this era as strong as the previous two.
Signals (’82). New generations vs. the old; the success and failure of communication.
Grace Under Pressure (’83). Surviving the horrors of the world and learning from them; the human response to external stress.
Power Windows (’85). The power of money, government, emotion, dreams, mysticism.
Hold Your Fire (’87). Time and events; turning dreams and goals into reality; controlling instincts (“fire” = “instinct”; thus “hold your fire”).
The difficult era to define, when Rush tried returning to its roots while also breaking new ground. Foes of the synth period rejoiced to hear more guitar and less keyboards. The era was marred by the widely hated Roll the Bones (the absolute worst of the 20 albums), then saved by the raging comeback, Counterparts.
Presto (’89). Appearances vs. reality; illusions; and the ways we pretend to be magical (problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand”).
Roll the Bones (’91). Fate, chance, taking risks. (Ironically fitting: the album itself was a risk — there’s not a single decent song on it.)
Counterparts (’93). Opposites and pairs; the “nuts and bolts” of human life; the mysteries of relationships.
Test for Echo (’96). The importance of communication and the need for feedback.
The Renaissance period, which has been rather bad, though the last album single-handedly redeems it.
Vapor Trails (’02). Vivid memories; loss, finality, and finding the determination to carry on in an uncaring world.
Feedback (’04). (Cover album.)
Snakes and Arrows (’07). The good and bad sides of religious faith.
Clockwork Angels (’12). Free will vs. determinism.
How They Rank
1. 2112. 1976. 5 stars. It should have failed, with no hit single and half the album a sprawling narrative of science fiction. But against every odd 2112 gave Rush sudden fame. It marked the clear point at which their hard Zeppelin and cerebral progressive styles — which had clashed rather badly on Fly by Night and Caress of Steel — came together just right. The 20-minute title track “2112” is about a guy living in a controlled future with no art, music, or creativity; he finds a strange device (a guitar) in a cave behind a waterfall, and after learning how to play it he takes it to the music-hating priests who are the overlords; the priests destroy the guitar, telling him that music was the evil that almost destroyed humanity; he then kills himself in martyrdom. The side helpings are frankly almost as good, especially “A Passage to Bangkok”, dealing with marijuana tourism, and “Lessons”, the only Rush song composed entirely by Alex Lifeson. 2112 is Rush’s best album and my third favorite prog album, after Selling England by the Pound (Genesis) and Wish You Were Here (Floyd).
2. Signals. 1982. 5 stars. I can only imagine if Rush had decided to evolve in the direction of heavy metal that was becoming popular in the early ’80s. We might have had Snakes & Arrows and Clockwork Angels thirty years early. Instead they went in the direction of my favorite ’80s bands — Peter Gabriel, U2, Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, etc. — focusing more on the music’s texture than its power. Lifeson’s guitar action receded into the background as Peart and Lee’s synth electronics, keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers took over big time. These changes would last through four albums, the band’s synth period of ’82-’87, and would be regarded as a betrayal by the purists. The first of the four, Signals, is a true masterpiece. Appropriately, the album’s theme is new generations vs. the old. The lead track “Subdivisions” is still my favorite Rush song, about adolescent isolation in the suburbs; it’s quintessentially minimalist. “The Analog Kid” has one of the best choruses ever; “Losing It” makes my heart break; “The Weapon” and “Chemistry” are genius; even the pop filler “New World Man” is pretty damn good.
3. Moving Pictures. 1981. 5 stars. Most critics give it pride of place, and you can understand why. Seriously, who hasn’t heard every song on Moving Pictures? It’s one great track after another. “Tom Sawyer” remains the band’s signature song, “Limelight” laments the oppression of fame, “Witch Hunt” examines mob violence, and “The Camera Eye” swirls with atmospheric odes to New York and London. If you haven’t heard Moving Pictures at all, you probably live at the North Pole. It’s the record that fired up rock fans, whether or not they ever liked Rush before, and is timeless in the purest sense. The album cover still makes me wonder. Is it a sly statement against socialism? One pair of movers is taking away religion, the other two pairs are bringing in a state-controlled economy (dogs playing poker) and Satanic practices (a naked man’s submission to a pentagram), whilst a horrified woman looking on is being “comforted” by a Russian official.
4. Hold Your Fire. 1987. 4 ½ stars...because this one will certainly draw fire, for being in my top five. Fans hate it with a passion. It’s the last of the four synth albums, and takes the keyboard approach to its extreme conclusion, resulting in the band’s biggest departure from their ’70s roots. With all due apologies to the purists, I love Hold Your Fire and never get tired of it. Unlike its predecessor Power Windows, it has aged wonderfully. There’s not a single bad song on it. It may not be the masterpiece Signals is, but even more than Signals it shows the band perfecting a style completely outside the “Rush orbit”. People who despise the synth era are basically just saying they don’t like synth, and that’s not a valid objection. Any musical genre can be good, and Hold Your Fire hits a home run with its shivering ethereal texture. I think most people who profess hatred for “Time Stand Still” are actually liars. “Mission” is simply pristine; “Prime Mover” the hidden gem. It’s called the Red Album by hard-core haters. I call it that too, but to reclaim it positively.
5. Clockwork Angels. 2012. 4 ½ stars. The Other Red Album, as I call it, could not be more opposite from the one above, but it’s just as good. Hold Your Fire gave the finger to Rush purists; Clockwork Angels appeals to them by returning to the conceptual story-arcs of the ’70s. One is ethereal grace, the other a combo of prog and heavy metal. The story-arc concerns a young man who journeys from his farm village to a big city ruled by a despot, and along the way he witnesses the worst acts of cruelty and treachery, yet clings to his optimism. The theme is free will vs. determinism, a subject about which the band has always had strong feelings and come down on the side of will. I strongly disagree (I believe free will is an illusion), but that doesn’t diminish the power of this album’s narrative and thundering melodies. The album closes on “The Garden”, the band’s best slow song ever. Clockwork Angels is a completely unexpected comeback album (I’m still addicted to it), easily the best thing Rush has done since Hold Your Fire, and if it ends up being their swan song it’s a perfect exit.
6. A Farewell to Kings. 1977. 4 stars. Its predecessor 2112 merged progressive rock with the hard Zeppelin-style, and the result was perfection. Now in Farewell to Kings, the band aimed for a purer progressive voice (Hemispheres in the following year would purify it completely, IMO too much for its own good). Peart expanded drum sounds with keyboard percussion and tubular bells; Lifeson lessened the rage of his guitar; and Lee discovered keyboards and synthesizer pedals. And they recorded the album in England, were progressive rock was thriving under softer and more idyllic sensibilities. The result is a strong album, but also one that shows signs of “finding its way” again. “Cygnus X-1” has never been a huge favorite of mine, probably because the outer-space story had been done so much better on 2112, and the intro is rather long and ponderous. But “Xanadu” is sublime, and “Closer to the Heart” is justifiably famous; it would become the band’s most cherished concert piece rivaling even “Tom Sawyer”.
7. Counterparts. 1993. 4 stars. After the putrefying excrement that is Roll the Bones came this comeback album, and easily Rush’s best effort of the ’90s. The band was capitalizing on the alternative and grunge that was all the rage, but giving it even more bite. They hadn’t sounded this hard-hitting since the days of “Tom Sawyer”, and the first three songs (“Animate”, “Stick it Out”, and “Cut to the Chase”) are the most obvious examples and seem front-loaded to announce a blistering return to form. Counterparts also has plenty of the cutting-edge social commentary for which the band is renowned. “Nobody’s Hero” remains my favorite track, with the assertive guitar and lyrics which inspired the law-review article “Nobody’s Hero: On Equal Protection, Homosexuality, and National Security”. “Alien Shore” is another more subdued piece that interrogates race and gender differences. Some tracks are more lackluster, but on whole this is a terrific album.
8. Permanent Waves. 1980. 4 stars. It might seem a heresy to rank the album containing “The Spirit of Radio” outside the top three and give it anything less than a 5-star rating, but alas. The problem with Permanent Waves is that it just doesn’t measure up to the incredible track that kicks it off. It’s a very good album, to be sure, but it’s no Moving Pictures. Even “Free Will” isn’t as great as its reputation might lead you to believe. The album is destined to be defined by “The Spirit Of Radio”, and to an extent it should. It’s one of the best rock songs of all time (my second favorite Rush song after “Subdivisions”), and fitting that it was the first song of the first album released in a new decade (January 1, 1980). But many Rush fans treat the entire album like the equivalent of Peter Gabriel’s So… and it ain’t so. The three-part “Natural Science”, however, is a noble track, and it’s not as if any of the songs are lemons. Weighing all of this lands Permanent Waves near the top of my 4-star tier.
9. Grace Under Pressure. 1984. 4 stars. Back in the ’80s I was underwhelmed by this album. It struck me as by-the-numbers, and it didn’t help that “The Body Electric” was overplayed on Rock 101 FM; it’s not one of the better tracks. But Grace Under Pressure has aged rather well for me (just as Power Windows has depreciated in value; see below). Thematically it’s Rush’s bleakest album, about dystopian futures, and how humanity responds to external stress and survives the horrors of the world. It came out in the middle of Reagan and Thatcher era, when unemployment and inflation were revving up and the cold war was in full swing. People didn’t want to hear unpleasant songs when reality was so damn gloomy, and so the album wasn’t as successful as it deserved to be. “Red Sector A” is a particularly grim track about a captive in a Holocaust concentration camp; “Distant Early Warning” deals with threats like nuclear war and acid rain; and “The Enemy Within” is a frenetic paced song dealing with how fear works inside us.
10. Hemispheres. 1978. 3 ½ stars. Rush snobs will object to it placing this low, but for all its brilliance Hemispheres is a bit too cerebral. This is what happens when prog is pushed to extremes. The band members got so buried under their concepts here that the music lost its punch; even the best tracks are somewhat atonal. I’ve never been the biggest fan of “Cygnus X-1 Book II”, which continues the black hole story begun in Farewell to Kings but not as impressively. That said, the second half of Hemispheres is quite good: “Circumstances,” “The Trees”, and “La Villa Strangiato”, that last being the band’s best instrumental. “The Trees” is a libertarian piece which the band members have been somewhat embarrassed by when right-wingers (like Rand Paul) express their love for it. Maples clamor for equal rights with majestic oaks and thus doom the entire forest for their efforts — meaning we aren’t all equal in every way, and any attempt to artificially create universal equality is doomed to failure. A reasonable message and simple truth, that unfortunately is open to misuse.
11. Presto. 1989. 3 ½ stars. This was Rush’s transition out of synth and back into “real” rock, but it’s a strange beast. A lot of the tracks alternate between sounding really good and, well, empty. I can’t get closure on Presto and had serious difficulty ranking it. I settled on the 11th slot with a 3 ½ rating, but some days I feel it deserves even higher, other days much lower. The album’s theme seems to have a real-world effect on the listener. The theme is “magic” — appearances vs. reality, illusions, the ways we pretend to be magical, or how problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand” — and it’s as if the illusion of the album’s greatness owes to magical enchantments sung into it by the band members. Tracks like “Presto”, “The Pass”, and “Hand Over Fist” sound awesome and inspiring, or strangely vacuous, depending on the fullness of the moon, so go figure. Rush worked some weird magic here all right.
12. Power Windows. 1985. 3 ½ stars. Of the four synth albums, this one hasn’t aged so well. Back in the day I would have put it all the way up at #5 as a close tie with Hold Your Fire. I still consider “The Big Money” one of the best songs in the Rush canon, but strangely, most of the other songs on Power Windows sound like the same song recycled slightly differently. When I try humming the tune of “Middletown Dreams”, I find that I’m singing “Grand Designs”; etc. Also, there is a cheesy upbeat feel that tends to undermine the heavy social commentary. In this sense the album inverts the bleak and dystopian elements of Grace Under Pressure (which for me has grown better over time; see #8). Power Windows entertains utopian hopes, with redundant melodies that put me in mind of the electronica optimism of (wait for it) Owl City. I know that’s a brutally unfair analogy, and I’m not seriously suggesting this album is as bad as anything by Owl City. I still enjoy listening to it. But it’s not the piece of excellence I once thought.
13. Rush. 1974. 3 ½ stars. When Geddy Lee was asked to rank the band’s albums, he placed this one pretty high — above Fly by Night and Caress of Steel, to the disagreement of many fans. I agree with Lee. For all its fledgling deficiencies, Rush is a fine debut album. It’s certainly better than Caress of Steel (which I consider a dud) and I think it beats Fly by Night too, even if it’s less polished. It’s basically Rush pretending to be Led Zeppelin, and by the gods they do it well. Everyone likes “Working Man”, but for my money, the lead track “Finding My Way” is so damn good that it’s one of my favorite Rush songs. I suspect fans aren’t inclined to give this album a fair shake because Neal Peart hadn’t joined the band yet, and that’s unfortunate. If Hemispheres is Rush’s most overrated effort, this one is probably their most underappreciated.
14. Test for Echo. 1996. 3 stars. I’ve seen lists which rank this album at rock bottom, which is rather surprising. It’s true that a lot of the songs are stale and unimpressive; in fact there are only three good ones to speak of. The problem is that of those three, one is really good, and the opening (title) track is so good that it’s one of my favorite in the Rush canon. “Test for Echo” has one of the most infectious guitar melodies I’ve ever heard — eerie, unnerving, subtle, and hard-hitting all at once. The bum rap this album gets is all the more surprising when you consider that it offers exactly what fans had been demanding since the synth period: a return to the heavy guitar and drum sounds of Moving Pictures. That’s exactly what Test for Echo is; it’s even more heavy than Counterparts in this regard. That said, it has to be conceded that most of the songs are simply not good, regardless of the classic feel.
15. Fly by Night. 1975. 3 stars. Like Test for Echo, the band’s sophomore album has three really good tracks, and the rest are crap. Part of the problem is that Rush was trying to do too many things and grow too fast, and they come off pretentious and amateur for their efforts. They slaughter Tolkien in the utterly boring “Rivendell”, and tracks like “Best I Can” and “Beneath, Between & Behind” are just as lame. On the other hand, the lead track “Anthem” is an excellent emulation of “Finding My Way” — a blistering hard-rock opening that certainly grabs attention. The nine-minute “By-Tor & the Snow Dog” is also very good and foreshadows the band’s future greatness. Then there is the title track “Fly by Night”, which is decent. Everything else, unfortunately, is forgettable if not painful to the ear.
16. Feedback. 2004. 2 ½ stars. I’m generally not a fan of cover albums. Rarely can an artist or band impressively reanimate songs on new terms — Annie Lennox’s Medusa, Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back, and The Killer’s interpretation of U2’s “Ultraviolet” are notable examples — but more often I find that cover creativity torpedoes the essence of what makes the original so good. In the case of Feedback, it’s the other problem: the songs are mere copycats of the originals, without virtually any spin at all, in which case what the hell is the goddamn point? It’s not that Rush’s performances are bad, rather that they come across as a wasted exercise. Die-hard Rush fans may enjoy hearing the band pay dues to their heroes, but the homages do very little for me.
17. Snakes & Arrows. 2007. 2 stars. When I first heard the lead track “Far Cry”, I was excited; Rush hadn’t had a decent album since ’96 (and even Test for Echo was far from excellent), and the back-to-basics approach announced in the reviews gave me incredibly high hopes for Snakes & Arrows. On top of that I thrilled to the album’s theme of religion, and the good and bad sides of faith. It was about time the band took on this subject. Snakes & Arrows, however, is a far cry from anything impressive after “Far Cry”. The rest of the album is a showcase for mundane melodies in which nothing stands out at all. “Working Them Angels” is a slight cut above the rest, but that’s it. This is without question the most disappointing Rush album in terms of the expectations I had for it. It may be an improvement over the misfire of Vapor Trails, but that’s not saying much.
18. Caress of Steel. 1975. 2 stars. Somewhat like Snakes & Arrows, it boasts a decent lead, “Bastille Day”, and then goes downhill. The two epics, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain Of Lamneth”, are pure mediocrity, and that’s pretty much the entire album. It’s the album that nearly killed Rush, and who could have predicted the masterpiece that would follow next year. Yet I must acknowledge the irony: without the leg-work done on this album, the miracle of 2112 might not have been possible. And it does have its defenders, though I take them with a pound of salt; I think they’re trying to like something more than it deserves. Caress of Steel is underdeveloped and overextended — an understandable bump in the band’s early career that allowed them to learn from these errors and push forward to perfection.
19. Vapor Trails. 2002. 1 star. The original mix was panned for having a distorted and muddy sound, for which the 2013 remastered version is supposedly the remedy, but frankly Vapor Trails is so bad on its own merits that any attempt to salvage it by a remix amounts to little more than trying to polish a turd. And I feel small for saying that, because it was Neil Peart’s catharsis following the back-to-back deaths of his daughter (killed in a highway accident on her way back to university in ’97), and then his wife (from cancer in ’98). Peart had announced his retirement after that, but later got his second wind, and thanks to Vapor Trails we got the post-millennial renaissance of Rush that would yield Clockwork Angels (see #5). Dismal failures can pave the way to unexpected success, and that’s what this album did.
20. Roll the Bones. 1991. 1 star. If I could make music as artfully shitty as Roll the Bones, I’d be perversely proud. Unlike Vapor Trails which is just a stinking mess, the music here seems deliberately crafted to mock and infuriate. (Of course, some purists would describe Hold Your Fire in the same way, but synth haters are a benighted breed to themselves.) Those who make excuses for this album remind me of the apologists for U2’s Zooropa, another ’90s stinker from a great band that for whatever reason turned to appease the teenybopper crowd. The title track is the lead offender, and when Lee sings, “Why are we here? Because we’re here, roll the bones…” that refrain stands as the most embarrassing self-indictment I know of from any band. The theme of the album is chance and taking risks, and indeed the album itself was a risk that completely failed: there’s not a single decent song on it.