Judge Erich Asperschlager is living in the lemon-limelight.
"I can't wait to share this new wonder."—2112/Discovery
My personal history with the Canadian power trio Rush began in high school. A friend at summer camp slipped me a Memorex cassette with a couple of their albums on it, and by the time my junior year rolled around, I was hooked. I trolled used record shops for vinyl copies of albums like A Farewell to Kings, and bought cassettes (have I mentioned that I'm old?) of everything from their self-titled first album to the concept-heavy Caress of Steel and Hemispheres. I'm not sure what other kids drew on their social studies notebooks, but mine had fully illustrated lyrics for the song "Xanadu."
Over the years, the band slipped to the back of my CD case, but a recent resurgence of all things Rush—spearheaded by the excellent documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage—has put them back in iPod rotation. Eagle Rock keeps the renaissance alive with Rush: 2112 and Moving Pictures, a deeper look at the two albums that started it all for me on a double-sided cassette almost twenty years ago.
Facts of the Case
Though Beyond the Lighted Stage delves deeper into the history of the band, this episode of Classic Albums hits the highlights of Rush's early years. Bassist/singer Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson met in high school, and formed a band with drummer friend John Rutsey, who left the group soon after their first album got picked up by Mercury Records. The position was filled by Neil Peart, who became not only the band's drummer, but also its lyricist. Two ambitious, yet less-than-successful albums later, Mercury began pressuring Rush to abandon progressive rock in favor of a more commercial sound. The band responded to that pressure in 1976 with their most ambitious prog rock record to date, 2112. Part sci-fi epic, part Ayn Rand-ian manifesto, the first half of the album is a single song in seven movements, which tells a story about a totalitarian future state where creative expression has been outlawed in favor of a hive mind society led by an all-powerful priesthood.
The record became a huge hit and the band continued to make concept albums through the '70s. Then, in 1981, Rush changed directions, turning out a more straightforward rock album, Moving Pictures. Built on synthesizers and modern beats, the album became a monster hit on the back of tracks like "Tom Sawyer," "Red Barchetta," "YYZ," and "Limelight," and Rush became one of the hottest tickets around.
Eagle's Classic Albums series is known for presenting the musical stories of some of rock's greatest records in a way that appeals to serious music fans. In addition to backstory and band recollections, the series breaks down the music, going to the mixing board with the musicians and engineers who worked on the album. For 2112 and Moving Pictures, the journey is guided by producer Terry Brown, and by Geddy, Alex, and Neil, who split their time between talking head segments and in-studio performance, letting the music speak for itself. Brown uses his giant mixing board to dissect everything from the multi-tracked complexities of "2112" to the sonic explosion of "Tom Sawyer."
Rush may be a trio, but their sound dwarfs groups twice their size. So does their talent. Peart routinely lands at the top of "best rock drummer" lists, and rightly so. It's a darn shame that Lee and Lifeson don't get the same recognition for bass and guitar. As far as I'm concerned, these guys are the best at what they do. I'm even more convinced of that after watching this disc. The part-by-part breakdowns of selected songs from both albums reveal not only technical proficiency but endless creativity. Geddy Lee, especially, benefits from the way the track isolation uncovers melodies in his bass lines otherwise hidden by the full mix.
Rush are not just master craftsmen. They are scholars, of literature and of rock music. They are open and honest about the influence bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Jethro Tull had on their music. Unlike many artists, there is precious little ego in Rush. They are a sincere, hardworking, and thoughtful band who are constantly driven to find new sounds and new directions.
No discussion of Rush would be complete without acknowledging the controversy surrounding Peart's fondness for Ayn Rand, and the influence her work had on albums like 2112. The band took a lot of heat in the early years for the connection. Certain publications went so far as to label Rush as ultra-right wing extremists—a perception that helped make them outsiders in the rock community. Although it's clear that Rush doesn't much care what the rock community thinks, Classic Albums gives Peart and his bandmates the chance to rebut. They explain that their admiration of Rand's celebration of individuality comes from a passion for creative freedom and the belief that success comes from hard work, not entitlement.
In addition to the 58-minute episode, there's an additional 54 minutes of bonus footage: a discussion of the work-ethic anthem "Something for Nothing;" a Neil Peart warm-up session entitled "This is Not a Drum Solo" (even though it is); a deeper look at the songs "Red Barchetta" and "Tom Sawyer;" the band talking about their influences and about each other; and in-studio performances of the "2112/Overture" and "YYZ." I'd love to tell you whether these are live performances or whether the guys are just miming along to the record, but I can't tell. They're that good. Be warned, though: you'll want to have the list of extras handy because once you start playing them, there's nothing to indicate what each segment is about unless you can figure it out for yourself.
Although I enjoy firing up my Blu-ray player from time to time, there's really no reason to go the hi-def route with this release. The 1080i resolution doesn't help the old concert footage look any better, and though the talking head segments are nice and clean, they would have looked fine in standard definition. Besides, it's the music that counts, and the LPCM 2.0 stereo track is where Eagle Rock really delivers. It's a rich and well-balanced mix with nice separation from low end to high. You can tell they've done this before.
In a perfect world, Rush would be mentioned in the same breath as the best rock bands. Despite all their success, entry into the upper echelon has eluded them. Perhaps it's because of Geddy Lee's…distinctive voice. Perhaps it's because instead of songs about sex and drugs, they write about snow dogs, Greek gods, and Ayn Rand. Or perhaps it's because their music defies easy categorization. Whatever the reason, 2010 marks the umpteenth year in a row that Rush has been denied entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It may not bother the guys in the band—they're probably too busy making music to care—but it bothers me. I hope that a copy of this disc is sent to every single Hall of Fame voter in time for next year's nominations. If, after watching it, they still think Abba is more deserving of the honor than Rush, I'm moving to Canada. I hear they've got a heckuva band.
Attention all planets of the Solar Federation: Rush has assumed control. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
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