I hit the Rush discography pretty hard this past weekend. In light of the passing of the amazing drummer/lyricist Neil Peart I was compelled to jump down the Lee/Lifeson/Peart rabbit hole and see if I’d come the other side the same. It’s been awhile since I binged my favorite prog rock Canadians, and I have to say it was rather cathartic. Almost feeling drunk on the joy and intellectual muscle of their records, as if each one was like popping the cap on some beautifully dank IPA and letting the brew take me on a journey. Of course, no brew was needed for this journey. Only the drop of a needle and the unmistakable music prowess of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart.
I sort of stuck to the second phase of Rush for the weekend. I feel like the self-titled thru A Farewell To Kings was phase one, where the power of prog was on full scale. Phase two starts with Hemishpheres and ends with Signals. Truth be told, phase two for me was always the spot I’d land. I dig every phase and mood of Rush, but for my money Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures, and Signals are the best albums at combining the prog tendencies with the tight pop leanings that opened the doors to a whole new fan base(aka, when girls started coming to the shows with their boyfriends.)
Rush did a fantastic job of growing and evolving their sound to what was happening in popular radio culture. Grace Under Pressure, which came out two years after Signals, stands as a shining example of how a band adapts to the times. Instead of digging their feet in and continuing on the path of epic concept albums and 20 minute songs, they made music that fit the landscape and continued to be vital(this was something that they continued well into the 2000s, more than any of their contemporaries ever did.) Grace Under Pressure was the beginning of a new phase, and a goodbye to what came before.
Signals was the end of an era for Rush. An end to prominent guitars(at least until 1989s Presto), and an end to their relationship with producer Terry Brown. Brown guided them from the beginnings and thru their almost firing from the record label, to Rush firmly creating a legacy with 2112, and saw them find a spot in the MTV generation. After Signals, the band decided they wanted to go a different route and work with someone new.
For me, Signals always felt like the lost album. It came right after the massive crossover success of Moving Pictures, and right before Rush’ major synth era. And since it came out just a year after Moving Pictures it just seemed lost in the shuffle. For years I rarely would listen to it. It had “Subdivisions”, “New World Man”, and my personal favorite “Losing It”, but other than those I kind of forgot about the rest. I never even bought the cassette back in the late 80s(I just borrowed my friend Jason’s copy when I wanted a fix.) But a couple years ago I found a OG vinyl copy for $6 and snagged it up. I was in a Rush fever at the time and felt like deep-diving on some Terry Brown-era Rush. Man, I was so off when it came to Signals. It stands up there with Moving Pictures. It almost feels like a companion record to it, but tighter and with more of a Police vibe. It’s a brilliant little record.
Everyone knows “Subdivisions”. There are certain days where parts of that song get going in my head and it’s as if the needle gets stuck in my brain and it keeps playing one line over and over, “But the suburbs have no charms to soothe/The restless dreams of youth”. Besides “Tom Sawyer” this was one of the first Rush songs I ever heard and saw. The video would play on MTV whenever I was at my neighbor’s house. Whenever I saw it I just thought to myself that I had no interest in going to high school. It was a devastating depiction of the horrors of adolescence(a shining example of that Neil Peart humanity I’ve been talking about.)
“The Analog Kid”. I’d forgotten just how good this song was. What an incredible mixture of 80s new wave vibe and the muscular music dexterity of Rush. There’s also a great Lifeson solo that sounds as if Trevor Rabin was paying attention(“Owner of a Lonely Heart”, anyone?) “The fawn-eyed girl with the sun-browned legs/Dances on the edge of his dream”…damn! I knew a couple fawn-eyed girls and they wouldn’t even dance within a country mile of my dream. Those lyrics are just amazing.
“Chemistry” is a great example of Rush’ machine-like prowess when it came to locking into the groove. It’s also the perfect coming together of both classic Rush meat and potatoes music muscle and the electronic aspects they were working into the fold. “Elemental empathy/A change of synergy”. I think we could use some more elemental empathy these days.
“Digital Man” sounds as if it could’ve come right off Police’s Ghost In The Machine. I hear so many similarities between the two bands in this era. What could’ve been a moodier, synth-heavy track turns out to be a bouncy, almost reggae-on-steroids romp. How these three lock in together is jaw-dropping. “He’d love to spend the night in Zion/He’s been a long while in Babylon/He’d like a lover’s wings to fly on/To a tropic isle of Avalon”. Just perfect.
“The Weapon” opens side two. Neil Peart’s fascination of powerful men using their power for not-so-good things. Once again the guitar/bass/drum/synth vibe is strong here. This might be my least favorite track on Signals, but only because the vocals seem a little clunky to me. Musically this thing is amazing. The mid section synth is just incredible. I love what Alex Lifeson does with what little he plays. And I just love his solos in this era. He uses the tremolo tastefully, creating the “Lifeson sound”. I do like the lyrics, I just think the vocals don’t lock into the music as easily as other songs. “And the knowledge that they fear/Is a weapon to be used against them”.
Of course “New World Man” is top notch. Really, one of the best Rush singles. Up there with “Closer To The Heart”, “Spirit of Radio”, and “Limelight”. Someone being left behind as the world moves on is a theme that Neil Peart does really well. “He’s a rebel and a runner/He’s a signal turning green/He’s a restless young romantic/Wants to run the big machine.”
“Losing It” was one of the songs that completely clicked with me when I heard Signals in high school. I loved the slow motion groove, the amazing electric violins by Ben Mink, and just the almost dream-like nature of the track. In kind of a weird stretch, it also put me in mind of the music in Fright Night when Jerry Dandridge was seducing Charlie’s girlfriend Amy. Not sure if that was Brad Fiedel or not, but even after all those years when I heard this song it took me back 4 years to that movie. I love the violin and guitar solo, Neil’s amazing hi-hat work, and the chorus has such a pop sensibility, almost sounding like Genesis’ Abacab. This song still grabs me as tightly as it did back then. “Sadder still to watch it die/Than never to have known it/For you-the blind who once could see/The bell tolls for thee”. Peart’s ode to Hemingway.
“Countdown” closes Signals. The NASA song. I can’t begin to imagine the awe these three felt watching the first Space Shuttle launching and how that affected how this song came together. They had been in the business of writing sci-fi heavy albums, and to see something as magnificent as that white bus shoot out of the atmosphere had to have been mind-blowing. “Countdown” surely is. “Scorching blast of golden fire/As it slowly leaves the ground/Tears away with a mighty force/The air is shattered by the awesome sound”. Awesome sound? Yep, indeed.
It’ll be awhile till I can listen to a Rush album and not be sad that they’ll never make new music again, or that I’ll never have the chance to see them live one last time. Or that there won’t be anymore of those charming three-way conversations between Geddy, Alex, and Neil. But man, we have over 40 years of music to drown that sadness in. We can revisit albums that maybe didn’t click before, but maybe they will now. Take a week and soak in the early years, then maybe lock into their late 70s-early 80s phase. My favorite, at least for the moment.
If you haven’t listened to Signals lately I highly recommend revisiting it. Absolutely underrated.