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Rush - Signals (1982)

Rush are a band that is to Canada what apple pie is to the United States. Rush is hockey, toques, canoes, and Bob and Doug McKenzie (our ambassadors to the world).

Rush are also a musically and lyrically complex band that demonstrate just what can be done with an instrument and an imagination. The band released their first album in 1974, and have continued releasing albums ever since. So when one discusses Rush, the band are generally described in terms of their eras - their ‘early’ era, the ‘eighties’, and the ‘new’ or ‘current’ era, all of which are distinguishable. There is no weak era with Rush, just sonically different ones.

The early era consisted of massive song suites, arranged not unlike Classical music, with bombastic guitars and drums, generally accompanied by the screeching vocals of Geddy Lee, with their fantasy-oriented themes concerning futuristic races of people, great battles, mythology, the sort of thing a fan of 'Dungeons and Dragons' might think about.

The ‘eighties’ era saw a much softer Rush, with the inclusion of keyboards and a less guitar-heavy approach. Another key difference was the seemingly puberty-linked drop of Geddy Lee’s vocals. And while still musically complex, the ‘eighties’ saw less guitar hero action from Alex Lifeson, who opted to be more of a texture player than a shredder. The songs developed a poppy edge while still retaining their thought-provoking topics.

The album that I’m going to discuss today is Signals, a release often overlooked in Rush’s massive catalogue, partly due to it following the band's biggest commercial success, Moving Pictures.

Signals was released in 1982 and - like Moving Pictures - had a a more synthesizer-oriented approach compared to the band's harder-rocking earlier albums. While some fans started to drift away from Rush at this point due to such stylistic changes, it was perhaps their most commercially successful period. The previous long extended guitar solos and drum interludes gave way to richly-textured chordal arpeggios and dense keyboard passages, creating a wall of sound on shorter catchy songs, though still rife with lyrical wonderment and lofty thoughts.

The album opens with the ominous robotic keyboards of “Subdivisions”, a song embodying the concept of an electronic new world. While it initially drifts along with floaty keyboards and less-than-aggressive vocals, the song carries an uncomfortable weight. Next, “The Analog Kid” kicks in with standard issue ‘impossible-to-play’ Rush riffage, the difference now being that the band is easier to listen to, even though the music is still very challenging. True genius. This song is more of a solid rocker than some of the album’s other material, complete with a blistering guitar solo.

“Chemistry” continues the futuristic feel of the album, yet lyrically explores questions of a very organic nature, being full of interesting musical breaks and odd timings and turn-arounds, with drummer Neil Peart reminding us that he is super human! And Geddy Lee demonstrates once again that he is one of the top bass players on Earth the second “Digital Man” kicks in. What is so impressive is his ability to not sound like he’s over-playing.

“The Weapon” is a synth-driven pulsing track that has some fantastic ‘not-guitar solo sections’ where Alex Lifeson really shines with the textural playing that he’d mastered over the last few albums. The song feels like an entire science fiction novel in a six minute song. And “New World Man” starts out sounding like it could be from a Bruce Cockburn album, but then comes out swinging in the choruses.

“Losing It” is a fascinating song that gently lilts along with its captivating electric violins. The middle section is a tension-building space journey, wrapped up with some precision playing and a realization of what could've been. Lastly, Signals closes with a rocking song, again about space travel, called “Countdown”.

On Signals, Rush somehow manage to avoid going over the top with the cheese factor, with a topic that could easily have been silly were it not so well thought out. Fantastic songwriting and a willingness to try new things has kept Rush exciting and fresh through four decades, and Signals is an album that showcases that spirit well.

Rated: no rating
by Reviewer: Mike Hodsall

Posted: Tuesday 25th Nov 2014 12:30 AM

The critical consensus is that this is the album that stabbed dead the beast of psychedelia, clearing the way for the 1970's.

On closer listening though, there's actually quite a lot that's psychedelic going on here - in both the keyboards and guitars, and also the dream-like quality of many of the lyrics. What this album did instead was show the way out of psychedelia. I can sum it up in two words - beauty and dignity.

There's not a note on this record that happened randomly, or that wasn't planned to make the listener's experience more enjoyable. When The Band supposedly fail, as in the unpleasant harmonies of "To Kingdom Come", it's more a matter of taste - lots of people enjoy that particular voicing. There's nothing deliberately out of place, like in much of the Grateful Dead's or Jefferson Airplane's work.

I can't begin to describe how pretty "I Shall Be Released" is, not just in the melody, which is one of Dylan's finest, but also in the purity of Richard Manuel's falsetto vocal, the warmth of the organ, and the gentleness of Levon Helm strumming his hands through the snare strings of his drum. Similarly magnificent is Rick Danko's delivery of "Caledonia Mission", that swoops up through a Conway Twitty-style rumble into some beautiful high notes.

There's not a lot of rock and roll here - the closest is "Chest Fever", but with its downbeat a halfbeat off the one, no one's going to be dancing. The music is meant for listening, and all the players are restrained and precise. I don't believe there's a single guitar solo here, yet never does more than one instrument take a fill at the same time.

As important as the music was, the lyrics played an equally large role in mapping the route from Wonderland. There's nothing personal here - no rebellion against authority, no airing of deeply-felt personal beliefs. On the other hand, there are no teenybopper romances either. There are just songs telling the stories of ordinary people dealing with the crises of life.

Bob Dylan's three numbers have the most enigmatic lyrics. I believe "Tears of Rage" is about a father mourning the estrangement of his daughter, "This Wheel's on Fire" is about the impending apocalypse, and "I Shall Be Released" is about a prisoner watching the sun rise on the wall of his cell, but I definitely had to have them explained to me. On the other hand, the lyrics are well-delivered, with lots of terrific phrases that stick in my head.

The original material by Manuel and Robbie Robertson is less obtuse, but still has a definite mysterious quality. "In a Station" seems like it came from a painting by Magritte, and "The Weight" is a Kandinsky. My favorite number is "We Can Talk", with its terrific Gospel piano line, and the three singers swapping lines. That would be a Brueghel.

Music from Big Pink is of course still a debut album, and not everything works. "Long Black Veil" was recorded for a joke, and like all joke songs its appeal quickly fades. "Lonesome Suzie" is too languorous for its melody - it either needs speeding up or a better arc to the tune.

If you've never heard this album, it will come as a shock, even many decades after the age of psychedelia - there's simply nothing that sounds like it. If you've tried it and didn't like it (I was in that boat for several years), try this: Listen to Magical Mystery Tour, After Bathing at Baxter's, and Their Satanic Majesties Request. Then put on Big Pink. You'll be astounded, I guarantee.

by Reviewer: Steve Knowlton

Posted: Tuesday 25th Nov 2014 12:54 AM