A 20-Year-Old Band With Some New Tricks

By Jon Pareles, New York Times, March 10, 1994

In many ways, Rush is a classic cult band. Its albums zoom up the charts immediately upon release; its tours, including its two nights this week at Madison Square Garden, sell out fast. At concerts, large numbers of fans can be counted on to sing along with every song.

Like most arena bands, Rush provides spectacle. On Tuesday night, the three-man band played its two-hour set amid film clips, smoke, psychedelic-patterned lights and showers of sparks. There was even a prototypical heavy-metal drum solo by Neil Peart, complete with rotating platform and a final gong.

But Rush is a long way from Motley Crue. Many of its fans spend time analyzing Mr. Peart's lyrics, which ponder questions of the individual versus the mass and free will versus destiny, with allusions suited to bookish high schoolers. A song called "Tom Sawyer" insists, "What you say about his company is what you say about society."

Rush, which released its first album in 1974, has also done something few cult bands have managed: it has changed. What first brought the band its huge following were elaborate, suitelike songs strongly influenced by Yes, full of riffs in odd meters and lyrics dedicated to high-flown concepts and allegories.

As art-rock waned in the 1980's, Rush remade itself. Still spouting a philosophy of individualism, Rush cut down on odd meters and latched onto the floating guitar arpeggios, reggae-tinged drumming and more concise phrases of groups like the Police. The bassist Geddy Lee's high voice, which suggests a munchkin giving a sermon, began to resemble Sting rather than Jon Anderson of Yes. In songs like "Time Stand Still" and the new "Double Agent," Rush even takes pains to provide the melodic hooks of pop tunes.

With the band's current album, "Counterparts" (Atlantic), Mr. Peart and Rush take on topics most bands would have already addressed after 20 years: love and sexuality. Not that the band is writing typical love songs; in "Animate," Mr. Lee sang, "Mistress of the dark unconscious/ Mermaid of the lunar sea." The concert opened with a computer-animated film of a screw threading into a bolt, culminating in a flash of white light.

On stage, Rush flaunts musical proficiency, with speeding lead-guitar scales by Alex Lifeson, hard-hitting drumming by Mr. Peart and earnest vocals from Mr. Lee. The band doesn't swing at all - Mr. Peart prefers subdivision to syncopation - but its riffs gather a cumulative momentum. Unfortunately, Rush lacks even a rudimentary sense of dynamics. Except in those songs where Mr. Lifeson switched from acoustic to electric guitar, the music all proceeded at one unvarying volume, without any breathing space. Like the walls of a musical fortress, the band's unyielding performance keeps insiders protected and outsiders away.