Rush will appear Tuesday and Wednesday at the Rosemont Horizon. Rush band members Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson are puzzled by the attention alternative rockers are throwing their way.
An odd thing happened on the way home from Lollapalooza '93: The progressive punks in Primus made it OK for alternative rockers to admit that they like Rush.
The long-running Canadian trio is usually written off by critics as a ponderous progressive-rock dinosaur. The group's faithful following -- which is rivaled in its devotion only by fans of the Grateful Dead -- knows better.
But a recent tour with Primus has introduced Rush to a new generation of fans. (Rush pairs up with Primus again for two shows at the Rosemont Horizon Tuesday and Wednesday.)
"The new revisionist Rush theory," singer and bassist Geddy Lee calls it. "I'm constantly being thrown new bands that are citing us as an influence, and I don't really know quite what to make of it."
When Rush first came together in Toronto nearly 20 years ago, it mixed the musical and lyrical complexity of progressive rockers such as Yes and Genesis with the drive of no-nonsense heavy metal. The result was such overblown but endearing high points as "2112" (1976) and "Hemispheres" (1978).
The trio lost its way in the mid-'80s, turning out keyboard-heavy albums with a slick, digital sheen. "Counterparts," the group's 19th album, doesn't exactly return to the vintage sound, but it does get back to the basics of guitar, bass and drums.
Of course, for Rush, "the basics" still mean serpentine arrangements, odd time signatures and Lee's distinctive Donald-Duck-on-helium yelp. But songs such as "Animate," "Stick It Out" and "Nobody's Hero" are more driving and catchy than anything since "Tom Sawyer" and "Red Barchetta" from "Moving Pictures" (1981), which remains the group's best-selling album.
The band credits the energy on "Counterparts" to a more organic approach in the studio and the inspiration of a new wave of bands.
"We were listening to things that were happening, Pearl Jam specifically, and we really got off on the energy," says guitarist Alex Lifeson. (The band members were interviewed separately at their offices at Anthem Entertainment.)
"We were on the road with Primus at the time and we got quite close with them. We used to jam with them every day for an hour and a half before they went on. We got a whole assortment of instruments that we couldn't play -- accordion, clarinet, flute -- and we had so much fun just trying to make music that it planted a seed that that's what it's all about."
"All of these bands on the West Coast were doing really interesting things, and to us it was a real positive explosion," Lee says. "The five or six years previous were such a dull, boring time for rock music. But this was a kind of rock music we could relate to because some of it is so weird and unconventional. It had an inspiring effect on us."
Producer Peter Collins (who worked on "Power Windows" and "Hold Your Fire") and engineer Kevin "Caveman" Shirley (a newcomer whose other recent projects include Material Issue) encouraged the members of Rush to recapture the visceral thrill they once got from playing loud rock 'n' roll.
"This was the first time in 12 years that I sat in the studio and recorded guitars," Lifeson says. "You've got to feel the guitar vibrating against your body and the sound going through the pickups for you to lock into the energy and really push it."
"For me, ironically, it didn't mean a lot," adds drummer Neil Peart. "The previous record, 'Roll the Bones,' stripped out all the electronics and brought me right back down to acoustic drums, so my transition had already been made. This time, we really changed our approach to keyboards."
"When we went in to do this record, Alex and I were sitting there at an eight-track computer machine getting ready to write and watching everybody set up the keyboards," Lee says. "When they were done, there was this bank of keyboards with all these computer screens.
"We looked at all these television screens, and nowhere could you get a ballgame. So we just went, 'Pass.'"
Lee believes that "Presto" (1989) and "Roll The Bones" (1991) suffered from "a drastic change in writing at the same time we changed production teams; we only got it right part of the time, and a couple of the songs were shortchanged."
But Peart, by far the trio's most humorless member, maintains that "Rush by design is a very uneven band. No way are we going to create a perfectly crafted record in which every song comes out the same because it would mean mediocrity," the drummer says.
Peart joined the band in 1975 after the departure of its first drummer, John Rutsey. It wasn't long before he also became the lyricist, spinning long-winded and fanciful tales inspired by Greek mythology and science fiction.
"The job was kind of thrust on Neil: 'You talk good, you be lyricist,'" Lee says. "As he's become an improved lyricist -- and some of his lyrics are fantastic now -- the style has changed."
"Counterparts" is essentially a concept album about male-female relationships couched in a variety of odd metaphors, just as the album's cover art offers a selection of visual puns about partnership and teamwork (nuts and bolts, salt and pepper, etc.).
"Gender differences were a big subject of study for me in the last two years," Peart says. "I ransacked everything from Scientific American to what the great thinkers of the world have had to say about it, just so I can be clear on what I was thinking and then try to put it into a few words."
The research is reflected in songs such as "Animate," in which Peart calls on the "Goddess in my garden/Sister in my soul/Angel in my armor/Actress in my role" to "polarize me/sensitize me/criticize me/civilize me."
Peart boasts of putting months of study into the 200 or so words in each song. For "Counterparts," he immersed himself in the writings of psychiatrist Carl Jung and controversial academic Camille Paglia.
The drummer's sometimes-pompous pronouncements remain a stumbling block for some listeners, but he brushes aside all criticism. He's confident that his opinions are the right ones. The fact that some disagree with him only leads him to draw a parallel with his new hero, Paglia.
"Her odyssey has been much like mine," Peart says. "She came out of '60s feminism, so her credentials are sound. Then her study, basically 25 years of scholarship, led her to certain conclusions that people dismiss with a snap.
"She spends years and years studying something and then says, 'There's this and this difference between males and females,' and somebody says, 'No there isn't.' This bothers me, too. If somebody's not willing to do the homework on it, then they have no right to the opinion.
"As Joe Walsh so eloquently put it, there's just no arguing with a sick mind."
7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
Rosemont Horizon, 6920 N. Mannheim, Rosemont
Tickets, $22.50 - $32.50