The best way to approach Alex Lifeson's new solo record Victor is to completely disregard the identity of its creator. That persona, the shaggy, blond-haired, heavy-prog riff guru of Rush - is barely recognizable in this scathing, screaming-to-brooding post-grunge anyway. These days you probably wouldn't recognize Lifeson if he were sitting next to you on a Toronto bus. Dressed in black with short-cropped hair, smoking cigarettes as he discusses songs about spousal homicide, the man behind Victor is pleased that the album in no way points to his tenure in one of Rock's most enduring and challenging power trios.
"Rush has a strong work ethic," says Lifeson with some understatement abou the gig he's had since age 15. The band recently took an uncharacteristic sabbatical after touring behind last year's Counterparts, leaving bassist Geddy Lee, drummer Neil Peart, and Lifeson to their own devices for the first time in decades. "To have a year-and-a-half off was totally alien," the guitarist smiles. "I was fine for a month, but then I got itchy, so I wanted to do something that would push me - I had no idea it would be so big a challenge. In Rush, we share responsibilities, and that's fine. But I got to do this record however I wanted, and though there were overwhelming moments, I stuck with it."
"I wanted it to be different from what people expected," Lifeson continues, "and I wanted it to have a theme." That theme is the deterioration of love, and the music reflects that sentiment, though its anything but sentimental. Lifeson's arrangements are deliciously unsettling, with deep flourishes that underscore the human drama of tunes like, "I Am The Spirit", "Start Today", and "Promise". Lifeson said he witnessed close friends going through crises in relationships that he'd always thought were solid. "I wondered if there was a virus in the air that caused couples to have difficult times. I hadn't written lyrics in a long time, and I was anxious. But they came easily once I came up with a visual idea of how to characterize the songs. I also bounced ideas off my 18-year-old son who co-wrote a few of the songs. It's a great feeling to work with your kid on a record."
The Lifesons' combination of youthfulness and maturity blended to create an intense feel, though the sessions at Alex' house were surprisingly methodical for such energetic music. He composed with a ProTools digital recording system, then transferred the tracks to a 32-track ADAT setup augmented by a Macintosh computer with Audiologic software. "It was an efficient environment to get arrangements down," Lifeson says. "Once I had the structures, I recorded all the instruments off the floor, and that's when it came to life. Our drummer Blake Manning has a good feel and can move around over the click, so it wasn't the usual pull-your-hair-out situation that it can often be when you work that way."
The guitar sounds on Victor are a combination of direct recorded DigiTech 2101 preamp through a Palmer speaker simulator and miked Bassmans and Marshalls. Lifeson applied his long-standing technique of building rhythm tracks by doubling a Les Paul and a Telecaster. While his ES-335 and Stratocaster make cameo appearances, most of soloing was done with Paul Reed Smiths. "On a few solos I used the Tele," Lifeson admits, "because I'm concerned I've come to rely so much on the PRS' vibrato arm. On a couple of songs I actually removed it from the guitar."
Lifeson insists that his startling rebirth through Victor won't deliberately affect Rush's chemistry, but it may already have: The band just finished writing their new record in less than half the ten weeks they'd set aside for composing and pre-production. "Taking this time off was the best thing we could have done," Lifeson enthuses. "For the first time in 20 years we got to live other lives, and now that we're back together we're enjoying it immensely. The results really show."