After 22 years, some two dozen releases and sales of over 35 million albums worldwide, "fresh" is just about the last word you'd expect applied to Rush circa 1996. After a summer that saw revivals of Kiss, Styx and Cheap Trick to mixed reviews - all of them Rush's contemporaries and competition in the mid-'70s - the release of Test For Echo, the group's 20th studio album [webmaster note: it's their 16th...], might reasonably be dismissed as just more fodder for their diehard fans. But, no. Still challenging themselves with new goals, new techniques, new personnel and rerenewed enthusiasm, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart have grown something fresh and unexpected from one of the longest-blooming perennials in rock's often fallow garden. And they seem almost as surprised as the rest of us.
"I look at this band as a work in progress," Lee explains thoughtfully over a mushroom salad and cranberry juice in an all-but-deserted bistro near the band's downtown Toronto office. "That's why going into each project is so exciting for us... we don't know what's going to come out the other end. We want to keep challenging ourselves as an experiment and also to present ourselves in a slightly different way, continuing the evolution."
But Test For Echo is more of a de-evolution of the often dense, layered and intricate music Rush has made in the past. Using fewer keyboards then ever before, the album's energy recalls the group's halcyon days as a pure power trio of guitar-bass-drums, but two decades worth of songwriting and concert performances have elevated the level of musicianship so high that the group no longer feels the need to pack every empty space with as many guitar licks, bass riffs and drum fills as (in) humanly possible.
"I like being thought of as 'progressive,'" Lee elaborates, "even if it is a dinosaur term. It's the only term that seems to make sense. I don't like sounding dated. I'm not interested in being nostalgic or to revisit the past. I don't want to be appreciated just for something I did 20 or 15 years ago. There are all these bands coming back on the road now - Styx, Kiss - and we're still here. I like to think that we're still trying to be part of what's going on."
Of course, being a part of "what's going on" means keeping up, constantly changing, or at least reconsidering certain musical and thematic decisions. "That's why so much of our music over the years has not pleased the Rush fan all the time," he explains. "You can't stay on one track -the track the public expects of you for too long without hearing [something new and different] and saying, 'that's cool. Let's go there and see if that turns into anything.' And you go there, write a song, put it on your record, put the record out quickly before you give yourself a chance to second guess yourself too much..." he says, breathlessly, then bursts into a wide grin before concluding, "And then you see it and say, 'You know what? You were really bad at that.' It may have been fun to do, but you understand why the fans wouldn't like that song. It becomes a half-assed attempt to do something different."
All three members brought something new to the project that none of the others really expected. Peart had spent the down time between Rush records working on a series of Buddy Rich tribute albums and found a new teacher who completely revamped his playing style. According to Lee, Peart has changed, "everything - the way he holds his sticks, the way he sets up his drums... now there's a different tonality to the way he plays. The way his snare drum speaks is far more musical now. You can notice it in the sound of the snare on this record," he says, working himself up into a frenzy of muso enthusiasm. Then he catches himself and adds, almost apologetically, "if you're so inclined to look for these things."
Lifeson recorded his first solo album, Victor, and, as a result, came into the studio primed and pumped instead of merely relaxed and rested. "I can't be objective," Lee confesses, when asked for a review of Victor, then diplomatically offers that the effort took "guts." Coming out of the benign dictatorship that making a solo record can be (you get to make all the decisions yourself) and back into the democracy of Rush meant an inevitable, but brief, awkward moment. "You just have to put us together and let us talk, and by the second day we were having a great time again," explains Lee.
And Lee, whose newly born daughter was the reason the group took an extra year off between albums, came back ready to rock. "I did very little music during the time off," he explains. "I was fed up to here with it," he says with a hand slashing viciously at his throat. But, he adds sheepishly, "I missed it a lot after about a year. On the road I really miss the domestic scene, so when I get off the road I really ignore music. I wasn't exactly in the John Lennon-bake-bread-at-home-stage, but I spent a lot of time with both my children."
At a time when Rush has been around for longer than many contemporary musicians have been alive, it's hardly surprising that so many current bands cite the trio as an early influence. What is a bit of a revelation is that now Rush is taking cues from the bands they themselves inspired. That's what led to what Lee tentatively describes as their most "American" sounding album to date.
"We got a drier, more American sound at the get-go, but as the record progressed we found ourselves overloading the tracks with too many guitars, too many this, too many that. We were getting quite dense again and we were actually worried because we were trying to do something different. That's the point where we made the decision to bring in Andy Wallace to mix it," explains Lee. Wallace, who'd mixed for Sonic Youth, Rage Against The Machine, Bad Religion and Alice In Chains, found a way to apply the phrase "less is more" to Rush for the first time.
Lee concedes that trends in the alternative music scene have had an impact on Rush, but not in an obvious way. "People say you've got to be more alternative these days, but what does that mean?" he asks angrily. "If anything it makes me want to sound more like us. You can tell when some band is trying to jump on the alternative bandwagon. Instead of taking that tack I want to learn from what's going on.
"I may have influenced them in their early, formative years but now they're in a way different space than we are and have something to teach me." And who are these influences? "A couple of years ago I would have cited the Chilli Peppers," Lee offers, "because there was a funky and hard edge to what they were doing. When Soundgarden first came on the scene I liked that kind of unbridled fury that was in their music. And I have a great appreciation for the economical songwriting of the Smashing Pumpkins. They inspire you to have another go at it from a different point of view."
But while no one ever used terms like "funky," "unbridled fury" and "economical songwriting" while describing Rush's music, it's easy to hear how today's sounds inevitably effect the band. "That's why going into each project is so exciting for us," Lee confesses. "We don't know what's going to come out the other end."