Rush didn't rush to put out its current album, Test For Echo. The Canadian trio -- vocalist/bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart -- took a sabbatical for 1 1/2 years after its last tour ended in May 1994.
The band, which combines complex, often bombastic, hard-rocking instrumental forays with songs that beg for Lee's distinctive voice, is good to itself. Let other groups tour in summer -- Rush stays home to enjoy the family and good weather. "quality time" breaks like that help keep a group together for the long haul, and Rush's haul has been 22 years since its self-titled debut album was released.
Still, 1 1/2 years was the longest break the three had ever taken, tough for a group accustomed to working on a fairly regular schedule.
"It's not like we went and laid on the beach or anything," says Peart, calling in from a tour stop in San Jose.
"Geddy wanted some paternity leave, and then I got involved studying and practicing, and I wanted more time to pursue that before we started working on a new record, so I pushed it back a little further for those reasons."
When Test for Echo was released this September, the total wait since Counterparts had been about three years, the longest gap in Rush's discography. The time off was worth it, as the album displays a rejuvenated band.
Fans might be surprised that Peart, as accomplished as he'd been with Rush's complex rhythmic approach, would want time off to study and practice, but he was unsatisfied with his playing.
"In this generation of drummers we've had to deal with mathematics, with click tracks (metronomic pulses meant to synchronize recordings) and drum machines and sequencers and stuff that made things pretty rigid.
"And I found, for myself, I was feeling that rigidity as a player. all got really stiff and linear, and as a listener, too, I didn't like the way it sounded. It sounded stiff and uncomfortable."
He didn't know what he was looking for but found it by accident during the time off. While Lee was spending time with his family and new daughter and Lifeson was recording a solo album called Victor, Peart produced Burning for Buddy, an album to honor the late jazz drummer Buddy Rich.
He was taken with some changes in the playing of Steve Smith, one of the drummers who worked on the tribute.
"He was always a great drummer," Peart says of Smith, "but suddenly he had this fluidity and sheer musicality about his playing that just knocked me down."
So Peart asked Smith for his secret, and it turned out to be a 70-year-old jazz drummer named Freddy Gruber.
Peart likens Gruber's lessons to the approach of a professional tennis player's coach.
"The coaches don't teach them how to play the game," he says. "They watch the way they move, and say, 'Well, you know your serve could be better if you raised your elbow.'
"And it's this kind of thing that Freddy does. 'Raise the drum higher and hold your hand like this and move your arm like that and move your feet this way' and demonstrating that it is supposed to be a dance on drums, you're not supposed to be driving nails."
Peart sees the experience as part of the band's maturing process. It's no secret that the band's earliest music featured flowery, "cosmic" lyrics and that the instrumental part was often complex technically just to show off the band's chops rather than to serve the compositions.
"In the early days, you want to show off, and if you learn how to do something, you'll stick it in the song, whether it fits there or not," Peart says. "To me, that's cool. That's youthful exuberance, and I don't think that should be criticized in too serious of a way.
"It almost always leads to a confidence in a craft that makes those things unnecessary."
As the band's lyricist (he says nobody else in the group wanted the job), Peart also feels his words have become more direct.
"I'm still talking about the same kind of issues, but I'll try to take a universal idea and make it personal," he says. "That's something that it took me a couple of decades to develop the ability to do as a songwriter...
"That's what the best of songwriting is -- something that's apparently simple, if you chose to investigate further, suddenly has greater depth."
IF YOU GO
WHEN: 8 tonight
WHERE: America West Arena, 201 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix
TICKETS: $25. Available at the box office (379-7800) and Dillard's (678-2222).