Rush Recharges

By Eric Deggans, St. Petersburg Times, December 6, 1996

It was a rumor that shook Rush fans to their classic rocking roots.

Repeated in publications as respectable as the Orange Country Register, it seemed to sound a death knell for the band known as a headbanger's dream almost since its inception 27 years ago.

Rush was going "unplugged." For an entire tour.

It would have been like stumbling on Rush Limbaugh at a NOW meeting, watching Snoop Doggy Dogg sing children's tunes or catching Barbra Streisand in her bathrobe and curlers. Some things, we just don't need to see.

And besides betraying a near-30-year power trio tradition rooted in truckloads of guitar amps, keyboard gear and sprawling, multilevel drum kits, such a nod to industry fads (especially such a dated one) would have violated Rush's prime directive - namely, presenting its music regardless of trends or music biz hype; chugging through changes in the commercial landscape like a Canadian-bred Energizer bunny.

So it's with some relief that this reporter can present Rush drummer Neil Peart's response to the "unplugged" scenario.

Laughter. Lots of it.

"That's the first I've ever heard of it," the drummer says, once his initial surprise fades. "I'm sure we never really considered it."

Just as well, because the band's new record, Test For Echo, rocks so hard, it's tough to imagine any acoustic rendition measuring up.

Featuring a more basic sound than many past Rush recordings - with keyboards and other synthetic sonic textures kept on the down low - Test For Echo shows off a veteran band that seems energized by its time together, rather than jaded by it.

From the off-time verses of Driven to the typically media-suspicious message of the sprawling title track, this record's lean, precise grooves sound dare I say it? - like a band just discovering new depths to their communal voice.

"I would like to think we just get better at the craft of it," says Peart, who speaks with the precision of a college professor and the speed of a Manhattan stockbroker. "Over the years, we learned how to write, how to play and how to arrange and now we have a full toolbox. Time and experience . . . there's no substitute for that."

Of course, it may be no coincidence that this creative high point came after an 18-month hiatus in which band members pursued other projects.

Bassist Geddy Lee had a new baby with his wife, guitarist Alex Lifeson assembled a solo record and band dubbed Victor, and Peart pulled together a tribute album and video for one of his drumming heroes - big band legend Buddy Rich.

For Peart, the time spent assembling Burning For Buddy - along with a decision to totally revamp his playing style under the instruction of master teacher Freddie Gruber - brought a flood of ideas when it came time to work on songs for what would be Test For Echo.

"Usually, in the past, I've struggled to find new ways of challenging myself," he says. "This time, it was the opposite. I came in with so much, I had to edit myself. I have to say, it was a good position to be in."

Presenting a relentlessly upbeat outlook, Peart says the three wrote most of the songs for Test in a Canadian farm house - with Lee and Lifeson tucked in one area working on music as Peart sent streams of lyrics in from another part of the building.

"We never try to start out with a master plan - we just start writing songs and they dictate what we do," the drummer says. "On (1993's) Counterparts, I was going to turn the whole back of my drum set into this hand drum set - triggering snare drum and kick sounds when needed from pedals. But you listen to the songs and they didn't need that . . . so I had to junk the idea, no matter how much I liked it."

It's the same sort of natural teamwork that helped the band decide the form for its latest tour - a near-three-hour excursion neatly divided between newer stuff and older fan faves, with a 20-minute version of the science fiction-themed opus 2112 planned (complete with accompanying movie) and no opening act.

"The hardest thing for us, ironically, was to pare it down," says Peart, who originally came up with a set list that would have been 31/2 hours long. "But we wouldn't take a survey on what people want to hear. We even stopped doing one of our most popular songs - Spirit of the Radio - for a while, because it was getting stale for us. We feel we have to please ourselves."

Such declarations do, Peart admits, sound more than a little, well, arrogant. But that's also what's allowed Rush to survive where so many other bands haven't - a relentless drive to keep pushing their own personal envelope, regardless of the cost.

"People say they made us what we are, but they didn't," he adds. "They weren't with me, practicing for 30 years, to develop ideas and abilities. Besides, giving in to that would be pleasing the lowest common denominator - which is what we've always been resisting."

Often dismissed as pretentious and outdated, Rush has become a convenient target for those looking to skewer older, classic rocking bands in favor of the latest trend in pop music. But members of Rush long ago gave up chasing that kind of respect - preferring instead to focus on realizing their own, unique musical vision.

"With this band, we really do get to do anything musically that we may want," Peart says. "That's why it took so long for us to get around to doing solo things. Sometimes, people would come in with stuff they thought was too weird for Rush - stuff for solo projects. But nothing is too weird for Rush, so we would appropriate it."

Accordingly, you won't be seeing any box sets with rarities or unreleased tracks by the band - despite its near-30-year history. The reason why? Everything is on the records.

"Every song we write, if we like it enough to go to all the trouble of writing it, we put it on the record," the drummer says, simply. "We don't have unreleased tracks - which some people can't understand."

These days, the 44-year-old percussionist is dividing his attention between the tour and his just-published book, a travel tome on cycling through West Africa called The Masked Rider, along with an instructional video on drumming dubbed A Work In Progress.

Its obvious that, for Peart and his bandmates, life as Rush is a work in progress that never loses its luster - even after three decades on the rock 'n' roll treadmill.

"Despite what some critics might say, we know our music has changed over the years," he says. "We've just never made choices for commercial reasons. We just think, if we like it, then they (fans) will like it, too. It's really the only way we can do it."