Rush counts many modern rock bands among its followers, but such hip recognition hasn't come easy. After making music for over 20 years with hardly a break, the Canadian power trio decided to take a vacation - and risk losing touch with fans.
"In the world of making rock records, three years really is a long time - enough to totally fade from memory," bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee said recently.
Guitarist Alex Lifeson released his first solo album under the name Victor, and drummer Neil Peart worked on a Buddy Rich tribute. Lee spent time with his family.
Now Rush has returned more inspired than ever. "Test For Echo," the band's 20th album, is undoubtedly the hardest-edged record since 1981's "Moving Pictures," which yielded the hits "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight" - the sound focuses on Peart's tricky time signatures and Lifeson's busy solos, with fewer of the keyboards that bound Rush's recent hardrock/progressive work.
"Although it may not always seem so to the outsider, what the music is saying and how it's being put together is always a bit of an experiment," Lee explained. "This one felt like the result of numerous experiments, as "Moving Pictures" and "2112" did - those albums are arrival points for me.
"There's no guitar player alive who likes to play with a keyboard, so usually Alex brings up his feelings about that. Over the previous three albums, I had found myself getting a little bored and frustrated with that overarranging approach that naturally occurs when you use keyboards at an early stage of writing. These days I prefer to use it only to provide something extra that a song lacks." Three songs from "Test For Echo," produced by Peter Collins (Jewel, Queensryche), have ascended Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. The crisp title track explores the puzzle of global communication, acoustic guitars pass through the enchanting "Half The World" and dizzying licks dart around "Driven."
"Fortunately, technology keeps changing - the methods of working on your music get more confusing and complicated," Lee said. "So that brings a different challenge every time around. Those are good things, although sometimes frustrating, because they stimulate you and take you away from your normal mode of operation.
"For that same reason, we like to use a different engineer or producer every couple of albums. That new look at the same thing is very important to keep us from falling asleep at the wheel." Rush started out as a rather pedestrian heavy metal band, and Lee's singing inspired a love/hate debate.
"I was brutalized fairly regularly in the early days in terms of my vocal style," he said with a laugh. "The one that's stayed with me is "the damned howling in Hades' - that's a favorite quote of mine.
"But it's a blessing to have the opportunity to make so many records, that you have the ability to grow up in public." All three members of Rush have developed some awe-inspiring chops on their instruments over the years.
"You'll find me in my basement studio, practicing my stuff over and over again," Lee said. "This time my wife and I had a little holiday in Florida before the band started recording, and I was so paranoid that I took a little bass with me - I had to take an hour a day, sit in a room and make sure I wasn't losing a step.
"When you're a young band first starting, all you want to do is practice, because gigs are few and far between. Then you're touring, and you're practicing every day. So as you are developing as a musician, you live for practice - that's creating who you want to be.
"Then when you achieve a measure of success and you're able to slow down, your practice subsides a bit. And you suddenly find yourself in the unfortunate position of feeling a little detached from your muse. When that happens, you feel the urge to start woodshedding again. "What we learned from this album was, all the extra practice we did was actually able to take us to a higher level. Every time you think you've flattened out in your learning curve, you find out that that's not true - there's so much farther to go. Like any craft, you have to work on it your entire life to keep on getting better and better." Rush is touring in support of "Test For Echo," hitting Fiddler's Green Amphitheater on Thursday night.
"We've pulled out all the stops - we're a band that still believes in big production," Lee said. "It's probably the most theatrical tour we've ever done. It seems as we get a little older, we embrace that side of what our songs say."