Revenge of the Nerds

By Anthony Mariani, Ft. Worth Weekly, June 23, 2004

While other bands from the '70s play for beer money, Rush sells out arenas - for good reason.

As in every summer since 1974, these dog days find the Canadian rock trio Rush touring the globe to minimal fanfare, even disdain. They'll be in Dallas tonight, but you don't care, sitting there surrounded by your AC/DC and Incubus c.d.'s. Well, it's your loss, because not only is a Rush concert - packed with three and a half hours of non-stop music - an unparalleled Big Rock Event, it's a testament to innovation, muscle, and skill, lost qualities among today's so-called Big Rock acts.

Your cold, hard stare betrays your ignorance. You've never actually listened to the band, have you? You should, because unlike nearly every other outfit from the '70s - save crappy Aerosmith - the guys in Rush have continued churning out new product about every three years while forcing themselves into fresh musical situations. Though still rock's most imitated bassist, having been validated in print by hipster doofuses Eddie Vedder and Les Claypool, singer Geddy Lee has (thankfully) tempered his trademark shriek. Drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, who lost his daughter in a car accident and his wife to cancer a couple of years ago, has reined in his notoriously abstract stickwork for the sake of plain ol' pounding, while striving to deliver more emotionally resonant prosody. Guitarist Alex Lifeson hasn't lost any of his touch, but he's become just as comfortable adding lambent texture as he is detonating open chords. The band simply continues incorporating new recording technologies and styles to stay relevant. Those other acts that over the decades have shared the airwaves with Rush - Styx, Heart, Foreigner - are all playing state fairs for beer money and barbecue, if they're playing at all. Rush continues selling out Big Rock arenas. Two years ago, they played a soccer stadium in S?o Paolo to 60,000 fans. That's the number "6" followed by four zeros.

Your second mistake is writing the band off as either ostentatious or nerdy or both. It's true, Rush's core constituency is mostly other musicians, typically white dudes who play air-guitar in public and know their ways around a Star Trek convention. And, yes, the band's early, allegorical work often referenced Greek mythology, Ayn Randian platitudes, and space travel. But that was, like, 20 years ago. Is the squawk of Rush's geeky past enough to daunt new ears? We guarantee that one unprejudiced listen to the boys' post-Dungeons & Dragons work will result in a different, better perception.

This doesn't mean that Rush has gone moronic. They're still holistic sci-fi naturalists at the mercy of metaphysical sturm und drang. The problem with this approach is that some of their lyrics are better read quietly than sung aloud. Emotionally fraudulent, these numbers court destruction despite their intellectual fervor.

Yet for every pretentious lump of coal, Rush has produced about a dozen gems, the best involving musical and spiritual liberation. Some critics have said that since Peart's tragedies, his lyrics have grown more personal, meaning more "mature." Bullshit. Nothing he's penned since is any more or less substantial than his previous three decades' worth of wordsmithery. (Could sympathetic critics be reading Peart's personal life into his words?) Going as far back as the late 1970s, when Rush finally began shedding its infernal mysticism, a "mature" voice capable of limning affairs of the heart has rung throughout ("Rivendell," "Different Strings," "Entre Nous").

What's different is that Peart's writing on the human condition is more prolific, beginning in the early 1980s with Subdivisions. Take the title track, laced with empathy and angst: "Growing up, it all seems so one-sided / Opinions all provided / The future pre-decided / Detached and subdivided / In the mass production zone."

The three studio albums that followed lacked this type of humanist spirit. But while the lyrical content strayed, the music grew more airy, warm, and polished, less crunchy and suave. Eventually these sonic changes helped the lyrics blossom, reaching their apotheosis on 1989's Presto. Arguably the band's most thoughtfully executed record of the '80s, the disc is an achievement of both melody and lyric. It goes pop to evoke moods where previous Rush efforts reluctantly reverted to flexing musical muscle. "The Pass" is a good example. In dark hues, it observes a teen suicide. The intro, a metallic call-and-response, pits Lee's thick four-note chordal bass line against Lifeson's one-note kerrang. Then both instruments form a steady stream of modular harmony that spreads out over Peart's methodical stomp. Ain't nothing maudlin about any of it. "Proud swagger out of the school yard / Waiting for the world's applause / Rebel without a conscience / Martyr without a cause."

With the exception of 1996's Test For Echo, the only instance in which Rush consistently fails at its trademarked melodicism, everything after Presto is solid. Roll The Bones (1991) delivered two live-show standbys, the ballad-ish "Ghost of a Chance" and the invigorating "Dreamline." ("We travel in the dark of the new moon / A starry highway traced on the map of the sky / Like lovers and heroes / Lonely as the eagle's cry / We're only at home when we're on the fly.") Counterparts (1993), which arrived at the height of the grunge movement, mixes the band's trademark musicianship with uncharacteristically simple song structures and - dare we say? - sexy vocals. "Animate" and "Between Sun and Moon" roll like turbo-charged steamrollers, while "The Speed of Love" ambles slowly, mournfully.

In 2002 Rush cut Vapor Trails, the outfit's most recent studio release and the record that served as Peart's catharsis. The one tune that speaks specifically to the lyricist's travails is "Ghost Rider," also the title of the book Peart authored about his post-tragedy escape across North America by motorcycle. Anchored by the rapid jazzy rhythm that Lee and Peart conjure and Lifeson's delicately haunting chord progressions, it's powerful stuff. "Pack up all those phantoms / Shoulder that invisible load / Keep on riding north and west / Haunting that wilderness road / Like a ghost rider."

Parts of the Vapor Trails tour were recorded and released on DVD later that year. A live album from the tour, Rush in Rio, followed in 2003. Stuffed with 31 tracks, the record is short on decent sound quality (torrential rain, according to Peart's liner notes, is to blame) but shines as a historical document. Lee's bass suggests a massive dragon whose flame has gone nuclear. Peart's polyrhythmic drumming dramatizes speed, bombast, and agility, even as wind chimes and other assorted non-traditional percussion doo-dads leaven the gravitas. And Lifeson's fretwork belongs to the music the way that the sky possesses thunder and lightning. As anyone who's seen the band in person can attest, it's not unusual to hear a crowd sing along to nearly every song and then cheer during instrumental flights. Stuck with your pale approximations of organized sound tonight, you can only imagine the magic a few miles away.