Tracking Surround: Rush

By Mike Mettler, Sound&VisionMag.com, July 17, 2007


Snakes & Arrows
Anthem/Atlantic
Music ****
MVI Mix ****1/2
Extras ****

And now it has come to this: Rush finally takes the studio-album surround-sound plunge on the MVI edition of Snakes & Arrows. Somewhat delayed, the boxed single-disc package arrived 2 full months after the initial CD release, helping fuel a 66% sales increase on the title, according to Billboard (July 14). Was it worth the wait? Well, does Tom Sawyer have mean, mean pride?

Workin' That History - Overtime

Before we get to the nitty-gritty, I thought I'd delve back into my own interview archives to see how the guys in Rush have felt about surround sound over the years (and not just because nobody else has deigned to ask them). It's downright fascinating to see the way their positions have evolved over time.

In October 2000, I asked bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee what he thought about recording new music in surround sound. His answer: "I guess I'm still on the fence about it when it comes to studio recording. The problem is, there's no way to make a subtle shift to the back of your head. It's rhythmically jarring. But I can see the future of live albums as 5.1-channel DVDs."

In May 2002, I sat down with both Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson and posed the 5.1 question again. "I have mixed feelings about it," said Ged. "I would think that it would be distracting, quite frankly; it would take away from the music, as opposed to enhancing it. But maybe they said that about stereo...." Added Alex: "Quad is more appropriate, but that didn't last long."

In October 2003, while we were discussing his hands-on role in the 5.1 mix for the Rush in Rio DVD, I asked Lifeson if the band would (re)consider recording new material in surround. "I don't know," he said. "We'd have to think about that. But I certainly wouldn't close the door on the idea." However, he was quite clear about not wanting to revisit older material: "If we went into the studio to remix an old record, it would be so tempting to go in and redo parts. It's very wrong."

In November 2005, when I met with Lifeson to discuss the surround mix on the R30 DVD, he seemed to be softening his position somewhat. "Surround is a great, uplifting experience, and I think we have some records that we'd consider doing that way. Again, we haven't spoken about any of this yet. Probably the safe thing to say is that I'm much more open to doing this as long as the integrity of the original content isn't messed with." He specifically cited the running water in "Discovery," Part III of the title suite of 1976's 2112, as something he'd like to hear in surround. (Me too! Me too!) "You could be sitting right by that little stream, you know," he mused. "It would be quite dramatic and dynamic." (Agree! Agree!)

I'll be speaking with Alex soon about how he, Geddy, and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart came to their 5.1 decision(s) about Snakes - and, of course, if they've changed their minds about revisiting older, classic material. As soon as that chat goes down, we'll bring it to you here in S&V Webland.

The Way The Mixes Go

I would characterize Snakes & Arrows as a "smart" 5.1 mix on DVD-Video (sorry, no DVD-Audio here). Having already shepherded no fewer than five surround mixes for live Rush DVDs from various points across the last 26 years, Lifeson must have been champing at the bit to twiddle the knobs on studio material. Achieving immersion balance is a delicate thing, and Lifeson has already shown his mastery of the art of live surround mixing. Now he's taken the next step by putting the listener in the middle of a studio mix that's exciting, invigorating, and fulfilling - a "prize every time," to borrow a phrase from the Peart-penned bio that appears as one of the MVI's extras. (Assisting with the mix is Richard Chycki, who'd previously co-mixed R30 with Lifeson.)

Opening track "Fry Cry" sets the stage. Geddy's lead vocals are ensconced upfront but not isolated in the center channel, with the appropriate amount of delay in the surround channels. His "ooh" harmonies, however, are more prominent in the rear (as are the majority of his "ooh" and "whoa" harmonies throughout the album). A key phrase from the chorus, "rolling over me," gets extra punch in all channels each time it's repeated. Alex's sustain-laden solo builds and squeals, and his chiming, chordal nod to "Cygnus X-1" (a suspended F-sharp that he calls "the same chord from 'Hemispheres' " in the extras documentary) gets full-channel treatment at the outro.

"Armor and Sword" gives Neil room to shine, his cymbals suitably sibilant and his bass drum duly emphasized during the bridge. (Incidentally, that potent, frequent cymbal-and-bass-drum combo is known as a "booujze" in Rushian parlance; see Peart's bio in the extras for details.) You'll also hear Lifeson's fingers slide up and down the strings on the acoustic passages and on his electric during the choruses (think of the "crunch" from Donnie Iris's "Ah! Leah!").

More emphasis for various words and phrases appears on "Workin' Them Angels": "Overtime" gets some echo, "fly" repeats and buzzes in the rear, and "moving picture" goes up in volume and dominates all channels. (Hmmm, that last one can't be by chance....) Lifeson's initial, shorter mandolin break features a slight rear delay, while the second one takes a more prominent position out back.

Not everything has a role in the surrounds. The acoustic guitar segments in "The Larger Bowl" stay hard front, for example. But Peart's tambourine stakes a claim behind, as do Lee's counterharmonies that come after the understated solo.

One of my favorite tracks, "Spindrift," begins with an ominous swirl, putting you literally in the middle of the coming maelstrom as it moves from channel to channel before Lifeson's dominant doom riff kicks in. I kept cranking this one up more and more (and had to make sure I hadn't inadvertently dialed in a Black Sabbath disc).

By now, you're wondering, but what about the bass? Glad you asked. Don't worry, you'll find plenty o' Geddy in the subwoofer - especially during the instrumentals, where he's more playful. The first one, "The Main Monkey Business," is testament to that, one of the album's most full-on mixes. Keyboards lean toward the rear, along with acoustic guitars, although Lee's "oohs" actually fill all channels here. Peart's cymbals do some left-right front dancing before completing a 360-degree turn la the Flaming Lips circa Yoshimi, helping to build to the song's final assault.

Room ambience plays a role in the intro to "The Way the Wind Blows." Peart's understated, militaristic rat-a-tats (shades of "Manhattan Project" from Power Windows) gently counter his initial front-loaded beats in the rear before the blues-trio jam segment starts. (Who'da thunk? Thank you, Feedback!) Lifeson's gnarly solo ping-pongs in the surrounds, and his ax noodles back there as Lee's vocals stay upfront.

Tone break time! "Hope" - Lifeson's one-shot, all-acoustic, ambience-inducing instrumental - fits the bill. Crisp and clear with the right amount of delay, lush guitar-string resonance, and strumming with character. Nicely done.

The second half of any record these days gets less attention than the first - the four tracks from the Snakes 13 that Rush is not currently playing on tour are all from the back half - but good moments abound here. "Faithless" features subtle string arrangements from longtime collaborator Ben Mink (he turned in the poignant electric violin solo on the Signals track "Losing It" and co-produced Geddy's fine lone solo album, 2000's My Favorite Headache). The strings lead into and then step back to support Geddy's full-channel vocals on each chorus. Meanwhile, on "Bravest Face," Neil's bass drum takes over things in the right front. Alex's off-kilter acoustic jangle in the verses takes residence in the left front, accented by Neil's discreet, centered, ambience-defining cymbal taps. Working with an all-new kit for this album, Neil is, as always, the anchor in a trio of virtuosos.

The churning cauldron that opens "Good News First" puts you right in the thick of things. Lee's gnarled, swirling vocal wails sound like they're trapped in a funnel cloud. And Peart's relentless pounding on the verses hits you right in the gut. I was able to follow the thrust visually as the meniscus in my water bottle on the table in front of me rippled in perfect time. Also be sure to listen for the understated mellotron in the left front and left rear.

The third instrumental, "Malignant Narcissism," rages full-on - another good sub workout. The main fretless bassline is kept centered upfront while Peart gets an all-swim workout in all channels (on a scaled-down four-piece kit, no less), and the bottom-end pair dodge and parry expertly in their call-and-response solo duels (a patented but never-dull Rush instrumental staple). Not to be outdone, Lifeson roars in the rear at appropriate intervals.

Lastly, things wrap up in "We Hold On." Lifeson's final solo of the album kicks in kinetically, right rear to left rear, then takes a diagonal cross from back to front and then all around before evolving into a sustained riff in the rear when Lee picks up the next verse. And Peart's final cymbal crash, which closes the album, resonates fresh from front to rear.

Whew. After such an involving audio workout, it was time to check out the extras. (Incidentally, the sole video element during playback was the constant, vulture-culture snake/arrow symbol, the only variance coming with the change in song titles.)

The Main Extras Business

The key draw in the extras is the 41-minute documentary The Game of Snakes & Arrows, which, in addition to multi-angled talking-head footage, shows the band making the album at Allaire Studios, an "isolated retreat" in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The boys look more comfortable throughout the proceedings than one might expect - I've certainly sat through my share of DVDs with rote interviews and predictable behind-the-scenes footage - and that's due in part to the doc having been shot by longtime Rush photog/videoman Andrew MacNaughtan. There's evident camaraderie between longtime friends and colleagues that just can't be faked, particularly the jocularity that's on display during the outdoor, in-the-woods photo shoot (pay special heed to the "album shot" moment). As Peart puts it, "the atmosphere there was conducive to good times - and good work."

Aficionados will drool over the songs-in-progress footage, as Rush has rarely allowed that type of camera eye on its work (though you can get a brief, similar snapshot with the video for the Moving Pictures track "Vital Signs," which was shot inside Le Studio in Quebec circa 1980).

The S&A bio that Peart wrote is the same one that appears on his Web site (neilpeart.com) and in the current tour book. One major error: The album is referred to all throughout this text as Snakes and Arrows, whereas it's Snakes & Arrows on the main DVD menu, the extras menu, and all of the album's physical packaging.

The lyrics, photo gallery, and credits are pretty straightforward. I downloaded the wallpaper and IM icons for future PC use (I've got plenty of options). I wanted to try the ringtones - setting my heart on the driving "Far Cry" intro - but my Motorola Q wasn't included in the quite extensive "choose your phone" listing. C'mon, MVI guys, the Q had been on the market quite some time before this disc was authored! And sorry, folks, I just couldn't deal with the MP3 files of each track.

The one missing element is the video for "Far Cry," which is downloadable at iTunes (and viewable elsewhere, of course). If it's available out there, it really should be here to complete an otherwise spot-on package.

Good News Last

Snakes & Arrows should've been the linchpin to launch the new MVI format, not Linkin Park's Minutes to Midnight. (Sorry, dudes; put a freakin' surround mix on there, and then we'll talk.) Here's hoping that upcoming MVI releases, such as the Flaming Lips' U.F.O.s at the Zoo: The Legendary Concert in Oklahoma City and Donald Fagen's Nightfly Trilogy, help the format catch on. Let's also hope that Snakes & Arrows inspires Rush to continue exploring 5.1 in the studio. After all, I still want my prize every time.