Alex Lifeson is an older guy who sounds like a young one, his voice nearly as enthusiastic as his wrists.
The fleet-handed Rush guitarist, known for exercises in carpal-tunnel-syndrome fretwork, is currently ensconced on a tour that sees his band playing for more than three hours a show, which roughly translates into about 1,500 snaking riffs, twice as many sweaty drum fills and lots of sore limbs on a nightly basis.
"Yeah, what's up with that?" Lifeson chuckles at his band's marathon sets. "What's with all these young bands who play for an hour and 10 minutes, an hour and 20 minutes -- I don't think anybody plays for more than about an hour and 40 minutes. And they're all young and should be playing for three hours, not like us old farts."
Though Lifeson and his bandmates -- singer/bassist Geddy Lee and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart -- are bona fide rock stars who've been packing arenas for more than 30 years, their lifestyles are more representative of those over-tanned dudes who star in fitness infomercials: These guys don't party until dawn; instead, they're waking up right about then to practice some yoga.
"We all work out with trainers for months before we go out," Lifeson says of the band pre-tour regimen. "My trainer set up two programs for me, one in the gym and one in my hotel room. I play golf almost every day because it gets me out of my boring hotel room for five or six hours. We try to be as athletic as we can to stay in shape, because you really need to -- especially at this point."
And especially when your band tends to favor a chatty instrumental verbosity that manifests in a deep back catalog that's as elaborately crafted as fine jewelry.
Much of modern rock has become polarized between bands that elevate a navel-gazing technical virtuosity far above the merits of basic songcraft, resulting in terse, tuneless exercises in form, and acts that boil everything down into a predictable cycle of simple, radio-friendly choruses.
But Rush has made a long career out of balancing both impulses, crafting ambitious, knotty epics that still have enough tightly-honed hooks to make them staples on classic rock airwaves for years.
The band's latest disc, "Snakes & Arrows," is a storming, visceral effort posited on both immediacy and nuance, buffering climactic, Bic-in-the-air choruses with layers of texture and atmosphere.
It's a vintage and modern sounding record at once, alive with some of Rush's most defining signatures -- a trio of instrumentals, thunderclap, hammer-of-Thor drumming, ambitious thematic breadth -- all sharpened to a point with a hard-edged, contemporary rock crunch abetted by producer Nick Raskulinecz (Stone Sour, Foo Fighters).
"I have to say that working on this record with Nick, it really brought something else out of us," Lifeson says. "There's something about this record that reminds me of so many parts of us over the years, but the packaging sounds very fresh and modern. That was really what he was pushing us to recognize, that sometimes we forget about where we come from, we're too caught up in trying to move forward. I think that's part of the appeal of this new record."
"Snakes" is an album full of dramatic crescendoes and shifting landscapes. Album opener "Far Cry" sets a suitably restless tone with thick-necked guitar riffs tangling with darting basslines and squirming rhythms. The band remains perpetually antsy as it detours through moody blues ("The Way the Wind Blues"), mandolin-laced social commentaries ("Workin' Them Angels"), and ringing, Zeppelin-esque anthems equal parts sunshine and malevolence ("Armor and Sword").
Still, the album boasts a warm, organic feel, with songs often benefitting from an acoustic base, which leavens the band's sharp-elbowed aesthetic.
"This time we made a conscious effort to write acoustically," Lifeson says. "It takes you in a different direction. The acoustic is such an organic instrument, and it touches you in a different place than an electric guitar would. I went to see (Pink Floyd's) David Gilmour last summer, I had the great pleasure of meeting him for the first time, and we chatted backstage about writing on acoustic. He said, 'Yeah, I write everything on acoustic, that's where I'm connected to my heart.' "
Still, "Snakes" is a tempestuous record largely defined by an existential uncertainty. It's an album directly reflective of the current political climate, with songs of faith and war that make a point out of challenging established belief systems.
"I don't have faith in faith," Lee sings ruefully on the symphonic "Faithless," "I don't believe in belief."
The disc addresses fortune and fate, cryptically at times, trying to find some meaning in uncertainty.
But even though the album directly questions the notion of faith, Lifeson has never sounded like more of a true believer.
"I think there's a lot of things that Neil wanted to address, particularly about religion and its influence on so many aspects of our lives, and I think he really hit the nail on the head on a lot of songs," he says of the lyrical direction on "Snakes." "It's all about surviving, really, this record, and I think it's actually quite positive in the end. You just work your way through it, and hope for the best."