Whether the planet's going to start glowing from over-use or out of a knock 'em down faith-based war, Neil Peart's not happy about it either way. On Rush's new album, Snakes & Arrows, the drummer and wordsmith is pounding his way into Rush's history books with treatises on these and other more nuanced subjects, seriously perched at the top of his game. In fact, given the pretty much universally fetching reviews for the new album in totality, it's testimony to the reticent one that he has stolen the show this time, offering clarity, gorgeous turn of phrase, poetry, and heart-breaking insight across, oh, a half dozen general themes... or really, about 30, given all the parallels and allegories drawn within the majority of the songs. And this literary trump as it were is despite much busy and layered and discipline work on the musical side from himself, guitarist Alex Lifeson and singer song-thrummer Geddy Lee.
Snakes & Arrows is not the rocking electricity drenched record a vast wedge of Rush fans crave (and the other two-fifths would wind up going crazy over anyway), but it is both considerably energetic and prog-minded. Whatever they've done, folks are eating it up.
"Much bolder, richer sounding; it's heavier, it's stronger, less personal." That's the way Lifeson sums up Snakes & Arrows, adding that next to 2002's blustery, noisy, combative Vapor Trails, "I don't find very much in common between the two records. Maybe a couple of tracks; 'Earthshine' I could see coming out of this record. But it was a much more personal record, a much more difficult record to make, for sure. This record was just a joy. At every moment, there wasn't a single difficult time we had. Whereas with most of Vapor Trails, it was a struggle to make that record."
And what Rush era do you think this one mostly evokes?
"It's hard to tell. For me, it sort of encompasses our whole history. When I hear it, I hear different aspects of our songwriting, and different approaches to the way we recorded, how we constructed songs. But it's all in this very fresh sound package to me. It's the heaviest record I think we've done in a long time. And the richest sounding record, for sure."
Much of this has to do, oddly enough, with the band's choice of producer, hot young turk Nick Raskulinecz, who didn't do anything that wasn't old school to the thing, other than... well, nothing actually.
"I think we had five songs when Nick came up," begins Alex, on the fortuitous meeting of band and... fan, who just happened to twiddle knobs real good. "We got in touch with a few different producers, and we were talking to one in particular at the time, but a lot of these people need a lot of notice, obviously a guy like Bob Rock or Rick Rubin, who was also on our list. In fact, Nick heard about the project through Rick. And of course Rick is booked years in advance - couldn't do the project for ten months or something. So Nick got in touch with us and wanted to come up and talk about doing the record. At the time we hadn't decided who we were going to work with, or were we going to work with anybody, or maybe we would just do it ourselves with Rich Chycki (engineer). And then Nick came out in May of last year, after we spent a few weeks with Neil in the studio getting him up to speed with the arrangements and the songs. We met with Nick and we sat down and we talked about lots of stuff - music, song construction, songwriting, the value of the chorus, all these things, as well as the war in Iraq, family, everything. We really got to know him. And he was just so enthusiastic and he said all the right things. And he was young and his track record was fairly diverse. He had done a lot of heavy stuff like Shadows Fall as well as Foo Fighters, which is very, very strong. And we just thought we would take a chance on his youth and the things he was saying."
Did he have some technological things that you hadn't seen before, being a young guy?
"I don't think so. He had very good engineering skills, from what we had heard. We still wanted to use Rich, because my relationship with Rich has been a little more diverse. We've been doing some independent projects together and I think he's just a spectacular engineer; he is so, so good. He has such intuitive skills, and a real solid grounding in engineering. As Nick does too. But it took the pressure off Nick so he could just concentrate on the music and where we were going, and the performance."
"The sessions were fantastic. We had a riot, and he was very motivating and very inspiring. One of the great things about Nick working with us... Nick saw us play when he was 11 years old. It was the first concert he had gotten to. His mom took him. His mother was a big fan, and she still is, which is really fantastic, especially for Nick, as it's kind of gone full circle. But he is a very gregarious, outgoing guy, and he knew a lot about the band. But one of the interesting things he said was, 'You guys forget who you are sometimes. And with this record, you need to remember who you are. Because you have a lot of good things about your history that you overlook or ignore.' And I think he's right. I think left to our own devices, we tend to leave everything behind and move forward, almost to the point where we lose touch with where we came from. And I think he really wanted us to keep that in mind, what the strengths of the band have been over the years. He really brought that out. He challenged everybody to play to their best abilities, and he really got that."
Very interesting point, as all over Snakes & Arrows, you find breaks and segues and flirtations with odd time signatures, along with ambitious arrangements and Peart with his hands full. Also all over the record however - and defining it - is acoustic guitar, even when Alex is a power chording.
"Before we actually started writing, I mentioned to Geddy that I thought it would be refreshing to take an acoustic approach to writing," explains Alex. "He thought that was a great idea. In fact, we both started out on acoustic, and it lasted for about five minutes, and then he put the acoustic down and he picked up the bass. He started on acoustic guitar, but then picked up electric bass. We wrote like that in the old days, but he hasn't played guitar in decades. It's not really the best way. The best way is how it ended up, me being on acoustic and him being on bass. And the whole writing process on acoustic, I don't think I played electric... no, I didn't play electric once while writing. And of course, the album has a lot of acoustic on it, either in a primary or secondary role. I love using acoustic as support. I think it adds a richness to the heaviness, of this record in particular. And certainly guys like Townshend and David Gilmour were masters at using acoustic to make a big statement."
Anybody out there who's lit this fire in you?
"I went to see Tommy Emmanuel play a couple of times. In fact, I went to the second show the following night and I was so blown away by watching him, and he did an acoustic set, just him and the guitar, and that was spectacular; it was really inspiring. I went to see Stephen Bennett play. We got together afterwards, and I've never met him before, and we had a couple of drinks and we jammed a little bit and played and talked about the harp guitar, and he tried to show me a few things. It was impossible. And he gave me a capo that I ended up using on a couple of things. And I just found I was playing acoustic a lot more at home. Friends would drop by and you would have a glass of wine and sit in the backyard and strum away, for hours, and it's really a lot of fun. And I started fooling with different tunings. So I was in that headspace when we started working on it."
Rush have been known to cook up a song purely meant to live and die as a studio creation. I asked Alex if there was one of those on this record. "Yes and no (laughs). I remember 'Main Monkey Business', when we were doing that, thinking, we'll never play this live. So let's just track it up and make it a lot of fun, a really great thing to listen to. And of course, there's no way we can't do it live. So it's definitely on our list (laughs). We're going to try to do seven or eight songs from the record. But until we actually play them, we don't really know if we're going to have trouble with anything. It's always difficult in the beginning, but you work around it. And I think a lot of those little details like tracking the acoustic for example you can approximate that stuff live. And the energy of the live show makes up for a lot of those little details that might be missing. But I've a feeling that when we start rehearsing and get comfortable with the songs, they're going to sound really good live."
Asked to point out a weird technological point on the record, Alex explains that "using the mellotron was kind of a cool thing. And they just happened to have one. It's interesting, at Allaire (the studio the band used, in Shokan, NY), they've got a whole room full of equipment, primarily guitars, acoustics, electrics. They must have 150 instruments there. I mean, not just crappy instruments, beautiful instruments! This is just outside of Woodstock. The owner of the studio is a major collector. He's got amps and keyboards, everything, so they had a mellotron there, and we talked about orchestrating a couple of things, like 'Faithless' for example. And rather than putting an orchestra on, we tried the mellotron and it added this kind of really cool '70s strings vibe to it. And it's a cumbersome, out of tune, gigantic behemoth of an instrument, but it was still really great. It suited the track really well and we got Ben Mink to play some violin on it as well, to bring some real strings in. So it really worked nicely. So there's that, and bouzouki I played on a song, mandolins..."
Visually, Snakes & Arrows had seen much discussion in the months leading up to the album's issue. On top of the idea of a separate graphic or "cover" for each song (and even a second album cover on the booklet within the digipak - frankly a bit of a crudely rendered or "rushed" - looking Hugh Syme), the album's main cover image is laden with theme-enveloping meaning.
"The cover came from a game board, from an ancient Indian game, Leela," says Lifeson. "It's the source of the game we're familiar with as snakes and ladders. It's a game of karma, and you go through the squares and move up on the arrows, whatever karmic number you land on, and your bad karma sends you back down the snake, on the back of the snake. And a lot of the record deals with that duality of east/west, good/bad, love/hate - it's really about life, this record. And to me, thematically, it's probably a little broader than it has been for a while. We always work on some sort of a theme, but with this one touches on a lot of different aspects of the human condition and how we live together, things that we believe in, things we don't believe in."
Including a positive, can-do viewpoint toward atheism, fueled in part by watching bad behaviour based on faith, not only in the sand-swept East, but also at home in Neil's adopted home of America. "Sure, yeah. They are just as fanatical as they are in the East, at least in terms of what we read. It's my experience that you have to look at both sides of the story before you take a side, but it has a lot to do with that. So it's about the goodness that religion can bring, and also the negativity that it brings."
"Sometimes they pile up," notes Alex, asked about Neil and his lyrics, whether they are all fresh or sometimes emerge from a backlog. "It's not unusual that he pushes something every time around. 'Have a listen to this now' or 'Check this out.' But we gravitate to what we gravitate to. And it tends to be something that is more modern or current, that he is writing. And I have to say that Geddy and Neil working together, it's a marvel, how they get it all together. It's done so professionally and respectfully. It's gotta be tough for Neil though, spend all this time writing a song, and Geddy might pull one line from it, and say, 'This I really like. Can we build a song around this one line?'"
"Yeah! (laughs), and I'm sure that's the response. And Neil says, 'Yeah, I'll have a look at that; I'll see what I can do.' Or Geddy comes in and says 'This whole chorus is happening. Can we just do a shift? What if we actually move this to here?' So he's really great that way. But I have to say that's not with all lyrics. Like 'Far Cry' was almost verbatim. It's like, perfect! But I think it's always for the best. And then Geddy can sing them with conviction."
None of that shifting around business allowed for this one...
"Yes, 'Larger Bowl' is a little bit like that, an experimental track - it's acoustically driven. There's a very cyclical thing about it. Lyrically it's a pantoum. It takes lines two and four of every four line stanza, and makes them the first and third of the next. It's something Neil has been working with for a long time, lyrically, how to use the device. And the music is written in a way that it's looping. It's only four chords, but they keep looping through the whole song. I think it's a really interesting approach for a song, from us."
In closing, I asked Alex to expand upon an earlier point of his that Snakes & Arrows might be the band's heaviest record in a while. What did he think was the last heaviest Rush record?
"I don't know. In a way, Counterparts was a pretty driving record. Grace Under Pressure had that thing to it. I think because it's kind of dark, sort of grayish, not a black record but a pretty dark gray record (laughs). It has a bit of that heavy character to it. Certainly, yeah, I don't know if we'd ever had a really heavy record, to be honest."
Counterparts certainly seems to be the one from sort of '85 on...
"Yeah, it certainly would be the one from that period. It wouldn't be Presto or Roll The Bones (laughs)."
Snakes & Arrows (Anthem/Universal)
You know when rock radio in North America is complaining that it's too heavy, it's a good sign. That's how we were introduced about a month ago... it was a 'Far Cry', but it wasn't. It was as close as the sun is on a midsummer's day. Alex had plugged in. Well, not that he was unplugged before. This time he's taken the bull by the horns and emerged with a mantle-piece. Like virtually every other Rush album, Snakes & Arrows deserves a stand-at-attention philosophy. At least for the initial listen, to see what genius the trio of mad scientists have been up to. But after increased sessions, I'd truly stuck to a pair of tracks, each with a distinctive passion. 'Armor And Sword' sees Lifeson a man of iron, waving his steel armament into battles of the past. Although the acoustic motif runs rampant throughout Snakes & Ladders [sic], this track exhibits a new stamina, a certain grace under pressure - one that we haven't heard since said album.
The revered guitarist exudes haunting leads and aggressive undertones. 'Workin' Them Angels; cute title and all, may be the finest rung on the ladder, Peart shining a light on ghostly beings he's relied on in the past, whilst frontman Geddy Lee amazingly out-lasts Lifeson's ongoing brilliance. 'All this time I've been workin' these angels overtime' - easily the most inspiring choruses Rush has dreamed up in years. 'The Larger Bowl' is upbeat and palatable, whereas 'Spindrift' is another highlight, a rather mellow intro crashes into Lee's more than serious actions. 'The Main Monkey Business' is the first of three instrumentals. A journey, most likely a certain playground release for Lee/Lifeson/Peart, the track motions like the waves, from surreal passages to heightened escapes. 'The Way The Wind Blows' begins with a Clapton-meets-Vaughan intro, Lifeson acting on his blues abilities, as Lee takes advantage of another moving chorus line. 'Hope' is a shorter instrumental of mainly Lifeson's handiwork, dancing up hills and valleys. 'Faithless' is near Floyd-like, a passion-filled expose, which will appease old and new minded prog visionairies. 'Bravest Face' is an upbeat power-drive, Peart's impassioned lyrics as hard-hitting as his skins whereas Lifeson slides in a jazzy solo to add elegant spice to the mix. 'Good News First' pumps along with vibrancy and motion until it meets up with 'Malignant Narcissism"s groove. 'We Hold On' closes off this chapter of Rush in decent style. Overall, Snakes & Arrows is one of countless joyous occasions, a serious musical adventure where the price of admission is exceeded greatly by the footsteps trod. Name another rock act that has the longevity, consistency and prominence of Canada's revered three-piece. I didn't think you could. Another trophy for the shelf.
Tim Henderson