For nearly 40 years, Canadian trio RUSH have existed at an angle to the mainstream, retaining both their cult appeal and integrity while shifting plentiful units and influencing a generation of forward-thinking musicians. But can a rock group this sensible and conscientious still be called a rock group? And is their latest album, 'Snakes And Arrows', truly a return to the heady, complex sound they pioneered in the '70s? Joseph Stannard and Jonathan Horsley investigated the enigma that surrounds the band, with the help of vocalist/bassist GEDDY LEE and guitarist ALEX LIFESON.
Canada's Rush are perhaps the archetypal geek band. Surely no point of contention for anyone reading this magazine, especially the Prog Special of which this feature is a major part; if you obsess over music, if you have ever pored over a lyric sheet, if you grew up awkward, smart, shy and a little - or a lot - at odds with your surroundings, face it, you're a geek. And if that's the case, Rush are there for you, always. They even wrote the definitive evocation of the geek state in the form of 'Subdivisions', the opening song on 1982's 'Signals' album. This was Rush in their über-geek pomp, cannily addressing their phantom nation scattered among the strip malls and school corridors of the world, refused access to consensus reality and forced to create their own with whatever tools they could find. "Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone/Subdivisions/In the high school halls/In the shopping malls/Conform or be cast out."
In musical terms, Rush have carved out a sizable niche across two major fiefdoms of geekishness. Heavy enough (at least in their 1970s incarnation) to please metallers yet sophisticated enough to appeal to the cape-sniffing prog crowd, Rush still attract adulation and awe from outcasts and heretics the world over. In this they are almost entirely unchallenged, as their status as one of the biggest selling rock groups in history indicates. It ain't Steve and Jackie next door buying them albums... it's the freaks, the brainiacs, the boffins, the weirdos. In other words: you people. Feels nice to belong, doesn't it?
Of course, Rush had plighted their geeky troth as far back as 1976, when, inspired by American libertarian author Ayn Rand, they filled half an album with a parable concerning the power of the individual and the perils of totalitarianism, not least the herd mentality it fosters. Make no bones about it, '2112' is the album for which Rush will forever be known, the one which elevated them from curious Led Zep-meets-early-Yes hybrid to something stranger and much more compelling. Commercially speaking, it also saved their Canadian bacon, its success ensuring that to this day the band answer to no-one but themselves.
"We were lucky that with '2112' we had an album that was quite successful and bought us our freedom," recalls guitarist Alex Lifeson. "The nature of our record deal was always to keep the record company at arm's length. We had our own production company, so we were responsible to ourselves before the label. There was no influence from them, they never spent one second in the studio or made a suggestion, or had any word on any piece of music that we did. To have that kind of freedom, and the support from an audience that buys your records, makes a big difference in how you get along."
And Rush get along just fine. Not only do they shift units and sell out arenas, they also make excellent records such as their latest, 'Snakes And Arrows'. What's more, they still seem to like each other. While peers such as Yes and the recently reformed Genesis give off a palpable air of keeping it together purely for the cash while their fevered egos chafe against each other nightly, Alex, vocalist/bassist Geddy Lee and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart still enjoy each other's company.
"I love it, y'know?" beams the guitarist. "That's the thing. I mean, I can walk to Geddy's house in five minutes, we've been so close for such a long time that when we work together it's an amazing experience. We never take it for granted, it's always a beautiful, exciting thing. And it's the same with Neil. We're in rehearsals right now and coming together again as a live band, and that's all good stuff so why not do it for as long as you can?"
At one point, while discussing the lyrical orientation of 'Snakes And Arrows', Alex says, "We always wanna be going forward, be progressive in all the things that we write, musically and lyrically." This prompts a discussion of Rush's relationship with the term 'progressive rock'. Rush undertook the familiar post-prog pragmatic shift towards concision and accessibility with 1980's 'Permanent Waves', an album which opens with one of the band's few genuine radio hits and probably their best-known song, 'The Spirit Of Radio'. Being Rush, their big airplay hit was an adventurous stylistic collage featuring elements of heavy rock, jazz fusion, white reggae and um, Simon And Garfunkel. And though the band's progressive edge undeniably waned post-1984's ultra-streamlined 'Grace Under Pressure', it never entirely deserted them. Hence tracks like 'Show Don't Tell' from 1989's 'Presto' boasted the monolithic heft that characterised their early work. And after the first principles rediscovery of 2002's 'Vapor Trails' and the 2004 '60s covers EP, 'Feedback', 'Snakes And Arrows' is their most genuinely progressive album for a while, in that it contains music designed to keep the listener constantly alert and involved.
"I don't think we've ever regarded ourselves as a 'progressive band' in the genre sense," says Alex, "but we've always been progressive in the way we feel about our development and where we wanna go."
Many would consider Rush a quintessential prog group.
"I'm not afraid of that word," replies Geddy. "But I think it has a stereotypical connotation of sword and sorcery. I remember when we worked with Rupert Hine [producer of Rush's 'Presto' and 'Roll The Bones' albums] and he used to say we were a post-progressive rock band. I kind of liked that moniker. But, at the same time I've always considered us to be not so much a metal band and not so much a progressive band, but a hard rock band in the fashion of the best hard rock bands. If you look at The Who, a lot of their music was quite progressive; to me they are the quintessential rock band. So, for me, if there was any model for me as a writer of rock music it was that period, and that kind of music from those great hard rock bands from Britain.
"We were very much a musician's band, and our tendency was to write the music first that had something to say about being a musician, playing fast or playing in odd time signatures or playing something complex. And it took us a long time to mature using that attitude towards our music and become songwriters.
That's a difficult balance to achieve and there are a number of albums we have done better than others in terms of being songwriters rather than players. It was always a bit of a war with us. In the '70s, there were a lot more players and that was a new fresh input for us and it made us want to be that type of band, a player's band first. But through the years, we've learned it's more gratifying to take your abilities as a musician and put it inside of a great song somehow, so you not only have the playing, you have a song that stays with you."
Returning to the geek factor - or rather acknowledging its constant presence where Rush are concerned - there's a sense in which the trio are more a curious simulacrum of a rock group than the 'real thing'. Almost entirely free from the Dionysian fire traditionally considered the fuel of 'true' rock 'n' roll, Rush are perhaps best described as 'Hyper-Apollonian'. Their music is forceful, often aggressive, but the engine of the band - drummer/lyricist Neil Peart - has never run on the hard stuff. Essentially sexless and hardly given to debauchery, Rush exist at an angle to rock. Their music betrays a conscience but in a completely different way to the likes of say, Sting or U2. Unlike that of those would-be world saviours, Rush are capable of making all the correct moves, they riff, thunder and churn, but the sense of humanity driving their music results in an oddly clean aftertaste. The lyrics of Neil Peart certainly play their part in this, occasionally smacking of a well-meaning lecture from a favourite uncle, and though 'Snakes And Arrows' is far more lyrically ambiguous than the notoriously supercilious 'Freewill' from 'Permanent Waves' ("You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill/I will choose a path that's clear/I will choose freewill") its attitude to the listener still borders on the didactic.
"It's what's made us loved by our fans and hated by critics," sighs Geddy, "because they often view those kind of lyrics as holier than thou. I really don't think that attitude is what our lyrics are about. Neil writes largely about things he sees that concern him about the world or himself, or him moving through the world - very much so on "Snakes And Arrows'. It's an album about cause and effect and the kind of things we have to live with and live through in 2007."
He's right. For all its homespun philosophising 'Snakes And Arrows' is far from a smug, middle-aged exercise in 'common sense'. Rather, it illustrates common sense under fire in a world slipping ever closer to entropy. If 2002's 'Vapor Trails' was the sound of Neil Peart exorcising his grief following the devastating double loss of his daughter and wife within ten months of each other in the late '90s, 'Snakes And Arrows' is a document of what happens when an only-just reconstituted psyche squares up to a world insane. Alex confirms this perception.
"I wake up every day feeling worried and concerned for the world and where it's going," he confides. "I live right next to this huge country that's being run by maniacs, that are creating such a terrible place! I have a grandson and I want him to grow up in a good world where he has opportunities and he can do good things, and every little bad thing that gets done makes it more difficult for him to get a fair break. That's on a very personal level. Multiply that by the millions of people that live in this world that suffer at the hands of sheer idiots! It's something we need to be aware of all the time."
Does Alex think that's partly what keeps Rush relevant? Maintaining a relationship with what's actually going on in the world?
"Yeah, we've always tried to do that. It just seems natural."
So where does the claustrophobic, compressed 'Vapor Trails' fit into all this?
"It was a very therapeutic record for Neil, but it was dealing with issues that were very sad. With this record, the issues are maybe darker or more serious, but there is hope in everything. And that's the way it ends, it's up to us to rise above it, and y'know, get up that next day and stand for what we believe in."
So 'Snakes And Arrows' is a more outward-looking record, then?
"Yes, absolutely. And that was the important thing about it. 'Vapor Trails' really captured the moment for us. There's a lot of tension and emotion on that record. More than a lot of our records - maybe the most of any of our records. When I listen to it I'm transported to the way we were feeling, trying to pull our pieces back together, Neil coming back into the studio after four years and no drumming! It was a major, major piece of work for us to do. This one was just... y'know, super-confident and very positive, and every day you couldn't wait to get back into the studio, play and try something harder, do something over. There was just such a buoyant atmosphere while making this record."
Rush are a band with the kind of unassailable integrity even their critics find hard to dismiss, and with good reason; it's difficult to think of another band of nearly 40 years standing who have compromised less than this one. They've made difficult records, accessible records, but not one of them has ever constituted a sell-out. This has guaranteed them loyalty from... well, geeks. Loads of 'em. And as everybody knows, geeks are the ones with taste, the ones who are invariably proved right.
"We're maybe the longest surviving cult band of all time," says Alex, with a touch of wonder in his voice. "I've always said that we liked walking along the shoreline of the mainstream; you can see what's going on and derive whatever influence you want from it, but you walk your own path. It's easy to say and do that when you've got fans like Rush fans are, because they are so loyal to the whole idea of what Rush is. Not everybody is into the band but those who are provide enough for it to move forward."
He means you, geeks.