If the music of Rush's most recent album feels lofty and majestic, it's probably because it was made on a mountaintop high in the Catskills, in surroundings conducive to the creation of the kind of soaring and mighty prog-rock sound this Canadian trio of virtuosos started perfecting back in the mid-'70s.
"Snakes & Arrows" was recorded at the residential Allaire Studios, where drummer Neil Peart, bassist-keyboardist-vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson set up housekeeping for six weeks back in November-December 2006.
"It's just outside of Woodstock, New York," Lifeson said in a phone interview from his Toronto home. "It's situated on one of the mountaintops, or hills I suppose, and it has a beautiful view, a panoramic view, and the studio has really top-notch equipment, it's really spread out. It's very comfortable, and you can just focus on your project. There's no traffic to deal with, there's no hotels to deal with, you're there, you get up in the morning, the girls cook breakfast for you, you go in the studio and you work all day."
One imagines these guys might have become sick of the sight of each other long before the end of that lengthy retreat, but there were separate cabins on the premises that offered solitude when needed, and there was plenty of room to wander.
"It's pretty intense work in the studio, and you don't want too many distractions," Lifeson said. "But we took a day off every week, and we'd go to town, we'd have dinner, we'd walk around. And when somebody else was doing something, you'd get out. It was really nice to just walk around the grounds, through the woods. Everything was in color, and it was very, very invigorating, from November to early December."
Apparently all this fresh air and beautiful mountain scenery inspired them to reach for the peak of their powers, as one listen to "Snakes & Arrows" dynamically demonstrates. Instrumentally and philosophically ambitious epics such as "Armor and Sword," "Workin' Them Angels" and "The Way the Wind Blows" are surging aural seas of tempestuous bass and drums and amazingly intricate acoustic and electric guitar textures, with Lee providing the often melodramatic narrative in that high yet weirdly commanding voice of his.
Some sneer at Rush as just another diehard throwback to '70s progressive-rock excesses, but there is simply no denying their incredible instrumental prowess and the ingenious complexities of their songwriting and arranging. What's even more incredible is that Lifeson has had very little formal musical training.
"I started playing when I was 12. I just picked it up by ear," he said. "But when I was 18, I studied for about a year, classical guitar. That did give me a really good basis in trying to explore chording a lot more, and the nature of the classical pieces that you've learned to play, there are bass lines as well as the melody line, and you think of the instrument as two different parts and it (the band) being a three-piece, I think you have to develop a guitar style if you want to have a full sound, particularly with a rhythm section like Neil and Ged, who are very active. You need to fill out as much area as you can, sonically."
By the time Rush arrived at Allaire Studios, most of the songs on "Snakes & Arrows" were already written, with Peart, as always, providing the lyrics. But the atmosphere of the studio, situated on a cliff with surrounding glass providing a breathtaking view of the valley below, spurred the spontaneous creation of two instrumental tracks: Lifeson's poignant acoustic piece, "Hope," recorded in one take, and the frenetic astral jam "Malignant Narcissism," a Grammy-nominated number that borrows its title from the film "Team America: World Police."
Sadly, Rush didn't win the best-instrumental trophy.
"No, are you kidding?" Lifeson said. "We were up against, well, Bruce Springsteen. He was up for an instrumental, which he hadn't written or anything ("Once Upon a Time in the West" by Ennio Morricone). I think it's the third time we've been nominated in this category, and I don't know how to take that anyway. I am almost relieved that we don't win it. It's nice to get the nomination, and it's amazing how excited friends get. 'Oh, you got a Grammy nomination!'
"But I don't know about all that Grammy bull----."
Lifeson is simply proud of the album, which has been compared favorably with such Rush milestones as "2112" (1976), "Permanent Waves" (1980) and "Moving Pictures" (1981).
"There's something about 'Snakes & Arrows' that reminds me of old Rush, but in a new clothes kind of thing, you know?" he said. "Like the way we wrote, the kind of dynamics that we used are classic in a Rush context, but the sound of it is quite modern and powerful."
The follow-up album, "Snakes & Arrows Live," containing songs old and new, has just been released on Atlantic, and Rush is on a tour behind it that will bring the trio back to Oklahoma City for the first time in more than a decade.
"I know, we can't wait," Lifeson said. "I remember playing there. We were there with Hawkwind in the early days. We opened for them. That was like '75. I don't think we've probably been in Oklahoma City since the early '90s, but judging by your ticket sales, it's gonna be a great show."