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Rush Buyers Guide

For a relatively unassuming trio, Rush have garnered hordes of vociferous, outspoken, dedicated fans over the years. The Canadian band also have a huge and varied back catalogue that encompasses a wide range of musical styles: pomp, prog, art rock, straightforward heavy rock, reggae, funk… you name it, Rush have probably dabbled in it at one point or other during their epic career.

From their debut album ‘Rush’ in 1974 right through to their brilliant 2007 album, ‘Snakes & Arrows’, they have certainly kept their aficionados on their toes. Whether it’s their sword and sorcery approach of the 70s, their technical and keyboard-oriented style of the 80s, or their back-to-basics sounds of the 90s, everyone has their favourite Rush period. That’s why compiling this Essential Collection has been fraught with indecision, insecurity… even downright danger. But at the end only these eight key albums made it in the final reckoning.

The following is your Planet Rock guide to the essential Rush releases, compiled by Geoff Barton. So if you disagree, please blame him, not us…

2112 (1976)

If you only own one Rush album, it’s got to be this one. What’s more, if you only own one concept album, it’s got to be this one as well. ‘2112’, the Canadian trio’s fourth album, was where the band’s entire sword and sorcery, science fiction and fantasy shtick came together spectacularly. The epic title track remains a masterpiece of light and shade, of tension and drama, as a young innocent attempts to reintroduce the joy of music into a world ruled by the dour and menacing Priests Of The Temples Of Syrinx. ‘2112’ is a total tour de force – and THEN some – that goes from the plaintive (when the central character discovers a guitar and marvels: "What can this strange device be? When I touch it, it gives forth a sound”) to the powerful (when the Priests assert their power at the end and a voice booms fatalistically: "We have assumed control”). Amazing to think that ‘2112’ was issued in summer 1976, just as Babylon was burning right across Britain. With the title track augmented by sensational self-contained tunes such as the evocative ‘A Passage To Bangkok’ and the stirring ‘Something For Nothing’, this is early Rush at the height of their powers.

TRACKLIST:
Overture / The Temples Of Syrinx / Discovery / Presentation / Oracle / The Dream / Soliloquy / Grand Finale / A Passage To Bangkok / The Twilight Zone / Lessons / Tears / Something For Nothing

A Farewell To Kings (1977)

It’s come to our attention that this buyer’s guide is perhaps a little too top-heavy with albums from the early part of Rush’s back catalogue. But in a sense that’s unavoidable. It’s not our intention to denigrate the band’s latter-day output – there’s a hell of a lot of good stuff there – but somehow there’s a kudos, a magic, a sense of occasion surrounding Rush’s early stuff that the passage of time has failed to diminish. ‘A Farewell To Kings’ was Rush’s fifth studio album, and I was lucky enough to be present at Rockfield Studios in South Wales while the band were recording it, so I suppose you could say I’m biased. But any true fan will tell you that this is solid gold Rush. It has a beautiful, evocative, pastoral element that sets it apart from the band’s other releases. There’s an airiness, an openness, that makes you breathe deep and truly appreciate its majesty. ‘Xanadu’ and ‘Madrigal’ are sprinkled with fairy dust, while ‘Closer To The Heart’ does indeed tug at the strings of your most vital organ. (That’s your heart, natch. No filth in this here buyer’s guide!) But the album’s piece de resistance is ‘Cygnus X-1’, surely the greatest example of science-fiction-tale-put-to-music there’s ever been. Of course, no one could have predicted how Rush would conclude the tale on their next album, ‘Hemispheres’. But that’s Rush for you. Always expect the unexpected.

TRACKLIST: A Farewell To Kings / Xanadu / Closer To The Heart / Cinderella Man / Madrigal / Cygnus X-1

Hemispheres (1978)

Rush’s most progressive album is also their most challenging. It’s a direct successor to their previous release, ‘A Farewell To Kings’, and provides a conclusion, of sorts, to that album’s ‘Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage’ with ‘Cyngus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres’. But whereas ‘…Book I’ was a relatively straightforward tale of a spaceship called the Rocinante hurtling toward a black hole, seemingly never to return, ‘…Book II’ is much less immediately accessible, concerning itself with a foray into Greek mythology and abandoning the original sci-fi approach entirely. In truth, it’s a convoluted and at times confusing work that confounded early buyers but rewards the listener with repeated listens – even though, to this day, drummer Neil Peart is unconvinced that the piece totally hangs together. Elsewhere, Rush really flex their muscles, blending keyboards into their increasingly technical sound and exploring their musical capabilities to the utmost. Light years away from the slam-band hard rock of their debut, Rush had come on by leaps and bounds in the space of four short years. And if that wasn’t enough, there are plenty of other tracks including ‘Trees’ – which muses on the merits and demerit of socialism and communism, using allegorical references to oaks and maples. And of course there’s ‘La Villa Strangiato’, primarily a showcase for Alex Lifeson, and a lesson in self-indulgence for sure.

TRACKLIST:
Prelude / Apollo (Bringer Of Wisdom) / Hemispheres / Dionysus (Bringer Of Love) / Armageddon (The Battle Of Heart And Mind) / Cygnus (Bringer Of Balance) / The Sphere (A Kind Of Dream) / Circumstances / The Trees / La Villa Strangiato

Exit… Stage Left (1981)

In the 70s it was very much the done thing for a band to release an all-singing, all-dancing live album after they’d got three or four studio releases under their belt. Rush duly obliged in 1977 when they put out ‘All The World’s A Stage’. Four years later they put out another live offering, ‘Exit… Stage Left’. There have also been other in-concert offerings such as ‘A Show Of Hands’ (1989) and ‘Different Stages’ (1998) since then. So any Rush buyer’s guide has really gotta include a live album – the only question is, which one? ‘Exit… Stage Left’ edges it because it provides the perfect bridge between the old, fantastical Rush and the new, more technically adept band. The album provides a catholic mix of songs that also capitalises on the band’s innate commerciality. ‘The Spirit Of Radio’ (originally from ‘Permanent Waves’), ‘Closer To the Heart’ (from ‘A Farwell To Kings’) and ‘Tom Sawyer’ (from ‘Moving Pictures’) are all songs that nudged the singles chart in their own right. Elsewhere, older songs such as ‘Beneath, Between And Behind’ (from ‘Fly By Night) rub shoulders with newer ones such as ‘Red Barchetta’ (another one from ‘Moving Pictures’). Like the most expensive milkshake in the world, ‘Exit… Stage Left’ offers coolest, smoothest, most perfect mix.

TRACKLIST:
The Spirit Of Radio / Red Barcchetta / YYZ / A Passage To Bangkok / Closer To The Heart / Beneath, Between And Behind / Jacob’s Ladder / Broon’s Bane / The Trees / Xanadu / Freewill / Tom Sawyer / La Villa Strangiato

Grace Under Pressure (1984)

The best of Rush’s 1980s albums, ‘Grace Under Pressure’ has a chill efficiency that’s in direct contrast to the big-shouldered, lip-glossed, Harmony hair-sprayed, ‘Dynasty’-style excesses of that decade. But despite this against-the-grain approach, it was a success for our Canadian chums, reaching No.3 in the UK and No.10 in the US. Following the departure of long-time producer Terry Brown, Rush opted to handle the studio side of things themselves (with a little help from Peter Henderson) after Steve (U2) Lillywhite spurned their advances. There’s some stark stuff on here, including opening track ‘Distant Early Warning’, which is about the so-called ‘DEW Line’ of radar stations in Canada’s far north, which were originally created to stave off the threat of Soviet bombers during the cold war. And ‘Red Sector A’ is about Geddy Lee’s mother, who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp. But it isn’t all doom and gloom, as Rush experimented with reggae and ska, adding fresh strings to their musical bow. The overwhelming atmosphere is one of hopefulness rather than despair. Rolling Stone magazine described the album thus: ‘Rush deliver the goods, alright: strong social statements enveloped in a massive, pounding sound.’ That sums it up in a nutshell.

TRACKLIST:
Distant Early Warning / Afterimage / Red Sector A / The Enemy Within / The Body Electric / Kid Gloves / Red Lenses / Between The Wheels

Roll The Bones (1991)

Rush’s 1991 album – their 14th studio release by our reckoning – marked a renaissance of sorts for the band, most notably on the other side of the Atlantic. While Rush’s sales had been remarkably consistent in Britain, they hadn’t had a top five album in the States since 1981’s ‘Moving Pictures’. Like that album, ‘Roll The Bones’ peaked at No.3 over there. This is a pivotal release insofar as it marks the end of the cool, efficient, technical, keyboard-oriented approach that characterised Rush’s music throughout most of the 80s. Here Alex Lifeson’s guitar work begins to reassert itself and Geddy Lee concentrates more on bass playing than ivory tinkling. This more straightforward approach is somewhat surprising when you consider the album was produced by Rupert Hine, renowned for synth-pop work with the likes of Howard Jones and The Thompson Twins. (Hine had also produced Rush’s previous album, 1989’s ‘Presto’). While ‘Roll The Bones’ didn’t generate a hit single, the deceptively funky title track plus ‘Dreamline’ and ‘Ghost Of A Chance’ gained plenty of airplay in the US, which once again helped raise Rush’s profile. Another contender in the funk-rock stakes was the bizarrely titled ‘Where’s My Thing? (Part IV, Gangster Of Boats Trilogy)’. The fact that it was an instrumental delighted Rush connoisseurs, who hadn’t heard the like since 1981’s ‘YYZ’.

TRACKLIST:
Dreamline / Bravado / Roll The Bones / Face Up / Where’s My Thing? (Part IV, Gangster Of Boats Trilogy) / The Big Wheel / Heresy / Ghost Of A Chance / Neurotica / You Bet Your Life

Snakes & Arrows (2007)

Rush’s latest album finds them in fine fettle. Bassist vocalist Geddy Lee agrees with that assessment, describing ‘Snakes & Arrows’ as "big and bold… I think it’s some of the best work we’ve done in years.” No arguments from this quarter. The highlights are. It begins in fine style with ‘Far Cry’, the first single, all solid riffs and subtle subversion. With co-producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Velvet Revolver) masterminding a sound that’s thick and mysterious, there are 13 immensely varied tracks – including three instrumentals. But the real meat and potatoes is on full-blown compositions such as ‘Workin’ Them Angels’ and ‘The Larger Bowl’, where snaking rhythms soothe and jar simultaneously, Lee’s singing nags and jostles and melodic patterns ebb and flow unexpectedly. One of our favourites is ‘Spindrift’, the title of which refers to a plume of spray that’s blown along the surface of the sea. Rush conjure up an atmosphere of tangible menace before stepping off the gas and transforming the track into a plaintive love song. ‘The Way Of The Wind’ follows a similar theme and contains the best lyric in the entire album: ‘Like a solitary pine on a bare, wind-blasted shore,’ enunciated to perfection by Lee. The masters are back.

TRACKLIST:
Far Cry / Armor And Sword / Workin’ Them Angels / The Larger Bowl / Spindrift / The Main Monkey Business / The Way the Wind Blows / Hope / Faithless / Bravest face / Good News First / Malignant Narcissism / We Hold On

Rush (1974)

Some might quibble at the inclusion of Rush’s debut album in this list. (Indeed, if you’ve read the Rush biography elsewhere on this website, you’ll probably think I’m quibbling with myself.) But to truly understand the band, and to appreciate how far they have progressed in their epic career, ‘Rush’ should form a pivotal part of your collection. This is, of course, the only one of the band’s full-length records to feature drummer John Rutsey. For sure it’s formative. Undeniably it’s straightforward. Most definitely it’s the sound of a band finding their feet. And of course it bears little relation to any other Rush studio album since. The best approach is just to sit back and enjoy the sound of an enthusiastic young band playing unpretentious heavy rock music. There’s some great stuff on here, too, believe it or not. ‘Finding My Way’ is a rollicking opening track, ‘In The Mood’ is classic Midwestern American rock’n’roll (and yes, we KNOW Rush are Canadian – but this was most definitely the kind of sound they were aspiring to achieve), and ‘Working Man’ is another blue-collar blast. It’s perhaps significant that, despite their future musical complexities, Rush have never disowned their debut. Live, when the going gets tough, when the intensity of the music needs to be alleviated somewhat, the band will resort to playing a track from this album, when they’re in the, er, the mood. And to cut loose, as only Rush know how.

TRACKLIST:
Finding My Way / Need Some Love / Take A Friend / Here Again / What You’re Doing / In The Mood / Before And After / Working Man

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