Why Rush Is A Pop Band, And Other Things Your High School Weed Dealer Would Never Admit
As preposterous as it sounds, in the mid-1970s, a power trio of white kids from Canada could think that pretending to have the blues was the fast track to stardom. The prevailing notion back then held that The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix were important; that they saved the world from something. (From Mel Tormé, one presumes.)
Out of either boredom or the (correct) realization that this idea was ludicrous, Rush abandoned that route, hired an Objectivist drummer/lyricist, and started penning multi-part suites about trees and the saving power of rock and roll as allegories for the encroaching nanny state. Thank God for that.
What often gets lost, though, is that these humble epics of Far East tourism and tribute to Samuel Taylor Coleridge somehow linger in the head because of their tunefulness. "The Necromancer" may be 12 minutes long, but it manages to interpolate "Sweet Jane." Geddy Lee has a keening wail, but it's distinctive. The next logical step was to make pop records like Power Windows and Moving Pictures; even those crushed under the weight of 2112's sweeping adolescent ridiculousness had to give credit to Rush's thoughtful position within hard rock's pop triumph.
Still, "Jacob's Ladder" and "The Camera Eye" sound turgid to most outside the target audience. Rush in the '80s was never so stuffily progressive as all that. In fact, the band was very strictly formalist: impeccable musicians used their powers to write very precise pop tunes. "Subdivisions" is middle-school nihilism to a banging drone offset by springy jazz bass; "Distant Early Warning" bends white-boy reggae to the breaking point, wresting a lilting, ominous lullaby out of Cold War dread; the insistent, ringing power pop of "Time Stand Still" features a young (and not altogether out of place) Aimee Mann. The three continued to know exactly what they were doing, and there were tasty hooks and plenty of "holy FUCK, did you just hear that!?" snippets of virtuosity to make sure you followed right along.
In the '90s, the band became prematurely saddled with the "classic rock" tag, meaning it had to be sold to a consumer culture lapping up a mutated punk credo that disingenuously rejected both pop and canon. A steady stream of confusingly, continually repackaged greatest hits and live collections kept the band on the radar; "Roll the Bones" found them embarrassingly trying to figure out what that hip hop stuff was all about; Test for Echo was as subtle and crystalline-beautiful an album as Rush could make, and quickly forgotten; personal problems mounted.
Finallyperhaps emboldened by the fact that Tool and System of a Down (on the radio) and Botch and the Dismemberment Plan (on Pitchfork) were convincing kids to care about weird time signatures and alternate guitar tunings againthe band tried to go back to basics, inasmuch as the jazz fusion space opera "Cygnus X-1 Book 1: The Voyage" could be considered basic.