Martin Popoff – Rush: Album By Album

popoff-rush-albumSince I’ve been reading nearly all books digitally on Kindle devices, it’s a refreshing novelty to hold this coffee table style book in my lap. Rush: Album By Album may not be essential for everyone, but hardcore Rush fans should appreciate the beautifully assembled artifact that can either be read straight through within a day, or browsed piecemeal over a long time period.

Rush had a pretty unique trajectory. Formed in 1968 and influenced by the heavy British rock of The Yardbirds, The Who, Cream and Led Zeppelin, they slogged out local gigs for six years, and self-released their debut album in 1974. Success came fairly quickly when a DJ in Cleveland started playing “Working Man,” and they got signed to major label Mercury records. Original drummer John Rutsey left and Neal Peart clicked with the band right away, with Fly By Night (1975) solidifying their hard rock fanbase, while also branching out into progressive rock with “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.” They even won over some admirers across the pond in emerging superstars Queen. They got pretty weird on Caress Of Steel (1975) with the 12:31 long “The Necromancer” and side-long epic “The Fountain of Lamneth” and lost some of their audience, who were not necessarily prog fans. Their label was on the verge of dropping them, and pressure them to reign it in with more radio-friendly length songs. Instead, the band defiantly followed their muse and perfected the approach they took on the previous album, but injecting 2112 (1976) with more fury than pretty much anything released that year, including AC/DC, The Ramones, Scorpions, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Rainbow and possibly even Judas Priest. Audiences responded well to the side long epic, while the second side had some of their most polished songs yet, including stoner travelogue “A Passage to Bangkok,” “The Twilight Zone” and “Something For Nothing.” Rush hurdled over pop radio and sold tons of albums and filled bigger and bigger venues. While prog rock was becoming unfashionable, Rush released increasingly complicated and ambitious albums with A Farewell To Kings (1977) and Hemispheres (1978).

The divisive reaction to Rush was well established by this point. Many people considered Geddy Lee’s high pitch shriek unbearable and the band’s overall sound and image general female repellant. Yet their popularity continued to grow. On Permament Waves (1980) they incorporated influences from reggae and new wave, particularly The Police on their lead-off single “Spirit of the Radio.” This was the album that blew my 11 year-old mind when a childhood friend first played it for me.  While there are other catchy tunes like “Freewill” and “Entre Nous,” there’s also the space rock of “Jacob’s Ladder” and the proggy “Natural Science” which seems to refer back to “2112” with the recurrence of the sound of a babbling stream. It’s up there with Moving Pictures (1981) as Rush at their peak. Much was made of their increased used of synths on Signals (1982), but it still had a warm analogue sound, and some of their most accomplished songs yet. At that point they were my favorite band, soon to be challenged mainly by Iron Maiden who shared a lot of similar prog roots. Opinions were more divided on the cold, brittle production on Grace Under Pressure (1984) and Power Windows (1985). They were still arguably great, but while “Force Ten” was a pretty cool song, the weak, tinny AOR “adult pop” production of Hold Your Fire (1987) finally lost me. I barely paid attention to Presto (1989), Roll The Bones (1991), Counterparts (1993) and Test For Echo (1996) at the time because the band seemed to lose the plot. In retrospect every album had at least a few good tracks that were received well live. But when Neil Peart lost both his wife and daughter in a short period time, he rode off into the sunset on his motorcycle and that seemed to be the end of Rush.

rush-beyondBut then something remarkable happened. The fact that Peart decided he wanted to play again and spent a year regaining his chops is not surprising in itself. Nor is their reunion album Vapor Trails (2002) showing the band reinvigorated with some of their best recordings in nearly two decades. Rush discovered that their fanbase had only continued to grow worldwide during their absence, particularly in the southern hemisphere, where they played to some of the hugest audiences ever in Mexico and Brazil. This was documented on the concert DVD Rush In Rio (2003). Perhaps not coincidentally, Iron Maiden enjoyed a similar renaissance during that same time. A big 30th anniversary tour (R30) followed, and continued success with Snakes & Arrows (2007), and on July 16, 2008, they were back on American television for the first time in 30 years on The Colbert Report where they played “Tom Sawyer.” Then they appeared in the 2009 comedy I Love You, Man starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segal, and were featured in the 2010 documentary Beyond The Lighted Stage. That same year I saw them at an outdoor venue on their Time Machine tour, and the audience was not a 99% male sausage fest as I expected. There were at least 25% women. OMG, were Rush cool again? That seemed to be the case. In the 2013 Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Dave Grohl exclaimed with both bewilderment and jubilance, “When the f**k did Rush become cool?” Apparently right around 2008 when their cultural wave reached a crest and famous people started saying so.

rush-r40Rush enjoyed another successful album, Clockwork Angels (2012), and a final world R40 tour before entering semi-retirement. Those who regret missing various tours can catch many of them on blu ray on the six disc R40 box set, which confusingly does not include their final R40 tour, which is available separately, as is another documentary, Time Stand Still (2016) that covers the tour.

So now that Rush are hipster approved and you are safe to proudly display your Rush coffee table book without shame, let’s get back to the book. I love Martin Popoff for the work he did on his several volumes of The Collector’s Guide To Heavy Metal ranging from the 70s through the 00s. While his personal tastes are inconsistent and confounding to say the least, and his writing is unpolished, he has amassed a huge body of reference work by sheer force of will and relentless work. While his books that focus on individual bands are mostly unsatisfying, Rush: Album By Album focuses on what he does best, getting great quotes from the band’s peers and acolytes such as Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy and a variety of other Rush fans and experts in the music industry. The knowledge and enthusiasm shines a new light on old favorites, while also giving me the opportunity to re-evaluate the albums I’d written off previously, and make a playlist of the best tracks.  The book is fleshed out with photos of the band, concert t-shirts, backstage passes and other memorabilia. Perhaps a bit too geeky for the casual fan, it’s highly recommended for anyone who spends a few hours getting their Rush on now and then.

If that isn’t enough, Popoff also has another coffee table book, Rush: The Unofficial Illustrated History from 2013, which was updated in 2016.

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