When I joined the review team of ProgPlanet, I was asked whether at some point I could do a review of my favourite Rush album – being a huge Rush fan for (I’m growing old) over 30 years.
First problem with that is finding out what actually would qualify as my favourite Rush album. I ended up counting my favourite tracks to find the album that contained most of them, and I ended up with a tie between Moving Pictures and Permanent Waves. So, flipping a coin did the trick, and here’s my review of Moving Pictures. I’ll probably do one on Permanent Waves as well some time, but not today.
I was too young to catch all that, but Permanent Waves and (to a lesser extend) Moving Pictures were criticised for being being too commercial for a progressive hard rock band as Rush had been in the 1970s. Long debates have since taken place in bars, at birthday parties, on radio and certainly on the internet, but fact of the matter is that Rush are obviously a band consisting of three very smart men. They changed styles a few times, but managed to keep a consistent fan base over 40+ years. Even now, people are asking them to please stick around for a few more albums after they finish their 40th anniversary tour at the end of this year.
These two albums signify the first of these changes in direction (unless you, dear reader, are among the few who consider the step from the debut album to Fly By Night as a separate step), and it’s a step that works very well for me. I appreciate the long epics and hard rock sound of 70s Rush, but have always been drawn more to their early eighties albums. Why? Because of the melodies, because of the richer sounds added by the additional keyboards (which were more than slightly over-dominant a few years later) and because of the great skill of all three band members.
On Moving Pictures, that starts with the rhythmic vocal of Geddy Lee over a Neil Pearts drums, joined by the keyboards until the guitar and bass come in to build a song structure where all instruments seem to echo the vocal melody. This track also emphasises the newly found place for the keyboards and synthesizers, who give it a very much more orchestral sound than 70s Rush work, and who dominate the first part of the instrumental mid section. However, the distinct bass sound of Geddy Lee and the guitar solo of Alex Lifeson are still the things that make it a Rush track.
On Red Barchetta the keyboards take the lead again in the intro and opening verse, but already at the beginning of the song there is an indication that more is about to occur. After all, this is a song about a car, and what instruments are better suited to bring across the sound and emotion of driving a fast car than an electric guitar and electric bass? So, the keyboards are, even more than on Tom Sawyer, accompanied by a heavy guitar and a bass that sounds like a fast running engine (Geddy Lee certainly knows that there are more frets to be found on a bass than just the first 5). The song tells the story of a young man in a not so distant future, when cars are forbidden. In his uncles barn he hides an old Barchetta and uses it to race the police during weekends – the sound and adrenaline perfectly mimicked by the instruments. And that includes the cool off at said uncle’s fire side that ends the song.
My favourite track on this album is the legendary instrumental, inspired by the airport code of Toronto – YYZ. The opening is a play on the morse code for YYZ, and from there the song builds into an instrumental rock eargasm, with Geddy Lee’s bass driving the track, in the beginning, giving way to Alex’s guitar only when this sets in the solo. A solo with a slight middle eastern undertone in the melody. Here again – the keyboards get their place, but only briefly at the start of the last 1.5 minutes. A song fit for flying low on the motorway, for those who don’t own private jets or fly commercial airliners.
Being a fan of Rush for so long, I’ve also become very fond of the lyrics and books written by drummer Neil Peart. He’s been expressing his own opinions and emotions in his lyrics since the day he joined Rush, although on the first few albums (Fly by Night and Caress of Steel) they were more obscured in legend and phantasy than later on. Limelight, the fourth track on Moving Pictures, is a track in which he expresses how uncomfortable the farmer’s son was, and has always been, about being famous.
This track relies heavily on Geddy Lee again, because of the keyboards, but mainly because of a driving bass pulse that almost hurts when played live. The bass in instrumental mid section is almost worth replaying on its own.
After this, The Camera Eye, tells about the lives in New York and London, metropoles on different sides of the Atlantic. Two different cities with a different feel to them, expressed in layers of keyboard, bass and guitar work. Starting with just keyboards, the song builts up slowly, until all instruments are there, and a bass pulse brings it to the first few verses, describing New York – a city that gives the narrator of the story an uneasy feeling reflected in the keyboard heavy instrumentation. The keyboards and guitars go into an instrumental interlude, taking turns in leading the band on, but without ever dropping into what could be called a solo, and take us to London. A prouder, greener city, with more history than New York. The music and the vocals sound more optimistic here, even though the lyrics question whether the Londoners still see the beauty of their surroundings. Two cities, two faces – and one brilliant piece of rock music.
The gloomy intro of Witch Hunt (Part III of Fear) is a different story after this. The voices and noises in the background predict something terrible is going to happen to someone – a burning, a hanging… the dark percussive keyboard sounds add to that atmosphere. The guitar and sparse drum beats underneath the first verse have the same effect in a completely different way – a brilliant move I think.
The lyrics were, according to Peart, based on three theaters of fear: how fear works inside people, how fear is used as a weapon, and the effects it has on mob mentality. These three were spread over Parts I to III of ‘Fear’, which were released in reverse order on consecutive albums, Part III ending up on Moving Pictures. With alternating verses supported by synths and guitar and bass, this track has a dark, recognisable pattern that sticks. I love it, for sure.
And then at the end of the ride, we find Vital Signs. A keyboard pulse leads the way for the vocals and guitar, which plays a slightly reggae like riffing pattern. The influence of keyboards and electronic music on this track is what made people complain about this change of direction for Rush. Limited to one track here, it comes back more on the follow up album Signals – considered the weakest album of the first 10 years of Rush by many.
Perhaps the weakest track of the album, but that may also be because it comes after so many good things that the listening mind is numbed. After all, over time I got to appreciate Signals more as well.
And yes, after writing this, I am convinced that Moving Pictures is indeed my favourite Rush album. This review appeared on ProgPlanet first, and is dedicated to my newly found friends there: Tonny Larsen, Rudy Madsen, and Ronny Wies.