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The populist plea bargain of Rush



Nobody was necessarily pining for more populist art-rock. Isn't one point of eight-minute songs and symphonic orchestrations to winnow out the less sophisticated? It's anything but natural to meld epic navel-gazing orchestrations and power chord chug. But Rush gave prog-rock its arena swagger, possibly slowing art-rock's inevitable post-'70s slide from the spotlight.

The Moody Blues, Yes and ELP enjoyed their share of early '70s attention. By the advent of disco, however, the writing was on the ball: Those bands' indulgent, long-winded sound was about to become dinosaur rock.

Rush avoided this fate by finding a lower common denominator than their peers, all without neutering the sense of adventure. Despite releasing five reasonably successful studio albums, including 1976's somewhat overrated 2112, it wasn't until 1978's Hemispheres that they really hit their popular stride. While the former had solidified the incorporation of prog into their early hard rock sound, Hemispheres represents its apotheosis, keyed by the 18-minute "Cygnus X-1 Book I Hemispheres."

Even in their most expansive moments, Rush could feel surprisingly down-to-earth, their power trio muscle balancing Geddy Lee's untethered tenor. It also didn't hurt that Neil Peart developed into one of the era's better lyricists. His heady rhyme handled existential, big-picture thoughts with surprising aplomb. You may argue that the philosophical meditation at the center of "Freewill" is glib, but can you imagine something more singsong or succinct than the chorus: "If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice"?

Both "Freewill" and the equally amazing "Spirit of the Radio" keyed their 1980 breakthrough, Permanent Waves. They'd begun to master the craft of writing a catchy radio hit that embraced their need for knotty grace. They were never as baroque or symphonic as bigger art rock icons like King Crimson or ELP, perhaps because they weren't trying to turn classical music into rock music. They simply bedazzled hard rock.

In a way, Permanent Waves and its chaser, Moving Pictures, succeeded like Springsteen did, melding an operatic sensibility of storytelling to compelling rock 'n' roll. Rush welded a cerebral imprimatur onto a hard rock chassis; no one could mistake them for Dylan, but in a hard rock rendering of Dogs Playing Poker, they were Raphael.

Rush eventually yielded to the call of the synthesizer: After 1982's Signals, which tastefully flirts with synths, they dove headlong into that more sterile sound with 1984's Grace Under Pressure and remained mired there until returning to their guitar-centric sound for 1991's decent Roll the Bones. Rush suffered another setback in the late '90s, though, when Peart lost his daughter and wife, prompting him to retire temporarily from music.

By 2002, Peart had remarried, and the band returned reenergized with Vapor Trails, hitting harder than they had in a decade. They reprised those tricks on 2004's searing covers album, Feedback, and 2007's Snakes & Arrows. That set the stage for last year's more measured and eclectic Clockwork Angels, arguably their best album in two decades. To wit, earlier this year it received the Juno Award for best Canadian album, flanking their induction into the Rock Hall of Fame this year before many of their arty peers. The prog proletariat spoke.

Rush have never been as experimental or ambitious as many other prog acts. But they remained adventurous enough to be interesting. They rarely got so lost in their own heads that they stopped making rock music. No, they don't come across as a blue-collar, meat-and-potatoes band—in many ways, they weren't. But Rush brought enough of that sensibility to their heady sounds to make it broadly accessible and persistently catchy.

Correction: The 1991 album is Roll the Bones (not Rolling).

This article appeared in print with the headline "Headlong."

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