And so begins the saga of my bi-weekly reviews of classic rock albums. I am a big fan of progressive rock works, as the genre was what shot me into the world of music. Going beyond the mainstream tracks of the radio and the abyss known as “pop”. Here I delve analytically into the music, deriving my personal opinion on the music while being incessantly nit-picky to expose as many flaws as possible. I found it apt to begin with the band (and album) which got me into music; the first LP I ever bought – Moving Pictures by Canadian rock band Rush.
By all means, Rush is Canada’s greatest contribution to rock. Releasing their eponymous debut album in 1974, they have been an anomaly in music, for their lineup has remained unchanged since 1975. Of course, the band consists of bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer Neil Peart – all three members are considered all-time greats at their respective musical roles; receiving legendary status throughout the universe of rock and roll. Combining advanced, intricate progressive rock with thinking man lyricism, Rush is the intellectual’s wet dream and the narrow-minded listener’s nightmare. The band’s longevity can be credited by the fact that the band has been able to produce quality music that is relevant with the trends of the time. In the 1970’s it was what would be considered “classic” heavy prog, and in the 1980’s the band was able to adjust to the rapidly changing face of the music business, incorporating synth-heavy new wave into their sound. This ability to change with the times and not fall into a specific category is what has made the band so popular and successful where other bands have failed.
Where many progressive rock bands failed, Rush soared. The 1980’s were not kind to progressive rock, as the genre flat lined and bands either disintegrated or ventured off into pop rock. However, Rush was one of the few bands to defy the odds, releasing their magnum opus album Moving Pictures in 1981. The group had been transitioning towards a more relevant sound since 1980’s Permanent Waves, and the sound is hereby perfected on this effort. Recorded entirely at Le Studio in Quebec, production went smoothly, and the album was released in February of 1981 to critical acclaim. It was particularly successful in America, topping out at #3 on the Billboard 200 Album charts and shooting the band directly into the mainstream.
SONG #1 – “Tom Sawyer” The most popular Rush song of all time leads off the album. Instantly recognizable due to its emphasis on the synthesizer, powerful drums, and intellectual lyricism, it makes for a great opening track. Immediately the listener is introduced to the new, refined Rush sound of the 1980’s, made tolerable with amazing instrumentation from all three band members. I like to think of it as a watered-down progressive rock tune – very radio-friendly, while retaining some of the characteristics indicative of their roots, including a well-paced ⅞ midsection. Max Webster lyricist Pye Dubois is given writing credits on this one, drawing inspiration from one of his own poems.
SONG #2 – “Red Barchetta” Moving forth, we get to this slightly longer track – one of the more underrated pieces from the album, but still ubiquitously adored by the Rush fandom. Arguably one of the most definitive lyrical accomplishments of Peart, the song tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who basically takes his uncle’s classic Ferrari for a drive, gets chased by some enemies in big futuristic bulldozer cars, and eventually escapes the baddies. Musically, the song flows beautifully to back the story, using tone and synchronization to add tension to the plot. An engaging and pleasant song, it is hard not to like this one.
SONG #3 – “YYZ” The album’s one instrumental; and while this may look like a bad thing from first glance to any hardcore progressive rock fan, Rush does not fail to deliver on this one. Truly this is the most complex song on the album – inspired by the band’s visit to…. Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. What makes this song so amazing is that it is based upon a repeated 5/4 rendition of YYZ in morse code (the IACA identification code of the airport) played with various different instrumentals and tempo changes. One would not guess that this is being played by only three men, and the amount of intricacy and virtuosity is astounding. This is enough to melt even the most seasoned music listener’s brain.
SONG #4 – “Limelight” The other commercially successful song from this album alongside “Tom Sawyer”, we are brought back down to Earth. Once again, Rush strikes the listener with truly philosophical lyrics, this time on the concept of fame. In glorious 7/4, the musical is gratefully accessible, augmented by a very emotional Lifeson guitar solo (his admitted favorite), as well as a satisfying climax and ending. Despite being less successful than its aforementioned brother, “Limelight” still gets classic rock radio airplay, showing that the track still resonates in the ears of the casual listener.
SONG #5 – “The Camera Eye” By 1981, progressive rock had essentially gone into hibernation, with the great twenty-minute epics of the 70’s being reduced to short pop pieces. The same sort of applied with Rush, as the mean run times of their songs were declining by the time Moving Pictures was released. This track would turn out to be the band’s last epic to date, or song over ten minutes. It is quite engaging for a song of its length, and it is split into two parts, lyrically based on the bustling cities of our modern age with New York and London in particular. Both parts are very similar in structure, and hold a driven synth-heavy atmosphere that transcends into the sub-genre of symphonic progressive rock. It however, does struggle to live up to the long run time, while the music does not shock and awe like the previous material on the album.
SONG #6 – “Witch Hunt (Pt. III of ‘Fear’)” One thing that may strike the listener immediately is that this song is supposed to be the third part of “Fear”, while there was no first or second part of this suite on the band’s previous albums. Interestingly, the band would begin at part three, but would add in the first, second, and fourth parts on future albums. The entire concept of “Fear” is based on the archetypes of the most ugly parts of human nature. “Witch Hunt’s” lyrics are as relevant as they are in 2017 as they were in 1981, drawing upon the idea of the mob mentality. Picture the 1692 Salem Witch Trials for example, or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the listener can immediately understand what the song is all about. The eerie drama of the song, coupled with the omnipresent synth makes this one another underrated favorite of mine.
SONG #7 – “Vital Signs” Rush is a band known for its willingness to experiment with other musical genres. Here we see the group experiment with reggae, which at the time was becoming popular in the West thanks to Bob Marley et al. The influences from the traditional Jamaican genre are extremely prevalent, and is blended with the band’s heavy progressive style. It is also the most poppy tune of the track, and a foreshadowing as to what was going to come with the band’s next two albums Signals and Grace Under Pressure. In the grand scheme of the album, it is obscure and a weak closer but not an earache thanks to a great showing on drums by Peart.
I highly recommend this album to any rock fan. Moving Pictures is Rush’s greatest offering, up their with their classic 1978 progressive showcase Hemispheres. Recording engineer Terry Brown does an amazing job here at bringing out the sound of the band, especially on the mind-blowing “YYZ” where every instrument is completely discernible. The album tows the line of being an accessible album, while still having appeal to those seeking uniqueness and technicality. What makes this album Rush’s best is that it combines the best elements of their original sound with the best elements of their adjusted 1980’s sound – not being pretentiously over saturated with either. It is not a perfect album; the epic is underwhelming and the closing piece is weak, but the majority of Moving Pictures hits hard, with enticing musical passages, masterful lyricism, and a hybrid sound encompassing two generations of the progressive rock genre.
OVERALL: 93% – A