Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Defining the times through music: rock legends Rush achieve greatness with 'Snakes' album & tour

In the universe of rock music, sometimes there are moments where an artist’s music simply hits its stride with the times. U2 accomplished it in the 1980s with the song “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and the Joshua Tree album, and Queensryche upped our awareness of how high the stakes can be with Operation: Mindcrime, their anti-right political manifesto. In the late 1990s Radiohead helped to define the negative impact of technology on society through their masterpiece OK Computer, and of course Bob Dylan accomplished the unimaginable—and a since unrepeated feat—by serving as the protesting voice for an entire generation in the 1960s. I’m sure there are many other examples out there that I’m leaving out, as I can only comment on the works I’m personally exposed to.

This being said, yet another artist has emerged with such an engaging piece of work (and an ensuing tour to boot) that captures the mindset of where we are at in the world and as a nation these days. Rush, having been a band for nearly 40 years and having spent 33 years as a recording artist (34 if you count the Moon Records single "Not Fade Away" from 1973, covering the Buddy Holly classic), emerged in 2007 with their latest music offering, Snakes & Arrows. The theme of the album (or CD, depending on your preference) echoes the frustration many of us feel over today’s political climate and the direction the world has taken over the last 6+ years.

It doesn’t necessarily address the complicated issues of today, nor try in earnest to search for any solutions; it simply gives many of us a coping mechanism and a sympathetic message of “I feel your pain, let me share mine with you.” Do you ever notice that when you’re down and need to recharge your engines, sometimes all it takes is an understanding friend to listen to you while you vent your frustration? (Dandy, that's for you) When that friend isn’t around to listen to your thoughts, rants and screams out of your 6th floor apartment window, Snakes & Arrows is your trusty companion; and it's delivered in a sophisticated fashion that will have you amped and running to join the Sierra Club rather than crying in your beer (not referring to you that time... [in Burgh accent] seriously... it's like a dodge & weave... dodge & weeeeeeeave maaaaaan...). One can argue that sentiment for Rush’s entire catalog, for that matter, which noodles into micro and macro themes focusing on the various conditions of human nature and its effect on the planet (but that’s a thousand page analysis for another day).

As a side paragraph, I openly admit a bias toward Rush being my favorite band for 25 years, since the blossoming and impressionable age of 12. Ahh, the memories of the summer of 1981 when Tom Sawyer was all over the airwaves... along with leaving burning paper bags of dog shit on neighbors' doorsteps and doing the ring & run... and I ripped my adidas shorts while getting my knee-high striped tube socks dirty in the process... yes, we were bored... there was plenty of time to absorb music and bands such as Rush that summer...

In addition to being the Drum God of planet Earth, Neil Peart has been the band’s primary lyricist. The lyrics are submitted to and filtered by singer /bassist Geddy Lee. The band’s lyrics and disposition toward themed albums throughout a body of 19 studio projects present a very compelling case study—and a musical bestowal of a lifetime—a treasure trove for current and future fans (especially when the catalog is shuffled on an iPod).

Snakes & Arrows accomplishes more than giving its audience mere sympathy and brainy subject matter for contemplation, however. An insightful analysis of a world gone mad helps us to simplify the nebulous and overwhelming nature of today’s societal issues into an understandable and quantitative sandwich for the brain to munch on. Subject matter on this album touches on many variations of the theme, ranging from views on morals and religion ("Faithless") to personal struggles through adversity, such as an illness ("Good News First"). Other tracks on the album are autobiographical, cherishing the freedom of travel and life experiences ("Workin' Them Angels"). In terms of specific lyrics; for example, as stated in the opening song on the CD, Far Cry: “It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit, it’s a far cry from the way we thought we’d share it. You can almost feel the currents flowing, you can almost see the circuits blowing.” Simple, direct, realistic, and dead on. I can't think of any other lyrical passage in music that sums up the current political mood of the world we live in.

To be a singer and go through the process of successfully interpreting and delivering someone else's lyrics, you need to be able to get behind them and feel their vibe as if you've written them. Here’s an excerpt from Ged in a recent interview with the Boston Herald:

I think that in his travels around the country, Neil was noticing the fear that North American travelers are inundated by. I think he felt the need to draw the parallel. You can sit on one side of the world saying, ‘These guys are crazy fanatics,’ and someone on the other side is saying the same thing. He felt that a successful society has to grow beyond that and that was a sentiment I could get behind. So it’s not so much political as being a philosophy of survival.”

Neil expands on what Ged is mentioning, via transcript from an interview with Toronto radio station Q107 FM:

"It is a kind of process of discovery because, and I found this in prose writing too - if you’re gonna say something you have to figure out what you want to say. “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?” So in working on the lyrics and themes of course, faith and spirituality and religion are a big part of the themes, so I had to think about that. What do I really think? And the writing of Rocho was a large part of that research in a way and the whole armour and sword metaphor came from that book. Because I had to think about what I was seeing as I traveled around on my motorcycle around the central United States and the South and that and seeing the church signs everyday that were becoming oppressively overwhelming and I was thinking about what’s good about faith, and what’s good about spirituality and what’s bad about it became a part of the thinking."

To visit the guitarwork in Rush for a moment; Alex "Lerxt" Lifeson takes Neil's words and the rhythm section to add his electric guitar parts... excuse me, it's the 12 string acoustic... no, his mandolin parts... wait, he plays all three at once... Lerxst is the piece of the puzzle most folks overlook, but as the heart of the band he gives the music the feel that gracefully surfs above the mindblowing jams and woodshedding technical prowess of the band. He's essentially 3 guitarists in 1; his dynamic ability allows him to canvass the music as both lead, rhythm and acoustic player. Oh, and he does a mean standup comedy act, with a style all his own.

Peart’s ingenious use of metaphor adds further context and understanding to the subject matter in the band’s music. An excerpt from a song from Snakes & Arrows called “The Way the Wind Blows” states: “We can only grow the way the winds blows on a bare and weathered shore, we can only bow to the here and now in our elemental war. We can only grow the way the wind blows, we can only bow to the here and now or be broken down blow by blow.” What an English college professor would need 45 minutes to explain in literal terms to a class of raised hands, Peart sums up through the use of imagery and metaphor in essentially 20 seconds of music lyrics.

Neil has defined this work, through numerous interviews and in Hemmingwayesque fashion, as his “lover’s quarrel with the world.” When listening to some of the songs from the new CD, one might interpret the ebb and flow in the storylines being a relationship between two individuals, when the intention actually pairs Neil with a particular group—or simply the rest of the world at large. Whether or not the band will come out and say it, Snakes & Arrows has a definite political leaning and fires some shots over the bow of the Bush camp while pressing the big red button on religious fanaticism and the lunatic fringe of the right.

Then there’s the tour. For those of you who are lovers of music and excellent artistry, Rush is a live act to not be missed. Through the light show, synchronized videos on the back screen—and most importantly the music—and a mindbender of a drum solothe spectator gets an ultimate audio and visual experience. On this tour in particular, left-of-center bloggers and environmental advocates will walk away with an added appreciation and satisfaction, similar to how one might feel after venting with a friend over a beer.

The concert photos you see here are from the recent show in Pittsburgh, the 8th stop on their tour. Unfortunately I can't show you ALL the photos I took over that weekend with my hidden camera. It was a special night, the people there were really into it, and it was the most festive tailgating crowd I've run into at ANY event, even beating out the San Diego scene before a Chargers game in the late 90s. There's no messing around here, this is Steelers Nation. I was accompanied by Pittsburgh royalty of the finest caliber; who referred to me as a "Rush snob" (I can't think of a higher compliment, actually, thank you for that). The company during the show was fabulous, but then upon trying to leave I had a head-on collision with a nic fit, and I even experienced an amusing mini-opera on the way to the car when it was thought to be lost... but wait, I have a secret weapon you probably don't know about, being that I'm a geography major, so I don't GET lost... ha! ...but wait, there's that damn orange rental car! ...no, it's the Bozo Bus... Look out! Here come the clowns!

I felt fortunate to have the ultimate "Burgh experience." It was a dandy one for sure! Cuckoo! Cuckoo! (from out of the woods)

Anyway, sorry to digress. For you music lovers out there who are miffed about the current state of things and looking for a lift, Snakes & Arrows will do it for you. Rush have hit this one out of the park, and it's still flying. S

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