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Revisiting Rush's often maligned 'keyboard era;

Asking a Rush fan to name their favourite era of the band elicits a variety of responses. There are those that prefer the group’s early hard rock sound and stripped-down aesthetics found on their first two albums, Rush and Fly By Night. Others will point to the band’s embrace of progressive rock, starting with their magnum opus 2112 and continuing on through Hemispheres.

A fair number of fans got into the band at their commercial peak on Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, where songs became more truncated and genres like new wave and reggae began to influence Rush’s music. A vocal contingent, particularly a host of younger fans, got into Rush after they were well established, showing favour to albums like CounterpartsSnakes & Arrows, or Clockwork Angels.

But of all the band’s distinct periods, none are as divisive as Rush’s output through the 1980s. The ‘keyboard era’, as it’s commonly known, saw the trio embraced contemporary sounds of the time and continued to move away from the hard rock and progressive metal that they had made their name on. The use of distortion, wailing vocals, extended compositions, and thunderous drumming became less and less frequent, and many in the band’s fandom view this period less favourably than some of the more ‘classic’ records of the 1970s or the band’s return to more aggressive playing from the ‘90s onward.

There’s no clear consensus as to when the ‘keyboard era’ began. Rush had been integrating synthesisers into their arrangements as early as the 1974 release of 2112, where the title suite kicks off with a sweep of electronic and futuristic sound effects. Geddy Lee was integrating keyboards more thoroughly, starting with 1977’s A Farewell to Kings. From there, they became an integral part of the band’s sound on their biggest selling LP, 1981’s Moving Pictures. Just as well, there’s no definitive time when the ‘keyboard era’ ends. Fans and band members point to different albums, but 2002’s Vapor Trails would be the first and only time since 1975’s Caress of Steel where no keyboards were featured in the band’s arrangements.

The general consensus among Rush’s fanbase, one of the most loyal and ardent in all of the music world, is that the band were too focused on then-modern technology and moved away from what had made them so unique in the decade prior. You can find assessments of this era ranging from tepid acceptance to outright scorn, but now that Rush are officially in the past tense, it’s worth revisiting this oft-maligned period to explore why the group decided to move in what Lee describes as a “jazzier” direction throughout the ‘80s. 

Although the band had found success with Moving Pictures, they were insistent on not wanting to repeat the same formula on their next album. 1982’s Signals retains much of the balance between synthetic and hard rock sounds, but the role of the keyboards was generally increased. It’s clear to hear on songs like ‘Subdivisions’, ‘Chemistry’ and ‘New World Men’, but tracks like ‘The Analog Kid’ keep intensity and drive at the forefront of the band’s sound. Signals would be the last album for producer Terry Brown, who had worked on every record since 1975’s Fly By Night. Brown heard the transition that Rush were undergoing, including increased usage of synthesisers and electronic drums, and wasn’t as interested in pursuing those sounds as the band members were. 

For 1984’s Grace Under Pressure, Rush initially began recording without a producer before Peter Henderson joined the band in the studio. Henderson didn’t have a strong presence in arrangements or decision making, leaving the band to indulge in some of their more experimental tendencies, which included a greater embrace of synthesised sounds. Alex Lifeson’s guitar has a larger role than it did on Signals, but his main tone was cleaner and included a mix of chorus and other modulators that can best be heard on tracks like ‘Distant Early Warning’ and ‘The Body Electric’.

The band’s edge was less prominent than ever, and traditional uptempo rockers like ‘The Enemy Within’ and ‘Kid Gloves’ have more in common with new wave than hard rock. Grace Under Pressure is shorter and less focused than other Rush albums, and though it has its fair share of memorable moments, the change in sound began to alienate certain fans who were less happy with the turn away from the intensity and conceptual excursions. 

When faced with a decision to either fully embrace the styles of the day or to try and revert back to their classic sound, Rush decided to double down as they entered their second decade of existence. That meant a complete implementation of synthesisers, gated reverb, sequencers, and synthpop, often at the expense of Lifeson’s guitar. The trio hired pop producer Peter Collins and synth programmer Andy Richards, which almost completely eliminated the band’s hard rock style. The result was 1985’s Power Windows, the album that represents the band’s height of keyboard-focused arrangements. Strangely enough, the album is a return to form somewhat for the band’s progressive rock style, implementing more time signature changes than the previous two albums. African drums, sampled sounds, and Richards’ keyboard contributions dominate the bulk of the record, and it has a tendency to sound dated as a result. Power Windows is the single most emblematic album of Rush’s ‘keyboard era’, and it retains a somewhat schismatic place among Rush fans as a result. Still, songs like ‘Marathon’ and ‘Territories’ prove that the band’s ambitions could still produce strong material.

Rush (Credit: Enrico Frangi)

Much is made of Lifeson’s reduced role within song arrangements during this time, but Lee’s bass parts were another casualty of the increased focus on keyboards and synthesisers. In prior years, usually during live performances, Lee would use bass pedals to aid in keeping the low end while playing keyboards. By Power Windows, the bass pedals became a prominent compositional tool, leaving Lee less focused on the bass itself. That changed with 1987’s Hold Your Fire, and can be heard right from the outset on songs like ‘Force Ten’ and ‘Time Stand Still’. But Hold Your Fire would also be the band’s softest album up to that point. Songs like ‘Second Nature’ and ‘Tai Shan’ featured foreign percussion and mystical-sounding keyboards extensively, now being the focus of the band’s arrangements instead of accentuating compositions. The results feel less cohesive than most Rush albums, and Hold Your Fire found Rush staring down another impasse. 

The end of the ‘keyboard era’, in terms of attitudes and intentions, came during the recording of 1989’s Presto. Peter Collins, who had helmed production on the band’s previous four albums, departed amicably as Rush decided to more consciously focus on the guitar as the dominant instrument. With producer Rupert Hind, the band returned to the studio with the objective of reimplementing their power trio format. The result, however, still utilises keyboards and lighter production styles that were emblematic of the ‘80s sounds of the day. Presto, sonically, feels more in line with the band’s previous synthesisers-focused albums than the heavier direction they would take in the ‘90s, especially on songs like ‘Chain Lightning’ and ‘Anagram’, and wasn’t quite the step forward that the band had intended. 

1991’s Roll the Bones is much of the same. The band had experimented with funk on tracks like Presto’s ‘Scars’, but it took contemporaries like Primus to guide the band into fully embrace the genre. Roll the Bones is perhaps the most varied of all of Rush’s albums: there’s goofy faux-rap on the title track, Hold Your Fire-esque arrangements on ‘Dreamline’, an updated version of a Rush staple, the instrumental, with ‘Where’s My Thing?, and a whole host of loose-limbed funk jams throughout the tracklist. Unfortunately, Hind’s production once again fails to find the heaviness in the band’s sound, and the album as a whole suffers from less memorable material other than the title track and ‘Bravado’. It could be a hidden gem for Rush fanatics, but it doesn’t inspire much interest outside of the group’s rabid fanbase.

It would take until 1993 for Rush to fully evolve past the “keyboard era”. Ironically, they did so with the man most directly responsible for their embrace of synthesisers and ‘80s pop music in the first place, producer Peter Collins. More directly, it was the group’s engineer, Kevin Shirley, who pushed for the most drastic changes. Lovingly nicknamed ‘The Caveman’, Shirley claims to have been “hell-bent on making a heavy record” and often limited the effects on both Lee’s keyboards and Lifeson’s guitars, favouring an ‘old school’ production style. The result is a much more raw, focused, and heavy sound on songs like ‘Animate’, ‘Stick It Out’, and ‘Between the Moon & Sun’. Rush were now a power trio once again, and the directness of their past sound had returned after a nearly decade-long absence.

After revisiting the band’s 1980s and early ‘90s albums, what became most clear was that Rush were a group intent on progressing forward and keeping up with the times. They were never a group to pander or appease their fanbase by trying to replicate albums like 2112Hemispheres, or Moving Pictures. Instead, they looked to challenge themselves by adopting new sounds, new styles, and new technology. There’s inherent bravery involved in constant change, and whether it was for better or for worse, Rush were always trying to find “the better Rush”. The results are a mixed bag, but it’s not like the band has a completely perfect discography anyway. Their debut is mostly derivative Led Zeppelin-adjacent blues rock, and Vapor Trails is another casualty of “the Loudness War” that was dominating production in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Rush were always a band on a mission, even if that mission was at times ill-advised.

The good news is that each album of the ‘keyboard era’ has its highlights that make them worth going back to. The evolution of Rush is incomplete by simply writing off an entire decade of their music, and although they aren’t as acclaimed or beloved as some of the band’s other work, there are plenty of defenders for their ‘80s albums as well. Perhaps the biggest issue with the ‘keyboard era’ is that Rush were starting to move away from being innovators and could be seen as imitators during the ‘80s. Some will see a band pioneering new technology and being a reflection of their time period, while others will see a band who chose to compromise themselves to appeal to the then-modern styles.

The truth is that Rush were never satisfied with what they had made at any given point in time and believed that the most exciting music from the group was always ahead of them. It’s about retaining your devotion to being a progressive artist, and there’s perhaps no greater example of a band putting it all on the line to continue their growth as artists than Rush during their ‘keyboard era’.

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