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Revisiting Rush's return to form: 30 years on from 'Roll the Bones'

Rush‘s 1991 album, Roll the Bones, often gets overlooked in their vast back catalogue. However, it is a significant moment. In many ways, it was a return to form for the band who had lost their way beneath mountains of electronics in the mid-late ’80s. Following a backlash from fans, the trio decided to strip back the use of the synthesiser and return to what they were best at — riff-driven rock.

Of the change in style, frontman Geddy Lee explained after the album’s release that the band themselves were also rebelling against the synthesis of the late ’80s. The band saw their sonic u-turn as “a backlash against the more computer-style of writing” that they had previously adhered to and of what was currently ubiquitous.

A lot of sources also attribute the shift in style on Roll the Bones to the process that was started with its predecessor, 1989’s Presto. The sessions for Presto were stripped back to just bass, guitar and vocals, and forwent the overcooked use of electronics. Strangely, Presto, wasn’t overwhelmingly a critical or commercial hit, but retrospectively it does mark the start of Rush’s return to the prog-rock throne. 

In this sense, the band were taking a risk by carrying on with the stripped back attitude. Surely, nothing could be as mad as the period out in the wilderness that came before. If you listen to 1987’s Hold Your Fire, you will heed this. The lead single, ‘Time Stand Still’ features vocalist Aimee Mann and is a skin-crawling piece of synth-pop that has an equally as cringe music video to boot. Geddy Lee with a mullet is not something that should have ever happened. 

Maybe the embarrassment of moments such as that is what led to the band reducing synthesisers and sequencers purely to an “orchestration device” level, rather than driving the song. Furthermore, the successful tour of Presto fed into the band feeling reinvigorated when it came round to writing what would become Roll the Bones.

In a dramatic change of pace, the band opted to keep Presto‘s tour relatively short, in comparison to the mammoth odyssey’s the band would usually go on, and ironically, the main factor that contributed to the decision was that the band were overcautious about touring the album. 

Their fears were proven to be in vain, and the album was warmly received by fans, who were ready for a return to Rush’s roots. The band said that after the tour finished, they were “so charged up we wanted to keep on playing.” This new lease of life put the winds back in the sails of the band who had previously lost their way, and the newfound optimism carried the writing and recording sessions for Roll the Bones, which by all accounts were a breeze.

Over a two and a half month period, the album was conceived. Like with Presto, the band decamped to Chalet Studios out in the remote countryside of Claremont, Ontario. Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson worked on the music, and, traditionally, drummer Neil Peart devised the lyrical content. 

Strangely, another influence that bled into the album, was Lee’s newfound interest in bird watching. He fixed the studio’s broken bird feeders and enjoyed watching the birds go about their business as he was writing. This had such an effect on Lee’s part that the album’s liner notes include thanks to the birds. 

Another way that Presto coloured Roll the Bones, was how Lee came up with vocal melodies first, and then built the songs around them, a mode he had started with Presto. Lifeson also went against the grain and carried on exploring more of the funk-inspired rhythms as he had done on Presto.

Peart‘s central lyrical theme was concerned with the concept of chance, and the effect it can have in different areas of life. Most noticeably this shows itself on ‘Face Up’ – “Turn it up – or turn that wild card down.”

In fact, a lot of the lyrics for Roll the Bones were comprised of snippets Peart had been composing over the previous two years, with the bulk coming from “that dreamlike moment” before he went to sleep. This is why lyrically, the album has a darker, more languid feel. 

Some of the album’s highlights include the astronomical and gutsy ‘Dreamline’, the vast lyrical and musical density of ‘Bravado’ and ‘Roll the Bones’, which features that hilarious yet brilliant rap-adjacent section, which embodies the ethos that permeated the record — fun. 

‘Where’s My Thing?’ is also significant as it signifies a return to Rush at their finest. The band’s first instrumental in ten years, since the iconic ‘YYZ’ from 1981’s Moving Pictures. It contains the band at possibly their most funky. Lifeson and Lee shred on their respective instruments at the start, before the song jumps into the majestical main body. In terms of Lee’s bassline, it’s as if he was trying to do his version of the Seinfeld theme tune, not short of a slap or two. 

‘Heresy’ is also a standout. Featuring lush melodies, it represents the band maturing sonically. The lyrical motif is an indication that the band were accepting their mortality; “All those wasted years/ All those precious wasted years”. Given that the album was a return to form for Rush the line, “Do we have to say goodbye to the past?/ Yes, I guess we do”, is particularly pertinent. Sonically, the production of ‘Heresy’ is subtle, and this is the standout track where you can hear that Lee was putting vocal melodies front and centre. 

All in all, Roll the Bones, is one of Rush‘s finest albums. Not their best by a long shot, it is critical in their back catalogue as it represents a sonic turning point for the band. Between the three of them, they made a concerted effort to return to what they did best. Cast away were the overblown techniques of the past half-decade. They balanced their older, punchier incarnation with the synthesis of the contemporary musical world, giving us a refined body of work that’s always worth a revisit. 

Listen to ‘Roll the Bones’, below.