Rush is a band that have influenced countless musicians, particularly within the realms of metal and hard rock. Their stature was encapsulated by Metallica’s lead guitarist, Kirk Hammett, labelling them “the high priests of conceptual metal.” The prog-rock trio have shaped a wide variety of sonic influencers. These include the likes of Elliott Smith, Alice in Chains, Metallica, Jane’s Addiction, No Doubt and, yes, Tool.
Although the band are now inactive, after the sad passing of iconic drummer Neil Peart, Rush garnered huge success in their time and came to be regarded as somewhat of a musical marmite, with consumers tending to love or either hate them. This can be widely attributed to Rush’s compositional modus operandi. Their songs often comprised of large, complex compositions and lyrical themes drawing heavily from science fiction, fantasy and philosophy.
Their eclectic style also went through numerous twists and turns as the decades pushed on. Having started off as a classic blues-inspired hard rock group inspired by The Who, Cream and Led Zeppelin, the Toronto natives would become increasingly inspired by the nascent British progressive-rock scene of the early-mid 1970s. Bands likeGenesis, Jethro Tull and Yes would all leave indelible sonic imprints on Rush, this was to be the era where everything about the band would be rocketed into space.
At the turn of the ’80s, the band would start to incorporate the heavy use of synthesisers. They released the seventh album, Permanent Waves, in 1980, which moved with the zeitgeist and incorporated elements of reggae and new wave and featured tracks such as ‘Spirit of the Radio’ and ‘Freewill’. These new pieces were much shorter than what had come before and were thus deemed to be more “radio-friendly”, signalling a modern direction for the group.
After, Permanent Waves, Rush would incorporate increasingly bold synthesised movements in their records as the ’80s trudged on. Showing how far they had moved on from their original guise, originally for 1984’s Grace Under Pressure, U2 and Simple Minds producer Steve Lilywhite was enlisted to produce the album. However, the ubiquitous producer dropped out at the last minute. Frontman Geddy Lee recalled: “Steve Lillywhite is really not a man of his word … after agreeing to do our record, he got an offer from Simple Minds, changed his mind, blew us off … so it put us in a horrible position.”
Eventually, the trio hired Peter Henderson to co-produce and engineer the album. It is on this album that sequencers and synthesisers became the cornerstone of the band’s sound. Consequently, Peart would adopt more electronic drums and percussion, and guitarist Alex Lifeson would provide new wave-esque textures.
Following Grace Under Pressure, the electronic elements would become increasingly prominent, much to what fans and critics saw as diminishing each member’s sonic effect. With their new producer Peter Collins, the band would release Power Windows in 1985 and, two years later, Hold Your Fire. Power Windows would become a relative success, with Lee calling it “a great accomplishment for us.”
However, the follow-up, Hold Your Fire, would become the lowest charting since 1978’s Hemispheres. Criticisms have been levelled against the album for its overuse of electronics, however, in terms of it being “unsuccessful“, it has still been certified gold.
The next record, 1989’s Presto, marked a departure for the technically proficient trio. Presto was the first album released by Atlantic Records following their departure from long-term label Mercury. Critically though, after the mammoth Hold Your Fire tour ended in 1988, the members reconvened that December to decide their next steps. They agreed on taking six months out before thinking about a new album.
The departure that Presto marked was embodied by another change in Rush’s sound. The guitar took a dominant footing once more, and the role of synthesisers was reduced. In this sense, Rush were going back to basics. This was to mark the start of Rush rekindling their love for guitar-driven hard rock. However, the electronic elements had not totally disappeared.
No wonder Hold Your Fire and Presto are Geddy Lee‘s least favourite moments in Rush’s back catalogue. In a 2016 interview, Lee and Lifeson re-examined their careers. With regards to Power Windows, Lifeson maintained: “The guitar suffered in a lot of the mixes. That’s what bothered me more than anything. The bottom line was, I just thought that we needed to preserve the core of what the band is. It’s a three-piece.”
Although, in comparing Power Windows with what came after it, Rush’s frontman and bass maestro posited: “Maybe not so much on the couple of albums after that – Hold Your Fire and Presto. On those records the keyboards were still present, but not in so positive a way. That was making the case, once again, for realigning the sound.”
If there’s anything we can take from the 1987 and ’89 albums, it is that they made Rush realise what they were truly good at, and the rest, as they say, is history.