The moment I heard of the death of Neil Peart (1952-2020), sorrow set in. That Peart was the drummer and lyricist of one of my favorite rock bands, Rush, would have been enough to set me into a spiral of introspection, but there’s more to my connection with Peart than the music of Rush. Like me, he was an avid motorcyclist, and many of his explorations of this continent mirror some of my own choices of bike and road. I’ve read a number of Peart’s books, many of which center around motorcycle riding and the mindset it engenders. His memoir Ghost Rider is a painfully honest description of a 55,000-mile motorcycle trek throughout North America, during which he tried to outrun his grief over the deaths, within ten months of each other, of his daughter and his wife.
And there’s more to my personal connection with Rush than Neil Peart. I grew up in the same area of Toronto as did Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee, respectively Rush’s guitarist and bassist-singer-keyboardist, so it’s no surprise that I’ve been an avid fan of the band since the age of 15. Lifeson went to my high school, and painted a mural on the band-room wall. The spiral staircase in the school’s lobby was rumored to be the spiral stair mentioned on their album 2112 (1976).
Rush was the soundtrack of my teens and 20s. I avidly followed their music from 1977 and A Farewell to Kings -- at which point I began exploring the albums before it -- up to and including 1982 and Signals. After that -- from Grace Under Pressure (1984) on -- they lost me. Still, that left a huge body of work -- 11 albums -- that captured my imagination, and that continue to be meaningful to me today. Think of that: nine studio and two live albums, every one of which I loved. Every line of every song, every one of Lifeson’s guitar licks, every note from Lee’s crisp, lyrical bass, every one of Peart’s drum fills and many of his rhythm lines -- each is a part of me, imprinted on my memory. There’s a section of my brain -- the Rush nodule -- dedicated to one purpose: to store the components of Rush songs.
As I write this, it’s February 2. Since January 10, when I first heard the news of Peart’s death three days before, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to Rush: at work, through headphones; and at home, through speakers -- digitally on the main floor, or on vinyl in the basement -- I’ve inflicted Rush on my wife and daughter.
In 2015, Rush began reissuing all their albums through Anthem/Rhino on 180gm and 200gm LPs cut using Direct Metal Mastering (DMM). Since then I’ve slowly picked up all 11 of the albums I care most about -- everything before Grace Under Pressure -- except for Fly By Night (1975), which Derek, at Pop Music, my local vinyl emporium, has just found for me. The high sound quality of these reissues has meant that now I almost never play my old, beaten-up copies -- see below for the exceptions.
The new reissues are generally superb. The pressings are flat and quiet, the covers beautifully printed on high-quality stock. The overall lack of extras disappoints me a bit, given that some of these sell for as much as $35.99 Canadian. However, there was one extra that really juiced me -- an animated pentagram in a circle in the run-out groove of side 2 of 2112 -- it’s a delight to watch that little guy spin. Still, this is about the records. In chronological order . . .
Neil Peart doesn’t appear on the band’s first album, Rush (1974). Bah! Skip that one.
Fly By Night (1975) never captured much of my listening time. There’s good stuff on it, but Rush was still just getting started -- I like this album not so much for its own sake but because it was the start of something that became so special. Still, “Anthem” is a standout, and for the first time you can hear where the band is headed. I can’t find my original pressing, but the reissue (Mercury/Anthem B0022340-01) works just fine for me. This straight-ahead rock album was recorded in like manner, with good separation of instruments and tightly focused aural images. I’ve just given it another full listen to confirm all that, but Fly By Night probably won’t see much turntable time from this point on.
I’m conflicted about Caress of Steel (1975). I get no pleasure from side 1 -- “Bastille Day” and the other tracks still feel somewhat juvenile to me, the band still trying to find its sea legs. But side 2’s “The Fountain of Lamneth” is one of my favorite Rush tracks. It’s a continuous “concept” track that takes up the entire 20-minute side, and the storytelling is cohesive, the various melodies and parts flowing together wonderfully. There’s also a killer drum solo, even if it ends with a bit of a clunk. I’ve got two old versions, an original Mercury (SRM-1-1046) and a later Anthem (ANR-1-603). Both are serviceable, but the original sounds a bit thin. The 2015 reissue (Mercury/Anthem B0022365-01) improves on the Anthem, replacing a conglomerated soundstage with instruments discretely positioned in space. It’s not a huge improvement, but worth it to me for the important place “The Fountain of Lamneth” occupies in my Rush nodule.
Considering that 2112 (1976) is kinda the epicenter of the exploded Rush universe, I guess most people would find it a bit trite, a bit tired, a bit bombastic. Well, fire up the 2015 reissue, crank up the volume, and give this chestnut another chance. It’s still magnificent. There’s a volume level -- loud -- at which side 1 comes alive, and the reissue is just golden. I gave my original copy to a buddy when I bought the reissue, but I sure as hell don’t remember it sounding anywhere near this good: dynamic, quiet, beautifully mastered and pressed. Peart’s soup-to-nuts, end-to-end drum fills alone make side 1 worth your while: come for the fills, stay for the sci-fi story.
The albums Rush released between 1977 and 1981 -- from A Farewell to Kings through Moving Pictures -- constitute the crown jewels of their output. The transition from 2112 to Kings reveals the emergence of a new sophistication of music and words, a transition from the sharp edges of hard rock to sinuous intricacy. A Farewell to Kings continues to feature Rush’s trademark virtuosity, but the melodies are stretched out and smoothed out. It was also on this album that Geddy attained the status of Lead Bassist -- his tone comes more to the fore, and in their interplay all three musicians play on an equal footing.
I’ve been playing the same blue-label Dutch pressing of A Farewell to Kings (Mercury 6338 834) for over 20 years now, and it still sounds great -- quiet, detailed, with a most endearing analog richness. The 2015 reissue sounds cleaner, more detailed, and substantially more dynamic, but heck -- maybe it’s nostalgia or a lust for the familiar, but I kind of prefer my faithful old Mercury LP. That said, I pulled out my sad-sack Canadian pressing (Anthem ANR-1-1010), which has been through the wringer, and used my VPI Cyclone record cleaner to wash off nearly 40 years’ worth of grime. The Canadian Anthem version sounds thin: no bass, limited dynamics, and a lot more surface noise than I’m willing to tolerate, even after cleaning. Back into its crusty paper sleeve it went, never again to darken my platter.
I have four copies of Hemispheres (1978): a plain-Jane Canadian pressing (Anthem ANR-1-1014), a nifty red-vinyl edition (Anthem SANR-1-1015) that’s more fun to look at than to hear, a picture disc (Mercury SRP-1300) that sounds as if it’s being routed through a Plymouth Duster’s 8-track player, and the recent reissue (Mercury/Virgin EMI 4711806). I’ve ordered a clock mechanism so that I can transform the picture disc into something useful.
The Canadian Anthem doesn’t sound at all bad: fairly open and clean, with decent bass and reasonably extended highs. The 2015 reissue is an improvement, if not a huge one, with better separation of instruments and a touch more bass. If you’ve got a decent copy of Hemispheres, you’ll need the reissue only for completeness’s sake. But my stars! This could easily be my favorite Rush album. Not long ago I suffered a period of insomnia, and for a few of those long, aggravating nights I passed the time by playing all of side 1 in my head -- every word, guitar lick, bass line, and drum fill. It’s all stored up there in my Rush nodule. I can’t tell you what I had for dinner last night, but I know Geddy’s bass lines right through that side.
The Rush cube of my LP rack contains three copies of Permanent Waves (1980): a Canadian domestic pressing I bought when the album debuted (Anthem ANR-1-1021), MoFi’s superb version (Anthem/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL-1302), and the 2015 pressing (Virgin EMI 4711807). The MoFi’s cover was destroyed years ago by a water leak, but it was of poor quality anyway. The packaging of the 2015 version is lush and well printed, so I slid the MoFi in there too.
The Canadian Anthem isn’t bad, really -- very listenable. If you grab one from the $10 bin at a used-record store, you’ll probably be in business. But as long as you’re digging through vinyl, keep your eyes peeled for the MoFi, even if you’ll have to shift the price’s decimal point one place to the right. It’s worth it -- there’s more of everything here: more bass, more spit on the cymbals, crisper imaging.
It’ll be much easier to find the 2015 reissue of Permanent Waves. The MoFi is better, but not better enough to worry about unless you’ve got deep pockets. The 2015 reissue will give you noticeably better sound than the Anthem, and if you haven’t got the MoFi right there to compare, you’ll be a happy camper.
My understanding is that the 2015 reissues were made from the albums’ original analog master tapes, with the exceptions of Moving Pictures and Signals, which were reportedly recorded digitally in the first place. It’s poignant, given the source of the masters, that Moving Pictures (1981) is the best-sounding of them all. Musically and sonically, it’s the shining star of Rush’s first eight studio albums -- on it, Rush fully matured. Peart’s lyrics lost their cartoony sci-fi quality to gain a gentle introspection, and there’s no question that the band’s proficiency on their instruments had never before been so polished and masterful.
If I had to pick a favorite Rush song, it would probably be “The Camera Eye.” It’s called to me over the years -- the subtlety, the simplicity of the main line, the stretched-out theme. I never tire of this brilliant track. But there’s not a bad song on the album, and the first one, “Tom Sawyer,” is what broke them through to a much larger audience. Then there’s “YYZ” -- with “La Villa Strangiato,” from Hemispheres, one of the two instrumental pillars on which Rush staked their reputation as musicians.
I have only two versions of Moving Pictures: the original Canadian pressing (Anthem ANR-1-1030) and the 2015 reissue (Mercury/Anthem B0022380-01). It feels as if the Anthem folks realized they had something special on their hands, as the original sounds damn good: rich, deep, and defined, with lots of air around instruments. That said, the reissue easily betters it. There’s a lot going on on this massive album, which was extremely well recorded. While Lee’s voice is undoubtedly polarizing, Moving Pictures is, without doubt, a demonstration-quality record. As I write, the Montréal Audiofest is just around the corner, and you can be damn sure I’ll be pestering as many exhibitors as I can to play tracks from this album. Stay tuned to our show coverage to find out if I get the bum’s rush (sorry) when I try to get “Tom Sawyer” cued up after whichever Diana Krall track is playing.
While Signals (1982) isn’t as crisply perfect as Moving Pictures, it’s still a swell album -- “Subdivisions” was a hit, and it contains a bunch of other great songs. My favorite is “Digital Man,” with its loping reggae backbeat. For the most part, Signals is listenably cohesive, but you can begin to hear Rush losing a bit of steam as they lumbered toward Grace Under Pressure two years later, when I got off the Rush train. But the by-now-well-established pattern of original vs. reissue holds steady: My original pressing (Anthem ANR-1-1038) is just fine, with generally serviceable sound, but the 2015 reissue (Anthem/Mercury B0022383-0) just smokes it. The latter’s big selling point is dynamic range -- compared to the fairly compressed original, it’s monstrously wide.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably a Rush fan. All of the haters have likely tabbed over to AnalogPlanet to read about jazz reissues, so I guess it’s okay to geek out a bit and choose favorite album sides. As I mentioned earlier, side 2 of Caress of Steel and side 1 of Hemispheres are huge favorites. Those and “The Camera Eye” take my top three places. I’ve never really glommed on to many of Rush’s hits -- that sticky bonbon “Closer to the Heart” and others, such as “Fly By Night” and “Bastille Day,” leave me cold. I’d much rather surf through the longer tracks, in which the band stretches their legs. Side 1 of Farewell to Kings is right up there also.
Why did my Rush Era end with Signals? I remember scampering home from the record store the day Grace Under Pressure was released, a fresh copy under my arm -- and my confusion and dismay as I listened to the whole thing. I did not remotely like one song on the entire album. All the elements were there -- killer drums, bass, and guitar -- but the hooks were gone. I felt no sense of depth, no sense of purpose -- and thus no connection with the music.
In the years after that I occasionally checked in on Rush’s continued copious output, listening to the occasional song, but always responded as I had to Grace Under Pressure. The music is great -- I just don’t enjoy it, and I don’t want to hear it. So I stick to those first 11 albums, to which I still regularly listen. They contain so much great music that I’m still exploring.
Neil Peart’s death brought me back to my musical roots. As of today, February 23, 2020, these albums are all I’ve listened to for the past month and a half, and I’m still not remotely sick of them. I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Thanks for the music, Ghost Rider, and rest in peace.
. . . Jason Thorpe