Friday, June 10, 2011

Rush: Theme in Writing and Composition

Greetings all!

Next week, I will be attending the Phoenix performance for the 2011 leg of Rush's "Time Machine" tour.  I have been a Rush fan since grade school, so I consider any occasion to nerd out and listen to the virtuosity of Lee, Lifeson, and Peart to be cause for celebration. 

Though time has been kind to Rush in a commercial sense, the band was never truly mainstream, and part of that is a simple consequence of genre.  Progressive rock music is less accessible to the casual listener than simpler forms of pop music.  Simplicity is not necessarily a defect; certainly the beautiful and elegant utility of Apple products vindicates simplicity qua concept.  Conversely, complexity for its own sake is not necessarily appealing even to a dedicated listener; one need only look at the impressive but compositionally marginal work of DragonForce to understand that.  However, with complexity there is room for more meaning, should a band find a direct enough voice with which to express it.  Rush are masters of filling this room with consistent and unifying themes throughout their albums.

As veterans of the "prog '70s," Rush is known for lengthy, epic songs as much as for having that "classic rock feel."  And yet by some astonishing turn of fate, Rush has never produced a concept album!  I know it sounds impossible, but it's true: 2112 only filled one side of the record; Hemispheres likewise; Jacob's Ladder but half of that.  Perhaps it is because of Rush's consistent strong thematic approach to albums that their lack, thus far, of a concept album has largely gone unnoticed.  That will finally change with Rush's forthcoming album, "Clockwork Angels."

Two tracks from Clockwork Angels were released as an EP last year: "Caravan" and "BU2B" (Brought Up to Believe).  Both are excellent and explore new ground while bearing the trappings of Rush's authentic voice and sound.  Beyond those, however, nobody knows quite what Clockwork Angels is going to sound like or precisely what story it will tell, or whether it will turn out in time to be counted among the best progressive rock concept albums.

Since theme is an important aspect of writing and composition alike, I figured that revisiting Rush's album themes would be a useful exercise.  They are:
  1. Rush - no theme (or: It's Our First Album)
  2. Fly By Night - Experience
  3. Caress of Steel - Life
  4. 2112 - Volition
  5. A Farewell to Kings - Progress
  6. Hemispheres - Balance
  7. Permanent Waves - Force
  8. Moving Pictures - Perspective
  9. Signals - Interaction
  10. Grace Under Pressure - Conflict
  11. Power Windows - Motivation
  12. Hold Your Fire - Time/Instinct*
  13. Presto - Expectations
  14. Roll the Bones - Risk
  15. Counterparts - Duality
  16. Test For Echo - Socialization
  17. Vapor Trails - Persistence
  18. Snakes and Arrows - Belief
  19. Clockwork Angels - to be discovered...
None of the above is my interpretation; the members of Rush have identified the themes of their work explicitly in interviews and in books like the circa-1988 band biography Visions by Bill Banasciewicz. 

In retrospect, like the answer to a riddle, once you know the answer, it seems obvious and you wonder how you didn't recognize it without being told.  What do you think about the themes?  Is there an album where you don't think the theme held up cohesively throughout?  Or is there an album where it is so pervasive that there is something of a narrowing effect taking away from the scope of the work?  (I'm looking at you, Roll the Bones.) 

Whichever way you interpret it, I don't think there can be any denying that Rush's themes are at the very least identifiable and distinct.  Contrast that with pop music, most of which conveys only the general theme, "Hey, baby, I want to get into your pants."  That is certainly a laudable purpose, but one would think after a while that the subject of sex is getting adequate artistic coverage, and that there are perhaps other topics worth examining.  You know, for a little while.  And then we can go back to sex.

*Peart specified that Hold Your Fire was a dual-themed album.