The kings of Progressive Rock are back! It’s been five years since RUSH’s last full-length studio effort, 2002’s love-it-or-hate-it “Vapor Trails”. That album marked a new direction for the Canadian power trio: “Vapor Trails” was, without a doubt, their heaviest album to date. However, despite all the newfound aggression, the album was marred by some truly awful production. Fans who were turned off by Alex Lifeson’s über-fuzzy guitar sound on “Vapor Trails” will be pleased to learn that “Snakes & Arrows” fixes all of the production problems that were present on the previous album, thanks to the smooth recording techniques of FOO FIGHTERS producer Nick Raskulinecz.
So, the major problem on the last album has been fixed. Now, let’s turn our attention to the real meat and potatoes of any RUSH release: the songs themselves. Although Lifeson’s guitarwork takes centre stage on “Snakes & Arrows”, as has been the growing trend ever since 1993’s “Counterparts”, bassist Geddy Lee and drum-god Neil Peart are left with a bit more room to play with than usual. On the first track and lead single, “Far Cry”, Lee’s bass comes through loud and clear, and Peart lets loose with his trademark syncopated beats. “Armor And Sword” also features an interesting intro from Peart.
While “Snakes & Arrows” is a fairly heavy album for RUSH, it also marks the band’s greatest use of acoustic guitars to date: songs like “The Way The Wind Blows”, “Bravest Face”, and even “Far Cry” all feature acoustics either as lead instruments or to supplement the electric guitar. It even makes up a good portion of the instrumentals on this album. Yes, instrumentals, as in more than one, a first for RUSH.
For fans of the band’s classic instrumental showcase, “YYZ”, there are no less than three very different instrumentals on “Snakes & Arrows”. The first one, “The Main Monkey Business”, is a relatively boring midtempo riff-based jam, and “Hope” is a short acoustic solo by “Lerxst” (Lifeson, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the band’s odd internal monikers). “Malignant Narcissism”, however, is a fast-paced, frenetic jam featuring Lee on a fretless bass and Peart playing a four-piece drum kit. Though it’s certainly no “YYZ”, “Malignant Narcissism” is fun and fast-paced, and I wish Rush would inject a little more speed into their recent work more often.
Now, let’s get something straight: RUSH are a band that has constantly evolved over the years, and “Snakes & Arrows” is a “Far Cry” from the band’s phenomenal work in the late Seventies, with masterpieces like “2112” and “A Farewell To Kings”. RUSH circa 2007 are a much leaner, slicker machine than the bombastic, riotous RUSH of old. There is no “Cygnus X-1” or “The Temples Of Syrinx” to be found on “Snakes & Arrows”. Instead, there are heavy yet quite radio-friendly tunes such as “Faithless”. Raskulinecz’s production tends to blend the three Canucks’ instruments together rather than making each one stand out; it’s difficult to tell whether that’s a good thing or not.
While the band’s instrumental showiness may have taken a hit, there is one aspect of the band that is as strong as ever: Peart’s lyrics. Nearly every song on the album features some killer line that you just can’t get out of your head. As always, the topic is controversial, yet Peart handles it in a classy and intelligent manner: religion. Peart’s faith-centered musings make appearances on songs like “Far Cry”, “Armor And Sword”, “Workin’ Them Angels”, “The Way The Wind Blows”, and “Faithless”. Also of note is the beautiful booklet artwork by longtime RUSH art director Hugh Syme; each set of lyrics in the booklet is accompanied by a fantastic photo or design. It’s this little attention to detail that truly makes picking up a new RUSH album feel like buying a music CD, a poetry collection, and a mini art gallery all in one. That’s class.
Okay, the bottom line is this: “Snakes & Arrows”, while nowhere near any of the band’s finest work, is still a decent album by itself. It’s a clear improvement over the fuzz-addled “Vapor Trails” and 1996’s disorganized “Test For Echo”. The new RUSH is heavy, slow-paced, acoustic, and radio-friendly. Fans of the band’s recent material will love it, but diehard fans of the “2112” and “Moving Pictures” days may not find anything of relevance on “Snakes & Arrows” besides “Malignant Narcissism”, which is the closest thing to RUSH’s technical wizardry of old.
(Online July 8, 2007)