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Rush - Grace Under Pressure CD (album) cover




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3.69 | 1121 ratings

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4 stars This particular and very humble installment of my "better late than never" investigation of the prog juggernaut Rush finds me rummaging around in their contributions to the cause that came to light during progressive rock's dark ages otherwise known as the 80s. After Geddy, Alex and Neil had doggedly established a firm, solid rock foundation during the 70s that resulted in a glorious estate highlighted by the mass-appealing albums "Permanent Waves" in '80 and "Moving Pictures" the following year this trio took a more relaxed but still intriguing approach to '82's "Signals." That LP indicated they were pleased with their success but that they weren't going to be satisfied being predictable. Yet that record didn't turn out to be what they'd hoped it'd be so they bid a tearful farewell to their long-time producer Terry Brown and hired Steve Lillywhite to helm the sessions for the next project. We'll never know what that collaboration might've reaped because fickle Steve stood them up at the last minute and left the northern boys without a date to the prom. This forced them to oversee the development of their new disc themselves (with some assistance from Peter Henderson). The strain this situation put upon the shoulders of the members of Rush helped to give birth to the album's fitting title, "Grace Under Pressure," but methinks that this sink-or-swim experience only made them stronger and more self-reliant. Whatever the reason may be, the record has a sense of urgency that I felt was missing on "Signals."

By 1984 the vicious MTV virus had thoroughly infected the music world from top to bottom and even the non-compliant rebels in Rush were not immune. In their favor, however, I have to commend them for not shamelessly selling out without reservation (as many did) to the phenomenon's dumbing-down tendencies but, rather, selectively allowing only certain aspects of its pockmarked visage to infiltrate their style. By that I mean that innovative developments in guitar effects, electronic drum machinations and synthesizer technology were intuitively incorporated into their sound along with certain reggae, ska and world beat characteristics. They wisely bent but didn't break in the trendy breezes, putting their unique spin on current motifs rather than being spun by them. The more I come to understand this stubbornly independent trio, the more I respect their unwavering loyalty to doing things their way, no matter the fallout that may or may not ensue. That takes courage.

The album opens with "Distant Early Warning" and I'm immediately struck by Alex Lifeson's big, fat guitar sound and a forceful vibe that tells me they'd been listening to The Police. (Let me inject at this juncture that despite the 80s being largely musically vapid and demeaning, there were a handful of artists and groups that consistently used their imaginations and that talented blonde-coiffed threesome was one of the select few so I don't have a problem with Rush borrowing ideas from Sting, Stewart and Andy in the least.) Once again, as I was on "Signals," I'm pleased that Geddy Lee's singing is not as thin and brittle as it was on earlier LPs. I also can't help but notice that Neil Peart's drumming is stirringly intense. (Maybe he was still pissed over Mr. Lillywhite's no-show and took it out on his tubs.) "Afterimage" is next, wherein Alex's towering power chords erect an expansive panoply overhead, demonstrating that they were intent on rejecting the minimalist tactics that were still very much in vogue at the time. "Red Sector A" possesses a fine blend of synthesizers and guitar effects that culminate in a broadening of the song's sturdy base without overwhelming the essential ambience of the song. This tune is a great example of how Rush wasn't afraid to challenge themselves while allowing their art to evolve naturally.

They adopt a heavier mien for "The Enemy Within," resurrecting the edginess that personified their most popular records in the 70s. Neil's aggressive playing drives this number particularly hard. Speaking of Mr. Peart, the rocky groove he rattles the walls with on the intro to "The Body Electric" is electrifying. When Lifeson and Lee jump in the song takes off like a Navy F-14 fighter jet and I'm encouraged to hear that Alex hasn't forsaken his ability to energize a tune via a hot, stinging guitar solo. "Kid Gloves" sports a motivating 5/4 time signature that invariably grabs any dedicated progger's attention while they cleverly switch to a 4/4 pattern to keep it palatable to the commoner's ears. I'm still in awe of the relentless power they pump into every cut as well as their awareness of how details can make a difference, exemplified by this tune's dynamic ending. Neil's percussive instruments, gadgets and toys make "Red Lenses" more eclectic than the other tracks and I admire their willingness to leave some open spaces in the arrangement when others may have insisted on filling them up unnecessarily. Plus, Geddy's funky bass line is worth your time to notice. The closer, "Between the Wheels," is the apex of the album. Jazzy chordings from Lifeson lend an excellent tension to the atmosphere (A trick that Genesis pulled out of their collective hat often in their heyday) while Peart's vigorous, almost menacing drive captivates the senses. Kudos to Alex for his fiery, fierce guitar work throughout the song.

The most obvious change from "Signals" to this one is found in Lifeson's replanting of his colorful flag into the band's terra firma. I still like a lot about his tactful contributions to the previous record but I'm also happy that he didn't remain in the background for long. Neil's explorations into electronic drum inventions and Lee's continued interest in bringing synthesizers into their sphere of creativity also make "Grace Under Pressure" an enjoyable, often invigorating listen. To those who disparage their excursions into these New Wave-tinted territories I urge you to take into consideration the sorry state of popular music they were trying to survive and get through in the mid 80s. They deserve some props for sticking to their guns. The fact that this album cracked the Top 10 on the LP charts in an age when the world at large thought Michael Jackson and Madonna hung the moon should tell you volumes about its quality. (Oh, and dig the fantastic cover art. It's one of their best.) 3.8 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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