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Rush - Presto CD (album) cover




Heavy Prog

3.16 | 804 ratings

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3 stars Almost everyone has a "one that got away" in their past and I reckon that applies to rock & roll bands, too. In Rush's case this particular album, one that could've been a classic, slipped through their fingers for no other reason than sometimes it just happens. Somehow this persevering trio had survived the MTV virus-infected 80s intact and this was their last record to be released before the new decade was to commence. They'd broken all ties with their long-time label and were now working for the industry behemoth that was Atlantic. No doubt they wanted to make a big impression by delivering a masterpiece so they enlisted the help of producer Rupert Hine who'd done good things with the likes of Anthony Phillips, Stevie Nicks, Camel and Tina Turner to provide them with a fresh sound. The group wanted to move away somewhat from the synth-heavy focus that had characterized their last few offerings and return to their power trio roots to some extent. Their intentions were admirable and they'd done everything they could to insure that they'd knock the record business on its ear with "Presto" but the magic that the title implies simply failed to show up. Their muse was vacationing with Phil Collins in Cancun, perhaps. Who knows? What we have here is a slightly above average album but also one that doesn't stand out as being remarkable.

Neil Peart's light toms provide a sneaky intro to "Show Don't Tell" and they lead to a strong, tight, complex prog funk riff that's delightfully edgy and relatively raw for this bunch. Alex Lifeson's guitars are bright almost to the point of brittleness, Geddy Lee's vocal is confident and Neil's crisp drumming all add up to a promising, energetic opening salvo. I like Peart's noteworthy lyric, "You can twist perception/reality won't budge." "Chain Lightning" follows and it has a sort of Canadian rockabilly vibe going for it that's quite engaging in its own quaint way. Geddy seems to have found a mature singing comfort zone not only on this track but throughout the record that is a far cry from the screechy yelps of his youth. Alex's guitar ride is playful and pleasingly weird. "The Pass" is next and it is far and away the apex of the album. Lee's deftly played bass chords at the beginning are cool as all get out but it's the number's melody lines and thoughtful arrangement that cause it to shine so brightly. This song displays how far the band had come in honing their composition skills because I consider it one of their very best in their vast catalog of work. Neil's lyrics address the sensitive subject of suicide tactfully without being patronizing. "Can't face life on a razor's edge/nothing's what you thought it would be," Geddy sings with emotion. This cut is a gem worth seeking out if you haven't heard it. "War Paint" marks a return to a heavier-handed motif yet they keep their prog mentality in the recipe by including a lot of stunning dynamics. Peart drives the track hard while Lee croons "All puffed up with vanity/we see what we want to see/to the powerful and the wise/the mirror always lies." On "Scars" they really step outside their box. Behind a funky, synth sequenced bass line and a myriad of African rhythms they hit the road running. It sounds like they wanted to experiment with a single-key piece that would challenge them to embellish its simple concept creatively. The results are a mixed bag of successes and failures.

"Presto" starts with a startling blast of sound that leads to Lifeson's strummed and stacked acoustic guitars, setting the stage for some surprises in the way of contrasting aural textures and an array of prog-related movements. Alex's guitar work is tasteful enough but overall there's nothing concrete to latch onto and remember a half hour later. "Superconductor" sports a hard rock riff and verse in 7/8 time, then opens up into a 4/4 glide for the connecting bridge and chorus. It's a decent tune but I can't help but feel that Lifeson missed a golden opportunity to step forward and kick out the jams with an awesome guitar solo but it doesn't happen. Not sure why, either. The door was wide open. "Anagram (for Mongo)" owns a moniker that gives a clever nod to "Blazing Saddles" and, while some fans may not like it much, I find the track endearing. I like the polished structure of the song very much because they take no unnecessary risks. It's as if they knew they had an excellent composition on their hands and they made sure they didn't mess it up by overcomplicating matters. Sometimes less is more. One line sticks out. "The cosmic is largely comic/a con they couldn't conceal." "Red Tide" is yet another of their 80s-era work that shows how much they admired what The Police were doing in that time frame. The utilization of vocal harmonies widens the scope on this cut and on several more of the record's numbers. "Hand Over Fist" rides atop a plodding groove that lays down a solid foundation for what, unfortunately, turns out to be a mediocre song. At this point in the proceedings the slickness of the production becomes monotonous and detrimental. They end with "Available Light" and, of all the tunes presented, this one most exemplifies the problem I have with the album as a whole. The predominance of a standard piano at the start is a wonderful change of pace but it doesn't last long enough. The trio is too married to the tried-and-true, bigger-than-life Rush assault mindset that barges in and effectively ruins the moment. They could've held back and created something subtle and poignant instead and it seems to me the payoff would've been significant if not amazing. Kudos to Alex for some fine guitar work, though.

Released around Thanksgiving in 1989, "Presto" did okay by rising to #16 on the LP charts. It's hard to criticize that level of success (especially since music in general was in such a sorry state of affairs at that juncture) but we reviewers must call 'em as we see 'em. The tunes are top-notch and the execution is, as always, flawless but there's just something vital missing (except in "The Pass") in the eleven cuts that cause them to miss the mark. I read where Geddy Lee once said of this record that he wishes they could have a re-do on this one because they so sincerely believed in the material they'd assembled for it. I couldn't agree more but the sad fact is, the "one-that-got-away" never comes back. 3.2 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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