- Released: May 1, 2007.
- Tracks: 13
- Format: Audio CD
- Label: Atlantic / Wea
Rush is back with their first album of original material since 2002, Snakes & Arrows. Let me explain up front that I've been a fan of the band for almost 20 years, so this isn't going to be a completely unbiased review. It will, however, be completely honest.
Unlike some, I don't live in the past. To wit: the Amazon.com Editorial review leads with "A return to their former glory days, Snakes & Arrows…" Former? Former glory days? The band has sold millions of records and sold out shows on every tour — including the oft-maligned Vapor Trails. If you want an honest review of a recent-era Rush disc, you should read a review by someone who isn't looking at the band through Moving Pictures-colored glasses. I love the old stuff, but Permanent Waves was recorded 27 years ago. I don't believe that "Freewill", "Limelight" and especially "Tom Sawyer" define this band. Any reviewer that bases an entire review on the lament that recent albums aren't enough like the offerings from the 1970's should be soundly thrashed. Don't scoff — most reviewers that tackle Rush do exactly that.
That said, overall, I am very happy with this record. The band is in top form, with stellar playing and strong lyrics. Here's the track by track breakdown.
- Far Cry (5:18) : The lead single, if by "single" you actually mean "released by the record company, never to be played on the radio". That's the status quo for Rush in most radio markets, which is a shame, because this track kicks some serious ass.
Sonically, it's a fair bit on the side of metal, and once you get past the intro, the song might put you in mind of "Stick it Out" from Counterparts. To me, that's not necessarily a good thing. I wasn't much of a fan of Rush's experimentation with grunge on that album. Still, it's only a passing resemblance, and the track stands on it's own very well. Lyrically, "Far Cry" might seem pretty simple and can seem repetitious, but the subtle differences in wording do make a difference. Neil has always been a verbal acrobat, and though this track doesn't rank up there with, say, "You Bet Your Life " in its complexity or "Everyday Glory" for its imagery and beauty, it's the little things that when taken together make for a stronger song.
Resonant lyric: “It's a far cry from the world we thought we'd inherit / It's a far cry from the way we thought we'd share it”
- Armor and Sword (6:36) : In almost every review I've read over the past couple of days, this is the tune that gets the worst reviews. Some people say it took them a few listens to really get into it, some people just flat out say it drags, it's boring, and it's too long at over six and a half minutes. Personally, although I don't think it's the strongest track on the record, I don't think it's the worst.
It's very rich, musically. Layers upon layers make up a soundscape that is at once easy to appreciate and hard to pin down. Definitely worth repeat listens.
Resonant lyric: “No one gets to their heaven without a fight”
- Workin' Them Angels (4:46) : The chorus "I've been workin' them angels / overtime" pretty much fits how I feel about this track.
I feel like I've gotten a workout after getting through this song. The feel from the music is that it's under strain. The song feels like it's trying to get through to the end — which is, I suspect, the whole point.
Resonant lyric: “All this time / I've been living like there's no tomorrow / Running and jumping and flying / With my imaginary net”
- The Larger Bowl (4:07) : If there were a Grammy category for "Best Song Title", this would have to take the prize, based on the sheer "Huh? That… what?" factor of it.
Alex's acoustic guitar really makes this song — it would not have had nearly the same impact with those parts played electric. The bass takes a backseat here, as well as the drums. The rhythm section really does [mostly] sit back and provide the rhythm, which might seem a little odd for your average Rush tune. Alex gets the most attention here, and it works (despite the solo being a little short and a wee bit low in the mix). Still, four stars. Great song.
Resonant lyric: "If we're so much the same like I always hear / why such different fortunes and fates?"
- Spindrift (5:23) : I want to like "Spindrift", I really do. There is something about this track that niggles the back of my mind, saying "Like me! Like me!", but I just can't.
It's not a bad song, very average, but I simply can't put my finger on why it doesn't work very well for me.
Resonant lyric: "Who cares what a fool believes?"
- The Main Monkey Business (Instrumental, 6:01) : To date, Rush has only recorded five instrumentals (not counting the live albums), and never more than one per record. "The Main Monkey Business" is the first of three for this record, and although it's at the bottom of that list of three in my opinion, that is not a reflection on it's quality. They're all great, but what puts this one below the others is it's length (a wee bit too long for an instrumental), it's meandering themes and parts that seem just a little bit disjointed.
Given the track's title, I expected something a little bouncier, something a little more mischievous, something a little more like "Malignant Narcissism", actually. I do love the theme that plays around the three minute mark, though.
- The Way the Wind Blows (6:28) : Much like "The Larger Bowl", Alex's acoustic skills are really put on display. Unlike that tune though, the electric parts are far higher in the mix,and it makes for a stronger tune overall. Geddy's voice is really the star though, conveying the emotion and passion of the lyrics perfectly. The very bluesy intro, surprisingly, doesn't really repeat at all.
Resonant lyric: "Now it's come to this / it's like we're back in the Dark Ages"
- Hope (Instrumental, 2:02) : Stunning. Beautiful. Heartfelt. This is one of the true highlights of the record, and gives everyone who ever put down Alex's work on Vapor Trails a swift kick upside the head. He's never been in finer form. For many, many years, the fan base seemed to always ask for two things (with varying success) on a Rush record
— an instrumental and a tune that shows off Alex's acoustic skills. Well, this satisfies both requests!
The only downside? This is the shortest track ever on a non-live Rush record (the previous champ was "Madrigal" from A Farewell to Kings.) Another minute or so would have been most welcome.
- Faithless (5:31) : Related by a lyric and a theme to the previous track (see the resonant lyric), this is my favorite track on the album. Past albums have had songs about faith and spirituality (usually as they relate to individuality and free thought), but this track really spells it out in a way most of the earlier work never did. It's a message of personal strength, of finding your core and not using faith or religion as a crutch or an excuse. Musically, the song is sweeping, a bit on the majestic side, and perfectly executed.
Resonant lyric: “I don't have faith in faith / I don't believe in belief / You can call me faithless / I still cling to hope / And I believe in love / And that's faith enough for me”
- Bravest Face (5:11) : Great example of a track that I couldn't decide if I liked until the third or fourth listen. Well, Rush tunes are like that sometimes. After getting to know the tune a little better, I decided that it's probably going to be one of the great unheralded songs in the band's catalog. I wouldn't be surprised to see this played on the upcoming tour.
Resonant lyric: "Though we might have precious little / It's still precious"
- Good News First (4:51) : One thing that really struck me about Vapor Trails, in my opinion, is that each song seemed to start with a great rockin' intro, but then slowed down and almost muddled through the rest of the song.
My first impression when I heard this the first time was fear that it was going to do just that. Well, I was right and wrong. It does calm down after that great intro, but it certainly doesn't muddle through. The music is compelling and fits the lyrics quite well. Alex gets more acoustic time on the bridge; always a welcome addition to a Rush tune.
Resonant lyric: "Time, if nothing else, will do it's worst / so do me that favor / and tell me the good news first"
- Malignant Narcissism (Instrumental, 2:17) : Fun, fun, fun. That's the theme of this track, from the largely simplistic and minimally layered guitar to the playful, bouncy bassline (played on a fretless) to Neil's use of a simple four-piece drum kit. The entire tune sounds as if the band just wanted to cut loose and have some fun — and I'll bet they had it in abundance. You could almost see a teenage Rush playing this track (albeit with the skills of their current selves).
- We Hold On (4:12) : I like my album closers to have punch. I want to go out with a bang, with a really rockin' tune. I want them strong. Looking to the past for examples, 2112, Counterparts and Roll the Bones (among others) have great closers. Unfortunately, Snakes & Arrows doesn't. It's very average, and nothing about it really stands out at all. Lyrically, I like the message a lot, but the execution of the idea is uninspiring and a rather flat. A disappointing closer to an otherwise very strong album.
Resonant lyric: “Keep holding on so long / There's every chance that we might not be so wrong / We could be down and gone / But we hold on”
I don't like the album cover much, but that's probably because I saw the interior art and the art used at Rush.com first. The "storm" imagery, especially the fantastic image of the stroller on the pier, was so striking and moody that going to a bright yellow/gold and blue cover was quite jarring to me. The concept, the point of the cover is wonderful. As Neil explains in his online essay, the game of Snakes & Arrows is ancient, and is, in fact, the precursor to the modern game of Chutes & Ladders.
Long story short, I followed that trail with growing enthusiasm, and learned that Leela (Hindi for “the game”) was at least 2,000 years old, and had been created by Buddhist saints and sages as a game of karma—like many games, a metaphor for life. (And an accidental but deep connection with the tarot cards we used on Vapor Trails, or the dice on Roll the Bones—both ancient games, and metaphors for life.)
You can see the resemblance to the modern game in the album cover. Thematically, the cover fits the album very, very well… I simply prefer the tone of the interior art.
As I said, the interior art is spectacular. Deep colors, heavy detail, very moody. Hugh Syme continues his run of stellar Rush art. Each spread of the booklet gets it's own unique image, and I won't reprint them all here. Suffice to say, the work is excellent. These two are my favorite pieces.
What can I say about the packaging? I love the Earth, love to see bands opt for alternate packaging, hate cardboard. It's nothing new — Rush has been doing the cardboard thing since 1998's Different Stages… Live package (2002's Vapor Trails being the one exception since I don't count the rights-fulfillment greatest hits reissues that Mercury insists on foisting on the public). Cardboard CD packages just always end up looking cheaper than they should, they don't hold up well to normal wear and tear, and they always seem to remind me of how, years ago, only singles and EP's got the cardboard treatment. For the vast, vast majority of my music purchases, I simply fire up the computer and buy/download what interests me. Rush is one of three bands/artists that I still buy the physical product of (the other two being The Cure and Tori Amos (for my wife… mostly)). I surely wish Rush would go back to the jewel case.
In The End
There was some talk (due to a certain loose-lipped producer) that this album would hearken back to the band's early work from the 1970's. Yeah, well, not so much. Oh, there's the Cygnus-like moment in Far Cry (the guitar you hear at 0:12 and 3:24 and 5:12). The odd time signatures, time changes, and to-the-millisecond precision that the band was known for (and what they seemed to mostly abandon by the 1990's) is back in force. If people are expecting Permanent Waves II or Fly By Night: The Next Generation, though, they're going to be sorely disappointed.
There is a maturity to the band that I feel really began with 1990's Presto album. Although the music is heavier, it also seems more relaxed than past eras. The band seems more comfortable with themselves and their abilities, which is a state only achieved through maturity and experience. Geddy's voice doesn't have the range that it did when he was in his 20's, but it works perfectly (some might say better) regardless. Alex has always let the needs of the song dictate his style — never overplaying (witness Steve Vai as a member of Whitesnake), never fading completely into the background (Aerosmith's Brad Whitford comes to mind). On Snakes & Arrows, Alex is right up front but not in-your-face, and that's exactly what works, exactly what's always worked. Neil, since 1974, has been the master lyricist and drummer extraordinaire. There have been a few missteps over the years ("Cinderella Man", "I Think I'm Going Bald" and "Virtuality" come to mind), but every track on Snakes & Arrows is a lyrical keeper. The percussion on the album doesn't overpower, but is just noticeable enough for the listener to really appreciate it in the context of the song. It's very Rush – and in the end, that's the best thing to be said for Snakes & Arrows.
Lastly, remember this: whatever you think of the album when you hear it, at least "Dog Years" isn't on it.
How it Is
There's a reason I don't usually do album reviews on the day of release. My process works like this: I listen to the whole album all the way through while doing other things, be it driving a car, doing dishes, or working on a blog post. I make notes about what catches my attention and makes me pause what I'm doing. Those, to me, usually turn out to be the real standout moments of the album. After that, I'll listen to the album critically, with no distractions. I'm looking for technical standouts and listening to the lyrics more closely. Finally, I'll put the album into iTunes and let it play on a loop while I'm doing other things, usually playing poker or working online. This is where I determine which songs are the best by which ones I gravitate toward as I skip around. Some albums don't get past that first stage, some don't survive the more critical listen. Those that get through the whole process are the ones that take the longest to write about!