Ratings are on a 10 point scale, in comparison not just to the Rush catalog, but the broader range of rock music. Comments and criticism are gladly accepted by email.
Rush (1974) - Perhaps no other album creates so much division among Rush fans. To Rutsey or not to Rutsey, that is the question. John was no Neil, but this album does rock and, despite its obvious immaturity in places, it does hint at what was to come. Primarily a showcase for Alex's Jimmy Page-like licks, it is in Geddy's bass and the surprising softer passages where the future is foretold. "Finding My Way" remains a highlight as does their first radio song "Working Man." The bluesy "Here Again" and the soft-then-smash-'em "Before and After" were the major foreshadowings. This is NOT just for collectors. In my view, you can't understand what Rush was to become if you don't own this album and appreciate it for what it was. Rating: 5.
Fly By Night (1975) - With the departure of John Rutsey and the addition of Neil Peart, this almost sounds like a new band. What is certain is that they seemed to find a coherence, direction, and sound that the debut never got close to. This album holds up very well 23 years later, with its sharp guitar lines and Geddy's increasingly complex work, not to mention the range and talent that Neil immediately showed. Neil's lyrical contributions begin to move to the front here and the increased complexity of many of the songs was a major leap from the first album. There is still some lingering immaturity here, but it is far less than the debut. Highlights here are the opening track "Anthem," the near-epic "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" and the nicely done "Making Memories." Rating: 7.
Caress of Steel (1975) - Having been together for a little while, the band was beginning to take some chances and explore new directions. Although the metal sound of the first two albums was still here, this disc had more range and more layers and more acoustic guitars than those did. The whole second side was a 20 minute suite of songs linked lyrically and bookended musically. For many fans, this is their worst album. I disagree. In fact, I think in some ways it is their most progressive. The layered guitars and Alex's very Steve Hackett-esque sound make it feel like a Genesis album without the keyboards. The last 30 seconds of "Lakeside Park" and several parts of "The Fountain of Lamneth" are quite progressive in their structure and feel. The album was a commercial disaster, but I think it holds up very well after all the years. Highlights include "The Return of the Prince" and the "Panacea" and "Bacchus Plateau" sections of "The Fountain of Lamneth." Alex's solo in the "No One at the Bridge" section just burns. This album also contains without question their worst song, "I Think I'm Going Bald." Although I still agree with what I wrote here, I don't think CoS has the legs over the long haul. Listening to it now, it's beginning to show its cheesiness. I was probably in a generous mood when I wrote the original review, and now I'm backing off a bit. Rating: 7.5.
2112 (1976) - After the previous album sold so poorly, and the accompanying tour was not well attended, there was talk of splitting up. There was also pressure from the record company to produce something more radio-friendly. What Rush came back with, by contrast, was one of the great "fuck yous" in rock history. They went for another 20 minute epic, this time taking up the whole first side. They set Ayn Rand's novella "Anthem" to music (replacing the electric light with a guitar) and the rest is history. The suite known as "2112" showcased a band who was talented, angry, determined, and all in sync with each other. From the headbanging opening two sections, to the beautiful "Discovery" and the back and forth, jazzy to metal "Presentation," to the screaming Lifeson solos in the final three sections, this song meant business. It was here that the band sounded "like Rush" for the first time. The jam at the end of "Presentation" sounds like they are playing their asses off. The anger and frustration of the previous years is all coming out here in a torrent of sound and fury. When Geddy sings "just think what we might do," it's both a statement of the band's confidence and a finger in the eye of their doubters. This is powerful, inspirational music. Oh yeah, there's a second side too. It's okay, but it doesn't really matter. Even though radio play was limited, word of mouth got them sales and their intense and loud concert performances began to attract a steady following. There was no turning back. Rating: 9 (10 for Side A and 8 for Side B)
A Farewell to Kings (1977) - As was to become a pattern, the first four studio albums were followed by a live disc, and the live disc was followed by a major change in sound. AFTK brought in serious synthesizer work by Geddy, more acoustic guitar from Alex, and a whole toy box full of percussion instruments from Neil. The sound here is best described as simultaneously pastoral and hard-edged. This album has a very progressive feel to it, with the acoustic guitars and various percussion instruments. They were taking the tight song structures of 2112 and feeding them through the influence of progressive rock. The result is an album that is in places extremely brilliant and in others only average. The clear highlight here is "Xanadu", an 11 minute rendering of the well-known Coelridge poem. From the pastoral opening with amazing pedal work by Alex, to the full-bore electric sections, this song is a masterpiece of structure and performance. The title track and the often-heard "Closer to the Heart" are solid as well, and "Cinderella Man" gives Geddy room to get funky. The lowlight is "Cygnus X-1," which, though beloved by metalheads among Rush fans, is too loud, too cacophonous, and just a bit cheesy for my taste. Save the "I set a course..." verse and chuck the rest. Rating: 8.5
Hemispheres (1978) - The progressive rock strands of the prior three discs come together here in a unique and powerful way. The first side consists of another 18 minute epic, but this time it's a bit different. In creating a "book 2" of the Cygnus saga, Rush wrote what really does amount to an integrated 18 minute song, rather than long musically distinct suites like they had before. The side-long title track shows off their ability to write integrated and intricate music as well as their ever-improving musicianship. Though ultimately not as gut-wrenchingly powerful as "2112," it is aesthetically more satisfying as a piece of music. The second side contains a fan favorite "The Trees," which shows the band's growing ability to get the job done in less time. I've long argued that "Circumstances" is among the most overrated songs in the Rush catalog, and I stand by that view, no matter how many baboons it costs me. Side two also contains the 9 minute instrumental "La Villa Strangiato." Mere words can't describe this craziness, other than to note that it borrows from places that include old German folk songs and Carl Stalling's scores for "Looney Tunes." In the process, Rush explores rock, jazz and everything else in between. Alex's guitar work here is extraordinary and the other two ain't whistling Dixie either. Subtitled "An Exercise in Self-Indulgence," it represents the last gasp of the "old" Rush, as the next album would bear out. This album is always better than I remember it being. Rating: 9.5
Permanent Waves (1980) - Released on January 1, 1980, this album was the turning point for Rush. Gone were the trappings of 70s progressive rock and in were a determination to write better songs and let the chops serve the song rather than the other way around. The result was stunning. The opening track "The Spirit of Radio" contains everything that fans love about Rush packed into 5 minutes rather than 20. A great song, great playing, complex structure, inspiring lyrics combined to make a song that is a rock classic (see the greatest rock riffs link elsewhere on my Rush page). It remains a concert staple that never fails to get the whole crowd singing along. "Free Will" must be experienced to be understood. The instrumental section remains a challenge to guitarists and bassists everywhere. The final cut, "Natural Science" is my personal favorite Rush song. Like TSOR, it has everything one wants in a Rush song, plus the vestiges of the prog rock of the prior albums, not to mention the most Hayekian lyrics I've ever seen. The other highlight here is "Entre Nous," which seems to foreshadow the shorter, simpler song structures that have dominated their 90s albums. A must have for anyone trying to understand this band and anyone who loves hard rock. Rating: 10.
Moving Pictures (1981) - Other than The Who's Quadrophenia, perhaps the best rock album ever. It all came together here: the sound, the songwriting, the playing, everything. Without a doubt, the best bass and drum sound I've ever heard. This album is fury and power completely under control. "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight" are all too familiar on the radio, but give them a good listen sometime and hear just how good they are. The rhythm section on "Tom Sawyer" is amazing, and Alex's "Limelight" solo remains one of his best. The instrumental "YYZ" does everything that "La Villa Strangiato" did but in half the time. "Red Barchetta" might simply be the best 6 minutes of rock ever. It takes the listener through a lyrical adventure where the music matches the story every step of the way. It is breathtakingly brilliant from start to finish. Let's not forget another personal favorite "The Camera Eye." Also harkening back to Rush's prog rock roots in its length and complexity, it also shows more careful songwriting and a beautiful use of acoustic backgrounds. And the jam at the end is something to behold. The last two songs are very good, but the first 5 are perfect. A must for anyone who loves rock. Rating: 10+
Signals (1982) - Once again, the post-live disc album reflected a change in style. This time it was even more synth-heavy with a good dose of ska and reggae as well. The result was mixed. There are some very good songs here, but as a whole, this album isn't among their best. The problem was largely in the mix. Alex is lost somewhere and Geddy's voice is coming up through a manhole. Some of Neil's best drum work is here, but it is lacking any power. This is a surprisingly soft sounding album. Long time producer Terry Brown got the boot after this one. Highlights include "Subdivisions" and "The Weapon." "The Analog Kid" is particularly noteworthy, not just for some great guitar work, but for nicely capturing feel with lyrics and music. Neil's words and song's sound transport you directly to that "hot and windy August afternoon." A very strong lyrical album for Neil, but clearly a transition for the band. In re-listening to this recently, I think I was too harsh on it. It's still not at the top of my list, but an "8" was a bit harsh. There's too much good stuff here. Rating: 8.5
Grace Under Pressure (1984) - Their most enigmatic album. Dark, grey, sullen, brooding, take your pick. The band was having problems, the world was an ugly place, and the result was a very un-Rush-like pessimism. Still, there are some great things here. The band had included a lot more sequencer type sounds (recalling Ultravox, among others) and Alex's slashing guitar sound (the schlaang, to those in the know) clearly reflected influence from U2's The Edge. For Alex fans, this album is a showcase. Virtually every song has an outstanding solo, with "Red Sector A" and "Kid Gloves" being real standouts and the solo in "Between the Wheels" being absolutely orgasmic. Other highlights are "The Enemy Within" if only for the amazing bass line that Geddy lays down, and "Red Lenses" for the totally funky bass/drums part in the middle. As a whole though, there's just something missing (maybe it's that characterisitc Rush optimism) that prevents this all from hanging together. I'm somewhat mystified by my own last sentence here. I actually think this album does "hang together" and in some ways better than many other Rush albums. It has a unified feel and sound - although it's not a "feel" that I really love, as the gloom and doom isn't my sense of life. Still, this disc is in many ways brilliant. Rating: 9.
Power Windows (1985) - Where the prior two albums were missing the energetic oomph that Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures had, this one found it. The remastered version really makes that clear as the bottom end really blossoms. This was also the band's first all-digital album and it positively glistens, like polished chrome. Producer Peter Collins deserves some credit for that, and his return on subsequent albums suggests the band agrees. The opening track "The Big Money" lays it all out: lots of keyboards and sequencers, but a ferocious three-piece jam section in the middle. This album contains some of Geddy's finest work on bass - almost every song has awesome, yet appropriate, bass lines. They had found the magic of Moving Pictures but had progressed to a more keyboardish and more poppish sound. Highlights include any of the first six tracks, but "Marathon" and "Territories" stand out both musically and lyrically. The intricate "Mystic Rhythms" closes out the disc in fine fashion. Almost no weak spots here. Rating: 10.
Hold Your Fire (1987) - Other than the first album, perhaps the most divisive in the catalog. The band had stripped away some of the bells and whistles of Power Windows, but increased the tendency toward pop-type songs and a mellower feel. The result, in my opinion, was almost as good as its predecessor, but there are many who think this was too much of a sell-out to 80s pop. It does indeed have some very radio-friendly songs ("Time Stand Still", "Second Nature" and "Force Ten" in particular), but it also has some major jams and great musicianship. Neil's work on "Lock and Key" and "Prime Mover" is outstanding, and his work along with Geddy's on "High Water" make the latter a personal favorite. "Mission" harkened back to the old Genesis sound and includes some of Neil's most inspirational (and Randian) lyrics and one of Alex's best solos. "Turn the Page" just smokes for both Geddy and Alex. This album should have stopped any complaints about Geddy's voice and the band being a "metal" band. There are very few bad moments here. Many love "Open Secrets" but it falls flat for me, and "Force Ten" has never been a real favorite either. Still, an excellent album with a cohesive sound and feel to it. All still true, but a 9.5 was too high, given that 15 years later, I don't think this disc holds up quite so well. Rating: 9.
Presto (1989) - Once again, a live album leads to a change in sound. The keyboard excesses of the last four albums were almost gone and the three-piece sound was back. In particular, the soft, acoustic-like feel of some of the mid-70s albums had returned. There is just a smoothness to this album that makes it a joy to listen to. There are some very strong songs here, with "The Pass," "Scars," "Available Light," and the title track being at the top. The addition of a piano and backing vocals on several tracks gives it a lushness that other albums lacked. "The Pass" showed that Rush could write great songs when they wanted. It is another high point of their career, as it combined great songwriting, great and passionate lyrics, and an excellent solo from Alex. The same could be said of the title track as well. For many fans, this album is a high point for Neil's lyric writing. In retrospect, this is an important disc as it reflects the beginning of a sound they aspired to through the 90s, but never really reached until Test For Echo. And here's a case where I wasn't kind enough. Repeated listenings in the intervening years have made me re-discover how good this album is. It has a wonderful softness about it that makes it unique in the Rush catalog, and these songs do hold up over the years. Hearing "The Pass" live this summer confirms it. Rating: 9.5.
Roll the Bones (1991) - The low point of their career, without question. For whatever reason, their muse failed them. The songwriting here is just substandard. There are exactly four really good songs here, one decent instrumental, and the rest is very forgettable. "Dreamline" captured the energy and feel of songs like "Red Barchetta," while "Bravado" and "Roll the Bones" reflected a mellower, song-oriented style that clicked. As good as "Bravado" is, the live version available on several bootlegs is even better, as it includes an extended solo from Alex. Talk about hot! "Ghost of a Chance" remains an excellent song, showing how Rush could be Rush within the confines of a fairly straightforward pop-rock song, and the thematic unity of the lyrics makes it perhaps Neil's best work. But overall, this is hard to listen to and I rarely do. Rating: 5
Counterparts (1993) - Reports of the band's demise were premature. They were back and in our faces in a big way with this album. The keyboards were almost totally gone, the energy and up-front guitar were back, and Neil was exploring new lyrical territory. At its best, this album captured the power and feel of their best albums and the songwriting had come back to life. Although there are some weaker songs, and the album lost some luster by comparison to what followed, this is still a solid effort. Highlights include "Alien Shore" and its creative and difficult bass line, "Cut to the Chase" with one of Alex's best solos in many a moon, and the opening track "Animate." "Stick it Out" and "The Speed of Love" and "Double Agent" are all forgettable, but most everything else says "We're back and we're in business." Rating: 8.5
Test for Echo (1996) - Simply their finest work since at least Power Windows, and perhaps even Moving Pictures. That sentence is a good reason never to review a disc within the first 6 months of its release. There's simply no way I can defend that view of the album now, although I still think it's quite good. Their longest lay-off ever, as well as some outside projects, came together to produce an amazingly consistent set of some of the best songs they've ever written. There are riffs and production that harken back to past albums, but the sound is fresh and new. Alex is very much up front and the layered guitar sound is back (even to the point of triple-tracking the bass in "Driven"). The keyboards are non-existent and they rock as hard as they ever have, but without losing sight of the structure of the songs. What's very interesting here is that there are no real highlights, as the quality is so consistent across the board. Although I still agree with that assessment, I think the quality of those songs isn't as high as I thought they were. Consistent? Yes. But, and perhaps this is in the light of what came after it, the almost laconic pace of this album makes it harder to listen to than it used to be. It simply hasn't been able to sustain my enjoyment in the intervening years. My personal favorites include "Totem" (the best pure song they've ever written [until "How It Is" anyway]; and the happiest too), "The Color of Right," "Virtuality," and "Carve Away the Stone." The only slightly weak spots are "Dog Years" and "Limbo" (the instrumental). This is a band who after 22 years is still cranking out solid music and continuing to challenge themselves. Rating: 10. No way this one's a 10. I'm taking it down a full point. 9.
Different Stages (1998) - Now you've noticed I haven't reviewed any of their live albums. As a general rule, I don't like live albums, especially Rush ones because they feel too artificial and too produced. ATWAS is an exception, but I can only take so much of their early stuff at one sitting. However, this 4th live collection is another story. DS puts you in row 20, center at the TFE tour. Finally, finally!!, Rush has accurately captured the feel of one of their shows like a really good bootleg. The song selection is largely excellent (I could have lived without "Stick it Out" and "Nobody's Hero" myself) and the performances are great. This album has more "fooling around" on it than any other live album or boot I can think of. The version of "Closer to the Heart" is just amazing, with Alex doing some great stuff in the jam section, and them finding a groove like they've never found before. Live 2112 kills the original also. I can listen to it endlessly. The second disc has a great run of songs from "Leave that Thing Alone" through the drum solo, "Natural Science," and "The Spirit of Radio." And the bonus of "Bravado" and "The Analog Kid" from prior tours is nice as well. The "third disc" of the Hammersmith show from the late 70s is great as well, but even if it weren't included, this would be a classic. Rating: 10.
Vapor Trails (2002) - Even though I said above that one can get too excited about an album when it's fresh, I think this one will hold up. Wow. Who would have expected something like this after the previous set of albums and Neil's tragedies? The band comes back with an amazingly intense, dense, layered, passionate, and quasi-personal set of 13 new songs, almost all of which rock out harder than anything of theirs in the last 20 years. Of this album, I think it's fair to say it's their best work since Power Windows or Moving Pictures. There are so many highlights here and very few weak spots. Any album that starts with the opening 7 seconds of drumwork on "One Little Victory" and moves quickly to the crazy bass jam in the middle of "Ceiling Ulimited" is headed in the right direction! The sheer pop/REM-like joy of "How It Is" begins a sequence of some of the best work Rush has ever done. The title track "Vapor Trail", the disc's best song "Secret Touch" and the Permanent Waves-like "Earthshine" follow it in a four-song sequence that is Rush heaven. The final three tracks ("Nocturne," "Freeze," and "Out of the Cradle") end things up in awesome style as well. The musical direction here is of interest, as there are no keyboards at all, and very few of Alex's trademark solos. Instead, there's a pile of guitar effects as well as Geddy using both layered vocals and solo vocalizations to fill the space that would have been keyboards. The overall feel is harder and heavier than anything since the 70s. Lyrically, the disc is mostly Neil's story of loss, despair, and recovery, though phrased in ways that attempt to universalize it. It's not "auto-biography" but these songs are clearly born of Neil's last few years. As good as it is, it's not flawless. "Peaceable Kingdom" and "Stars Look Down" are weaker tracks in my view, and the production is problematic. For reasons that remain unclear, there is much digital distortion throughout the album, making it a hard listen the first few times. Even so, the production issues are swamped by the quality of the music. Rating: 10.