Monday, March 10, 2008

Rush: Snakes and Arrows

Rush: Snakes and Arrows

Year: 2007

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Five years have passed since the last real studio album from Rush. 2004's Feedback was an entertaining foray into the realm of cover songs, but it never got a lot of play for me. After all, these weren't Rush songs. They were fun, but didn't feel right. The boys from the Great White North appeased fans in the meantime with first Rush in Rio on both CD and DVD (yes, I have both). This release really set a high water mark that all concert DVDs should aspire to. Next came R30, a DVD worth it alone if for nothing other than seeing Jerry Stiller headbanging whenever you want. Finally, they released Replay x3, a reissue of three older Rush concert shows on DVD.

But none of these really sated our hunger for some new Rush songs.

When they announced last year that they were entering the studio, well, the excitement began to build. Finally, after many months and loads of teases from the band, on May 1st, Snakes and Arrows was released.

And what we have is, quite honestly, a joy to experience.

Eschewing the trends set by some of their peers, Rush has once again set the bar incredibly high for rock music. Snakes and Arrows is a complex album, full of shifting musical direction, changing time signatures, and musical dichotomies. But more importantly, it is a thoughtful, introspective, emotional and stirring album.

The album kicks off with "Far Cry", a rousing track that starts things off in fantastic fashion. Electric and acoustic guitars in a stuttering start/stop fashion that sounds distinctly Rush ramp the energy up. It is a great opening track, and one of Rush's best singles in years. From there, the album never looks back.

Musically, Snakes and Arrows is one of Rush's most diverse albums ever. Written almost entirely on acoustic guitars, their presence permeates the songs, adding a sense of depth to the tracks. This also provides for some truly beautiful melodies and acoustic passages. However, don't let that fool you to thinking this is Rush growing old. Snakes counters this with some of the heaviest passages in years as well. This is a more polished heaviness than 2002's Vapor Trails, though. Whereas VT was much more pure energy and aggression, S&A is a more balanced, metered style.

On the surface, the lyrics on Snakes and Arrows appear to be some of the more dark, depressing lyrics Neil has penned in years, easily since Grace Under Pressure. What elevates each song is a hint of hope. A careful review demonstrates a constant theme of endurance despite all challenges. In "Far Cry" Neil pens "One day I feel I’m on top of the world/And the next it’s falling in on me/I can get back on/I can get back on". "We Hold On" finishes the album with the anthemic chorus "Keep going on until dawn/How many times must another line be drawn/We could be down and gone/But we hold on". Distinctly political and social on context, but still remaining deeply personal, Neil has penned perhaps his most poignant lyrics of his career.

Finally, I must mention the three, yes three, instrumentals on the album. Rush has long been known for their instrumentals, from such classics as "La Villa Strangiato" and "YYZ" to more recent offerings such as "Limbo". Never before, though, have they packed three on one album. The first, "The Main Monkey Business" is a romping, energetic tune that is classic Rush. Sudden interplay between acoustic and electric guitars, varying styles and time signatures, this is an instant classic, and their strongest instrumental since "YYZ". Next is "Hope", a 2 minute breath of fresh air on Alex Lifeson's 12 string acoustic guitar. It is a beautiful piece, with just a hint of come Celtic and even Middle Eastern melodies thrown in. Finally, the most spontaneous of the three, "Malignant Narcissism" is a rollicking romp, full of jazz inspired beats and rhythms, rapid fire solos from drums and bass and just an overwhelming sound of three long time friends who happen to be extremely talented musicians just having a good time.

Rating: 5/5

Snakes and Arrows is a marvelous album. It has a wonderful depth to it, that begs repeat listens. It tackles real, difficult political and social issues with grace, never coming across as preaching or pedantic, rather reflective and introspective. It has every element that makes a Rush album such a pleasure, great lyrics, stunning music, and a subtle sense of humor that is so refreshing. The production, handled by Nick Raskulinecz, is flawless. Every instrument has its place and is crystal clear. The artwork, once again handled by Hugh Syme, is beautiful. This is, without doubt, Rush's strongest album since Moving Pictures, and album I often refer to as a perfect album. In some ways, Snakes and Arrows even gives Moving Pictures a run for its money. Without reservation I give Snakes and Arrows a perfect score.

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