Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review: "Signals"

Coming off the success of Moving Pictures, it would have been easy for the band to continue to make albums in the same vein of Pictures and Permanent Waves.  Instead, Rush opted to move in a new direction, one more aggressively incorporating the musical technology of synthesizers and sequencers, and more openly influenced by the new wave, reggae, ska, and funk musical stylings of the era.  The result was Signals, an album which would forecast the band's musical approach throughout the 1980's.

The most immediate difference from previous albums is Geddy Lee's use of the synthesizer, which had been a background element on several previous songs, but was now much more in the forefront, with both the bass and Lifeson's guitar no longer as dominant as they had once been.  This approach would continue up to 1987's Hold Your Fire.

The four albums the band recorded during this period are something of a mixed bag.  While the new musical approach did bring in some new fans, some of the people who had been listening throughout the seventies occasionally expressed a desire to not have the synthesizers and keyboards be such a dominant feature on the newer albums.  For myself, the albums are good overall, but uneven.  Several of the tracks on these albums are among my favorite Rush songs, but there are usually at least a couple of songs on each of these albums I'm inclined to skip over during a casual listening.

Signals starts off strong with 'Subdivisions', a commentary on the sterile and restrictive nature of the modern suburbs, and an anthem for disaffected youth everywhere.  The follow-up track, 'The Analog Kid', is in many ways a counterpart to 'Subdivisions', a study of a small-town youth torn between the home he has always known and the big city that calls to him. Both of these songs are quite effective, with the former's use of keyboards as an ominous and oppressive element, and the latter as a fast-paced, up-tempo rocker.

The next two songs, however, don't work out quite as well.  'Chemistry' (the last example of Lee and Lifeson contributing lyrically to a Rush album) never quite gels, and while the science-as-metaphor approach was hardly a new one for the band, in this case the metaphor doesn't really work because it lacks any real emotional connection.  'Digital Man' fails to work for different reasons, in many ways feeling like two or more unrelated songs strung together. The reggae and ska elements are more obvious here then they were on previous songs, but the transition between those elements and the more traditional rock aspects of the song are more jarring than satisfactory.

Side two of the album pick up with 'The Weapon', which was also part two of Peart's 'Fear' series, dealing with how the things we fear can be used against us.  Following that is the surprise hit of the album, 'New World Man'.  The track was written and recorded in a single day, on request by producer Terry Brown to add a song of appropriate length to help ensure that the cassette release could maintain the continuity of song order without having a disproportionate amount of dead space.  It would go on to be the band's best-charting single, being the group's only American Top 40 hit (the fact that this makes Rush a one-hit wonder by some people's standards amuses me greatly).

'Losing It' is a slower, melancholy piece, regarding the inevitable tolls of age that we all face, with the memories of faded glories now bitter reminders of the past.  A powerful song, but not one that readily lends itself to an easy assimilation upon first listening to it.

Whatever flaws the album may have, Signals end on an high note with 'Countdown', which conveys the band's reaction to being witness to the inaugural flight of the space shuttle Columbia.  The musically ominous tone contrasts with Peart's optimistic and enthusiastic lyrics to good effect, and also incorporates recorded dialog between the astronauts and the ground control personnel that occurred during the launch.  While much of the album is darker and more cautionary in tone, compared to previous albums, 'Countdown' ends Signals on a more optimistic, upbeat note.

This was to be the last album Terry Brown produced for the band, as he did not care for the new direction that the band was going; he and Rush would eventually part ways after Signals had been finished. This is indicative of many Rush fans attitude toward the album, but there is much here to like, as well.  Signals is by no means the perfect Rush album, but it is one well worth listening to, warts and all.

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