Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review: "Power Windows"

Following up Grace Under Pressure, Rush would collaborate with co-producer Peter Collins to produce yet another synth-heavy album, one that more than any of their other albums from this period would be firmly identifiable in later years as very much a product of the 1980's. Not as dark lyrically as its predecessor, Power Windows would deal with the concept of power, and how we react to it, in its varied forms. Unfortunately, Power Windows is much more hit-or-miss lyrically than Grace Under Pressure, resulting in a more uneven album.

The album starts off strong with 'The Big Money', a catchy, energetic tune (inspired by a John Dos Passos book of the same name) that ponders the nature of money and the power it can have, for good or ill. “Big Money got no soul”, the last line of the song proclaims, neither inherently beneficial or harmful – what we do with it is up to us. After that is 'Grand Designs', a less noteworthy song about individuality and the plans one makes, that at times comes across as lyrically stilted and a bit forced.

Things pick back up with 'Manhattan Project' – a strong, driving tune about the bombing of Hiroshima, and how the atomic bomb still affects us today. Following next is 'Marathon', which uses the metaphor of a race to describe the value of persistence over the span of one's life; a symphonic feel, with a effective choral backing near the end, help to make this a powerful and anthemic song.

The second half of the album start off a bit weaker with 'Territories', a somewhat simplistic polemic against nationalism. 'Middletown Dreams' picks things back up, dealing with the soul-crushing nature of some smaller communities, and the value of dreams in temporarily escaping them; a more adult counterpart to Signals' 'Subdivisions'.

The last two songs suffer again from weaker lyrics. 'Emotion Detector', which deals with how our emotions can both strengthen and weaken us, has little to distinguish it musically. By contrast, 'Mystic Rhythms' – which deals with how we respond to the unknown - also comes across as a bit forced (the New Age-y lyrics seem at odds with Peart's normal approach to such things), but despite this, the atmospheric music combined with the simple-but-effective African sounding beat help to give this closing piece an appealing, almost hypnotic quality.

The production here on the album is clear and well-balanced, although it lacks a bit of the musical bite that the Terry Brown-produced albums did. Musically the songs are solid enough, although there aren't as many individual standout moments as there are on the band's other albums – 'The Big Money', 'Manhattan Project', and 'Marathon' are probably the three most musically impressive songs here. Alex has some good moments on the guitar here, even if there are at times a lack of dominating power riffs, and his chords don't sound as thick as one might wish. Although the synthesizers once again dominate the album, Geddy does get some great bass lines in when he isn't at the keyboard. Geddy's vocals here are clear, and convey well the different emotional contest of the different songs. Peart's drumming is solid throughout, although there's nothing overly noteworthy here in terms of percussion work; it's with this album that Neil also begins to rely a bit more on electronic drum effects than he had on previous albums (although Peart's drumwork is so sharp and precise that it can be hard to tell the difference at times).

Unfortunately, the uneven lyrical content hampers what would otherwise be a better album. Overall, this isn't as good as Grace Under Pressure, and it's about a half-notch below Signals as well. Although here are some fine songs here, Power Windows falls under the good-but-not-great category; even if one is interested in the band's synth-heavy oeuvre, there are better albums to start with.

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