Wednesday, May 16, 2007

CD Review - Rush Snakes and Arrows

It took me 5 or 6 full listens to appreciate this album - pretty typical for Rush I guess! But it's not like Tool's 10,000 Years, which I immediately liked, even though I still don't comprehend all of it after tons and tons of listens.

Overall, Snakes and Arrows is a bit of a dark sounding album. Not just the riffs and subject matter, but much like Grace Under Pressure I think many of these songs are in Minor keys. Reflecting the times I guess.

First off, Far Cry is the best Rush single in a long time. Awesome energy, catchy heavy riff, superb arrangement and high quality Rush-precise performance. I can't wait to hear that one live!

Secondly, when has a Rush album ever had this much acoustic guitar? It adds a dynamic long missing from Rush's recent few albums (minus Feedback). In fact, over the last ten or fifteen years I have felt that Rush guitar and bass sounds have been muddy, over processed and over-layered. Listen to Moving Pictures or Signals and compare the guitar tones to Vapor Trails or Rush in Rio and you will see what I mean.

This album strips away a lot of that and the sound is very fresh. You can hear nuances in the playing and in the sounds of the instruments instead of a giant impregnable wall of noise. They also have nice dynamics in these songs, where quiet passages break up the noisy bits.

For example, the first and second verses of The Larger Bowl are just Geddy's vocal over unprocessed, clean picked acoustic guitar. When have we heard that on a Rush album? Have we ever? In fact, this song is a real standout for me. Catchy as hell and well arranged. Super duper tasty Lifeson lead. This one ought to be the second single, if you ask me. That one or Good News First. Also very catchy for Rush.

The verses of Bravest Face are also acoustic guitar/drums/bass/vocals. In contrast, the choruses of The Way the Wind Blows are loaded with acoustic guitars.

You know, they used to use the keyboards this way. Verses are bass and guitar heavy, choruses break into keyboards (or vice versa). Now it's the same story but with acoustic guitars providing the new textures instead of keyboards. I like that quite a bit. It works and gives this album a very different feel over any other Rush album.

While we are on the topic, who told Alex Lifeson to start playing more bluesy solos? In addition to in The Larger Bowl, he lays down some very tasty bluesy solo lines in The Way the Wind Blows, Bravest Face and Faithless. Lots of feel in these solos.

Neil Peart actually grooves a lot of these songs. The beat lays way back on Armor and Sword (and also Spindrift) for example, so the songs' heavy riffs actually kind of swing -- very much like Lars Ulrich learned to lay the beat back on Metallica's Black Album. It gives the songs a much better feel than if Neil was pushing the beat.

I agree with Voxmoose who said it is often hard to get past the tune-less vocal 'melodies' sung by Geddy. That has been the case for years and years with Rush - their stuff is less 'singable' than it used to be. They need to up the melody factor, IMHO.

I also have to agree with Dr. John who mentioned how cool it is to have three instrumentals on the CD. One of them (Hope) is an Alex Lifeson acoustic solo piece a la Steve Howe (yeah - MORE acoustic) and is very listenable.

The other two are also real standouts. It's as if the guys didn't over think or micromanage the writing and just went for it. The Main Monkey Business has a cool motif that sounds a lot like the music on the Animusic DVDs (check THOSE out if you have not seen them yet). Malignant Narcissism is a 2:16 long slug fest. Man can these guys rock. Lots of good energy and performances in those instrumentals. I wonder if they will bust out any of them live?

And finally, they got the mix of material right for once. I have always thought that the advent of CDs brought on the downfall of Rush, because instead of seven or eight songs over 40 minutes, we got 14 or 15 songs over 55 minutes, and a whole lot of crap they should have abandoned in favor of the stronger material. Too much dilution of the pool.

On Snakes and Arrows, three of the 13 songs are very cool instrumentals and the remaining ten songs are varied, catchy and strong.

Yeah, I have to say that after a few listens, this CD is growing on me in a big way. Probably the most listenable Rush studio album in a really long time - and for the record I thought Vapor Trails was pretty kick ass. I actually like this one much better than Vapor Trails already. Nice job gents! See you live July 21.


VoxMoose said...

Nice review, Isorski.

Geddy's melodies confuse me. On first, second, and third listen, they sound bland, dull, and identical. But then suddenly around the fourth or fifth listen I "lock in" to the melodies and I realize that they are actually pretty interesting and quite well constructed. I think it has less to do with what he is singing musically, but how he is using his voice. For example, I imagine if Carla Kendall-Bray from Colorfield were singing on S&A, the melodies would actually stand out and would be considered cutting-edge and mind-blowing.

The other confusing thing is that Geddy's voice actually sounds quite nice. He is mixing up fallsetto with chest voice in neat ways and the timbre is very pleasant (not "wild witch man" Geddy pre Permanent Waves). But for whatever reason, on first, second, and third listen, his voice and the melodies combine to sound like "Generic Rush Melody 1.1 thru 10.3." For me, this has been the case for every album since Signals. But again, once I get used to them, I can't imagine how I might get them muddled up.

Dr. John said...

Nice review. Couldn't have said it better.
In reference to "The Larger Bowl," I do remember a song called "Tears" from the flipside of "2112" (back in the days when there was such a thing as a flipside) that was acoustic guitar and vocals, at least to start. It wasn't one of their strongest songs, and the love song motif did not fit with "2112", "Twilight Zone", "Something for Nothing", and "Passage to Bangkok". In fact, I think it is the only ballad Rush ever did, at least as much as I can remember. Can anyone prove me wrong on this?

Dr. John

VoxMoose said...

I would call Rivendell on Fly by Night a kind of ballad, but that might be a matter of definition (e.g. its not a "love" ballad, per se).

An interesting bit of trivia about Tears on 2112: it's the only Rush song where Geddy Lee wrote the words. Also on 2112, a peppy track right near it called Lessons is the only Rush song Alex Lifeson wrote the words...

I could be wrong on those, but the fact that I "think" I know this stuff is a sign of serious Rush Geekification...

Isorski said...

I was going to chime in and say "Rivendell" but you beat me to it. Geddy and Alex wrote all the words on the first Rush album of course, which is why the most philisophical they get is "When I get home from work I take myself out a nice cold beer..." but remember they were about 12 when they recorded that album and it's pretty damn good considering.

I think Rush has other songs that touch on relationships and such, but for sure their 'ballads' are limited. What about Different Strings? That's a really nice one if you ask me...

Jason Bock said...


I thought Ged wrote the lyrics to "Different Strings"...unless you were just talking about lyric writing on "2112".

Isorski said...

No, I was just talking about Rush and ballads, and that they don't really have many - regardless of who wrote the lyrics.