Monday, March 16, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 13: 'Grace Under Pressure,' 'Clockwork Angels' and the Rush-baseball connection

We're getting to the middle of the countdown, and things are getting tough. It's not like there's a bad Rush album, and the least glorious already have been dispensed with. Each time we step up, there are fewer less-glorious moments.

And we must almost remember that each album takes us back to a time or place, and those memories -- especially the fond ones -- will temper how we feel about the music that was the soundtrack for those times.

No. 13: "Grace Under Pressure"
Released 1984
Highlights: “Distant Early Warning,” “Afterimage” “Red Sector A”
Least-glorious moments: “Red Lenses,” “The Body Electric”
Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:
“I remember –
The shouts of joy
Skiing fast through the woods
-- I hear the echoes
I learned your love for life
I feel the way that you would
I feel your presence -- 
I remember”

This is Rush’s coldest and darkest album. But it brings back some warm memories.
Start with the cold.
Rush is dealing with some heavy topics here. Concentration camps, death – and brushes with it, our inner fears, rebellious robots, conflict among friends, the color red.
It’s not like the band has never dealt with weighty topics before. But the outlook here is a heavy serving of bleak with side of depression.  And this was released in the mid-1980s when people were generally happy.
It’s very heavy on the synths, with Neil even breaking out synth drums.
That’s not to say there are no great songs on here. “Distant Early Warning” and “Red Sector A” are classics, and I love “Afterimage” – though I don’t know of the band every playing it live.

Here's Rush playing "Distant Early Warning" from "Grace Under Pressure."
On the down side, Rush fans tend to have unkind things to say about “Red Lenses,” and “The Body Electric” about the robot on the loose seems a little forced when we hear lines like “... in a clenching plastic fist.”
Playing it in the car this week, I realized that I still really like many of these songs, but I ended up skipping through more than I usually do on a Rush album.
But despite the chill, I always have some warm memories associated with any Rush release. For this one, I was attending Nassau Community College at the time, and a friend on the newspaper staff also was a Rush fan. We heard that the band was doing a mini-tour that included five nights at Radio City Music Hall prior to the “Grace” album being released.
I’d taken the train into Manhattan before and even took the train into Manhattan to see a concert at Madison Square Garden, which is right above Penn Station. It was pretty bold for us – 19 at the time – to take the train into Manhattan at night and navigate our way to Radio City and back.
Radio City is a grand place to see any event, especially a Rush show. We had great seats, and the band played three songs from “Grace,” which I believe were “Distant Early Warning,” “Red Sector A” and “Kid Gloves” – the last of which I don’t think has been played on a subsequent tour.
So, the night was a great and bold adventure to see a favorite band in a spectacular venue with a good friend. Pretty special memory.
Now, Will draws upon the connection between the thinking man's band and the thinking man's sport:
Before I get started, I just want to correct one thing: Rush HAS played Afterimage live before. I know because I have a bootleg of it in my iTunes.  Anyway, here's my pick, and it's sure to be controversial:

No. 13: "Clockwork Angels"

Released: 2012

Let me say right from the outset, I love "Clockwork Angels." I think it's certainly Rush's best album since "Roll the Bones" and arguably their best since "Signals." I think the songs are strong, both lyrically and musically, and the whole concept holds up pretty well. Hint: It's not about steampunk; it's about the life you live and looking back on it when you get older. It takes an older person to appreciate that.

Let's get back to the music. Clockwork Angels marked Rush's return to synths, except they didn't use synths but real strings, which is really what the synthesizer was invented to replicate anyway. It's like unplugged synths. And the songs ... Halo Effect is hands down Rush's best song in 20 years. The Garden would be a live anthem if they toured beyond the latest tour. “Caravan,” “Clockwork Angels,” “The Anarchist,” “The Wreckers,” all rock solid.

So why the heck is this album rated so low, relatively speaking? Allow me to explain (although I wouldn't necessarily count this as defense). As some of you might know, I'm a huge fan of Bill James' baseball writings, and one thing James constantly mentions is how, when it comes to rating players, he is biased against current players to an extent. The reason: It's difficult to put current players into appropriate context, because their accomplishments are so fresh. We don't know whether they'll stand the test of time.

Take Mark McGwire for instance. Steroid issues aside, 15 years ago, he would've been ranked as one of the greatest first basemen of all time. How could he not: 70 home runs in a season, three straight seasons of 58 or more, 583 total. He was a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer. Now look at his numbers: 70 homers is no longer the record and even Sammy Sosa hit 60+ homers more times in a season. McGwire's 583 homers were surpassed by the following players from his own era: Barry Bones, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome and Sosa and approached by Rafeal Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Frank Thomas and Albert Pujols. He no longer is even considered to be a Hall of Famer, let alone a first-ballot guy, and I don't think steroids entirely explains it. In other words, now with the benefit of hindsight, we can see things more clearly: Nothing that McGwire did was uniquely fabulous other than he was first to do certain things.

That brings me back to "Clockwork Angels." It's only 3 years old. How do you fairly rank a 3-year-old album with albums like, say, "2112," which have been around for four decades? I love Clockwork Angels, and I would bet that I'll still be listening to it 10 years from now, but I don't know that for certain. It's too soon. Everything that ranks above it on my list has stood the test of time, and I'm not ready to say that for this album. Consequently, even though I could see an argument to put it in the top 10, I'm going to keep it right here.
Here's the countdown so far:
No. 14: A Farewell to Kings (Dave), Snakes & Arrows (Will)
No. 15: Fly by Night (Dave) and Counterparts (Will)
No. 16: Vapor Trails (Both of us)

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