Monday, April 13, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 6: In defense of Test for Echo and rehabilitating Grace Under Pressure

Our countdown to the Chicago R40 concert continues, as we work our way from the "least-glorious" Rush album to Moving Pictures. 

No. 6: Test for Echo
Released in 1996

Highlights: “Totem,” “The Color of Right,” “Half the World.”
Least-glorious moment: “Virtuality.”

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“I’ve got idols and icons, unspoken holy vows
Thoughts to keep well-hidden
Sacred and forbidden
Free to browse among the holy cows”
-- "Totem."

I’ve always liked Test for Echo. Reading some of the comments in Rush forums and noticing that the band rarely plays anything from the album, I think Will and I might be the only ones.

I’m not sure why this is. Will detailed why it might be a struggle for the band, but I never understood the fans piling on. It’s a solid album, building on the heavier feel the band returned to with Counterparts. I thought maybe I was missing something.

So I went through it again, listening intently for otherwise missed flaws.

The title track focuses on the rise of the big televised trials – it was a released a year after the O.J. Simpson fiasco – with calm sections erupting into angry, jagged outbursts. It’s really cool.

“Driven” is another charging rocker that showcases Geddy’s bass. It’s followed by “Half the World,” which has an unusual lyrical structure for Neil, lots of parallel lines, with “half the world” doing something while the other half does not.

Here's a live version of "Driven."

“The Color of Right” contains a line that I think about a lot – “I’m so full of what is right that I can’t see what is good.” It’s been said that I struggle with gray areas and get locked into various positions.

“Time and Motion” is another aggressive song. Not one of my favorites. But I love the first four, so we can afford one that’s not quite as good.

But that brings us to “Totem,” which is my favorite song on the album. Not as heavy and with more melody, I actually used the song for a lesson in the high-school Sunday school class I taught about comparative religions. I liked that after looking at aspects of other religions, Neil ended with “Sweet chariot, swing low, coming for me,” the Christian spiritual. If the band wanted to play this as their obscure, from-the-vault pick for the concert, I know there would be at least one very happy fan.

“Dog Years” seems to get a lot of abuse. Neil’s a little more playful in the lyrics, but the overall message is – like in “Time Stand Still” – that life goes by so fast. I like the line “I’d rather be a tortoise from Galapagos or a span of geological time than be living in these dog years.”

“Virtuality” sounds dated, but remember that the Internet was still in its AOL early days and the idea of throwing your opinions out there for the world to see was new. I never cared for it too much then, and the dated aspect now doesn’t help. But that’s only the second song that I don’t love.

It’s followed by “Resist,” and like “Half the World” and maybe even “Totem” focuses on contradictions. It’s one of the two songs to make it to the stage on later tours.

“Limbo” is a solid instrumental, though I don’t know why the “Monster Mash” samples are inserted.

The album wraps up with “Carve Away the Stone” another introspective rocker that fits in with “Resist,” “Color of Right,” and “Half the World.” Neil’s pointing to Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it continually roll back to the bottom for him to push again.

Neil’s looking at the baggage we all drag behind us, saying to let some of it go – carving away at the stone to make it lighter as we push ahead.

So that’s just two songs – maybe three depending on “Limbo” – that I don’t love and a bunch I think are great. A little more introspection that we normally get from Rush, and certainly another step with a heavier sound. I don’t know what’s not to love.

And Will jumps in.

I agree. I could have ranked this higher but didn't. For what it's worth, I like "Time and Motion." Also, I didn't tell this story earlier, so I'll do it now: Totems are big in Canada. When Laurie and I visited Nova Scotia last fall, we found this stone beach on Cape Breton Island where literally dozens of tiny totems like the one on the cover of Test For Echo lined the beach out of reach of the Gulf of St. Lawrence . Laurie and I dutifully built our own. I don't think I had Totem in mind, but I definitely was thinking of the album itself.

Anyway, on to my choice ...

No. 6: Grace Under Pressure
Released in 1984

Now here's some irony for you: The album that turned me against Rush now stands above all but five other albums. That's what a little time and different perspective will do for you. My coming to embrace Grace Under Pressure has been decades in the making.

The rehabilitation of the album began with A Show of Hands to a certain extent. I recalled that "Distant Early Warning," the first--and big--hit on the album, was OK, and having a live version of it reminded me that I liked it. (I still was--and remain--lukewarm to "Red Sector A.") Then my brother, who was the king of the bootlegs back before Napster made it easy for everyone to be so, opened my eyes further.

As my Rush love reblossomed in the early Nineties, he made me a copy of a bootleg that would be released more than a decade later as Grace Under Pressure Live. The thing that jumped off the tape--and I would give Dave's eye teeth for the boys to play just once more--was all of Fear, in order. The first part of Fear, of course, which was the last to be released, of course, was "The Enemy Within." I jumped more into "The Weapon," with its totally awesome Count Floyd intro, and "Witch Hunt," but "The Enemy Within" stayed with me.

Grace Under Pressure is one of the few albums that Dave and I have a large disagreement about (the other being Hold Your Fire, which I have near the bottom and Dave still hasn't ranked yet, so it's near the top for him). Dave says it's a dark album. I wouldn't rank it with, say, Tonight's the Night by Neil Young or Dirt by Alice in Chains, but I can see his point. It just so happens that I'm a fan of dark music, particularly when I'm going through a dark period myself.

Such a period began in the spring of 2001 when I went through what was more or less a divorce. At the same time, my brother was struggling with the fact that his father-in-law was dying of cancer in his Forties. He turned me on to a bootleg recording of "Afterimage," and that song hit me like a freight train, immediately getting heavy rotation on this new thing called iTunes.

A year later, feeling in a life stall, I quit my job of nearly nine years cold and went off to start working on a book I'd been planning for some time. Suddenly, everything and anything seemed possible, and "The Enemy Within" came ringing back in my ears: "I'm not giving in to security under pressure; I'm not missing out on the promise of adventure; I'm not giving up on improbable dreams. Experience to extremes. Experience to extremes." I was living it and loving it.

In 2004, while I was working the greatest job of my life--I was like Crash Davis, going to the ballpark every day and getting paid to do it as an official scorer in the International League--I heard "Between the Wheels." Another freight train. It became the song of the fall of 2004 when the logical end of my career free fall was rapidly approaching--with me financially splattered all over the sidewalk--but a door suddenly opened in Chicago. Anything and everything.

I needed no more than that to push Grace Under Pressure back into my good graces. But why not have more? The unexpected rolling out of "The Body Electric" on the Clockwork Angels Tour reminded me that, oh yeah, that's pretty cool song, too, with its catchy beat and nonsensical chorus. (Psst: It's not really JUST about androids.) Heck, if they break out "Kid Gloves" this time, I'll probably love that, too.

So I didn't connect with it when I was 20. What the heck did I know about, really, anything then? Consider Grace Under Pressure fully rehabilitated.
Your countdown so far:

No. 15: Fly by Night (Dave) and Counterparts (Will)

No. 16: Vapor Trails (Both of us)

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