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Rush - Snakes & Arrows

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Album Review
All reviews are (c) John Patuto
Throughout their decades-spanning career, Rush has developed a well-earned reputation for creating musical masterpieces through the process of layering thought-provoking lyrics with driving, energetic and progressive-inspired music. Unlike much of the hollow, pop-oriented music that has permeated throughout the 21st century, the creations that come from this humble Canadian trio are often awe-inspiring thanks to the band's musical precision, depth and dexterity.

Snakes & Arrows, Rush's eighteenth original studio album, does not stray from this proven formula. The album has a very deep and foreboding tone while carrying a theme of faith and religion, love and war, affluence and poverty. Hollow pop it is not.

The album, released in 2007, is the first original work from Rush since their 2002 Vapor Trails offering. And though there are some recurring themes that can be linked to Vapor Trails, there's no question that Snakes & Arrows is very much a stand-alone album and, comparatively speaking, a sonic masterpiece.

Rush joined forces with producer Nick "Booujze" Raskulinecz whose credits include working with the likes of the Foo Fighters, Evanescence, Marilyn Manson, Deftones and Stone Sour. Raskulinecz, a self-proclaimed Rush fan, jumped at the opportunity to produce the new album. Geddy Lee remarked in an interview that "...never did I think we would work with someone who was one of our fans. But we found the right one to do it. And it meant a lot to him to do this record. He put his heart into it. And I remember when he left after that first meeting, he said, 'I will not let you down.' And he didn't..."

Raskulinecz set out to push Rush beyond what they may have been comfortable doing - but never beyond their capabilities. His relative youth allowed him to give the band a new perspective on the arrangement and musical construction of a song. Beyond that, Raskulinecz's positive nature was refreshing for the band. Geddy commented further that "... [we] hadn't worked with a producer who had so many ideas so quickly in a long, long time. So he was a real treat..."

The resulting collaboration between Rush fan/producer Raskulinecz and Geddy, Alex and Neil was a collection of thirteen tracks including not one, but three instrumentals; which certainly whet the appetites of Rush fans the world over when that news broke. A look at each track reveals the aforementioned themes that arise throughout the album.

Snakes & Arrows opens Far Cry; a track that ranks among the finest Rush singles ever released. Born from a studio jam session between Alex and Geddy, Far Cry is the epitome of Rush in every way. Insightful lyrics coupled with driving guitar/bass/drums all held together by an amazingly catching chorus, this was the best song to introduce the album and one that should further define Rush for years to come. Far Cry also sets the lyrical tone of the album; commenting on the state of the world:
"It's a far cry from the world we thought we'd inherit
It's a far cry from the way we thought we'd share it
You can almost see the circle growing
You can almost feel the planets glowing"
However instead of remaining pessimistic about the state of affairs, it also offers up a sign of hope; a theme that also recurs through many of the songs on the album:
"One day I feel I'm on top of the world
And the next it's falling in on me
I can get back on
I can get back on..."
After the powerhouse of Far Cry, the album throttles back with the deep and introspective Armor and Sword, a track that Neil coined as his lyrical masterpiece from the album. I liken it to a 21st century sequel to the title track from the band's 1977 classic album A Farewell to Kings. Musically, A&S is brilliant with a building sense of tension from Neil Peart's percussion mastery to Geddy Lee's mood-setting bass. But it's Alex Lifeson driving to delicate guitar work that really shines here.

Returning to the lyrics, the message here is somewhat, and unfortunately, universal.
"Our better natures seek elevation
A refuge for the coming night
No one gets to their heaven without a fight..."
War & Religion. Religion & War. Interchangeable for so many centuries...captured hauntingly on this track.

Workin' Them Angels, the album's third track, is a reflection of Neil Peart's travels by motorcycle between and during tour dates. The term 'Working Them Angels' is akin to taking chances or living on the edge. Lyrically, Neil picks up on this theme in his typical, seemingly effortless fashion:
"Driving away to the east, and into the past
History recedes in my rear-view mirror
Carried away on a wave of music down a desert road
Memory humming at the heart of a factory town

All my life
I've been workin' them angels overtime
Riding and driving and living
So close to the edge
Workin' them angels - Overtime ..."
Musically, Alex shines once again with some driving, straight-forward guitar work before switching into a beautifully played mandolin solo. As for Geddy, his vocals have never sounded better, reaching fantastic high notes, though not as stratospheric as days long gone, and subtle lows; his vocal range is truly showcased here.

One of my personal favorite tracks from Snakes & Arrows is The Larger Bowl which was written in the poetic form of a Pantoum (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantoum). This gorgeously arranged ballad is sung effortlessly by Geddy while largely accompanied by Alex on an acoustic 12-string guitar. Lyrically, this song was a true work-in-progress for Neil, dating back to his bicycle adventures in West Africa as detailed in his first published novel The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa from 1996. The message of 'Fortunes and Fates' is one that echoes throughout the album and is eloquently captured here in a perfect marriage of lyrics and music:
"if we're so much the same, like I always hear
why such different fortunes and fates?
some of us live in a cloud of fear
some live behind iron gates

why such different fortunes and fates?
some are blessed and some are cursed
some live behind iron gates
while others see only the worst

some are blessed and some are cursed
the golden one or scarred from birth
while others only see the worst
such a lot of pain on the earth

the golden one or scarred from birth
some things can never be changed
such a lot of pain on this earth
it's somehow so badly arranged

some things can never be changed
some reasons will never come clear
it's somehow so badly arranged
if we're so much the same, like I always hear..."
Throughout the song, Alex reveals glimpses of electric guitar work underneath the acoustic base. Towards the end of the track, he opens up into an electric solo that, given all the acoustic work that preceded it, shouldn't work -- but does. Geddy's vocals build after the solo bringing the song to a dramatic close. Pure. Elegant. Magic.

At least, I think so. :-)

Spindrift, the album's fifth track, changes the mood instantly with an eerily moody guitar introduction before Geddy launches into some of his highest-pitched vocals on the album. Lyrically, Spindrift is one of two tracks on the album that relate to, as Neil coins it, a "lover's quarrel"; one, however, that is between a person and his view on the world. In typical Peartian fashion, Neil produces some amazingly well-crafted imagery to reflect those feelings:
"As the waves crash in
On the western shore
It makes me feel uneasy
The spray that's torn away
Is an image of the way I feel..."
There's also a fantastic musical symmetry that runs through Spindrift between Geddy's bass and Alex's electric guitar work that's a real delight to listen to. As Alex's guitar goes up and down the musical scales, Geddy's bass follows right along, complimenting and accentuating each note. Add in Neil's dynamic fills and you have a real gem.

We've now reached the first of three instrumentals that grace Snakes & Arrows. The track, The Main Monkey Business, has been dubbed "YYZ on Steroids" by some fans. There's a real manic sense to the music at times, and at others, a beautiful rhythmic poetry. In an interview at the time, Geddy explains the somewhat dysfunctional nature of the track:
"Neil says I spent more hours on arranging Monkey Business than any other song on the album," says Geddy. "I couldn't help myself, partly because I was having so much fun with it and partly because it's so weird and I was trying to see how weird I could make it. It got to a point where I succeeded in making it too weird; I was giving the guys a headache when I played it to them."
What I love about The Main Monkey Business, outside of the title, is how the furiosity of the band's playing builds throughout the song, with short harmonious interludes in-between. Clocking in at just over 6 minutes, there's a lot of music to uncover with each new listen. It may have given Alex and Neil a headache when Geddy played it for them, but it now sits as one of the most enjoyable Rush instrumentals to date.

The seventh track, The Way the Wind Blows, has a duality about it, both lyrically and musically. The song begins with a subtle military-styled drum fill that builds in intensity before launching into a bluesy yet powerful guitar introduction. Geddy's vocals seamlessly match the guitar's drive as he belts out the initial powerful verses of the song which, once again, deal with intertwined nature of war and religion:
"Now it's come to this
It's like we're back in the Dark Ages
From the Middle East to the Middle West
It's a world of superstition

Now it's come to this
Wide-eyed armies of the faithful
From the Middle East to the Middle West
Pray, and pass the ammunition..."
The duality of the song then occurs as the music converts into a beautiful acoustic intermission of sorts as Geddy sings the haunting chorus:
"We can only grow the way the wind blows
We can only bow to the here and now
Or be broken down blow by blow ..."
The song continues to change between the guitar-driven force of the introduction and the acoustic "intermission" as the lyrics paint a story of the futility of war as well as the perceived futility of effecting change. The song ends with a soft acoustic conclusion as Geddy sings the final verse:
"Like a solitary pine
On a bare wind-blasted shore
We can only grow the way the wind blows ...
Powerful music. Powerful lyrics. Powerful message. Exactly what you'd expect from Rush.

Hope, the album's eighth track and second instrumental piece, is rather unique in the vast catalogue of Rush albums in that it's performed solely by Alex Lifeson on an acoustic 12-string guitar. Though it only clocks in at just over two minutes, it is arguably one of the most powerful, emotive and beautifully arranged songs not just on Snakes & Arrows but perhaps in all of Rush's catalogue. It's one of the few songs that I still vividly remember listening to for the very first time; the impact was powerful and it literally stopped me in my tracks. Despite its uniqueness, Hope fits perfectly among the other more musically verbose tracks on the album, and the plaintive nature of the track is perfectly conveyed with each note.

The July 2007 issue of Classic Rock Magazine included an article titled Rush: Following the Arrows where Geddy and Neil commented on how Hope came to be:
"That's the thing with Al, he's so spontaneous that if you walk in and he's playing something you have to run and hit record, you have to grab it," chuckles Geddy. "Three minutes later you'll ask him what he just played and he'll be: 'I played what?' That's the story of my entire relationship with him: 'What was that Al?' 'What was what?' He did Hope live, we let him have a go at it twice, I actually thought the first take was good enough. I was standing in the booth going, That's it!' "When I'm up at the desk editing or doing my vocals you can hear him in the background either noodling away on his acoustic guitar or asleep on the couch. I've got the demos that we did for this album and you can hear him in the background on them either playing or snoring."

Neil echoes those same sentiments, "Alex can just pick up the guitar and not even be paying attention and Geddy will be like: 'What's that you just played?' And Alex goes: 'I don't know.' In the most beautiful sense, Alex doesn't know what he's doing."
From Hope we move to Faithless; a song that has had a polarizing effect on many Rush fans. The question of 'faith', or the lack thereof, among the members of Rush is not exactly a trade secret. Neil, in particular, has been quite outspoken about his disdain for organized religion at times. To Neil, as he captures so effectively in Faithless' lyrics, "faith" is what any individual wants to believe in:
I don't have faith in faith
I don't believe in belief
You can call me faithless
But I still cling to hope
And I believe in love
And that's faith enough for me
Lyrical message aside, Faithless' has a somewhat disjointed musical direction to it. So much so that, for me at least, it took numerous listens before I began to fully appreciate the rhythm of the song, especially the textural changes in Alex's guitar work throughout. While the drum and bass line are steady and consistent, Alex does an admirable job of capturing the true mood of the song through his ever-morphing sound.

The tenth track on Snakes & Arrows is another one of my favorites because it is such an atypical Rush song (then again, that could be said about ALL Rush songs, couldn't it?) Bravest Face's message could be simply one of "Don't judge a book by its cover" given some of the lyrical content, such as:
In the sweetest child there's a vicious streak
In the strongest man there's a child so weak
In the whole wide world there's no magic place
So you might as well rise, put on your bravest face
Or perhaps its more geared towards the fact that the world is an imperfect place and we should all attempt to make the best of it by putting on our "bravest face". But meaning aside, this song appeals to me thanks to the fantastic vocal performance by Geddy Lee coupled with Alex's bluesy/jazzy guitar work. The vocal texture Geddy accomplishes is unlike anything he has ever sung prior. It has a folksy appeal to it that blends perfectly with the music. It's a shame Rush never played this one live because I suspect it's a closet favorite of many fans.

Good News First is a meandering musical journey with a great guitar solo from Alex and more poetic lyrics worth pondering from Mr. Peart:
Some would say they never fear a thing
Well I do
And I'm afraid enough for both of us -
For me and you
Time, if nothing else, will do its worst
So do me that favor
And tell me the good news first
Some see this song as yet another attack on religion however I see it as a true affirmation of being human. We're all imperfect beings, we all have fears, but we also all have a drive to make the best of our current circumstances. And while we know there's bad news approaching, and we'll deal with it in all due time, let's at least have some good news first. Begin the day with a friendly voice, as it were...

Up next is the album's final instrumental piece, Malignant Narcissism or MalNar for short. This two plus minute song was originally a guitar-less jam session by Geddy and Neil. That's apparent because of how prevalent Geddy's bass line is throughout the song. Neil's drum work, which he played on a miniscule four-piece drum kit, perfectly compliments Geddy's driving bass, and Alex (who later layered in his guitar work) adds just the right amount of tone to complete the song. MalNar is furious, short-lived and instantly accessible to any rock fan.

Neil Peart had this to say about the album's final track We Hold On: "The same 'lover's quarrel' device colors the album's final statement, "We Hold On." (With a nod to T.S. Eliot for "measured out in coffee breaks.") If many of the other lyrics illuminate the struggles we all have to face, in love and in life, this one shows how we deal with it: We hold on."

I like to think that the message of "We Hold On" closing out this album is also directly related to the members of Rush themselves. Through the years, through all their ups and downs, they continued to hold on and persevere. "We could be down and gone - But we hold on..." Musically, We Hold On is another straight-forward rock classic with more exceptional, multi-layered guitar work from Alex and up-front bass rhythm from Geddy. A great way to end a great album.

All in all, Snakes & Arrows perfectly represented how relevant Rush continue to be, even decades into their career. Its musically dynamic song arrangements combined with thought-provoking and, yes, somewhat controversial lyrical tones creates an atmospheric album that borrows from Rush of the past and forges the way for Rush of the future...and beyond.

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