Classic Rock Review

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Rush Moving Pictures (1981)


Heh heh. We’re through with the radio (Permanent Waves), now’s the time to handle some cinema (Moving Pictures). 20th century rocks, baby.

Now the nagging question every Rush fan would like to ask me is: why the hell do I trace this huge difference in quality between Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures? There are several reasons, all of which combine to make this 1981 album a real highlight in the Rush catalog.

First reason: the guys have finally learned to master the synthesizers. There’s much more keyboard work here than before; it is better incorporated into the mix, so that the synths feel like partners rather like, uh, roadies or something; and at the same time, they never sound cheesy or overwhelming. So Moving Pictures manage to get a modernistic look without actually sounding dated twenty years on, and at the same time the sound is made less monotonous than on Waves.

Second reason – this album, apart from maybe ‘Red Barchetta’ which is almost as obnoxious lyrically as that radio promotion was a year before (err, Neil, it doesn’t matter how many epithets and romantic allegories you cram into your lines, this band was not designed to continue the line of ‘409’ and ‘Little Honda’), has easily the best lyrics of the entire Rush career.

Every now and then, you still fall upon a line that seems directly taken from a manual on psychoanalytics (like the ‘everybody got to deviate from the norm!’ chorus of ‘Vital Signs’), and the ‘all the world’s indeed a stage’ line in ‘Limelight’ may seem icky when you’re in a particularly sarcastic mood, but there are actually songs that conceal their messages through cleverly selected analogies (‘Tom Sawyer’, ‘Witch Hunt’), make good use of parallelisms (‘Camera Eye’) or have no lyrics at all, heh heh (‘YYZ’).

But, of course, the best thing is that the songs are simply better. ‘Red Barchetta’ may be dumb lyrically, but the main riff of the tune, which sounds like it was copied from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ and then worked on and improved, can’t be beat! Don’t tell me it doesn’t prompt you to get out your air guitars or madly tap your foot.

There’s some goddamn energy, which seemed so lacking on Permanent Waves, and even some unfaked excitement… heck, maybe these guys were into simple automotive joys, after all. But even better is the instrumental ‘YYZ’, where Lifeson unleashes his full power in a series of crunchy, fast-flowing, and inventive riffs – the wonderful thing is how he picks upon all the styles imaginable, from dissonant New Wave to basic hard rock to free-form jazz to fusion to even straight ahead funk (check the maniac chuggin’ at the end of the second minute, for instance), plus there’s a weird Eastern-flavoured solo for a dozen seconds or so.

And Geddy and Neil shine on the tune as well, although they’re more supportive of the guitar here than showing off their individual skills (in concert, though, ‘YYZ’ would become a vehicle for Neil’s…. uh… drum solo. Looord!).

The other two songs on the first side are excellent, thus combining to make arguably the best album side in Rush history. ‘Tom Sawyer”s lyrics have a mystical tinge to them, and this is perfectly translated to the music, with a good power chord/sci-fi synth interplay and a couple catchy vocal melodies to boot. And ‘Limelight’ is the best power-pop number Rush ever did; here, Mr Geddy is the main hero, weaving his voice around the guitar lines in a particularly friendly and romantic manner.

It’s really uncanny how a well-placed vocal note can turn a potentially mediocre song into a highlight – but this is exactly how the charm of the ‘living in the limelight, the universal dream, for those who wish to seem…’ appears to me. Unless you’re one of those smelly metal fans who are certain the Beach Boys used to sing that way due to an injured manlihood, ‘Limelight’ can certainly demonstrate how Geddy Lee is actually a very good singer who knows that proper modulation is the proper key to success. (Too bad he forgets that so goddamn often).

Unfortunately, the second side can’t really sustain the success of the first one, because the lads couldn’t resist the temptation of having an epic. ‘The Camera Eye’ is eleven minutes long and eleven minutes boring. The riffs don’t stick in my head, the singing lacks catchiness, the lyrical thematics is all right but the song just never goes anywhere in particular.

Only a brief solo from Lifeson in the end brings some refreshment, but essentially this is just a waste of time – same “loud meaningless riff” approach as on much of Permanent Waves, lacking either the mystical tinge of ‘Tom Sawyer’ or the rough metallic punch of ‘Barchetta’ or the diversity and technical wizardry of ‘YYZ’.

A star off for that one – thankfully, the tension is then restored for ‘Witch Hunt’, which concentrates on building up a monstrous, menacing atmosphere, and does that all right, with a no-holds-barred metal riff from Alex and Geddy spooking you as best as he can (which isn’t really that good, but at least it’s fun). And ‘Vital Signs’ shows vital signs, indeed, namely, that Rush have certainly been spending time absorbing the New Wave sound – Lifeson plays some reggae licks on here that he probably copped from the Clash or Andy Summers.

Not a great song, but a decently constructed one if you disregard the ‘everybody got to deviate from the norm!’ chorus. Er, I like deviating from the norm, but got to? Geez, what a fascistic approach. Maybe I want to conform, is that a problem with you, Mr Peart? You freedom-of-choice-lovin’ no-goodnik!

All in all in all in all, a cool album somewhat marred by the inconsistency of the second side, but still, it’s one of those rare cases when Rush manage to lift the lid off their cauldron of mediocrity and for a brief shining moment combine pop, prog, metal, and New Wave elements in an exciting synthesis. That’s what everybody usually says about Permanent Waves, but there’s so few actual pop and New Wave elements on that record I really don’t understand that approach. This record, all right. I gotcha, Mr General Critical Opinion.

May 28, 2013 Posted by | Rush Moving Pictures | | Leave a comment