Rush are, without doubt, one of the greatest and most influential and groundbreaking bands of all time. Few artists hold the love and respect from both music fans and musicians that is displayed to the Canadian trio, an open mouthed, wide eyed wonder at not just their phenomenal material but also their peerless skills as masters of their instruments.
No band has quite reached the Everest-like heights that saw Rush bring their mix of cerebral rock into a league entirely of their own, Messrs. Lee, Lifeson and Peart constantly pushing themselves way beyond their original, heavier roots. Key albums scatter their history, each heralding a brand new chapter in their story and, as the band moved on from more Prog Rock concept orientated albums following on from the worldwide success of the breakthrough ‘2112’ album through to ‘Hemispheres’, another change was coming.
Following the latter’s exhausting recording process in Wales, the band stepped back and retreated to Le Studio in the beautiful surroundings of Morin Heights in the mountains of Quebec where, newly invigorated, they went on to create the opening salvo of their next phase: the monumental ‘Permanent Waves’. As part of the ongoing series of anniversary reissues, this shines brightly as one of the greatest gems in their canon and brings home the tragic loss of drummer and lyricist Neil Peart at the start of this year even more acutely, his contribution to not just but the band but popular music huge and irreplaceable
From its dazzling guitar intro onwards, ‘The Spirit of Radio’ is the perfect track to kick off the album as it encapsulates their astounding musicianship, throws in time changes that shouldn’t work but do perfectly, some lengthy (for a single) instrumental passages and a reggae section that injects a real sense of fun and experimentation.
If any other band had tried this is would have been an utter mess but Rush pull it off with aplomb and show the tight songwriting skills that illustrate their new approach to working, creating a track so anti-commercial but perversely so accessible and hugely popular that it broke them through with their biggest singles chart hit to date. Listening to it now, forty years after it first came into the light of day, you’re struck by how fresh it sounds and cannot help but marvel, despite its familiarity, at how it still has the power to excite and make people smile.
Similarly, ‘Freewill’ is another declaration of intent that brings a lightness of touch that some believe was missed from some of the more recent recordings as the band happily slip into this new phase. Whilst the lyrics have all the hallmarks of Peart’s pinpoint accurate intellect, the music veers more towards the commercial side of their repertoire and is a fine continuation of the vibe the album starts with Lifeson shredding in a terrific instrumental breakdown that lets each member shine.
Next up is fan favourite ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, heavier and full of atmosphere, it harks back to their more ‘concept’ pieces but squeezes everything into a much tighter seven minutes that brings a perfect transition between their old and new worlds in the same way that the titular atmospheric phenomenon does between the sky and the earth. The light and shade of the sun shining through the clouds is transposed into the musical passages that bring the same tonally, as hard riffs and pounding drums are counterpointed by the lighter synths as the song finishes on a high, upbeat note that shimmers with beauty.
More keyboards appear in the gently rocking ‘Entre Nous’ before the acoustic and stripped back ‘Different Strings’ takes over, adding to the aural palette of the album. The whole song is one that should be really listened to in headphones as acoustic guitar, bass, drums and piano (by longtime Rush album cover artist Hugh Syme, who also co-wrote the track) build and build intricately, fading as Lifeson’s electric solo brings things to a close.
The album ends with the nine minute ‘Natural Science’, a three-movement suite that brings all the very best of Rush displaying their prog rock epic leanings into bite sized chunks. You can’t escape the feeling of a band really kicking back and enjoying the creative process from a different angle, seemingly more relaxed whilst also showing the craft and attention to detail that had brought them thus far on their journey.
It can never be doubted that fans were important to the band and there was a massive amount of affection shown both ways but the trio would always put their creativity first over any pandering to the whims of a trend or the expectations of those who bought the records and packed into their shows.
The punchier, more streamlined direction they took on ‘Permanent Waves’, moulded by the band and producer Terry Brown, was going to potentially alienate a small handful of fans but, by being true to themselves, they took the next step in their development and saw their base grow considerably once more. Sonically the release sounds better than ever, crystal clear but with a warmth that takes nothing of the humanity out of the recording.
As a bonus, this edition features an additional twelve tracks captured live on the 1980 tour that supported the album, focusing on recordings from shows in London and Manchester but with an additional entry from Missouri. Covering early tracks like ‘Beneath, Between and Behind’ and ‘By-Tor and the Snow Dog’ right up to ‘The Spirit of Radio’ and ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, it’s a career spanning document that shows a band at the peak of their powers, as comfortable onstage as in the studio. From the crunch of ‘By-Tor…’ through to the grandiose ‘Xanadu’, Lee, Lifeson and Peart sound tight but loose, the visceral excitement of the live shows coming over superbly and the sense of newfound vigour and excitement that spilled from the stage, infecting the audience.
There’s a tangible sense of joy in the recordings and it’s a perfect companion piece to the album, the band melding their heady brew of hard rock, prog and more radio friendly fare into something that was truly embraced by the masses. The following year’s ‘Moving Pictures’ may have seen them reach even greater heights but ‘Permanent Waves’ was a quantum leap forward for the Canadians and should be a staple in the record collection of every self-respecting music lover. From now on, the arenas were beckoning.
Review by Paul Monkhouse for MPM