This review was written by Adrien Begrand and comes from his Headbang column on the MSN website, Nov. 29, 2011…
Defending Mid-‘80s Rush: Sector Three Albums Sound as Great as Ever
Rush is one of those bands where one’s favorite album is often the very first one he or she has heard, the one gateway album that opened our ears to an incredible body of music we never knew existed. Although I grew up in Canada, although I turned 14 in 1984, incredibly by that year I still had never heard a note of Rush. Spending the first 12 and a half years of my existence far removed from FM radio and with only an interest in the old Beatles and Stones records in the house, I completely missed out on the huge wave of classic 1970s heavy rock that dominated FM at the time, so much so that it’s stupefying to consider today: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Rush, and on and on. Sure, those invisible airwaves might have been crackling with light back then, but where I was I never caught a glimmer.
So when I did discover hard rock and metal music in 1983, needless to say it was quite an eye-opener. And when it came to Rush, the first thing I ever heard by them was “Distant Early Warning”, from 1984’s Grace Under Pressure. It hardly seemed “heavy”, with its shimmering keyboards and obvious Police vibe in the drums, guitar, and bass, but it was catchy in a way that set itself apart from everything else that was popular at the time. I gravitated toward it instantly, and when I started paying closer attention to music videos on Canadian television, I was turned on to other Rush songs that blew me away: “Subdivisions” (which would become my all-time fave Rush song), “Limelight”, “Tom Sawyer”, “Red Barchetta”, “A Farewell to Kings”, “Closer to the Heart”. But as I became an admirer of old and then-new Rush, I was still pulled toward that latest record, the one with that slick, new wave-ish cover art.
The thing was, for the longest time the music press was doing everything it could to convince readers that Rush in the mid-1980s was mediocre at best. The 1992 version of The Rolling Stone Album Guide, one of the most simultaneously edifying and out of touch books about music ever conceived, treated Rush as an afterthought, begrudgingly giving 1981’s classic Moving Pictures three and half stars and printing nary a word about their work in the rest of the 1980s with only a pile of milquetoast two and two-and-a-half star ratings. Metal and hard rock mags politely paid lip service to the band every once and a while, but compared to the wave of metal bands blowing up at the time, they were viewed as passé, their new music inferior to their much heavier work from the ’70s. Despite the lukewarm critical reaction, Rush’s albums from 1982 to 1987 were all commercially successful, all but 1987’s Hold Your Fire making the US top ten (Hold Your Fire stalled at 13).
The thing is, over time an underrated work of art can eventually find an appreciative audience years after that first chilly reception. That’s certainly the case with Grace Under Pressure and Rush’s three albums that followed, as a generation of fans will now willingly admit, with no trace of irony whatsoever, that Rush in the mid-‘80s indeed has merit. And I’m one of them. To this day, while I love albums like 2112 and A Farewell to Kings, I’ve always had a strange attachment to those ‘80s albums where the band decided to ditch the heavy, power trio progressive rock for something a lot sleeker and minimal. So much so that when I last saw Rush in 2008, I nerdily cheered the most emphatically upon hearing the opening bars of “Between the Wheels” rather than the usual live staples.
So when it was announced a couple months ago that Rush was reissuing its entire Mercury catalog (up to 1988’s A Show of Hands) in a series of fully remastered three box sets (Sector One, Sector Two, Sector Three), I was especially interested in the third volume, as it covered that very era I’ve romanticized for so long: 1982’s Signals, Grace Under Pressure, 1985’s Power Windows, 1987’s Hold Your Fire, and live album A Show of Hands. The Sector sets came out last week, and I’ve spent the last few days revisiting those old favorites on Sector Three, immersed in that strange era when Neil Peart grew a rat tail, Alex Lifeson had his Flock of Seagulls coif, and Geddy Lee played his new wave-ish headless Steinberger bass.
Tinkering with their image the way they did 27 years ago, stripping all the bombast from their music in favor of something structurally simpler, it was a time where some people thought Rush was going through some serious growing pains, but personally, those albums mark the last, and most fruitful experimental era of the band before they settled into their reliable, heavy rock from the 1990s to the present. Looking back at albums like 1980’s Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures you can hear subtle hints of what was to come from the band, but starting with Signals Rush’s music embraced new sounds and took on an entirely different direction. Lee’s tinkering with keyboards became a full-on obsession, as synthesizers and sequencers became more and more prominent in the band’s new music. Reggae had become a big influence, namely that aforementioned Police sound, both in Lee’s lively basslines and Lifeson’s slicing, angular guitar accents (just listen to “New World Man” and “Afterimage”), which had taken on an undeniable Stewart Copeland quality. Electric violin was even employed on Signals’ “Losing It”.
Even though Peart’s drum kit was becoming more and more massive with each tour, his drumming in the 1980s was so controlled compared to the band’s prog-oriented work in the 1970s. I actually think those four albums from 1982 to 1987 feature his best drumming on record; showing great restraint and focusing on that wickedly sharp backbeat he does so well, Peart’s work on those records not only allow him room for more nuance and expression than before, but his moments of power have an even bigger impact than, say, hammering away on the prelude to “2112”. The best example is the great “Red Sector A”, which sees Peart locking into a very taut, tense groove, kick drum pulsating, sixteenth-motes on hi-hat twitching nervously. When he does let loose with his electronic tom fills and china cymbal splashes during the chorus, it’s the one visceral moment that draws listeners’ attention. Power Windows would see Peart opening up more, his drumming ferocious on “The Big Money”, his work on “Mystic Rhythms” meditative.
More than anything Rush has put out before or since, an extraordinary amount of emphasis was placed on melody and hooks on these albums. Some might think that saying Rush embraced pop music is doing a disservice to their body of work, but that’s actually the case. Starting with “The Spirit of Radio” in 1980 the band was discovering they had a real knack for a gigantic, stadium friendly hook, and their subsequent albums were loaded with them. The startlingly upbeat “New World Man”, “Distant Early Warning”, the rousing “Marathon”, the tender “Mission”, the very underrated single “Lock and Key”…all outstanding songs that fit comfortably within the ‘80s zeitgeist yet still were true to Rush’s core sound. As far as hooks went, the apex of ‘80s Rush remains “Time Stand Still”, a gorgeous, immaculately structured tune that executed dynamics better than Rush had ever done before. Tastefully arranged and sung, all three members taking a back seat to the slightly melancholic melody, and accentuated by the gentle voice of Aimee Mann, the timing of those choruses is perfect, a burst of sunlight through dark clouds: “Freeze this moment a little bit longer…” It doesn’t get much better than that.
As for the technical aspects of the Sectors Three set, it’s a very attractive package. The slipcase is glossy and durable, while the replica LP sleeves are accurately done, and come along with a very good quality 52-page booklet with the liner notes and lyrics. There’s no essay, which would have added some valuable insight for new listeners, but the fact that the CDs in the cardboard sleeves come in plastic inner sleeves is a great touch; all too often CDs in cardboard sleeves arrive damaged because of the no-frills packaging.
And no, Sectors doesn’t consist of the 2004 remasters cynically tossed into a new package. All albums have been given a good spit and polish by engineer Andy VanDette, sounding slightly more robust, a little more guitar audible on the more synth-heavy albums like Signals and Grace Under Pressure. For further information, VanDette was recently interviewed about the Sector remasters, and he has some very interesting things to say:
I wanted to do as little as possible so that the masters could truly speak for themselves. Being recorded in the vinyl era, they were optimized for that medium. People like more bottom end these days – and with earbuds and laptops as the primary playback monitors, it is understandable. I tried to nudge them in a warmer, thicker direction, but not cloud the guitars or the legendary Neil Peart snare.
Grace Under Pressure I tried for three days to make the tape transfer that I did sound as good as the existing CD. I figured that with the kind of care I put into the transfer – and having the original source – it would be a no-brainer; that this would be better than what’s been out there. But it just wasn’t the case: the tape didn’t age well. It had lost lots of clarity. So I ended up using the 192 kHz transfer.
So how badly do you need to own Sector Three? If you have the 2004 remasters of the albums, they’ll do just fine. If you’re an audiophile Rush fan, you’ll want to hear the surround mix of Signals, as well as analyze the slight changes VanDette made on the stereo albums (personally I find surround mixes to be rather overrated gimmicks). If you’re a Rush completist, of course you’re going to want to own this. If you’re unfamiliar with this particular era of Rush and want to explore it more deeply, however, then this is the perfect thing to get. As a generation of late-30s and early-40s Rush fans will tell you, there’s a lot more to mid-‘80s Rush than the Baby Boomer critics want to tell you, where one of the greatest bands in rock ‘n’ roll tried a few new things, and succeeded mightily.