Looking back on the album that began the Canadian trio’s controversial keyboard era
By 1982, Rush was indeed in an enviable position.
Over the course of eight years, the Canadian trio had advanced from being an indefatigable opening act to headlining major venues. They had demonstrated equal adeptness at sidelong epics and forward-thinking but more digestible tunes. After the disappointing sales of their earliest efforts, 1980’s Permanent Waves and 1981’s Moving Pictures had each reached the top five. Along the way, Rush’s immediately recognizable sound had evolved by the incorporation of heavy metal, hard rock, progressive rock and new wave.
By the end of 1981, bassist / keyboardist / vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and percussionist Neil Peart had released what would remain their most successful album, Moving Pictures – which the RIAA certified five million sales of this past April – and been awarded a total of six gold or platinum discs.
Not bad for a band that hadn’t (yet) had the benefit of a top 40 hit or MTV exposure and actively avoided the trappings of rock stardom, which they sang about in “Limelight.”
So what now? Attempt to bottle the artistically and commercially successful lightning of Moving Pictures a second time, or – as they had after every three or four albums so far – seek out new musical horizons?
The September 9, 1982 release of Signals revealed – for better or worse – the answer.
Rush biographer Bill Banasiewicz quoted Lifeson in his 1988 book Visions as saying, “I’m really excited about the new material, it’s going to be a real departure.”
He then added, “The band’s early versions of ‘Subdivisions’ and ‘The Analog Kid’ pointed to the direction they would take. As it turned out, a direction that Alex would not be happy with.”
Sure enough, the guitarist said in a 1994 interview with Guitar World about Rush’s 1993 album Counterparts, “I’ve had a problem with the guitar sound since Signals … Because we took a straighter approach to recording this time…the guitar isn’t always competing with the keyboards.”
Signals was the fourth of six consecutive Rush albums released between 1980 and 1985 to reach the top 10 and sell more than one million copies.
For some longtime fans, however, the keyboards and sythns were too intrusive, a problem that compounded throughout the decade. The band’s last three albums of the 1980s all missed the Top 10 and plateaued at half-a-million sales. Signals was also the last of nine straight Rush albums (including two live ones) that Terry Brown produced.
Perhaps the band’s interest in bands such as Ultravox and The Police resulted in their becoming more imitative than innovative. But despite the album’s complicated legacy, there is a whole hell of a lot to love about it.
In the 2010 documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage, Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy and Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford both acknowledged that they lost interest once keyboards became prominent.
Trent Reznor, however, said, “The way they started integrating synths seemed wildly exciting to me … I’d be hard-pressed to think of someone else who’s done it like that.”
And the best songs on Signals indicate that Alex Lifeson’s guitar, even if it sometimes sounded below the surface rather than on or above it, had not exactly vanished.
In the February 2014 issue of Prog, Lifeson told David Ling, “The mix of Subdivisions has always been a disappointment for me. I recall leaning over to push up the faders [to increase the guitar levels in the mix] and Terry would smile and push them back down again.”
VIDEO: Rush “Subdivisions”
However, his solo is succinct, nuanced, and unpretentious. And the song is one of Rush’s greatest, serving a manifesto for the misfit teenagers that comprised their audience. (I swear that I heard the lyric “conform or be cast out” used as a line of dialogue on an episode of Riverdale a few year ago.)
Lifeson’s work on “The Analog Kid”, which is musically and lyrically one of my top five personal faves by the band, rocks at least as hard as anything on Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures.
Long before I moved to the Boston area from Ohio, my high school guitar instructor – who was no slouch on the instrument – used the word “wicked” to describe the leads on “Chemistry.” (For those who don’t know, “wicked” is to New England what “cool,” “awesome,” or “sweet” are to other parts of the country.)
Side One closes out with another fine (if somewhat truncated) solo on “Digital Man,” and “The Weapon” kicks off Side II with the same.
Lifeson plays more texturally on the final three tracks of Signals, dispensing with solos entirely.
“New World Man” toys with a reggae flavor that the band introduced on 1980’s “The Spirt of Radio.”
Interestingly, and somewhat incredulously, this song reached #21 on the Billboard Top 100 Singles chart. Thus, it was probably the Rush song that more people heard at the time of its release than any other before or since. Why this and no other of the band’s songs achieved this is a mystery to me. I don’t dislike the song, but it seems an unlikely candidate for their only top 40 hit.
“Losing It” and “Countdown” confirm that there is no pure filler among the eight tracks.
The keyboards and violin – by Ben Mink, who would later frequently collaborate with k.d. lang – sets the tone on the former beautifully, and the lyrics are among the most deliberately poetic that Neil Peart ever wrote. The latter is another of my personal favorites. Lee might get the solo, but Lifeson riffs, strums, and arpeggiates as well as he ever did.
Thankfully, Lifeson made his peace with Signals before the band played its last ever show on August 1, 2015.
“I agree with the consensus that Signals is among our most important and interesting records,” he said in the previously cited Prog interview.
“I have no regrets,” he continued. ”I’m very proud of it.”