|Review: Test For Echo|
Copyright 1996 Adam Barnhart. All Rights Reserved. Fair use of this document.There is a group of people for whom the phrase "The Holy Trinity," means not The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost, but Lee, Lifeson, and Peart. In the audience at the last Rush concert I attended was a guy with a shirt stating simply, "I have a God and His name is Neil." Even in their third decade as a band, Rush has a fanbase as dedicated as any, up to and including the Grateful Dead.
It is this particular phenomenon that is often missed in evaluating Rush albums. Reviews fall along party lines, with the Michael Azerrads of the world condemning albums out of hand and true Rush fans eager to enshrine each release in the pantheon of Rock Albums as High Art. Rolling Stone has given up altogether, having not reviewed a release by Toronto's biggest export since 1989's Presto.
With that in mind, I'll admit to my own biases: I'm an unreconstructed Rush-head. You're about as likely to hear my slamming a Rush release as you are to hear Barbara Boxer complaining about a lack of defense spending. When picking up a new Rush album, I expect it to be the best recording of the year -- a unique and wonderful collection of music that cures ills, solves quadratic equations, and brings peace to the Middle East. For the devout that I count myself among, then, 20 September 1996 is a day of observance: Release Day.
Test for Echo is the band's sixteenth studio album and brings to a close the band's fourth "period," each period comprising a set of sonically related releases which have, to date, been demarcated by live albums (sequentially, All the World's a Stage, Exit...Stage Left, and A Show of Hands). The first four albums witness the band's transition from a Led Zeppelin/Cream-influenced power trio to a truly progressive outfit, the second four albums chart a path from nearly relentless progressivity to ornate but more concise composition, while the third set of the four shows an increasing interest in technology in and out of the musical world. This fourth period has stirred up a great deal of controversy among the legions of fans, with Rush stripping down its sound back down to pre-Signals levels, couched in five minute compositions. Whether they've regressed or progressed over the last eight years is subject to some debate (I'm in the latter camp), but with the release of Test for Echo the band has made it crystal clear: they're ready to rumble.
Picking up where 1993's Counterparts left off (the three years between releases is the longest break the band has ever taken), the album opens with an aggressive, almost sinister title track that attacks the vacuity of the mass media with power chords and an uncharacteristically cynical set of lyrics. As with most Rush openers, it's an energetic cut, probably the most radio-friendly of all the tracks on the album, despite clocking in at a couple of ticks over six minutes. Establishing the tenor of the album immediately, Test for Echo is almost uncomfortably real -- the earthier direction the band began in 1980, rewriting a track called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into the fan-favorite Natural Science is at its apex here, more immersed in day-to-day life than the band has ever been.
While Rush continues its advance on the front of the mundane world, they also have come back to reclaim their preeminent status as purveyors of both aggression and progressivity. Driven features a Claypool-like bass line, shifting time signatures, and heavy guitar, lightened by a pre-chorus of only an acoustic guitar and Geddy Lee's newfound more sonorous voice. The song couldn't have been more aptly named, taking front and center as the most insistent and, in fact, driving song in the Rush catalog, while returning to the same theme that helped make Red Barchetta a Rush classic. Time and Motion sounds almost as though it was written by one of the Prog Metal bands (Fates Warning leaps immediately to mind) that Rush inspired. One of the band's heaviest offerings, the song shows that, in the midst of Grunge (or post-Grunge or whatever the hell is going on at the moment) the band isn't afraid of a keyboard. More than anything else, Time and Motion serves notice that while Rush doesn't write 2112-style epics anymore, they're still the masters of the five minute progressive piece.
Rush's latest brand of reinvention has been largely fueled by Alex Lifeson's return as a wailing, more traditional guitarist, rather than a texturalist supreme. As he showed on his side project, Victor, Lifeson hasn't forgotten the value of the riff. Virtuality, a tongue-partially-in-cheek depiction of the online world, is all riff, rivaling Time and Motion, if not Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath, in heaviness. Dog Years is as close as Rush comes to Black Flag, a bash-it-out, noisy, rooted cut which makes one wonder if perhaps Who's Got the 10 1/2 was playing in the background as the song was written. Lyrically, the song revisits territory explored in Time Stand Still (off of 1987's Hold Your Fire), which, ironically enough, is about as far sonically as Rush has been from their latest album.
During the band's hiatus, Neil Peart, perhaps Rock's most revered drummer, engaged in his own period of reinvention. Playing big-band jazz on the Burning for Buddy tribute and studying with drum guru Freddie Gruber, Peart's brand of super-human drumming now makes fluidity coequal with spectacle. The track Totem best exhibits this direction, where indigenous-sounding drumming is fused with lyrical fare dealing with traditional populations and their belief systems. Arranging all of this in a way that's reminiscent of The Speed of Love is a feat of musical legerdemain that's worthy of Houdini, but Peart and his bandmates are up to the task. Peart's drumming also shines on Limbo, an obvious play on the name of another famous Rush and, with the snippet ("Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist") from Monster Mash, the band shows that their sense of humor is still with them (I Think I'm Going Bald sounds like it belongs in on an album with I Wanna Be Sedated, rather than Bastille Day).
Rush's success has always been predicated on their ability to combine thoughtful music with accessibility. The album's second single, Half the World, is Test For Echo's best exemplar of that combination, a short tune (3:43) that features a hummable melody and a Jethro Tull-style acoustic-electric, now-you-hear-it-now-you-don't combination of sounds. The Color of Right finds Rock's most introspective lyricist meditating on the pros and cons of relativism over a musical backdrop halfway between Totem's midtempo thrust and Half the World's poppier sound. Geddy Lee plays a clever syncopated line that shows the ability that's brought him boatloads of readers' poll victories, even without the trip up and down the fretboard every 15 seconds. Carve Away the Stone, the album's closer, is another concise song, combining attributes found throughout the CD -- changing time signatures, an insistent mid-tempo groove, a catchy melody -- that tie the past, present, and future of the band together into a song that's makes for a satisfying conclusion to the album.
Despite the band's performance ethos, where the ability to replicate the album in a live setting is a necessity, Rush has never shyed away from throwing a curveball at their audience. 2112 has Tears, Permanent Waves has Different Strings, and Hold Your Fire has Tai Shan. The high point of Test For Echo is the curveball: Resist. Rush has, over the years, wandered high and low through epic pieces, reggae-flavored composition, funk syncopation, country twanginess, even a whack at rap. A Celtic-flavored ballad-waltz featuring a hammered dulcimer and a line pilfered from Oscar Wilde, however, is a new addition to the Rush canon. Pulled off with surprising aplomb, Resist is deep, meaningful, and majestic, a sharp left turn on the most direct album the band has made since their Peart-less debut. Producer Peter Collins pokes his head into the proceedings most noticeably here, where the combination of the aforementioned hammered dulcimer, Lifeson's stately guitar, and Lee's massive bass helps the song sound rich without sounding cluttered. Resist shows that the band is still willing to experiment, and, more importantly, that they're able to pull it off -- this time in spades, with a piece that comprises the emotional center of the album.
In 1975, Rush released its second album, Fly By Night, a record which featured a new drummer, a new style of composition, a new lyric orientation, and a new production style. While the album was only a commerical success in retrospect, after the band had cracked the commercial nut with the classic 2112, it set the tone for the trio's career, serving notice that Rush is a band for whom reinvention is of the highest priority. Twenty-two years later, reinvention is still very much on the front burner for the band, having virtually defined the term for the rest of the rock world. On Test For Echo, Rush combines the sprit of reinvention with the more aggressive, power trio-oriented music they've polished over the last three albums, bringing perhaps their most boisterous writing ever into a political, immediate world. While this seems a musical nonsequitur from the band that wrote By-Tor and the Snow Dog, Test For Echo is an amazing, uplifting, and emotional album -- the best album I've heard since...Counterparts.