Rush show 'Grace Under Pressure'

A look at the paradigm-shifting album that just turned 30
By Peter Lindblad

Rush - Grace Under Pressure 1984
Signals was polarizing. Songs of teenage isolation in suburbia and the uneasy transition from an analog world to a digital one, a heavy dependence on synthesizers and sequencers at the expense of Alex Lifeson's guitars ... reggae? What in the name of John Rutsey was going on?

While Rush was embracing the modern technology of the 1980s and adapting to a quickly changing musical landscape, where New Wave was all the rage and classic progressive-rock was all but extinct, a large portion of its fan base was pining for elaborate concept albums and a renewed emphasis on the word "power" in Rush's fundamental power-trio format.

Some hadn't even stayed with Rush past the transitional Moving Pictures, where the integration of keyboards and a focus on composing shorter, more compact songs with self-contained stories, rather than long, drawn-out storytelling with vague resolutions, was still under construction. Those clinging to the hope that Rush would come to their senses and return to "real" guitar-driven prog-rock would run screaming for home upon hearing 1984's Grace Under Pressure, click their heels and throw on Caress of Steel or 2112 and chant, "There's no place like Toronto. There's no place like Toronto."

Rush's 10th album, Grace Under Pressure turned 30 years old on Saturday, and for those who not only hated the band's new direction, but took it as an outright betrayal, it was the final straw. Geddy Lee's synthesizers continued to push forward, becoming a dominant element in Rush's transformation, and it was clear they weren't going away. That was a bridge too far for some. The Rush they had come to know and love was gone. They were now new world men.

There were loyalists, though, who appreciated Rush's artistic fearlessness and willingness to experiment with new sounds and work in seemingly incongruent mediums like ska and reggae. And it's entirely possible that Rush did win over a new audience that had previously dismissed them as relics of the past, although that's debatable. Most of the punk and New Wave crowd was never going to accept Rush in any form. Their minds were made up.

So, revolution really was in the air when Grace Under Pressure came out. To hardliners, anything past Hemispheres or maybe Moving Pictures was heresy. There were no record burnings or a mob that "moves like demons possessed. Quiet in conscience, calm in their right, confident their ways are best." Those lines are from "Witch Hunt," of course, and in a sense, there was a somewhat similar atmosphere of fear and dread in Rush's fandom as to where the band was going next.

Not quite oblivious to it all, but certainly not in a mood to make any kind of artistic retreat, Rush calmly practiced its craft, forging ahead creatively with a sense that what they were doing was an essential and logical next step. What gets lost in conversations about Grace Under Pressure is that it's one of Rush's most accessible and well-constructed albums. With all of the critical worship that 2012's Clockwork Angels received, and rightly so, it being a record that brought some of the lapsed believers back to the faith, it's not as direct or as fluid as Grace Under Pressure.

Seamlessly, Rush toyed with ska on "The Enemy Within," the clipped rhythmic stabbing of Lifeson's guitar adding energy to the track. And "Afterimage" had a more languid reggae feel to it, but on the whole, Grace Under Pressure was almost futuristic, its clean, contemporary sound shaped by a new producer, Peter Henderson. After Signals, Rush amicably divorced itself from the only producer they'd ever had to that point in Terry Brown, who had butted heads with Rush during the making of Signals. Brown wasn't convinced they were on the right path either.

Heavy subjects like the holocaust and nuclear war were addressed in the  "Red Sector A" and the briskly paced "Distant Early Warning," respectively, with "Red Sector A" taking much of its inspiration from Lee's mother's horrible experiences in Nazi concentration camps. Some have described Grace Under Pressure as a dark record, and with Neil Peart exploring the impact of pressure on human behavior, it's not an LP that's all sunshine and lolly pops. Even the affecting vulnerability of "Kid Gloves" has a world-weary quality to it.

Lee has said of Rush's past lyrical concept journeys that "what you have to say ends being very nebulous." Not so with Grace Under Pressure, which featured compelling stories and ideas that made their points clearly and succinctly. Instrumentally, Lifeson pops up everywhere, his solos so pure of tone, so piercing and agile, and his flashing riffs dynamic and moving with inspired purpose, while Peart's precision and energy startles, Lee's rolling bass lines and complex figures brimming with momentum and natural drive.

And then there's that cover art by Hugh Syme that was so imaginative and alien, juxtaposing turbulence and calm in a way that was perfectly in sync with its music, the urgency and tension of "Distant Early Warning," "The Enemy Within" and "Between the Wheels" providing such striking contrast to Lee's watery synth floods and the occasional airy oasis-like clearings of breathtaking beauty you'd come across. There's an earnest intelligence to Grace Under Pressure that's a breath of fresh air in this age of irony and cynicism, and the melodic topography of the record is not at all flat, but rather it has expansive scenery and interesting peaks and valleys.

Grace Under Pressure continued Rush's evolution, and, on a personal level, it paralleled my own musical exploration. I was getting into The Police at that time. I was listening to the Talking Heads. I was questioning whether or not to hold on to the past and hold close those records I loved from Led Zeppelin, from Yes, from Uriah Heep ... the list goes on and on. U2, Ultravox, The Replacements, and all manner of U.K. and U.S. punk and New Wave acts were taking me further away from my roots, and that was exciting.

Rush would always stay with me, and the plot twists to their career were continually interesting and never boring. I saw them live only one time, and that was on the "Grace Under Pressure" tour, and it was, as it always is with Rush, an awakening. Lifeson has said of Grace Under Pressure that it is the "most satisfying of all our records." For me, it's Moving Pictures, but who am I to argue with Alex freaking Lifeson!

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