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Music Review: Rush – Snakes & Arrows

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From the driving opening of "Far Cry," it is obvious that the fierce stance Rush took on Vapor Trails was not a one-time diversion. Where that album steam-rolled ahead on layers of crunchy guitars and pummeling drums, Snakes & Arrows takes a more varied route through the sounds and styles of Rush.

There's something of a return to form going on with Snakes & Arrows, the very thing many long-time listeners have prayed for, and yet, it proves slightly more prickly to deal with than any other Rush album. Where 2002's Vapor Trails bared drummer/lyricist Neil Peart's tragedy-battered soul (having lost first his daughter in a car accident, and then less than a year later his wife to cancer), Snakes & Arrows finds Peart back in more familiar territory, writing lyrics about the state of the world today from much the same point of view that has divided listeners all along – the somewhat distanced stance on world events, which sometimes bore a sort of bemusement at them.

There is a difference in 2007's Rush, however, and it's one that it seems many listeners are missing while they focus on the events Peart writes about. This time around, there's a hopeful serenity in the lyrics spoken from a perspective of one who has lost and seen the good in mankind, no matter how bad they, as a group, may seem, especially to outsiders.

The Neil Peart of "The Way The Wind Blows" is significantly different than the Peart of, say, "Distant Early Warning," where he views us as hopeless, helpless victims of our circumstances. The Peart of today now sees, as in "Wind," that people make the best of the situations they live in, but often can't be blamed for the crooked, narrow views of the world they have because, well, as the lyrics say, "We can only go the way the wind blows/We can only bow to the here and now/Or be broken down blow by blow." We, and whatever "they" that you want to apply it to, shouldn't be to blame for not understanding the lives, practices, and beliefs of each other.

Peart also approaches the subject of faith from a new perspective – the message behind "Faithless" may seem simple on the surface, that the stance taken is an anti-religious one, but dig deeper and it reveals the message that a lack of religion doesn't necessarily equate to a lack of spirituality and, most of all, hope.

It may be easier to see both sides of the issues that are tackled on Snakes & Arrows in "Armor and Sword," a mesmerizing and addictive combination of the elements that made Roll The Bones' "Bravado" and Test For Echo's "Driven" so rewarding for fans. Here the issue of resolve and how it stands up against the toughest spiritual tests is played against the often unfortunate fallout from failing to stand strong. It can be seen as a miniature summary of the album's themes, addressing globally what the rest of the album's songs will assess within themselves.

Equally fascinating is the folk-meets-world tinged "The Larger Bowl," whose format of a pantoum (the lines of the opening stanza are repeated in different orders in following stanzas which forces the reader to take a different view of each line) allows for a hypnotically contemplative nature, or album-closer "We Hold On," in which the everyday struggles and comforts of the modern world are called into question.

Garnering the most attention, and rightfully so, is the album's three instrumental pieces (a Rush first). Where "The Main Monkey Business" finds the band attacking the instrumental as a mature weaving together of all the elements in each musician's bag of tricks, it's "Malignant Narcissism" that showcases the band doing what made "YYZ" so great – pure, unbridled passion in the form of a short, intense blast. "Hope" gives guitarist Alex Lifeson a rare moment to shine by himself, and it's a beautiful moment at that. Thoughtful and folky, there are moments that reveal Lifeson's influence by Led Zeppelin's driving, blues-drenched Jimmy Page, so obvious in early Rush outings but an element which later disappeared as the guitarist found his own sound. Here Page's "Black Mountain Side" is revealed as an unexpected influence – not as if "Hope" were a copy, but as an homage to a favorite great.

Faith, and the circumstances through which people come to deal with the faith of others as well as their own faith, and not only that but the lives they have to fit faith into, is a recurring theme throughout the album. As the effect of the unfortunate and tragic tricks cruel fate has played on him, it's an unexpected boon to fans that Peart has grown as life has tested him. Many listeners may be focusing on the vibrant music that evokes memories of an earlier Rush, but Snakes & Arrows offers so much more for them to dig into for the future.

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About Tom Johnson

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Oh yeah, Rush. I’ve heard of those guys. And aren’t you that Rush fan-boy dude ’round these parts? Don’t worry though, your secret is safe with me.

    So what took ya’ so long to review this? I mean hasn’t this been out for a couple of weeks now?

    Seriously though, a most insightful review Mr. Johnson. Rush has never been a band for me where I delved into the lyrics so much, because the music is always so dazzling I guess I just haven’t taken that much notice (when it comes to lyrics, I’ve always been more of a Dylan/Springsteen/Neil Young sorta guy anyway).

    Sounds like Peart’s more or less baring his soul here though. I’d be particularly interested in his lyrical take on faith, given that I always remembered him as something of an adept of the Ayn Rand philosophical school.

    I’ll definitely have to look into this one. Thanx for an insightful review Mr. Johnson.

    -Glen

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Good write up. I got to see them on 7/25. A damn fine show regardless of what the Chronicles fans say.

  • http://myspace.com/Tunefreak Mike

    This band goes so far against “the norm” for every other band and they make it work to their advantage. If they put out one disc every three to five years they just build up more anticipation from their fanbase, and speaking has a fan since 1976, it totally works for me! If they don’t like it they don’t play it. If they aren’t challenging themselves it means nothing to them. One of the many reasons I love these three Canadiens. And to see them in concert is close to a “religious” musical expieriance has you can get, even if you aren’t religious. (You can call me Faithless) Sept 15th, 2007 will be my 30th time seeing them in concert and I still get goosebumps everytime. They NEVER fail to deliver the goods when they hit the stage. I rank the Snakes and Arrows disc-especially the 5.1 mixed special edition/w Making of DVD- in my top three all time… Long Live RUSH…

  • Lee

    Tom,

    Thank you for really taking the time to analyze the lyrics and theme of this new album. I’ve been a Rush fan for a long time. I’m 40 years old now and I can honestly say that their songs, and especially their lyrics, have influenced and molded my life and world views since I was a teenager. There is a much bigger picture going on with this band. Not only do the lyrics and musicianship both deserve a great deal of praise each on their own. But the fact that they have been doing this for a little over 33 years without becoming drug addicts, or succombing to the other obvious pitfalls of their industry. They are family men. They are truly positive role models. My children are allowed to listen to Rush. Again, I appreciate your inciteful dissection. Thanks.

    Lee

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    Glen: I don’t know, “fan boy” has so many negative connotations. Like most of my favorite music, I’m pretty critical even with my undying support of the band, a behavior that is strictly frowned upon by true fan boys. And that’s why I decided to wait to have my say about the album – anything I would have had to say early on would have just been the kind of fawning associated with fan boys, not to mention that it truly took me quite a few listens to connect with this album, but when it did it was because of the lyrical content, not just the music alone (and that’s kind of unusual for me.) I simply saw a lot of the early reviews as exactly the kind of thing most people associate with a band like Rush with a large, die-hard following: blind fanaticism with little to say beyond that. I simply had to wait until I had something meaningful to say.

    El Bicho (and Mike): I just saw them last week and it was, without any fan boy hyperbole, the best Rush concert I’ve been to (and I’ve seen every tour since the Presto tour.) It’s truly aimed at the diehards who want to see some unusual song choices.

    Mike: I don’t know where I rank S&A yet. I don’t find myself very comfortable ranking something so new yet. I have to give it a year or two before I truly feel like I’ve found a place in the canon for it. I will say this, however: it’s going to have a hard time knocking Presto, Vapor Trails, and Signals out of the top spots. I might be one of the few, but those albums represent Rush at significant, vital turning points, and there’s a vulnerability in each of them that finds me connecting to the music much quicker than anywhere else in their catalog.

    Lee: one of my favorite aspects of Rush is that they’ve remained true to themselves, doing what they alone feel is best for them at the time. I’ve often been very frustrated as a fan watching other bands with far more insipid music and lyrics garner praise while Rush has been snickered at. Anymore, however, I just shake my head and feel sorry for them. The people who choose to limit Rush to being a band of and for Dungeons & Dragons players are missing out. As my favorite quote of the moment goes (from Louis Armstrong): “There are some folks that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.” Ain’t that the truth.

  • http://www.confessionsofafanboy.com Josh

    What’s wrong with being a fanboy?

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    Not to dis the name of your great site, Josh, but the term “fan boy” typically describes those fans of a band who have absolutely no ability to see good and bad and who preach without pause about whatever it is they love. I’ll pull the description from Wikipedia because it sums it up best: “Fanboys are attributed with a sycophantic devotion to the creators and principles behind a work with which they are currently enthralled.” There’s being a “fan,” and there’s being blinded by devotion. You obviously, and thankfully, fall into the former category in every instance I can think of.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    Fan Boys suck, as Tom more courteously put it in the first part of his comment above.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=gonzo%20marx gonzo marx

    ain’t gonna comment on the new album just yet…need to spend more time with it..

    since i’ve been a big Rush fan since i saw this at the Felt Forum in ’76…i have a lot of love for the Trio

    they are top flight professionals in a world full of dabblers and wanna be rock stars…masters of their Instruments who bow to no record executives…and ya gotta love that

    so we will see after i live with the new album, but from what i’ve heard and taken in so far..i’m pretty pleased…the Boys show they still have it all, and are doing what they enjoy

    and everybody got to deviate from the norm

    nuff said…

    Excelsior?

  • http://thorswitch.livejournal.com kriselda jarnsaxa

    Nice, well-considered review – thanks! I’ve found myself listening to the album repeatedly because there are just so many nooks and crannies of the songs to explore – both instrumentally and lyrically.

    Glen – just as an FYI, Peart *was* into Rand for a bit, but that phase seems to have ended long ago – like by the early- to mid-eighties. Unfortunately, just like many still put them in the realm of “Dungeons & Dragons lyrics” and such, the Randian tag seems to have stuck long after it was no longer warranted.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Tom, I am only about 90 miles from Downtown San Diego. We should do dinner. Drop me an email.

  • http://www.confessionsofafanboy.com Josh

    Believe me, I’m well aware of the more common definition of the term “fanboy.” I was really asking in jest, just wanting to get in on the action with you and Glen. All in fun, all in fun.

    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the record and tour. Let’s hope they document the tour with all the rarities and obscurities on a proper CD/DVD package.

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    I’m certain there will be at least a DVD of this tour, Josh. I remember reading an interview somewhere in which Geddy said that they now realize that some kind of documentation of each tour was going to be a part of their plan. It may well be what has made a tour like this one possible, since they’ve now pretty well documented the “hits” and can carry on with more obscure material that their core fans really want to hear.

    And, yeah, I was pretty sure you were joking about the fanboy thing, but I wanted to make sure it was known that I wasn’t aiming any criticism at you.

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites and Boston.com.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “Let’s hope they document the tour with all the rarities and obscurities on a proper CD/DVD package.”

    They did and it’s fabulous.