Perhaps the most important thing that Rush proved when they released Grace Under Pressure is that (to paraphrase what George Orwell wrote in 1984) the best albums are those which reiterate those things of which people were already aware. In this case, fans already knew that Rush had been the greatest and best-kept secret in rock n’ roll for years, and had proven that they were brave enough to approach their music from new angles when they released Moving Pictures in 1981. The success of that change was truly dynamic as the introduction of synths added new dimensions to the band’s compositional style, and the more abbreviated engineering of Sirens illustrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that everyone in the band was interested in serving the songs they were writing and not just gunning for a bigger, bolder solo. Even so, they had to have known they could go further, even as Signals hit new release racks at record stores. Presumably, it is for that reason Rush elected to both combine the angles of the music they’d already made as well as pushing the possibilities of that combination to its extreme for their tenth album; simply said, what listeners got on Grace Under Pressure was an expression of Rush not only balancing their prog and pop sensibilities, but having the discipline to present both equally in each of the album’s eight songs. That discipline is absolute in that none of these tracks treads over the “FM radio approved” five-minute song limit at any point (the longest song is “Between The Wheels,” which clocks in at 5:44), while still managing to keep the obvious progressive rock elements so key to the band’s sound and persona in place.
Even now, decades after it was originally released, both fans and the unfamiliar alike will be struck by “Distant Early Warning” as it opens the album and shatters both expectations and the things that fans thought they knew about Rush. The song opens boldly, but the first surprise comes courtesy of the wall of synths which hits listeners first, and how clean and sparkling it is. Here, Alex Lifeson seems to bounce his chorus pedal-infused guitar off of that wall, while Neil Peart’s polyrhythmic drumming drives spikes into it in order to let Geddy Lee’s bass get a higher vantage point in the mix and leap over everything else. It’s big, it’s huge and unquestionably rock-y, but also very urbane and delicate; lines like “You sometimes drive me crazy/ But I worry about you” sum up the dichotomy of the poles that Rush is balancing upon here, and it’s very easy to enjoy the balance because, while it may seem like it SHOULD be precarious, it’s rock-solid and steady.
After “Distant Early Warning” sets the precedent for how Grace Under Pressure functions, listeners will find they have no trouble traversing the A-side of this vinyl reissue. The follow-up track, “Afterimage,” will flat-out shock listeners as it crashes through with a sense of strength and power that Rush has never shown before (here, each and every member of the band sounds ANGRY – and it carries over into their performances as they seem to punch through harder and more urgently) which sets up “Red Sector A” as a bit of a breather before the band assaults listeners again with the epic “The Enemy Within.”
Now, in order to really appreciate “The Enemy Within,” one must look at the performances of Neil Peart, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson individually and how each relates with the final arrangement of the song as well as how the song exists as a single sonic production. The song opens with a tangible sense of trepidation as Lifeson begins painting with minor-key guitar arpeggios and Peart adds some tasteful-but-explosive drum accents – anyone listening will actually be able to feel a chill begin to creep up their spines. After the song really gets moving, the thematic development gets ever-darker; lyrics like “Things crawl in the darkness/ That imagination spins/ Needles at your nerve ends/ Crawl like spiders on your skin” set nightmarish images moving while Lee gets a bass line working which crawls almost like a tarantella; Rush had indulged dark tendencies before (some darker than this), but never had the band really submitted itself completely to that quality before. “The Enemy Within” has a slick and harrowing quality about it made that much stronger by the fact that the A-side ends on this song’s note; it will have listeners scrambling to flip the vinyl to see where the band might be headed next.
While it could have easily shot for a completely different direction to begin in so there could be some kind of calculated dark/light difference between it and the album’s A-side, “The Body Electric” – the first song on the B-side of Grace Under Pressure – just picks up precisely where “The Enemy Within” left off and keeps the going dark, brilliantly. Here, Lifeson reprises the harrowing (but beautifully pristine-toned) tones he began with “The Enemy Within,” but picks up the tempo ever-so-slightly to give the song some added freneticism while Lee and Peart follow his lead by upping the urgency on their end. To this day, the response i remarkable and impossible to deny; while the words ‘Rush’ and ‘raucous’ seldom leap forward as an obvious pairing, they’re the only words which fit “The Body Electric” properly.
The energy of “The Body Electric” bleeds over easily into “Kid Gloves” with only a hair less impact (due in part to the lyric sheet – lines like “A world of difference/ A world so out of touch/ Overwhelmed by everything/ But wanting more so much” condemn the “Me” Generation beautifully, but the those like “Anger got bare knuckles/ Anger play the fool/ Anger wear a crown of thorns/ Reverse the golden rule/ Then you learn the lesson/ That it’s tough to be so cool” are bafflingly bad) before the mix and focus part for an examination of all things ‘red’ in “Red Lenses.” Now, it could be argued that “Red Lenses” is a little too diffuse for anyone’s comfort (the song sees communism, human emotion, human anatomy, pop culture, images of Mars, global warming and color theory all feeding at the same thematic trough) and that is perfectly reasonable – but happily “Red Lenses” is more about the music than it is about the lyrics.
…And that music truly does prove to be captivating. With a rolling bass line providing most of the propulsion for the song and Geddy Lee taking a more decidedly ‘pop’ approach to his vocal performance (there is no instrumental ramp-up, his vocals begin when the song begins), “Red Lenses” begins on a decidedly different tack from the other songs on Grace Under Pressure and quickly throws even more distance between itself and the rest of the album by really rocking the musical performances too; aspects which must have inspired Dave Navarro’s playing in Jane’s Addiction can be heard in the minor seventh chords which reoccur throughout the song, and cause hips to start swinging with a life of their own while the polyrhythmic drumming just stands as a structure to be admired here; there is no flaw about it (no surprise – those in the know were already aware that Neil Peart’s talent was remarkable, and remarkably under-appreciated), it’s just awe-inspiring. After a fairly succinct four minutes “Red Lenses” ends leaving listeners to try and catch their breath, and “Between The Wheels” spins in ominously to leave listeners with the impression that Rush’s vision is darkening again and close out the side – the end here is a little unsettling, but that it IS unsettling is what will also have listeners flipping the vinyl again to try and find the minutiae that they may have missed on the first pass through. Those who go the distance with Grace Under Pressure even once will discover that the album holds a special place in their hearts forevermore thereafter.
The tradition of Grace Under Pressure making Rush fans of those who discover the album easily endures with this vinyl reissue. The direct metal mastering methodology applied to the 2015 pressing offers an absolutely gorgeous and true presentation of the songs which people will recognize as being the real deal as soon as their stylus descends into the vinyl and, for those who don’t have a USB turntable, the band has gone the extra mile and included an mp3 download card of vinyl-ripped mp4s. That way, listeners have every opportunity to enjoy this reissue of Grace Under Pressure and the sound of it exactly as the band intended; it’s awesome.
Vinyl Vlog 096 – Rush – Signals reissue: groundcontrolmag.com/vinyl-vlog-096
Vinyl Vlog 095 – Rush – Moving Pictures reissue: groundcontrolmag.com/605