It is often regarded as an inconvenient truth, but the fact is that it becomes increasingly difficult for a band to change or take artistic risks as they get further into their career. A lot of that difficulty may come from the band’s perceived responsibility to their fans; the people watching and listening were the ones who offered the group the success they enjoy, and alienating them could be disastrous. At the same time, flexing creative muscles which may have grown soft with underuse (“playing it safe,” as it were) may not be comfortable or easy for a band anymore so, while the spirit may be willing, the flesh might not be so able. Is that statement intended to be one of condemnation? Not necessarily – fortune can favor those who damn the proverbial torpedoes, and the proof of that fact lies in the seven tracks which comprise Moving Pictures – Rush‘s eighth album.
Rush had already won a devoted fan base prior to releasing Moving Pictures in 1981, but this album still left those fans well and truly slack-jawed at the time. The inclusion of synthesizers and pop songwriting sensibilities changed the game for the band in many ways; a consistent tone of epic bombast characterized each song and really got fans to think twice about what they assumed they knew about Rush, and the pop hooks made many of the songs more accessible to new fans as well as to radio. The bottom line was that Moving Pictures incorporated all of the best possibilities that Rush had already proven to have at their disposal, but with a host of new and new wave-y options too.
…And that winning combination shines through in every track on Moving Pictures. Right off the top, “Tom Sawyer” opens the album’s A-side with a startling explosion which finds all the band’s members and instruments converging in a monumental sound. It’s all here; after the synths in the song drone an ominous charge, Neil Peart’s cascading drum patterns, Geddy Lee’s lean but propulsive bass and Alex Lifeson’s textural guitar genius combine to stomp and swagger along with well-won confidence. The result is a sure anthem which combines prog precision with carefully assembled talent and the instantly memorable and hummable spirit of pop – then as now, it remains an infectious anthem that any band would be proud to call their calling card.
The precedent set with “Tom Sawyer” never lapses as Moving Pictures‘ A-side continues along. “Red Barchetta” can send chills up the spines of listeners as Lifeson’s chorus-touched guitar eases the song open, but the even cooler thing about it is how influential the performance is; whether intentional or not, many bands from the first roll-out of alternative rock (including Jane’s Addiction, The Cure and Depeche Mode) would end up lifting elements from Rush here and running with them to ultimately create a new and vibrant sub-genre of rock. It’s phenomenal to hear that development here, and it gets even better as “Red Barchetta” fades out and the tiny bells which fly around the mix in the intro of “YYZ” tap their way in. On this new pressing of the album, Rush really went out of their way to go beyond producing a simple restoration, and the proof is here; the way the sound dances between channels in the mix (it’s easiest to notice through headphones) really makes the experience feel enormous and almost interactive, in a way, and feels completely fresh and unlike what even longtime fans have experienced with this album before.
Listeners will find that they’re still glowing after they take in this new “YYZ” experience, but they’ll also find that “Limelight” seems to play with an all-new and engrossing power as well. There, Geddy Lee’s normally high, nasal vocalese suddenly features a tone of infectious satisfaction through lines like “Living on a lighted stage/ Approaches the unreal/ For those who think and feel/ In touch with some reality/ Beyond the gilded cage,” and the effect is nothing short of perfectly gratifying; that vocal combined with Peart’s enormous drum tone and Lifeson’s descending chord progression simply inspires a listener’s senses to relax and submit to contentment. It is the perfect end to an exciting and challenging side, and will have those who went front-to-back with it reaching to change sides as effortlessly as reflex allows – it just feels natural to do so and continue on.
…And the B-side does not leave those who made the effort to continue to the proverbial flipside feeling unfulfilled. Rather than trying to explode as they had to open the A-side of Moving Pictures, the B-side fades up with city sounds and a sort of sci-fi sounding backdrop which propels listeners’ expectations up (again, the panoramic presentation in the mix is fantastic), and then the band endeavors to simply color and detail the sound to make it a complete image. It really is cool to hear; Lifeson picks up an acoustic guitar to give the mix some added depth and tone (the interplay between his acoustic and electric guitar overdubs is beautiful), while Peart’s drums seem to add structures to the aural skyline of the song and Lee and his bass seek to be the men on the street in this composition; Lee’s voice and the nasal tone of his bass reflect the population of a city, and the whole thing just seeks to encapsulate life for ten minutes – it’s so cool. After that, the mostly percussive exercise of “Witch Hunt” doesn’t make a fraction of an impression, but “Vital Signs” closes both the side and the album respectably with a composition which boosts the energy levels back to the heights achieved by Moving Pictures‘ A-side, but also adds a sense of closure. This is the climax and, while it’s easy to want to listen again from top to bottom, no loose ends are left hanging and it is all seamed up to close.
If it wasn’t already self-evident, it’s easy to understand how, decades later, Moving Pictures is regarded as a classic. Even so though, there are fans in the band’s audience who maintain that this album was actually the beginning of the end for the group; with keyboards and sharpened pop chops came a (ahem) progressive turning away from the band’s roots, and they left a few of the darker sonic elements in them behind and never reclaimed them. To be fair, it could be seen that way, but Moving Pictures also represents a lot of rebirth for Rush; it was with this album that they tapped into a far larger listener base and, in turn, got them into the pop market for far wider exposure. The singles which sprang from this album have proven to be permanent fixtures both in the band’s live sets as well as in the annals of rock history. That is the true achievement and is a telling sign of Rush’s quality; thirteen years in, they weren’t slowing down and weren’t narrowing their fields, they were diversifying both their sound and their vision and presenting an all-new public face. That was incredible in 1981 when Moving Pictures first came out, and it still holds that image and position now.
(Mercury/Universal Music Enterprises)