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Maybe I'm in the minority, but I love transitional albums. They're a great window into the development of a band's sound as they move between styles (if they're inclined to do so), and are often the most interesting simply due to the fact they don't sound like a band sitting on an established sound. Rush being a band that continually evolved and never made the same album twice, their transitional periods are twice as interesting. Especially when they're actually a bit of a mixed bag, like this album.
Released at the tail end of the 80s, Presto finds Rush moving between the synth dominated, highly complex tech-pop of Power Windows and Hold Your Fire and the more streamlined arena rock sound of Roll The Bones, which eventually lead into the harder rock sound of Counterparts onward which defined the band's sound for pretty much the rest of their career. Hold Your Fire was essentially the logical conclusion of the sound that had begun on Grace Under Pressure and exploded into cinematic technicolour on Power Windows, and was then refined to its limit on Hold Your Fire. I don't think they could have taken it any further, and it's no real surprise that Presto finds Rush heavily dialing back the keyboards, returning Alex Lifeson's guitar to the forefront, and bringing back a more solid riff-driven power trio sound with (relatively speaking) simpler song structures and a greater focus on hooks.
The results? Mixed, though mostly outstanding. I'm a huge Rush fan, of the 80s era in particular, and frankly there are a handful of dull songs on the album. Thankfully the first half of Presto is pretty much all gold. "Show Don't Tell", with it's rapid fire bursts of choppy riffing, immediately sets the tone for the album and highlights the greater emphasis of space in the arrangements and features some brilliantly melodic bass playing. "The Pass" is Rush's attempt at a ballad, and is a great success thanks to it's moving lyrics and a great performance topped by a brilliant vocal. It's worth pointing out that Geddy Lee probably never sounded better vocally than on this album. His voice having long since lost the high pitched wail, he's aged like a fine wine and sings with a slightly lower pitch that really fits the material. "Scars" is my favourite track, and one of the most atypical Rush songs: a slightly dorky synth funk bass sits on top of a dense and hypnotic African sounding dance beat, topped off with heavily processed bursts of stratospheric guitar and leads that soar over everything like a high desert wind. It's a startlingly effective song that sounds like nothing else in Rush's long discography.
There's a few duds, however. I never really got into "Hand Over Fist" or "Red Tide", which sound kind of like Rush-by-numbers to me. "War Paint" had to really grow on me, and I do quite like it now. Fortunately that's about it. The title track is another great song which I feel is really underrated, if not a little saccharine. "Superconductor" sounds like Rush sarcastically trying to write a hit (with some quite witty lyrics about manufactured rock stars) but this is still too complex to be top 10 material. It's still one of the most catchy songs they've ever written. The album closes on a great note with "Available Light", which went over my head a bit at first but has now really grown on me. Sonically the album sounds brilliant. The production is bright, open and highlights every nuance, and the remastered version is full and punchy without sacrificing too much dynamic range (all the Rush albums were very well remastered, in fact). Performance wise the band are on top form. Geddy's bass, both playing and tone, was at it's best in this era in my opinion and on Presto reaches it's peak. Lifeson is clearly enjoying being given more opportunity to just rock out and play some great guitar riffs as opposed to more textural splashes, though those do still show up in places. As mentioned the keyboards are heavily dialed back, though they do make appearances here and there for texture's sake. Neil Peart is Neil Peart. The guy's a brilliantly inventive drummer and offers some of his best lyrics for this album.
There are few Rush heads out there who would recommend an album like this one to a new listener. It's just not the most obvious choice. I might, though, and not merely to be contrary. Presto is a great rock album with catchy songs, and enough of an emphasis on less keyboards to not scare off any fans who think the mid-80s era was too much. It's also an underrated album that doesn't really get the credit it's due, and an important cornerstone in Rush's artistic development.
Rush opens up a new era in musical direction with Presto, it being the first releases after their third live offering in Show of Hands. Rush starts to move out from the synth 80’s and their roll as composers to slowly find a new direction in the wastes of the 90’s. This makes Presto a transition album, a loner of sound and style that is really a forgotten part of the catalogue. The popcorn pop sentiments still cling like a remnant of the past, but merge with the reemerging roll of Lifeson along with the bands reawaken desire to fire on all cinders again. This makes Presto a difficult and tumultuous release that rattles as much as it rides, but hiding beneath the hood of this enigma the band pulls some rabbits out of the hat with some excellent performances.
Geddy Lee is in good form, his bass working its magic, being more than rhythm and a driving force as a whole. Once again he steps out and performs some succinct but good bass solos and the occasional bass lead. Singing, he’s grown as a singer and delivers more in the realm of dynamics and melodies. Neal Peart has turned in a better performance with more interesting material, stepping up his game over the previous two releases, and this enriches these quirky performances. He even goes so far to rebuild his kit to pull off some excellent drum work on “Scars”. Don’t be fooled by the high production, there are no overdubs here – I’ve seen him perform it live and can attest it is the real deal. Alex Lifeson, however, is the real story, as he tunes in on Presto and joins the fray. While certainly not a return to form, he does go equal time with the synths and it is a welcome thing indeed. Further, for the first time in years he pulls out the acoustic guitar. There is plenty on Presto to enjoy as the band slowly puts some punch back into playing.
However, these fine points don’t change the fact that the sound struggles, this transition from musical, writing, and production styles creates a mix that lacks identity; but the sound hints at a power thanks to the guitars, even if it won’t be realized for another album. In fact, that’s the feeling I get from this album, a sort of identity crisis that makes you wish to get on to the next album and hear exactly where the band intends to go with their music. Guitar based versus crash into mainstream choruses and the whole eclectic mess results in an album only a Rush fan can love, for only he will take the time to unlock and appreciate Lee’s solo work in “Show Don’t Tell”, Peart’s percussion in “Scars”, or Lifeson’s leads in “Superconductor”. But notice I speak in moments, parts of songs, and not as a whole. There are quality songs to rip, but overall the moments hide within other songs and are just as easy to pass over, which is why this album is ultimately just as easy to pass over as you move through a discography with much more to offer.
Mid-to-late 80’s Rush is not a subject I tend to approach enthusiastically. With Neil Peart’s eccentric drumming and Alex Lifeson’s guitar presence becoming increasingly toned down while the bass and synthesizers became dominant, what the once-impressive trio was playing was barely above straight-up pop-oriented rock. But Rush were never a band known to play the same sort of thing for any extended period of time, so a changeup was inevitable. And thankfully, it was a change for the better in the form of Presto.
The most immediate improvement Presto holds over the last two efforts is in the mix. The synths, at times intrusive and overwhelming before, are toned back to auxiliary status while the guitars have been brought up to a reasonable level for the first time since Moving Pictures. This allows the emphasis to return to the rhythm instruments, resurrecting the groove that Rush maintains so very well. The importance of the mix cannot be understated: though several of the songs on Presto bear strong ties to the Hold Your Fire sound (“The Pass” and “War Paint,” for instance), they are much more tolerable due to the reasonable production. It’s just a more complete package and everything the band does just sounds much better because of it.
In fact, we even get a few great songs out of ‘em. Opener “Show Don’t Tell” is excellent, carrying a similar vibe to “The Big Money” but a bit more enthusiastic. “Superconductor” is another energetic one and another obvious highlight. The less obvious ones roll around near the album’s end, due in no small part to an interesting new synthesizer sound. I can’t think of any other time that Rush used clean piano tones to complement their sound like in “Red Tide” or “Available Light” and it’s a shame, as it’s an interesting dynamic that works well on this album and probably could have been well utilized elsewhere instead of the cheesy 80’s clichés on which they too often relied during this period. Geddy Lee would use real piano sounds on his solo album, but that’s a different story altogether.
Of course, Presto is still far from an ideal Rush release. A few of the songs lack personality, blending right into that stereotypical 80’s Rush sound (still better than Hold Your Fire of course) and “Scars,” with its dance beat and electronica vibe, is a complete throwaway. Peart is a bit short of the mark lyrically as well, apparently unable to revive the connectivity he used to wield freely. Regardless, it’s a quality album if you’re a fan of the band and, despite the fact that it’s barely classifiable as progressive rock, is still a marked improvement over its weaker predecessors in both songwriting and performance.