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There seems to be majority agreement that Rush's self-titled started their career off on one of its weaker notes. I wouldn't contest that notion either; compared to the heady intellectualism of their peak era, the bluesy, Led Zeppelin-influenced hard rock on this one can barely compete. Be that as it may, I think it is unduly overlooked by a lot of fans- myself included. Back in high school, I bought every album of theirs I could lay my adolescent hands on. 2112 and Caress of Steel blew me away, Moving Pictures even moreso. Even Counterparts (which I'll stand beside as one of the most underrated rock albums ever, let alone of Rush's career) struck a lasting note with me. After giving the debut a few listens however, I dismissed it, and the CD ended up at the back and bottom of my shelf where the U2 and Aerosmith best-of compilations dwelled.
While my music taste has only grown more perverse and alienating in the years since, I actually find myself enjoying Rush far more than I did at the height of my fandom. There's not a lot of depth to their songwriting. The lyrics are probably best described as pedestrian at best. But couldn't the same be said for Led Zeppelin's early masterpieces? Decades later, and there's still a primal charm to unpretentious, no-frills rock music. The problem is that so many of the bands (both then and now) that go that route failed to say anything memorable with such a limited palette. Even if they would quickly abandon it for bolder pastures, Rush had no problem expressing their personality with a basic rock set-up.
Love or hate the album, Rush stands out from many of its amorphous hard rock contemporaries. While their influences are active in colouring the band's performance, Rush's sound on the self-titled was already distinctive, thanks in no small part to the voice of Geddy Lee. His singing is unique to the point of being an acquired taste; that's virtually unheard of in hard rock. His high-pitched wail has always been the potential dealbreaker with new listeners, and none moreso than here. I think the impish shriek Geddy's vocals lean on works for the music they were making here, but it would be a couple of albums still before he learned to make the most of his voice. As it happens, there are moments where it sounds like he pushes himself further than he should; some of the inflections on "Take a Friend" and "Here Again" have always rubbed my ears the wrong way. Regardless, the fact that you could already pick his voice out of a crowd of a thousand this early on only works to be the benefit of the music.
The easy highlight on the self-titled is Alex Lifeson. The thoughtful restraint and feeling he put into his playing on albums like Hemispheres has long since made him one of my favourite guitarists (not to mention a major reason why I decided to pick up the instrument for myself.) He doesn't offer the same laid-back sense on Rush. With the debut, he's all about pure riffmaking. "Finding My Way" offers one of the best opening riffs to an album in hard rock history. And, of course, it would be nuts to go without mentioning "Working Man", Rush's first de facto 'hit.' Call me crazy, but I hear echoes of Black Sabbath in "Working Man"- just replace Geddy with Ozzy and it might have fit on Paranoid or Sabbath's own self-titled debut.
Even when the songwriting isn't always that great, Lifeson's riffs (and leads) are a joy to hear. This segues me to the biggest issue Rush faced at this early stage. When the song writing is good, it's really good. The rest of the time, they don't seem all that phased by mediocre writing. "Finding My Way" is a great opener. "In the Mood" is a memorable pop track. "Working Man" is a heavy beast of a closer. The rest of the tracks help me remember why I wasn't a fan of the album in the first place. None of it is bad songwriting per se; just audibly uninspired. Keeping in mind that they would be writing epics about shit like space and necromancers a few years later, listening to Geddy unironically wailing about 'needing some love' is pretty lame. Ditto that for singing songs about how great it feels to 'take'(?) a friend. Do these guys know they would be doing full-blown prog rock a couple of years later? Jesus Christ...
I also promised myself I'd bring up Geddy Lee as a bassist. The most common wasted opportunity in rock music is a bassist who sounds content to mindlessly follow the chords of the guitarist. Unfortunately, that's the case more often than not in this sort of hard rock. Not only does Geddy pave his own way independent of Lifeson's thunder, the aggressive tone of his bass is perfectly suited to the music they're playing here. Unsurprisingly, the would-be weakest link is the drummer John Rutsey. He had to leave after an album due to touring complications related to diabetes. Although he holds up a decent beat here, he lacked the presence to keep up with the already-distinctive personalities of Lifeson and Lee. Running into Neil Peart was the best-possible thing to happen to them; a drummer that could not only keep up, but take charge of any aspects Rush lacked in somewhat- namely, their lyrics.
But what if that had never happened? Think of it this way: imagine a parallel universe where the Rush we knew never existed. Instead, three guys from Toronto had decided to make a bluesy, Zeppelin-influenced hard rock album before calling it quits, to start families and become high school teachers (or something.) If Rush was all we had to judge from what would become one of the strongest legacies in rock music, its qualities would undoubtedly be more apparent. Geddy's distinctive (if not always pleasant) voice and aggressive bass playing, Alex's energy and tone, and the riffs- by Gött- THE RIFFS! "Finding My Way", "In the Mood" and the almighty "Working Man" are great examples of mid-70s hard rock, and while it would take Neil Peart to elevate them to the next level, Rush's debut still stands as a pretty solid affair in its own right.