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It must be stressed that Rush are not a metal band. Never have been, never will be. In fact, Rush are not on this site so much because they are metal as because all of progressive metal and most metal with epic or prog leanings (Iron Maiden, for instance) owe a huge debt to Rush. Rush can be fairly heavy at times, but if you want to throw the horns, you'd be better off buying a Dream Theater record. As of the release of Snakes and Arrows, Rush have been playing for almost forty years. Very, very few artists can boast of having performed for 40 years, and most stalwart bands eventually sink into utter mediocrity before fizzling out (Metallica, for instance). Snakes and Arrows marks the 18th studio album from Rush, among countless live albums, EPs, and compilations, and thousands of live shows. And, surprisingly, this latest offering from Rush is pretty damn good.
I have previously listened to Rush's most recognized LPs, 2112 (1976), and Moving Pictures (1981), and was not terribly impressed with either of them, especially Moving Pictures, which has some of the worst synthesizer patches I have ever heard (not to really fault Geddy's synth playing, it's just that the sound sets he used were, to put it gently, poorly chosen). And, after hearing Snakes and Arrows, I daresay it's much better than their works from their supposed heyday. In their 50s, Rush humiliate musicians 30 years their juniors and stand alongside Dream Theater, Spock's Beard, and Porcupine Tree as stars of modern progressive music.
One striking feature of Snakes and Arrows is its organic and open feel. The production of Snakes and Arrows is truly beautiful, achieving a powerful, clear sound without overprocessing it to the point of sterility (see Dimmu Borgir for a particularly egregious example of sound engineering sucking the life out of music). Gone is the muddled, overcompressed sound of their previous album Vapor Trails (2003). Each instrument can be clearly picked out and followed.
A slightly ominous tone pervades the album and shines through even despite Geddy Lee having such a voice that he could sing doom metal and make it sound happy. His 2112-era crotch-grabbing wail has been tempered greatly by aging and, in fact, he hits very few high notes. His singing is slightly tarnished by his fetish for multitracking, which doesn't quite work as well for him as it does for the infamous Norwegian one-man choir Kristoffer Rygg (Ulver, Arcturus). However, his bass playing remains as stellar as ever, and the smooth, refined tone of his bass may surprise metalheads who expect percussive, thumping, pummeling bass playing as heard in most modern metal bands.
Subtlety, not flash, is the flavor of the day. While it has many technical moments (like the amazing instrumental "The Main Monkey Business", which stomps YYZ into the ground), this is not Liquid Tension Experiment or Spiral Architect. Rush succeeds on the strength of their songwriting, not masturbation, as is evident on the rip-roaring "Far Cry", which is incredibly fun to listen to.
The album branches through several musical directions, from near metal (the Dream Theater-ish Far Cry), to grooooooooovy acoustic folk rock (The Larger Bowl, whose title possibly refers to what you might want to smoke while listening to this song), and a nod to Rush's beginnings as Zeppelin-ish hard rock (Spindrift), to prog rock insanity (The Main Monkey Business). Despite the diversity, the songs have an overarching style and a strong feeling of continuity.
Snakes and Arrows is not a return to the '70s sound and silver kimonos, but it is an excellent album all the same, and, in my opinion at least, it stands above their 70s work. The fact that Rush is a 40-year-old band and put something of this caliber out is just unbelievable, but hearing is believing.
Standout tracks: Far Cry, The Main Monkey Business