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Somewhere out of a memory - 80%

SoundsofDecay, November 25th, 2015
Written based on this version: 1997, CD, Mercury Records (The Rush Remasters)

I feel like Signals is an overlooked album among Rush fans. Maybe not the diehards, but certainly nowhere near as widely regarded as the giants of the band's discography, namely 2112, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures. This is a shame as Signals represents a true highlight of the band's career in some ways. Its a streamlined, forward thinking, and truly progressive record despite its perceived continuing abandonment of extended displays of musical prowess. What those are replaced with are cerebral and emotionally driven excersizes in compacted technicality, some of which deserve to be ranked with the band's best ever work.

Signals is unique in that although aesthetically congruent with the preceding records, it ditches the "rock" framework of Permanent and Moving and replaces it with a heavy New Wave bias clearly strongly influenced by The Police and similar bands of the time. The reggae tinge present on songs like "Vital Signs" from Moving Pictures becomes ever more prominent in places on Signals, also. Case in point, "Digital Man", with its baffling, highly technical drum and bass interplay saturated with washes of Andy Summers-esque guitar that gives the overall effect of "Walking on the Moon" on steroids paired to a set of cleverly obscure lyrics about...something. Signals also marks the point at which keyboards become a truly dominant feature of the Rush sound, which would continue throughout the decade. This is nowhere more evident than when the record opens, with the monolithic "Subdivisions" being driven almost entirely by Geddy Lee's synth work, punctuated by frantic basslines only at certain points. The song is a fan favourite and for good reason, as poignant a distillation of the angst and alienation of adolescence as has ever been committed to tape. Observe the brilliantly written:

Any escape might help to smooth
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
The restless dreams of youth


Another clear highlight of the album is "The Analog Kid", with its soaring incendiary displays of musicianship paired to dreamy, impressionistic words that are obscure, yet vibrant in the sense that you're not really sure what he's talking about, but it hits you somewhere and you relate to it in some way. The song reaches its emotional climax over the lines "And when I leave I don't know what I'm hoping to find, and when I leave I don't know what I'm leaving behind", a moment which never fails to move me. Neil Peart is a highly regarded lyricist for good reason. Even when he's being vague, he can still hit you right where you feel it. Indeed Signals as a whole is marked by this particular writing style, mixing elements of obtuse personal themes with an awareness of technology and how it affects our lives, a theme no less relevant in 2015 than it was in 1982, arguably even more so. The overall musical style is less agressive, more reflective and washed out thanks to the production and Alex Lifeson's increasingly textural riffing. However the idea that Lifeson's guitars disappeared in the 80s is an exaggeration. Its just a different approach and on this album in particular, he still manages to light up the fretboard with some fantastic and original soloing, most notably on "Subdivisions" and "The Analog Kid".

Truth be told I do not consider Signals a masterpiece. It isn't as consistently brilliant and cinematic as my personal favorite Power Windows, as complex or gloriously cheesy as Hold Your Fire, or as universally appealing as Moving Pictures. Tracks like "Chemistry" and "Countdown" have yet to really captivate me, though perhaps with time and attention they will. The somewhat flat production and mixing also doesn't allow even the best parts of the album to truly "jump out" at the listener like they could (see the live A Show of Hands version of "Subdivisions" and you'll see what I mean). Its also not the most catchy album and largely requires some effort to truly grasp (though that is no bad thing in my mind). It wouldn't be until the following Grace Under Pressure that Rush would marry this kind of of sound to an infectious pop hook and a brighter, more punchy and expansive production. The reason I rate Signals so highly is on the strength of a selection of the songs which are up there with the best by this band, or any rock band period. Not the best starting point, arguably, but if you're going to get into Rush this is an album you must get acquainted with sooner or later.