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For any band - a follow up to what is generally perceived as their best album can often be trying - and yet Rush have managed to evolve once more with their style, and still produce a very listenable record.
Signals (1982) has a fairly bleak sound, with heavy use (some Guitar fans would say too heavy) of Synthesisers, to create a brooding ambience that combines well with the lyrics.
For many Rush fans, this started a fallow period of 4 albums (Signals, Grace Under Pressure, Power Windows and Hold Your Fire) that featured too much Synthesiser and not enough Guitar - effectively pushing Alex (Guitars) to the sideline and allowing Geddy (Vocals, Bass & Keyboards) to take over. I, however, and many other fans disagree and see this merely as an evolution of the band into what was, after all, a period of increasing Synth use in Music across all genres, and a diversification of playing styles and themes. (So there...).
At its core, the record is about Signals and their purpose/meaning. One of the first albums to be Digitally recorded, it seemed an appropriate theme around which to base a set of songs, and is certainly reminiscent of the new wave of Technology that swept the world in the early 1980s'. Although collaboration with independent songwriters had on occasion occurred in the past (Red Barchetta for instance), this was the first album to feature a guest musician - Ben Mink, longtime friend of Geddy's who plays the hauntingly lyrical Electric Violin on 'Losing It'.
A classic MTV video, this song deals with the pressure of conformity and alienation that youths feel growing up in the suburbs. A subject still relevant today, that resonates with the disaffected and the disillusioned. 'Be cool or be cast out' strikes a chord with those who struggle to fit in with the trends and groups of school. Life in cookie cutter suburbs, 'In geometric order' is depressing, and leads to hopeless yearning of freedom from the restraints of design and humanity, 'The suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth'.
The Analog Kid -
An Analog signal is continuous, unfiltered and unaltered, pure, as opposed to an encoded digital one. The emotion and purity of the young boy's feelings shines through as he dreams of the 'Fawn eyed girl with sun-browned legs'. This is actually a reminiscence of a holiday Neil took when growing up, and a girl he fell in love with. Feelings of doubt about the situation and the future: 'Too many things on my mind, and when I leave I don't know what I'm hoping to find', echoes his uncertainty and the overwhelming emotion of a boy becoming a man.
Killer Guitar solo, all over the place, amplifying the feelings of confusion and emotion in the boy.
The transmission of signals between people, continuing the Signals theme. Emotional contact is very powerful, but hard to explain, unlike Chemical forces, which follow rules and patterns. A rare song written by all 3 members. Very precise rhythm and beat, marching along like chemical attraction in the verses, but then freed up and looser in the chorus to emphasise the more ephemeral mix of human contacts.
The Digital Man -
Antithesis of Analog, the Digital signal is discrete, filtered and calculating. The man in the song: 'His world is under anaesthetic, subdivided and synthetic', is cold and precise, but dreams of the Analog world: 'He'd like a lover's wings to fly on, to the Tropic Isle of Avalon'. Technology has subsumed the world and stripped it of emotion.
Amazing Bass lines bursting into each verse, really showing Geddy's virtuosity. The thought for the song actually came from a studio engineer Rush had in to digitize their tracks who was without personality but efficient, much like a Digital signal.
The Weapon -
Part II of the Fear Trilogy (actually 4 songs!) - It describes the use of fear as a weapon against us. Oppression, Nuclear Weaponry, Cruelty - all were growing fears during the Cold War at the time of recording. Exploring the theme of Fear, the song is quite structured and firm - with a pulsating Synth and Bass line that pushes into and out of the stark Guitar Chords and Drum beats.
The ending is altogether free of conformity as the band break out during the fade out, almost a rebellion against the power of the song's message.
New World Man -
Taking only a day to write and record, yet this song is among the most played of their songs across all radio stations. (North America has countless regional Rock stations that play music you'll never hear on commercial radio here). A vague translation of the US position at the time: 'Trying to catch the beat of the Old World Man, he's trying to catch the heat of the Third World Man', it shows both the strengths and weaknesses: 'He's old enough to know what's right, and young enough not to choose it', of a rapidly dominating nation.
Excellent concise playing here - many aspiring Rock musicians are inspired by this song.
Losing It -
Sublime intro in 5/8 leads in an emotion drenched Electric Violin. A song about the fading of life's achievements - the Writer who 'stares with glassy eyes, defies the empty page', and the Dancer still pushing herself long past her prime. Geddy's plaintive vocals are at their most powerful near the end as he almost implores: 'Sadder still to watch it die, than never to have known it'. Live every day as if it were your last.
The themes are based on 2 Novels by Ernest Hemingway - For whom the bell tolls, and The Sun also rises. Neil is a broad reader and generally finds great inspiration or expansion of his ideas from literature.
A slightly tongue in cheek ending to the album, based on pushing the boundaries of human endeavour. The band were actually at 'Red Sector A' (Grace Under Pressure - keep up!), to witness the first Space Shuttle Launch in 1981 in Florida, and wrote this in dedication of the event. A pulsing Drum rhythm, one beat behind the Bass and Guitar riff serves to anticipate the driving chorus as Geddy describes the poised Shuttle: 'Venting vapours, like the breath of a sleeping white dragon'.
The outro conversation is between Astronauts Crippen and Young and Mission Control in Houston as the Shuttle screams through the Earth's atmosphere towards Space.
To suggest that Rush know how to put a record together is the height of succint deprecation. The brilliance of the Signals theme that runs through each song, binding the music and lyrics together into a series of distinct but connected messages, shows the scale of the Band's prowess, and the continuing Progression of their music.
I'd strongly recommend this album to first time listeners - it may sound a bit odd and less coherent than modern music, even Rush's own recent albums, but then 11/8 and extended Bridges is hardly mainstream, but the sheer power and strength of the music binds the album together, elevating it way beyond the normal mid-career output you'd expect of a band.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 The Analog Kid
4 Digital Man
5 The Weapon
6 New World Man
7 Losing It