Review Summary: A great way to start the 80s.
Chapter VII: Embracing the Times
January 1st, 1980 was a very important day for Rush. After a large string of commercial successes in the 70s, Rush returned to the studio to work on their first album of the 80s, Permanent Waves. Not having released an album during 1979, many people were wondering what the band's new record would sound like; was it going to follow in the hard-hitting progressive rock and long-winded epics of previous albums, or would it signal a rebirth for the band's sound? Released on New Year's Day, you'd expect this to be a completely new phase for the band, right? Well, Permanent Waves certainly sounds a bit different from its predecessors, but it has that noticeable Rush familiarity in terms of overall sound as well.
To be honest though, a mix of the old and the new is a great method for a band like Rush; it's interesting to hear them integrate the sounds of the specific era while retaining their progressive rock approach. Points of interest include: Geddy Lee toning down his voice (like the near-absence of high Robert Plant-esque wails), more synthesizer use, and more accessible arrangements. The latter point is the most notable one, considering that new wave was very popular at this time and Rush were heavily influenced by UK rock band The Police around this point. However, Rush were one of the biggest influences on The Police's earlier material, so the influence essentially became the influenced; it's pretty ironic to say the least. Anyway, no song goes over the ten-minute mark, so while you may consider album closer "Natural Science" an epic at 9:17, it isn't separated into individual segments like the previous epics by the band.
Instrumentally, the music is a bit more conventional this time around. Despite heavy synthesizer use and the introduction of more eclectic rock elements (even reggae rock!), the overall sound is more reserved this time around. "The Spirit of Radio," "Different Strings," and "Entre Nous" are all mostly in 4/4 time with only a few variations rhythmically; the former in particular is a very tightly structured hard rock tune that switches frequently between a slow swinging rhythm and the driving guitar riffing that occurs around the verses. Nonetheless, the song is still fantastic as it seems to be a perfect mix of emotion, accessibility, subtle technicality, and anything else it may tie together. "Freewill," despite its popularity, seems to be the real odd man out on this album when you get down to it. The sound of the verses is slightly sparse, mixing a mildly heavy guitar riff (syncing with the bass) with light guitar chord "bursts" as the drums are keeping everything in place. The 7/8 rhythm is also a bit off-putting initially as well, but it grows on you, as with the rest of the song.
So with all of these details, what's the big reason the record's so good? The consistency. Even in the two "epics," "Jacob's Ladder" and "Natural Science," there's not much musical baggage to bring the record down. Nearly every note feels where it should be; the band also know when to space out their dynamics, such as how the acoustic ballad "Different Strings" follows the energetic rocker "Entre Nous." The album's running time is only about 35 minutes, but the record feels completely satisfying at that length when you consider the replay value of each track. While the album is safer than some other Rush albums as I said, there are plenty of "wow" moments to offset the conventional ones. For example, the solo break in "Freewill" has Geddy Lee showing off his impressive bass playing with some exceptionally tricky runs as Alex Lifeson is adding his own soloing to the fray and Neil Peart is performing complex nuanced drum patterns underneath. It's cool to hear the interplay between every member of the trio as they play so technically and fluidly at once. "Natural Science" is a song full of surprises; the soft acoustic opening is pretty unexpected as it is, but a surprisingly heavy riff comes in after the main motif ends. Suddenly everything sounds frantic and tense as the song starts frequently switching between time signatures and tempos. It's stuff like this that combines well with the more accessible moments of the record, and it's a great balance all around.
So yeah, this record is an awesome follow-up to Hemispheres. It's not as technical or intense, but rather a nice mix of accessibility, technicality, dynamic variation, and consistency. The amount of control on display is actually very beneficial to this album and that's why it works. However, the band had yet to really reach their commercial peak... as Moving Pictures would definitely prove.