Review Summary: Moving Pictures II this ain't, but that's OK.Chapter IX: Reinvention
If Moving Pictures and Permanent Waves showed us anything, it was that Rush could succeed in reshaping their traditional progressive/hard rock sound in multiple ways and achieve some crossover success. Just as an actor may choose to play in many different kinds of roles to avoid being typecast, occasionally a band will have to switch their sound a bit so their competitors don't leave them in the dust commercially. While Permanent Waves was still a full-fledged progressive rock album that merely scraped the surface of stylistic change - such as the reggae elements of "Spirit of Radio" or increased dominance of Geddy Lee's synthesizer work - 1981's Moving Pictures was what really changed the way people would view Rush. While viewed as a classic today, many deemed it a sell-out move for the band back then, as songs like "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight" became big hits and permanent FM radio fixtures. However, if people got angry about the more streamlined nature of Moving Pictures, imagine how they felt when Signals came out!
1982's Signals is essentially the result of two things: 1. the more radio-friendly direction of Moving Pictures and 2. what was going on in 80s synth-rock at the time. There's even less of a progressive rock inspiration this time around, mostly replaced by a more reggae-rock/new wave hybrid... with progressive rock thrown in. Don't get me wrong, the prog still rears its head plenty of times, with the odd time signature here and there (especially on that iconic opening 7/8-time synth line to "Subdivisions") as well as the new-found reliance on multiple genre experiments. Something that's really cool about the album is the fact that, no matter what style the band try, the music still sounds distinctly Rush. Even with the suspenseful synth-layered "Countdown" or the swing-like drum work of the reggae-inspired "Digital Man," the overall vibe and instrumentation (particularly Alex Lifeson's signature chordal guitar playing) indicate that the band haven't lost their identity. Once again, the emphasis is on "reshaping" the sound they already had, and it really works nicely for them. "Analog Kid" remains one of Rush's best 80s songs, easily being one of their fastest and most hard rocking tracks while keeping a fun and breezy atmosphere throughout the verses. The lyrics of the record, in keeping with the tone of the previous two albums, don't follow the fantasy and sci-fi themes of the band's 70s work but instead focus on reality and the human condition. For instance, "Subdivisions" seems to be about being ostracized for not "fitting in," with the iconic line "be cool or be cast out." "Losing It" references the later years of Ernest Hemingway's life, while "The Weapon" is another song in the band's Fear
series, which deals with the many ways fear is brought about and dealt with.
Signals is definitely a tougher album to get into than any of Rush's previous efforts. Despite more radio-friendly songs and new wave experimentation, many of the tunes go a bit too far into synth territory. "Losing It," despite an interestingly melancholic atmosphere, is probably the worst offender. At some point you have to ask yourself, "How far are Rush going to go with this more keyboard-laden sound?" Even "Subdivisions," one of the most popular and recognizable Rush anthems, trades much of what guitar work there would presumably be with a dark, brooding synthesizer used to carry out many of the melodies and basslines. That's sorta the issue here: Alex Lifeson, while present for a good chunk of the album, just isn't present enough. Neal Peart, however, is stronger than ever; in fact, what's really impressive is how much he does with a more limited range of time signatures and a simplified overall sound. The crazy fills are still there, as well as a nice variety of tempos and dynamics that are executed; business as usual. Geddy Lee is still doing well with his more subdued voice (or at least more subdued than he was in the 70s), and his basslines are still fast and technical during many of the instrumental passages. Alex Lifeson brings out some of the best guitar work of his career... once again though, when you can hear him and he isn't being drowned out by the keyboards. The problem with Signals is that they seemed to go way too far with the synthesizers; while songs like "Digital Man" and "Analog Kid" aren't as reliant on them, the songs that are reliant go a bit overboard. The band had experimented with synthesizers in the past, but not to this degree. It's not a huge issue though, because the high-quality compositions and other instrumental performances shine through in the end. It's still excellent enough for my recommendation; it isn't another Moving Pictures, but the experimentation and compositions still make it a completely worthwhile record despite its missteps.