Chapter X: A Farewell to Terry Brown
Looking back at the band's entire discography, Signals was probably the biggest risk Rush had ever taken musically. Even with a warmer reception in recent times, many fans remain divided on the album's foray into 80s synth rock and Alex Lifeson's increasingly subdued guitar role; even Rush themselves didn't enjoy the record, which led to them dismissing producer Terry Brown in favor of someone new. Many clamored for a return to the band's more hard rock-oriented take on progressive rock music, while others were becoming curious about Rush's continued experimentation and odd progression. And what did everyone get? Pretty much both and neither of those at the same time.
Let me explain what I mean. Yes, there's still a pretty large amount of synthesizers being used here. And yes, there's also a larger emphasis on Lifeson's heavy guitar work. But the way they're both used is drastically different from Signals or any previous Rush album; much of this comes from the atmosphere, which is easily Rush's darkest and most fascinating yet. True to the album's title, Grace Under Pressure tackles the theme of pressure and its varying effects on different people. There's a constant contrast musically between a richness and coldness, with Alex's resonant guitar chords and Geddy Lee's dark synth arrangements working off each other beautifully. But beyond the music, the "pressure" theme and the darker lyricism really give off a more human feel than in previous albums by the band. With 1981's Moving Pictures, Rush largely ditched their fantasy themes for more realistic subjects, and Grace Under Pressure essentially reveals the pinnacle of this lyrical style. The songs are usually incredibly bleak but never in an overly dramatic way, as revealed in "Red Sector A"'s gritty portrayal of concentration camps during the Holocaust; other dark stories include a loved one's death in "Afterimage" and one's internal fear and struggles with "The Enemy Within."
The music, of course, mirrors the lyrical content perfectly. The biggest reason this record surpasses Signals in terms of composition is that the synthesizers actually have more of a purpose here. Not only are they a bit scaled back to let the guitar playing shine, but they're also necessary to bring out the album's atmosphere. Most of these songs wouldn't be nearly as effective without the keyboards creating some bleakness or tension in the backdrop. "Between the Wheels" is one of the best examples, its intro combining an incredibly heavy Drop-D guitar riff with dissonant synth jabs so two moods collide brilliantly into one tense hard rock track. The initial atmosphere of "The Body Electric" actually introduces a slightly hopeful mood with it being in the key of A-Major and having slightly more calm vocals from Geddy, until the famous "1001" chorus brings back the feeling of fear and anxiety to the table. Of course, Neil Peart's drumming helps in numerous ways too. Not only is his technical skill still nearly unmatched, but his simultaneously more mechanical and yet refined style here makes for some mesmerizing work when combined with the other instruments. Whether it's the fast-paced hard rock of "Afterimage," the more progressive and tempo-shifting opener "Distant Early Warning," or the more new wave and reggae-influenced "The Enemy Within," Peart's work on the kit always fits each mood perfectly.
When discussing the most unusual or inventive Rush albums, Grace Under Pressure should be one of the first albums mentioned. While not sounding much like its predecessors, the record is a fascinating trip into the band's darker side and a more realistic approach to both their lyricism and their music. It's cold, yes, but that's what makes it so interesting and fresh. When it comes to progressive rock albums that are equal parts emotional and compositionally compelling, this is one of the finest ones of the bunch. If you're willing to take this journey, get ready for the most underrated album Rush have ever released.