Chapter XI: The Big Synths
By the time Grace Under Pressure came out, it was clear to fans and critics that Rush were skilled in displaying their own takes on trending musical styles. Their first two albums saw them successfully (in hindsight, at least) deliver heavy, driving guitar riffs in the vein of Led Zeppelin and Cream, the 1976-1981 progressive heyday displayed that the band could join such genre giants as Genesis and King Crimson, and both Signals and Grace Under Pressure showed us that the band could throw that style away for something more synthesizer-oriented and lyrically personal. Basically, Rush can adapt to the times exceptionally well. With that said, you could definitely say that 1985's Power Windows is likely Rush's most 80s-influenced album, as it explores many of the synthrock and pop sounds of the era... specifically, the huge emphasis on Geddy Lee's synthesizer work. After all, why deny the opportunity for reinvention yet again?
As soon as "The Big Money" makes its grand statement with a blast of synthesizer chords and Alex Lifeson's mix between chords and rapid-fire lines on the guitar front, you can already tell you're in for something both bold and oddly distant. Power Windows is a pretty bizarre album because, while many of its lyrical themes are personal and social, and the guitar work has a tone that cuts through the production to reach the listener on a more personal level, the synthesizers end up pulling you away at the same time. Songs like the electronic drum-oriented ballad "Mystic Rhythms" and the dreamlike tune "Manhattan Project" have a bizarrely expansive and cold quality that, strangely enough, inspires more intrigue and warrants repeated listens just to catch every little nuance of this experimentation. However, Rush do make plenty of room for both more progressive and poppy arrangements to offset these darker moments. "The Big Money" is incredibly fun (despite its message of greed) because of how bubbly and fast-paced the instrumental work proves to be once the grand opener. The same can also be said of my personal favorite tune on here, "Marathon," which combines fantastic instrumental work in the verses (primarily that wonderful bass line from Lee) with a wonderfully inspiring chorus that features Geddy Lee at his best vocally. And of course, there's that great message about getting through the marathon known as life, and how tough the run can be.
Unfortunately, just like with Grace Under Pressure, many Rush fans will likely be turned off by this incarnation of the group. Even for these ears, the synthesizer experimentation gets pretty old after a while. Once at the 6th or 7th song, one might just wish for a break from the ridiculously frequent keyboard use and instead go for some more guitar-oriented Rush music. Granted, there are a few songs that break the pace a bit in this regard, like the more hard rock-oriented tune "Territories" or even a good chunk of "Marathon," but some may wish for more of Lifeson's guitar playing. However, the bright side is that he does have a larger presence here than he did on Signals, which almost cut him out entirely. Regardless, if you're in the mood to check out some of Rush's oddest material and you feel adventurous, Power Windows is a nice bet. It takes Grace Under Pressure's dark, cold sound and expands upon it with more synthesizers and overall experimentation. It's multifaceted, sparse, dark, and high in replay value. It's worth playing multiple times just to, once again, hear something you didn't catch the first time around. Just don't expect it to immediately be one of your favorite Rush albums... go in with the right mindset and you'll be all good.