Review Summary: Signals received a luke-warm reception on its release from fans clamouring for a repeat performance of Moving Pictures but stands tall today as one of their best albums.
When a relatively green modern day Rush fan exploring the band's back catalogue approaches this album for the first time they could well be full of preconceived ideas about what is in store for them. 'Signals' is often labelled as the start of the synthesizer period and where the reggae and new wave elements that manifested on Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures permeated the music fully. Yes, armed with that knowledge the musical style on the album would not come as much of a surprise to a new listener. However, imagine yourself as a fledgling 13 year old Rush fan in the early 80's who was voraciously devouring their back catalogue and being blown away by all the classic albums from 2112 through to Moving Pictures. Signals was a shock, a real shock.
This is the only record I have ever smashed. I had heard the single 'New World Man' which I had found quite underwhelming but I naively suspected that it was just the 'Vital Signs' of the album and that I would be treated to Moving Pictures part deux when I finally got hold of the full release. I played this once, couldn't believe what I was hearing, played it again, checked the label to make sure I had the correct LP and then it went spinning across the room into the wall and smashed into a myriad of shiny black pieces of plastic. Where were the brilliant Lifeson solos, where were the hooks, where was the power " I was a very upset Rush fan. I felt betrayed in the way only a young teen can feel betrayed when his heroes and idols have let him down. However, as you can see from the rating, my opinion has changed somewhat over the ensuing years to the extent that this is now one of my favourite Rush albums. It arguably marks the band's most abrupt stylistic change in their career and was hard to swallow after 'Moving Pictures' but once I had accepted that Rush were a band that never intended to stagnate and had calmed down enough to let my prejudices dissipate I was hooked.
This is in no way a concept album but many of the songs follow a loose theme. In this case Peart explores topics such as the signs we send out as human beings, the chemical reactions that act as understated signals between people or even the dispassionate electronic signals of the digital age. The warm 'Analog' kid is giving way to the bleak 'Digital' man leading to the sense of insecurity, isolation and alienation that suffuses the album. The best music doesn't reveal its complexities by throwing them in your face, it draws you in gently. The album's magic is finespun, there is a sheen of accessibilty in the synth driven melodies and white reggae painted vibes but the art-rock sensibilities are also there in abundance when you fully embrace the music. 'Subdivisions', the quintessential song about youthful estrangement from society, is one of my favourite Rush tracks. The atmosphere conjured up by Geddy's moody analog synth sounds and Alex's subdued guitar tones fit this tale of teenage detachment from suburban life perfectly. Peart's contribution on the sticks is masterful as the song effortlessly undertakes time signature shifts from 4/4 to a fat 7/4 and back without losing any of its rolling momentum. This album is bursting with great moments, but with the possible exception of the aforementioned 'Subdivisions' I find it quite difficult to pick out individual favourite tracks. I could mention the beautiful solo in 'Chemistry', the timeless sense of freedom and joy invoked by 'The Analog Kid', the perfect vibe of one of the best white reggae tracks ever recorded in the form of 'Digital Man' and the hauntingly wistful 'Losing It'. But to me the album represents an unbroken ride of near musical perfection and picking out highlights is churlish. It doesn't grab you by the scruff of the neck, it doesn't display its wares for all to see like a cheap hooker, it caresses you with steel lined velvet gloves and subtly draws you into it's dark and melancholy heart.
So there it is. The only album I have ever subjected to physical violence. The album that has grown on me from being a hated abberation in a masterful discography to a coveted favourite. It may not have the wow factor of Hemispheres, the outright passion of 2112 or the slick perfection of Moving Pictures but this is still the Rush album I listen to most.