Rush to Judgment

Sanctimonious intent and senseless experimentation are the lethal ingredients in some of rock's deadliest moments, and at one time or another, Rush has epitomized both. Few acts have provoked more delight and more disgust, more admiration and more irritation, more euphoria and more nausea, than this durable Canadian power trio. The group has practically swaddled itself in contradictions, weaving them into an armor seemingly designed to deter critics' lashings and anything else that might throw the group's middlebrow karma out of whack.

Lately, though, the data indicates that it may be safe for the ultimate thinking head-banger's act to ditch its martyr's shroud. Twenty-two years into its career, the band has sold more than 35 million copies of 20 releases, a dense catalog that includes 16 trips to the studio, three live CDs and one best-of collection. It continues to fill stadiums worldwide, proving that Rush is one of the most endurable live acts around. The group found its first fans on the road, and the stage still provides the most effective make-or-break introduction to its music. Make it through three hours of Rush's union of art-rock pretention, busy guitar work and abrupt time changes played dutifully, loudly and precisely, and you should know full well where you stand on your way out.

At a time when the group may be past its creative prime, new Rush releases consistently inch up the rock charts, often with little help from radio. Young, adventurous bands such as Primus and Soundgarden proudly sing Rush's praises. Even critics once appalled by the band's music, and even more appalled by its success, have started to find the occasional good thing to say about Rush.

What gives? Could it be that the rest of the world is finally figuring out what millions of Rush fans have known all along? Anything's possible, but more than likely what we're witnessing involves a phenomenon significantly less dramatic: patience.

"We had to wait [this] long for [a] generation to come around and understand us," says Rush drummer Neil Peart. "Because certainly the [music] writers in the '70s didn't understand what we were trying to do."

It's easy to come away from a conversation with Peart thinking that he, guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist Geddy Lee actually get off on the critical abuse they've suffered -- that it has only heightened their resolve and bound them more tightly together. After all, if Rush's existence hinged on the approval of anyone but itself and its fans, it might not have made it past 1976's sci-fi rock opera 2112, a release that resisted harsh -- and justifiable -- pummeling by rock's arbiters of taste (though it has since gone platinum, proving once again that critics mainly influence other critics). Rather than buckle under to the name-calling, Rush moved forward, negotiating its way through the late '70s with another pair of numbing doodle-metal epics whose fairyland titles, A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, pretty much say it all.

"We are experimental, so there have been tangents," says Peart. "I can look at an older song and say, 'That was an interesting tangent that was like a dead-end canyon.' But I don't regret any of our excesses."

Rush's most refined tangent -- its stint as a synth-inclined, radio-friendly pop band -- began with 1980's Permanent Waves, home to the AOR staple "The Spirit of Radio," and culminated with 1985's Power Windows, arguably the band's most consistent and least windy work. But again, if Rush had listened to writers such as myself and ended on a high note in 1986, it wouldn't be on the road right now supporting its 20th release, Test for Echo, an impeccably produced, guitar-heavy affair good for at least four or five decent moments.

"We're not trying to write for an imaginary audience or some lowest common denominator," says Peart. "We write for people like us. And there are a lot of them out there."

Even with the current moratorium on Rush bashing, one can assume that most journalists inclined to devote more than a few sentences to the band are A) serious fans or B) had once been serious fans. I admit to a mix of A and B: I've been a Rush Ranger for 16 years now, though of late my enthusiasm for the band has fluctuated from release to release. I inform Peart that I've been questioning my faith, and he lets go the sigh of a person who's heard it all before.

"Fandom is a very fickle enterprise," he explains. "We have to win [our fans] every time. We never take for granted that we're going to put out a record and people are going to buy it; we never take for granted that we're going to go on tour and people are going to come. It makes us insecure, but that's okay, we shouldn't be secure. If we fuck up, people won't love us."

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Hobart Rowland