How Rush Kept Moving Forward With ‘Signals’
With their ninth full-length album, Signals, originally released on Sept. 9, 1982, Rush faced the challenge of following Moving Pictures, their most artistically resonant, high-profile work to date.
In the early '80s, most progressive rock bands were either broken up or totally washed up, yet Rush were growing stronger, both creatively and commercially. Moving Pictures (which landed at No. 3 on the Billboard 200) found the band at their most melodic and accessible, stripping away the epic track lengths and indulgent atmospheres in favor of arena-primed choruses and hard-hitting, pristine riffs. Thanks to singles like "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight," Rush were something of a household name in the early '80s.
So with Signals, Rush had an entire new audience, one that expected not only instrumental prowess but also hummable hooks. On that front, Signals delivered enormously, even if the album pales compared to the top-to-bottom masterpiece that preceded it. The album landed at No. 10, and with the bouncy "New World Man," they had their first major single smash in the U.S.
Only one year had passed since Moving Pictures, but in that time Rush had dug even deeper into New Wave textures. Signals is a bright, direct album full of sharp, clean angles and shimmering surfaces. Where Moving Pictures felt perfectly tailored for stadiums, Signals was a little spacier and more atmospheric, with Alex Lifeson utilizing more guitar reverb and Neil Peart embracing a more textured and less bombastic drum style than he had in the past.
The switch was intentional. In Steve Gett's 1985 Rush biography Success Under Pressure, Lifeson states, "Moving Pictures, for instance, was a very lush, full-sounding LP, where the guitars were double, triple, even quadruple tracked. But with Signals, we wanted to get a more angular sound, where everything had its place and there was a little more perspective to all the instruments. The focus was not so much on the guitar being 'here' and the drums being 'there' -- it was a little more spread out in different percentages. So that took a bit of experimenting, which in turn meant more time in the studio."
Bassist Geddy Lee told Sounds in 1982, "Signals is definitely the direction we've wanted to go in for a long time. It's something that comes from maturity and having been through the whole techno side of things. We've played in these weird times and made all these big points that we've wanted to make. Now it seems there's a bigger concern for communication, and that's what Signals is all about."
In the same interview, Lifeson elaborated. "Signals is a little more accessible, and everything's a little more concise," he said. "It's been done in terms that everyone can relate to; you don't have to sit down and go through everything."
But even though Signals was a much more stripped-down, modern-sounding effort, Rush still demonstrated their massive chops at every turn. Opener "Subdivisions" is one of the band's signature tracks, signaling a heavier transition into synthesizers. Where the instrument was used more for its textural qualities on Moving Pictures, it had bloomed into a lead instrument here, with Lee's elegant melodies on Minimoog and Oberheim OB-X. It's one of the band's finest anthems (inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010), and one of their finest marriages of music and lyric. Peart's words are tasteful and pogniant, harnessing an emotional intensity and vivid imagery that perfectly compliments the stormy synth-prog rumble: "Growing up, it all seemed so one-sided / Opinions all provided, the future pre-decided / Detached and subdivided in the mass production zone / Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone."
With Lifeson's guitars utilized more for texture than ornate riffs, Lee's basslines (which seem to have been influenced significantly by funk and reggae) come to the forefront. Signals is home to some of the bassist's all-time best playing, and the stripped-down production puts the muscle front-and-center. Longtime producer Terry Brown was so disgusted with the band's direction on the funky "Digital Man" that he initially refused to record the track (and those arguments resulted in an end of their collaborative partnership). Nonetheless, it's a knock-out, with a scythe-sharp hook and a bassline so funky and fluid, it's almost laughable. Meanwhile, "The Analog Kid" finds Lee exploring a more soulful vocal style on a truly emotive chorus (even if the verses are, for Rush's standards, a bit by-the-numbers).
Rush were still finding new ways to push forward: bigger synths, bigger choruses, bigger heart. But they still weren't afraid of experimentation (The spacey "Losing It" ventures into jazz-fusion territory with Ben Fink's dizzying electric violin work and Peart's tense drumming). To the outside world, these changes likely seemed like an intentional response to the changing sonic times, but for Rush, it was just about following their instincts.
"We never really were that serious," Lifeson reflected to Sounds. "You do a couple things that may seem that way, and you're labeled no matter what you do. You're always labeled as something like, 'Here's Rush, a heavy metal heady type band!' I don't know; most of the time, you don't give a f---. You have a good time, and that's it!"
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