I have a feeling that many RUSH fans felt the way I did when a sample of "Far Cry", the opening cut from the band's 18th studio album, surfaced online back in March. The big, crunching chords, melodic acoustic counterpoint, and epic feel all created an instant auditory flashback to the band's early days, when massive albums such as "2112" and "Fly By Night" established these Canadian icons as the definitive rock power trio of their time. Now that "Snakes & Arrows", the group's first collection of new material in five years, has finally arrived, will it live up to the unspoken hope of RUSH's loyal fan base that the group will once again just rock out like they used to?
Well, the answer to that is no, simply because Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart are not the musicians now that they were then and have different interests. But there's no doubt that "Snakes & Arrows" does have moments when it recalls those days of old, and is also the band's most focused and direct effort in years. Far more lean and therefore more powerful than 2002's ambitious but overly dense "Vapor Trails", the new disc has a live, clean feel thanks to Nick Raskulinecz's production. All three members shine as usual, but Lifeson's guitar dominates on this record in a way that it hasn't since "Stick It Out" (from 1993's "Counterparts") and gives the CD the extra muscle that RUSH has sometimes let drift away throughout their career.
"Far Cry"'s chorus kicks in with a bit less energy than the verses, but that doesn't stop this from being a rocking opener. "Armor and Sword" and "Workin' Them Angels" continue the give-and-take of heavy guitars and more melodic choruses, with the latter featuring a guitar part that could have come straight out of the classic "2112" sequence. "Spindrift", meanwhile, is one of the album's heaviest songs, capturing the weight and cosmic vibe — if not the complexity — of RUSH's earlier sci-fi anthems. Almost incredibly, "The Way The Wind Blows" kicks off with a bluesy intro from Lifeson, Peart and Lee grooving behind him, before swerving into a zigzagging main riff and melancholy chorus section for one of the album's best numbers.
With 13 tracks, there's bound to be a handful that don't stand up to scrutiny as well as the rest of the album. "Faithless", for example, sounds too much like the sort of middle-of-the-road RUSH that has clogged up records like "Roll The Bones", while "Bravest Face" comes across as, if anything, too simplistic. But the album is anchored by two major instrumentals — "The Main Monkey Business" and "Malignant Narcissism" — that really get across the pure thrill of hearing these three brilliant musicians jamming together. "Main Monkey Business" is white-hot, careening through different tempos and stylistic changeups, while "Narcissism" lets both Peart and Lee cut loose with solo sections that are likely to make it a concert favorite.
As hinted earlier, Alex Lifeson is perhaps the star of this particular effort (he also has a little acoustic instrumental of his own called "Hope"), his axework driving the songs and adding a stamp of authority to the entire project. Those ultra-high notes are long in Geddy Lee's rearview mirror, but he still delivers an impassioned and diverse vocal performance throughout the album, while his bass weaves effortlessly around Lifeson's guitars and Peart's drums. There's little you can say about the latter's playing except that it's the perfect mix of showmanship and restraint, while his lyrics this time touch on the state of the world, religion and the way that the present can often dash our hopes for the future. It's pointed and questioning without being too specific, and lyrically this may well be one of the saddest albums that RUSH has ever made. Yet it's musically one of the group's most inspiring since "Moving Pictures" and gives ample reason why this band's music is still valid 33 years after it released its first record — a claim that I doubt many bands working today will ever be able to make.