by Eric J Baker
100 points. That’s all you’ll ever have.
So says my friend Emilie, though not with such dramatic flair. She’s not trying to lure readers with an intriguing opening, after all. What she means is that everyone has 100 points of intrinsic value that can be divided a number of ways. For example, Pierce Brosnan is a pretty good looking man with passable acting chops. I’d ballpark him at 70 points for looks and 30 for acting skill. Billy Bob Thornton, on the other hand, is more like 25 points for looks and 75 for acting talent. Megan Fox, 90/10. And when discussing Geddy Lee (center, below), the bass player and vocalist for Canadian power trio Rush, Emilie says all 100 of his points are musical talent. Ouch. You know what that means, Ged.
Lee’s virtuosity as a bass player would make him the standout player in most music acts, if he weren’t sharing the stage with world-renowned drummer Neil Peart (85/15 for drumming/ writing books and lyrics) and guitar wiz Alex Lifeson (80/10/10 for guitaring/being the funny one/looks), whose playing style seems wholly his own inspiration. But why does one need so many musical points? You only need to know about five chords to get laid, and that’s the reason we all started playing in the first place, isn’t it?
There comes a time in the life of many young rock musicians when they become seduced by the dark side of music: Playing too many notes. You start to gain mastery over your instrument, your nimble fingers learn to dance like a centipede across the fretboard, and all semblance of restraint is flushed down the artistic toilet.
You start playing progressive rock.
Prog, with its indulgent flurries of notes, polyrhythmic beats, and relentless bombast, reached a pinnacle in the 1970s when art rockers like Yes, ELP, Kansas, and King Crimson were turning pop songs into mini symphonies. Meanwhile, up in the Great White North, those three Canadian lads known collectively as Rush were defining their own brand of complex music. While other art rockers leaned heavily on lush classical arrangements, Rush leaned heavily on the volume knob. When Rush borrowed from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, they did it while stomping on the distortion pedal and screaming like pissed-off banshees.
Unlike most ‘70s prog rock artists, Rush hasn’t cycled through dozens of members. Outside their first indie recording, Rush has been the same three guys for eighteen studio and nine live albums going back nearly four decades. And they don’t live off the same overplayed classic rock tracks from 1975, as many geriatric artists do. They continue to write new music and perform across the world, their most recent outing being the Time Machine tour, during which they debuted 2 songs from their forthcoming album, Clockwork Angels. The DVD and blu-ray of the tour, filmed in Cleveland this past spring, is set for release on December 22 (though, pssssst, Best Buy is already selling it).
Just because these guys are old enough to be grandpas, don’t assume they are a bunch of tired geezers. Geddy Lee’s voice has lost an octave since the late ‘70s, but, otherwise, they can still rip it up with the best of them. Watching Rush perform live is almost a nerve-wracking experience, akin to witnessing a high-wire circus act that dispenses with safety nets. All three players often tear off on independent and simultaneous polyrhythmic runs that must be performed with precision or the whole thing will end up like a helicopter snagged in power lines. As an audience member, you flinch and brace for the worst, preparing to see your heroes turn Lindsay Lohan and humiliate themselves before thousands of stunned fans. But it never happens. They all return to the same place at the same moment, just in time to sing the last chorus and enjoy a hot cup of Earl Grey before calling it a night. No probation officer needed.
Rush has its detractors, otherwise known as music critics, who hate progressive rock the way democrats hate Sarah Palin. As a music listener and general observer of life, you either think reimagining Ayn Rand’s Anthem as a twenty-minute art-metal tune, in which the protagonist discovers music instead of electricity, is clever and original… or stupid and pretentious. You either think a guy with a one hundred-piece drum set is tastelessly self-indulgent or trying to push the instrument to new heights (or that he just has really long arms).
You might find it unthinkable that a rock band is something other than a bunch of left-wing social activists. Rush’s atheistic and libertarian views permeate their songs (Freewill, Anthem, 2112, Natural Science, Faithless), making them hard to turn into a cliché, which irritates lazy music critics, it seems.
Rush has inspired thousands of bands to follow in their musically indulgent footsteps, the most notable of which is Dream Theater, an American act that never met a time-signature change it didn’t like. They’re a highly skilled outfit with a massive following, though I find their songwriting flimsy.
My rule of rock songwriting is this: If you can’t play it on an acoustic guitar or a piano, it’s not a song. Rush may not be known for subtlety, but their tunes are quite melodic and, once you become acquainted with the unusual time signatures, rather catchy and singable. I just don’t hear that with Dream Theater. I hear an effort to jam as many notes into one song as possible. It’s done well, but I don’t find myself humming it later.
I actually hung out with John Myung (above), the bassist for Dream Theater, one night without realizing it. When taking in a Fates Warning show at a ratty club in New Jersey back in the ‘90s, I ended up standing beside some Asian dude, and we got to talking about music and being in bands and so on. I assumed he was a struggling musician like me and seemed humble for it.
At the end of the night, Fates Warning’s vocalist Ray Alder said to the crowd, “Before we go, I want to say a big thank you to Dream Theater, who we played with on their last tour. Give it up for Dream Theater!” A spotlight hit the 5 guys standing to my left, including John Myung, my new pal. I stayed and chatted a bit after the place cleared out, but I wish I could say the other guys (*cough cough* DICKS) were as cool as Myung.
For the record, I give him 70 points for musical talent and 30 for being a real human being.
We haven’t closed a Sunday post with a sexy brunette in ages, so here’s the return of Emmanuelle Chriqui, who has no relevance to this story whatsoever (unless she’s the new keyboardist for Yes and I don’t know about it). She gets a 97/3. The 97 is for being insanely attractive, and she can do whatever the fuck she wants with the other 3 points.