Producer Nick Raskulinecz lobbied hard to work with Rush on their 2007 album Snakes & Arrows, and the result is probably one of the strongest (if not THE strongest) album of the band’s later period. Ostensibly he was working to return Rush to their experimental heyday of the 2112 through Hemispheres era, although I don’t think that’s an apt descriptor of the album. For starters, Rush was never a band that spent significant (if any) time looking backward. Whether you liked the direction the band was taking or not, you could never dismiss Rush for remaining stagnant or coasting on formula. This is compounded by the fact that Snakes & Arrows lacks the epic progressive pieces that earmark those earlier albums, in favor of a record that featured 13 tracks of standard song lengths (four to six minutes), including three instrumentals.
So yeah, it’d be misleading to state Snakes & Arrows contains the lyrical and musical equivalent of “Cygnus X-1 III: Attack of the Mole People” or whatever. But what it does feature is a band still mining its creative peak. If anything, there seems to be an air of freedom here, a lack of self-consciousness that all too often plagues established, successful bands well into their fourth decade of recording and touring. Nowhere on the album does it feel like anyone is bellowing “We need a few CLASSIC RUSH SONGS here!!” This is a Rush album, no question, but it’s an album that showcases a band in measured motion and disciplined exploration. Snakes & Arrow feels a little long but it never wallows in meandering self-indulgence or pointless fan-service.
The album’s central focus is faith, its application or sublimation, the wake left behind in its practice, and the reconciliation between dauntless hope and stark pragmatism. Or something like that. Drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics seem to resonate around a central pillar of struggle, conflict, and being able to shoulder the burden while maintaining forward motion. Whether it’s being able to pick yourself up after being continually knocked down (“Far Cry”), navigating through the calamitous thicket of existence while dodging disaster at every turn (“Working Them Angels”), appreciating the beauty of life while recognizing its cynical paradoxes and uncaring destructiveness (“Bravest Face”), finding hope in the face of a universe striving for disorder (“Good News First”), or even a blanket declaration of Humanist principles (“Faithless”), this is Peart at his starkest, darkest, but yet most determined perseverance.
Musically, the band seems especially focused and economical. While there are the usual flourishes of technical and progressive complexity we’ve come to expect from Rush, none of it exists in a vacuum; all of it exists in service of the songs, first and foremost. The hard rock crunch of “Far Cry” merges seamlessly with the pop-rock catchiness of its chorus. The exotic instrumental “The Main Monkey Business” is evocative of island/Afro-Caribbean beats and Middle Eastern melodies to provide something entirely unique, haunting, and lovely. Then you have something like “The Larger Bowl”, in which Geddy Lee’s heartfelt, almost folksy vocals are intertwined seamlessly with a strong acoustic backbone provided by Alex Lifeson.
There’s a prevailing mood of versatility and verisimilitude Snakes & Arrows. An issue I have with some later-era Rush albums is that there is an overall feeling of sameness to the songs on each record (witness 2012’s Clockwork Angels, which is a rather good album but lacks variety), but that’s not the case here. While songs are thematically similar, each exists in its own style and space while simultaneously becoming part of cohesive and appealing collective. Take the three instrumental songs (“The Main Monkey Business”, “Hope”, and “Malignant Narcissism”), which are all distinct pieces: I previously discussed the exotic, worldly “Monkey”, whereas the acoustic “Hope” focuses on a bluegrass feel, with “Narcissism” a more traditional prog-hard-rock track, yet they seem to springboard off of and into each other. As an exploration of faith, its antecedents and conditionals, the album runs the spectral gamut, from rocking hard with furious rage to softening with introspective meditation, sometimes both at the same time. Snakes & Arrows is Rush at their most personal, most connective, most emotionally guttural (as emotionally guttural as Rush gets, anyhow), but still with a strong focus on musicality (complexity in service of melody), fidelity (this is a great sounding record) and tonal diversity.