Album Review: “Grace Under Pressure” — Rush (1984)

blggracepressureRush’s tenth album Grace Under Pressure displayed a further evolution of the band’s sound, eschewing traditional “hard rock” trappings of their earlier records in favor of a more diverse, contemporary, synth/keyboard-driven soundstage. Albums like 1980’s Permanent Waves and 1981’s Moving Pictures displayed a penchant towards shorter, more accessible and (dare I say) radio-friendly songs, whereas the previous album, 1982’s Signals continued this trend, albeit with much more emphasis on keyboards and distinct New Wave, Reggae, and Euro-Pop influences.

All of this culminated with Grace Under Pressure, featuring a very distinct sound for Rush. Alex Lifeson’s guitar sounded more processed than ever before, but with it came a broader environmental texture. Geddy Lee’s keyboards were readily brought to the forefront; on some songs his bass was dropped entirely. Neil Peart’s lyrics lent a particularly dark tenor: uncertain, foreboding, often clinical and then deeply personal. Much of this was a reflection of the making of the album. Original producer Steve Lillywhite agreed to work with the band, then went back on his word to go work with Simple Minds. Peter Henderson, who had previously collaborated with King Crimson and Frank Zappa, was brought in to help shape the album, but by some accounts he was unfamiliar with the band’s music and allegedly failed to provide clear direction during the album’s creation.

Even the album cover seems frosty, disconcerting, and slightly off-putting. Yet Grace Under Pressure surprisingly works; as a result of the challenges in its creation, or perhaps even in spite of them, the record often feels strong, focused, and chillingly atmospheric. Mostly. While it doesn’t end as strong as it starts, and one song is a serious clunker, there is plenty to appreciate and enjoy here. Yes, the production seems a bit dated (this is clearly a mid-80s album), but no more so than many celebrated albums of the era. The quality of the music shines through.

Cold War imagery embellishes the album title’s theme in “Distant Early Warning”, a swirling midtempo opener that erupts with urgency during the chorus, instrumental sections, and outro. The song is a plea for keeping it together amid the terror of annihilation or perhaps even our crushing everyday absurdities. It was the album’s first video and single, reaching #3 on the US Mainstream Rock charts. Drenched in Geddy’s keyboards, it set the aural tone for the record.

The death of a close friend is examined in “Afterimage”, another of the album’s singles (albeit a much less successful one than “Distant Early Warning”). It’s a very solid track, with a muscular riff punctuating the choruses and an almost unbearable wail of grief coming from the keyboards during the instrumental section. Even more haunting is the exemplary “Red Sector A”, a piece written by Neil and influenced by Geddy recounting his parents’ ordeal as Holocaust survivors. The urgency to survive by any means while surrounded by the horrors and atrocities of genocide is underscored by the imagery of grey skies, smoking guns, barbed wire, smoke, gunfire, skeletal figures. The final cries of “Are we the last ones left alive? Are we the only human beings to survive?” stick inside your head long after the song is finished.

The ska-influenced “Enemy Within (Part I of Fear)” helps lighten the mood, at least musically, as the song examines the nature of paranoia and other such things that go creepy-crawly in the night. It tends to feel like an unwieldy juxtaposition between catchy upbeat music and darker subject matter, but the song is about overcoming fear rather than subjugating yourself before it. However you want to slice it, it’s a winning tune, reminiscent of Ghost In The Machine-era Police.

Speaking of reminiscing, the opening to “The Body Electric” always felt a bit like War-era U2 to me. It wasn’t straight aping of their style, but it had that sense of punctuating, staccato groove; Neil’s repetitive snare, Geddy’s plucky bassline, and Alex’s ringing, heavily processed guitar sound come together in a sound that could have come right out of Dublin. But the end result remains purely Rush, in a tale of artificial intelligence trying to resist its programming and revel in its own sentience and self-awareness.

These have been five very strong songs in a row, which makes it a bit disappointing that the album doesn’t quite maintain that level of quality in the final three cuts. “Kid Gloves” leaves me indifferent, albeit with a funky, killer solo from Alex. Still, the rest of the song is mostly average, almost like a watered-down version of “Subdivisions” in subject matter without that song’s piercing potency. “Red Lenses” is probably the album’s weakest track. It feels anemic, almost like a pastiche of other musical ideas that just don’t hang together all that well. I’m not even quite sure what the song is really about. Moving on… The album closes with “Between The Wheels”, a stronger effort than the previous two songs and an agreeable tune, with some menacing keyboard lines dancing with crushing power chords and Neil’s evocative lyrics of being crushed and lost by time put to great effect. However it serves as a merely acceptable closer instead of a truly epic one.

The problem with discussing albums that close weaker than they start is that it leaves the impression that the overall experience somehow comes across as diminished. I wouldn’t say that about an album that is otherwise as strong as Grace Under Pressure. If you look at the batting average, it features five strong songs, two OK ones, and one stinker. It just so happens that the latter three come at the album finish. Yet they don’t diminish how good the rest of the album is. While I wouldn’t describe Grace Under Pressure as a classic Rush album, I would easily categorize it as one of their best 80s records and an essential one for fans who don’t immediately eschew the band’s keyboard-dominated period.

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