Album Review: “Moving Pictures” — Rush (1981)

Moving_PicturesThink of those instantly iconic albums. You know the ones I’m talking about, right? Given a band with a pretty vast catalog of recorded work, there is always at least one album that new fans, who have recently ‘discovered’ the band, gravitate towards for an ‘introductory’ or ‘statement-defining’ experience, beyond the standard “greatest hits” collection. For an act as top-tier popular, utterly revered, and pop-culturally established as The Beatles, new fans probably move way past the 1 album and make a beeline for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Abbey Road. With AC/DC, that album is easily Back In Black or perhaps even Highway To Hell. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall, Led Zeppelin IV, Who’s Next, Sticky Fingers… the list is endless.

And then there’s Rush with Moving Pictures, inaguably their commercial zenith and arguably the most defining moment of the band’s multiple-decades-spanning career.

Let’s start with the quantitative analysis. Moving Pictures is far and away Rush’s best-selling album. It sold over 4 million copies in the US alone, which puts it at the top of their commercial successes. It spawned three singles and four staples of classic rock radio programming that regularly found their way into Rush’s live shows. The album was so massively popular that on their 2010-11 Time Machine tour, Rush played the album in its entirety during their second set of the evening.

And then what about this album being their “defining moment”? I’d gather that even the biggest Rush non-fan in the cosmos probably knows half the lyrics to “Tom Sawyer” and can ‘Name That Tune’ with “Limelight” from only two notes of the opening riff. Moving Pictures, for better or worse, defined Rush in the early 1980s, codifying their transition from an epic prog-hard-rock act of the mid/late 1970s to a more concise new wave/hard rock band of the early/mid 1980s. And yet this wasn’t a calculated commercial move, but an evolution of their sound that began with the previous record, 1981’s Permanent Waves, which formed the bridge between the two eras. Nonetheless, Moving Pictures solidified Rush as an arena rock band, a classic rock band, an FM rock band… all of that, and yet, still undeniably, unmistakably, inimitably RUSH.

The first four album tracks alone create a virtual “Greatest Hits” EP. The modulating synthesizer growl that opens “Tom Sawyer” immediately captures you like some digital snare trap, as the band weaves a descriptive character piece espousing the virtues of individualism and conviction, slamming you with thunderous riffs and virtuoso musicianship. There are only a precious few massively-overplayed classic rock radio hits that I never tire of. “Tom Sawyer” is one of them.

Allow me a moment of self-indulgence as I proclaim that “Red Barchetta” is my favorite Rush song of all time. There may be more than a small factor of nostalgia in play here — I played the hell out of this album and the following live release Exit… Stage Left — but so be it. “Red Barchetta” is a perfect song. It tells a compelling sci-fi’ish story in terrific style, with a musical accompaniment that begins with a shimmering softness and soon thunders into a powerful overdrive as the narrator guns the accelerator to his uncle’s illegal vintage Ferrari, daring and dodging airships sent in to intercept.

Although the song eventually ends as gently as it begins, the energy still pulsates through “YYZ”, one of the band’s most popular instrumentals. The Morse Code introduction turns into double dares of one-upsmanship between drummer Neil Peart and bassist Geddy Lee, before guitarist Alex Lifeson shreds through a wicked solo, culminating with the three members in unison taking the song majestically from crescendo to conclusion. The last of the four radio staples is “Limelight”, which is the album’s second most popular track and probably one of Rush’s top five most recognizable tunes. It moves to a steady rock tempo, melodic and catchy — dare I say, even with a bit of pop appeal? — and Neil’s introspective lyrics about the pitfalls of fame and the virtues of introversion are probably some of the most pointed and direct he had written up to this time with Rush.

Again, you could easily call any one of these opening four tracks “overplayed” or “hits for casual fans” or anything of that nature, but consider this: that was just Side 1. Back in 1981, before time, popular acceptance, and near-endless repetition would drastically alter perception of their strengths outside of the “Pre-Programmed FM Playlist” bubble, these were simply four great songs, knocked completely out of the park by an invigorated, transformed Rush.

Side 2 is where the album lost the casual/hits-only fans, but the music is equally as compelling if not entirely as immediately accessible. “Camera Eye” is the last of the band’s ‘epic’ pieces, an eleven-minute number that opens with ambient city noise, segueing into Geddy’s synth noodling, Neil’s march-like drumming, and Alex’s atmospheric guitar licks before taking flight as a bright uptempo piece. There is a strong keyboard backbone to “Camera Eye”, but what stands out to me is the acoustic guitar strumming underneath the verses, almost like a reaffirmation of optimistic humanism growing through the cracks of rainy, gray, concrete city surfaces. It’s a wonderful number.

Torches and pitchforks and the screams of an enraged mob contrast against the music box chimes that open “Witch Hunt”, before devolving into a dark, ominous, amplified dirge. The third entry in Neil Peart’s ‘Fear’ quartet of songs — although the first one to be recorded and released, figure THAT one out on your own — I find it to be the album’s best ‘deep track’. It evokes images of anger, hatred, suspicion, but not just of the titular warlocks, but of foreigners, ‘different’ people, subversive art and literature, and mostly the rightful fear of those who would take it upon themselves to invoke hatred in the name of society’s ‘best interests’.

The album concludes with the somewhat clinical “Vital Signs”, a consciously robotic tune that takes in elements of reggae, new wave, and electronic music, acting as a harbinger of sorts to Rush’s upcoming musical evolution. I’m thinking of the album Signals in particular, especially in the songs “Losing It” and “New World Man”. “Vital Signs” probably could have been called “Signals” in and of itself, as it handles themes of processing incoming data and how a dangerously low signal-to-noise ratio can transform perception for the worse. If that sounds coldly dehumanizing, that’s because it is, and the song reflects that well. While “Vital Signs” is probably my least favorite track on the album, it’s still quite a good song and a decent album closer.

Moving Pictures feels like two separate albums at times, but that doesn’t make the album experience any less satisfying. In fact, if nothing else it enhances the experience, even well over three decades since its release in 1981. Side one feels outward, expressive, almost celebratory, compared with the more introspective, caustic, rather ominous side two, but it’s that strong, contrasting juxtaposition which makes Moving Pictures so much more than “the big album with nearly all of Rush’s big radio hits!” So sure, come on in for the big arena sing-along classics, but stick around and flip the record over for something more challenging but equally as compelling.

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