Album Review: “Presto” — Rush (1989)

Rush_PrestoThe salad days of 1989 presented a fairly new situation for Rush. As the decade was waning, Messrs. Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were pretty far removed from their scrappy rock-prog early period, both in time and style. They surfed the oceans of hard rock, progressive rock, New Wave, synth rock, even a bit of post-punk and art rock to boot. By the time of 1985’s Power Windows and especially 1987’s Hold Your Fire, Rush seemed to be delving more into synthpop territory. Well, as synthpop as RUSH could get, anyhow. The band was still inimitably themselves. And yet, they had evolved a long way down the spiral chain, away from the hard rock bombast of 2112 or the arena rock majesty of Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures. Rush was, at this point, predominantly in the synths-n-sequencers camp.

Plenty of “old school” Rush fans were feeling pretty alienated as well. Oh the sales were still there, but they were definitely starting a trend of diminishing returns. Hold Your Fire was the first Rush album in nearly a decade that “only” went Gold; a downward sales trend was evident. To be fair, Rush was never a band at the forefront of musical trends and pop-culture prominence. They continued making music their way, irrespective of current trends and fads du jour. But it seemed like the Rush of the “classic-era” had left and wasn’t returning anytime soon… if at all.

Then in the fall of 1989 the band released Presto, their 13th studio album. I specifically remember reading the Boston Globe’s review of the album, with the headline reading, “Presto! Rush is back!”, as if the album heralded a RETURN OF RUSH! The classic band is back! We’re witnessing a return of the power trio that made epic rock classics of the 70s and early 80s! Woo-hoo’ism all around for fans everywhere!

Well… not really.

Don’t get me wrong, Presto easily represented a shift of the band’s tone, away from a reliance (some say “over-reliance”) on keyboards, synthesizers, and that omnipresent ‘digital’ tenor. Alex Lifeson’s guitar work seemed to be dialed higher up in the mix, with more edge and chunk than what had been heard for years. Geddy Lee himself claimed that the record was to be more of a “singer’s” album, one that placed a stronger emphasis on vocals, and the music reflected that entirely, with less of a focus on musical exploration and a more pronounced effort for lyrical emphasis.

And still, Presto still remains firmly entrenched in the band’s mid/late 80s synthpop wheelhouse. It’s much more Power Windows/Hold Your Fire than Permanent Waves/Moving Pictures. Admittedly the album represents the start of a move away from their “80s sound”, but the van still hasn’t entirely left the driveway. Disappointing, perhaps, for those who fell for the pre-release buzz promising something that they weren’t given.

But on its own, Presto is an album that, if not in the upper-tier of Rush releases, still holds a few worthwhile tracks that echo many of the traits that made earlier Rush so pleasurable, while remaining true to the band’s ethos of never looking back, always moving to evolve. The opening track (and first album single) “Show Don’t Tell” declares a statement of principles of sorts, with a strong presence of Alex’s guitars, atmospheric chords with strong riffage, a driving beat that builds to a keyboard-driven chorus before erupting back into classic Power Trio mode. This engaging dichotomy continues with “Chain Lightning”, although this track is tilted more towards the synthpop side of the field and isn’t quite as compelling as the opener.

This leads into “The Pass”, one of the band’s favorite tracks as well as a huge favorite among fans. It’s easy to see why, as Rush has never felt so effortlessly nimble at being heartfelt and emotional, touching and melodically engaging. A ballad that tackles the dicey subject of teen suicide has a tricky navigational act, as it can easily descend into preachiness, easy sentiments, or superficial surface-skimming. Not here. Everything about the track works perfectly — lyrics, music, vocals, everything. They nailed it. The song takes a difficult subject and, with a delicate touch, handles it beautifully.

As we pass the album’s absolute zenith, the next couple of tracks, “War Paint” and “Scars” seem somewhat lacking. The latter has a fine syncopated bassline over a swirling synth backdrop, while the former seems like a lesser version of “The Pass”, with the topic of the painful transition into adulthood supplanting that of teen suicide. “Scars” almost feels like the closest the band had ever come to a dance hit up to that point. It doesn’t quite work, although I admire the instrumentation permeating the tune.

“Presto” is an engaging song, with an acoustic guitar skeleton that echoes a bit of A Farewell To Kings and strongly catchy verses before opening up into that inimitable keyboard swirl at the chorus. Lee’s proclamation that this is a vocals-oriented album is dead on with the title track. This segues into the uptempo rock number “Superconductor”, a slight but enjoyable tune that excoriates pop music in a way that “The Spirit of Radio” did better nine years earlier. Yet it has a charm all its own, especially with a punctuating chorus that slightly tips its hat at the classic Subdivisions.

“Anagram (For Mongo)” continues the uptempo rock feel, at least until the really poppy-80s chorus. The song doesn’t offend, but it’s pretty effervescent: pleasant while it lasts, once it’s gone you’ll forget all about it. Still, there’s some enjoyable piano work between verses, and of course brownie points for a clever Blazing Saddles reference. “Red Tide” doesn’t work particularly well, especially with the dated synth sound that opens the track. It’s reminiscent of bands like Ultravox and Alphaville, that European synthpop influence all over the song, but overall it’s probably one of the album’s weaker songs. “Hand Over Fist” swings with a bit of an enjoyable groove all its own, but the song is merely serviceable — again, pleasant but a mild diversion.

The album finishes with “Available Light”, which starts as a slow, minor-key number, builds up to an energetic chorus, before bringing it back to the more soulful, bluesy choruses. It’s a different sound for Rush, a mix of mostly pop, some blues, even a bit of R&B… it’s hard to make much out of this track. It’s so very different from the vast majority of the band’s output, but if I had to rate it I’d say that the whole is very much less than the sum of its parts. There are portions of the song that seem intriguing to me, but they don’t seem to add up to much in the end. Not a bad song per se, but a very strange and somewhat patchwork one, and an odd closer to the album.

My biggest complaint about Presto is not so much about the quality of the material, but at the album production. It feels a bit bone-dry to my ears, lacking a rich low-end and needing some oomph in the mid-range. Otherwise, the album is a step up from Hold Your Fire but, as mentioned before, not quite the huge evolutionary step forward with which it is often credited. You might find yourself cherry-picking your favorite tracks, but with material like the title number, “Show Don’t Tell”, “Superconductor”, and especially “The Pass”, there’s still much to enjoy with little that offends.

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