Rush - Presto
AUDIO FIDELITY: Hybrid SACD AFZ 182
Released July 29th 2014
1969 - can it really be 45 years since Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and John Rutsey started playing the local halls and clubs of Toronto? It seems it is, and for a band who have spent two thirds of their career as the biggest 'cult band' in the universe, it has certainly been a singular path.
More-over, for a band that released a cover of Buddy Hollys' chestnut 'NOT FADE AWAY” (1973) as a tentative 'hello' to the world, to the band that would fill enormodomes in RIO decades later, I think the visual of the 'J -curve' holds some relevance.
For a quick recap; with drummer John Rutsey (now deceased) aboard, RUSH released their self-titled debut album in 1975. With album opener 'FINDING MY WAY' (a reprise of the late '74 single) kicking things off, this showed a band with the potential to go in two directions. Some of the tracks remain in the set to this day, and 'WORKING MAN' for many, remains the bands' keystone track. These are anthemic, fist pumping tracks that tap into the most elemental DNA of hard rock. The lyrics are 'local' - the trials of the everyman. But stuck in the middle is a rather forgotten slice of prescience.
'HERE AGAIN' is a moody and blues-informed tune with a very thoughtful lyric of somewhat higher aspiration. To confirm its' status as a lost gem, Alex slides into one of his all time best solos. With a poise and tone that would be a feature of much of his later work, the track, at once, flags the Led Zeppelin influences, but is also the probable point at which the future direction of RUSH was minted.
The album did not even scrape into the top one hundred, but, on the other side of the planet, it got a release, and I still have that copy in my collection.
With the chops to do the job, but lacking the commitment and good health to survive a life on the road, John Rutsey vacated the drummers chair, and in stepped one Neil Peart. Already prodigiously talented on his chosen instrument, Neil also bought his talent for lyrics, and a mind given to literature of all kinds.
But you just knew there was a copy of 'LORD OF THE RINGS' on his bedside table at night, just under his copy of Ayn Rands' 'THE FOUNTAINHEAD', and next to the bong.
This line up change ushered in the next album, 'FLY BY NIGHT' (1975). This set was very much a settling-down period for the band. Some of the tracks hold up very well.
'FLY BY NIGHT', 'ANTHEM' and 'IN THE END' in particular, still sound fresh and vital. The album centre-piece, 'BY-TOR & THE SNOW DOG', depending on your point of view, was either a precursor of the very qualities that would keep RUSH in the margins for so long, or a wonderful example of all the things that make fantasy fiction inspired ProgRock the joy it is. (For me, the latter.)
'CARESS OF STEEL' (1976) was another mix of shorter tunes wrapped around a central epic, 'THE NECROMANCER' (I know- you had to be there O.K?).
For me, the short tunes 'BASTILLE DAY' and 'LAKESIDE PARK' , I can listen to endlessly. The epic, well I loved it then, but it is a guilty pleasure now.
Mere months later, the band released '2112' (1976) - their transition album, and their first essential album.
The band still anchored the set around the epic piece, side one of the album, but backed it up with some tasty shorter tracks on side two.
The musicians were learning, on the shorter tunes, to hone the playing down to serve the song. On the title track, they used the scenario of a dystopian future where music is forbidden.
The lyrics had a narrative arc, and the musical sections gelled perfectly. Alex got the chance to shred some massive riffs, Neal got to attack some of his favourite time signatures, and Geddy got a chance to wear his tight underpants.
It was the bands' first big seller. It quickly gained classic status, and remains a touch stone of American progressive rock, and for RUSH fans, to hear it performed live is a holy grail, of sorts.
Endless touring allowed the band to put together their first live album, 'ALL THE WORLDS A STAGE” (1977). This very satisfying set cherry-picked the shorter tunes, and wrapped them around excellent renderings of '2112' and 'BY-TOR'. It was, and is, an excellent listen.
September 1977 saw the release the studio album, 'A FAREWELL TO KINGS'. This set of songs were very much evidence of the bands' growing maturity, and willingness to let the music serve the lyric. That said, in doing so, they still manage to unleash some storming riffs. It is not a perfect album however, with 'CINDERALLA MAN' and 'CYGNUS X-1' dating somewhat. But for the showpieces, it remains a high point, and much loved.
'HEMISPHERES' (1978) followed, and again used the mix of epic and short tracks. The whole album has aged kindly, and 'THE TREES' and 'LA VILLA STRANGIATO' in particular, have the glow about them.
Follow up album, 'PERMANENT WAVE' (1980) has endured rather well, but in my own estimation, is the 'lightest' release of their career. Short and snappy was the order of the day. No dud tracks, but only 'JACOBS' LADDER' supplying the requisite drama we were expecting. I saw them on this tour, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco - one of best concerts of any band I have enjoyed. (Yes, they did '2112' , so I can tick that one off the list.)
In early 1981, the band released 'MOVING PICTURES', the second essential album.
This was the one where brevity in arrangement came to the fore. From the opening synthesiser note of 'TOM SAWYER' (one of the most recognisable single notes in music) to the now signature instrumental 'YYZ', this is brilliance all the way. Neils lyrics were concise, focused, and very relatable. For me, the lyric he crafted for 'WITCH HUNT' is one of the best in rock, and should be compulsory listening for anyone with a disposition towards exclusion. Simply a marvellous album.
The subsequent tours were documented on the live set 'EXIT….STAGE LEFT', well worth a listen.
A year later, the next studio album, 'SIGNALS' (1982) ushered in one of the most divisive eras for the band - 'the synth years'.
The band had always taken a pride in being able to reproduce anything they did in the studio, live on stage. Geddy had developed exceptional skill with a range of keyboards, and with the addition of TAURUS BASS PEDALS, suddenly the scope for broadening the arrangements was at hand, with the ability to take these additions to the stage.
'SIGNALS' tellingly opens with a brilliant synthesized keyboard sound. Not drums, not bass, not guitar - keyboards.
Neil turned in a set of reflective and beautifully crafted lyrics, and Geddy and Alex dressed them in some of the richest and most mature arrangements they had ever provided. Not a dud track in sight, with 'CHEMISTRY' and 'SUBDIVISIONS' in particular carrying an emotional charge undiminished to this day. Production values were high, and nothing has dated. Superb.
The album did very well commercially, but an uncommon period elapsed before the follow up was released.
It took until April 1984 for 'GRACE UNDER PRESSURE' to surface. This and 'SIGNALS' really are a pigeon-pair. All my comments for 'SIGNALS' apply here.
Beautifully arranged, performed with restraint and regard for sonic texture, another set of intelligent and sensitive lyrics.
'AFTER IMAGE', 'RED SECTOR A' and 'DISTANT EARLY WARNING', are the stand outs for me. Sweeping and epic.
Without being privy to the actual conversations, it may be worth noting it has been suggested that Alex found the keyboard focus of these two albums a little restricting. This would explain the move back to guitar driven arrangements of subsequent albums. Noting that, I would suggest Alex performed some of his best playing in tandem with the synth arrangements. His own technique and sonic palette expanded subtly, and enduringly.
'POWER WINDOWS' (1985) and 'HOLD YOUR FIRE' (1987) are to my ears, a revisit to the template of 'PERMANENT WAVE'. Concise and tightly arranged, lyrically interesting, and with a high level of production and musicianship, these remain immensely pleasurable listening experiences, but oddly, somewhat overlooked in hindsight.
An era closing live set 'A SHOW OF HANDS' was released early 1989. Again, a fine album, showing the trio in good form, with a very satisfying track selection. Watching the live DVD of the event, it is a treat to watch Geddy switching between keys, bass and vocal, and rarely missing a cue.
This brings us to the album in consideration now, from December 1989, 'PRESTO' - the forgotten album. For an album that performed so well commercially, and artistically, it has gathered rather a lot of dust over the years.
Excellent reissue company AUDIO FIDELITY have tackled three other RUSH titles in recent years.
First up came a pass at the 1991 album, 'ROLL THE BONES'. This set did quite well commercially, but I would suggest the intent to 'rock out' was not well served by the production choices of British Producer, Rupert Hine. Whether it was the delivered master tape or the actual final mastering itself, Hine delivered a set of decent tunes ham-strung by a flat and hard sonic presence. Musically satisfying, but it was not an easy listen. The only song to really survive the approach was the excellent 'GHOST OF A CHANCE', a song so delicate, the sledge hammer approach would simply destroy it. The songs themselves were good, as evidenced by later live versions. The A.F. pass restores it to listenable /enjoyable status.
AUDIO FIDELITY then tackled the 1993 album 'COUNTERPARTS' (with early producer Peter Collins back on board). Again, a rather 'hard' and 'in your face' sound, perhaps not showing the songs to best advantage. An uneven album in hindsight, but certainly benefiting from the transfer to SACD by A.F. Better delineation between instruments, more body to Geddys' voice and dare I say, a sense of the 'studio ambience'. Depth of soundstage - who knew?
Having A.F. restore these two albums is almost like hearing them for the first time, and oddly, I can now appreciate them and think the years have been kind to them - they sound better and more timely now than they did on original release.
Next, A.F. attempted a pass at 'HEMISPHERES', again for an SACD reissue, with excellent results. These 34 year old tapes still had plenty of life in them.
With all these A.F. masterings, you can give it some 'welly' without your ears bleeding. Bless.
So, how did they do with 'PRESTO'?
The album was recorded in Le Studio from June through August, 1989. British musician/ producer Rupert Hine was again aboard as co-producer with the band.
His influence is evident not only in the distinct sonics of the album, but also the tighter arrangements.
Both the first pressing vinyl, and the later CD, received rather negative feedback regarding the very brittle and toppy mix. The vinyl was acceptable, if not stellar, but the CD, well, lets let it go at that…..
We know that Geddy Lees' bass work is very nimble, but he does tend to play in the upper register, and this can leave RUSH recordings from 'PERMANENT WAVE' onwards sounding bass shy, and not anchored.
In this instance, it actually discouraged repeated playings for what was, in fact, a beautifully arranged and performed set.
Commercially, it did well, with very respectable sales in the U.K and Europe, and top twenty in the States. But, I think the 'unfriendly mastering' did the album no favours, and for two decades, it has been somewhat an overlooked gem, ripe for reappraisal.
This new edition comes courtesy of Audio Fidelity, with Kevin Gray responsible for the mastering.
Packaged with a rather endearing monochrome photo of a bunch of rabbits emerging from a levitating hat, the promise was one of change, and by keeping the songs tight, multi-layed, and rich with textures, in retrospect, that is what we got.
Album opener, 'SHOW DON'T TELL' arrives with a sprinkle of percussive effects, dancing around a primitive tom-tom beat floating at the rear of the soundstage. At the 16 second mark, a classic RUSH power riff calls the listener to attention, and away we go.
'CHAIN LIGHTNING' follows with Alex utilising fast downstroke chord blocks during the verses, contrasting with chiming figures in the choruses, and a complete 'wig out' solo.
Neil comes through with one of my favourite couplets,“Sun dogs fire on the horizon, meteor rain stars across the night.”
Geddy is singing in his 'chest voice' for the bulk of the album, and shines on this.
'THE PASS' has become a much loved song, with its lyric referencing teenage suicide striking a chord for many. The words are uppermost here, with a rather lilting musical backing, and some gently chugging lines from Geddys' bass holding it all down. Alex plays some lovely arpeggio lines, with restraint being the key word.
Next track up, 'WARPOINT', is about vapid narcissism, and this one kicks along very nicely. Neils' percussion features strongly in the mix, and with some subtle keyboards noticeable in the outro, it holds up well.
“All puffed up with vanity,
we see what we want to see,
to the powerful and the wise,
the mirror always lies.”
'SCARS' is an upbeat and propulsive track that begs you to turn it up for the full experience. Layers of additional percussion are laced through the mix, with the kick drum and the bass line almost playing a duet.
'PRESTO' features some of Alex's acoustic work and later, probably the only 'classic style Alex' electric solo on the album. Jagged, short and sweet. A nicely percolating bass line by Geddy and by this point in the album, one is beginning to notice how clearly the vocals have been recorded - every word and inflection easy to discern in the often rich and busy soundscape.
'SUPERCONDUCTOR' is well played and has its moments, but to this listener, it is the only track that does not earn its place on the album. It seems to be three different track snippets woven hopefully together to support a substandard lyric. I realise that is probably not how it came to be, but that is how it played then, and still plays now.
'ANAGRAM (for Mongo)' is a very infectious slice of melodic rock, perhaps the one on which Ruperts' influence is most pronounced. The lyric is just Neil playing with the anagrammatic form, and stumbling on some great lines in the process.
The choice of a grand piano to enhance the main chorus line gives this a lovely richness. This track often gets written off by RUSH fans as being a throw away - I could not disagree more. I find I hit the repeat quite often.
Following track, 'RED TIDE' was written some 10 years into the AIDS crisis, and places it in the context of wider ecological concerns. This one could sit comfortably on either 'SIGNALS' or 'GRACE UNDER PRESSURE' in both sonic and and conceptual terms. Geddy is in his 'head voice' for this one.
Alex peels off a short strangulated solo. This is quite anthemic and would work brilliantly live.
Penultimate track 'HAND OVER FIST' uses the old children's game as reflection of an ambivalence about being distanced from a meaningful connection - in the end he opens his fist. The arrangement crams in minor details that only become evident with further listens.
'AVAILABLE LIGHT' closes the set. This is RUSH at their most subtle, and most beautiful. Neil lays out his philosophy of life in one of his best lyrics, and the arrangement is epic without being in the least bit pompous. Strangely, it also has become a 'forgotten' deep cut, along with the aforementioned 'GHOST OF A CHANCE'.
The band thought enough of these tracks to give them the status of being album closers - why are they not given due respect is anyones' guess.
I am a self confessed RUSH tragic and have loved this album from the week it was released. This is melodic progressive music, not PROG. It is loaded with wonderful arrangements, new textures and some fine lyrics. I listened to it endlessly despite how it sounded. When I learnt A.F. would be tackling some RUSH albums, 'PRESTO' is the one I most wanted them to do, but felt least likely to see surface.
Shut up and tell us how it sounds, you say?
Well, huge sigh of relief. The original tapes must have contained some 'air' after-all, for lo' and behold, here it is.
Kevin Gray has found the depth, breath, and excitement contained within this album, and now we all get to share it.
Finally, we can hear the depth of the soundstage, albeit not massive, like never before. Each instrument in the mix is clearly discernable, the guitar textures are differentiated well, the percussion showing great attack.
Kevin has also 'found' the bottom that we all doubted was there. The sonic spectrum is now much fuller and even. You have to crank it VERY loud before any edginess intrudes - such an improvement over the original mastering.
But the secret joy is the clarity of the vocals. Every word Geddy sings is clearly enunciated, with the backing vocals clear enough to pick the number of voices in the mix.
Finally, this excellent album gets the mastering it deserves, and we can only hope it leads to a wider re-evaluation amongst the afficionados and possible new comers.
My ears are smiling.
ORIGINAL SONICS -
THIS REMASTERING -
A walking encyclopedia of music, David’s broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.