The back-to-basics album has been done so often by veteran rock bands that by now it’s become painfully predictable, as aging rockers attempt to rediscover the magic of their band’s nascent days by either simplifying the sound, recording live off the floor, digging out the acoustic guitars, recording covers, or doing all of the above. What’s even more remarkable, though, is how often such tactics actually work. Coming on the heels of the aggressive, yet impenetrable 2002 album Vapor Trails, Rush’s 2004 EP Feedback, which featured an assortment of ebulliently performed classic ‘60s rock tunes, was just what the doctor ordered for the Canadian legends. Beset in previous years by drummer Neil Peart’s personal tragedies and guitarist Alex Lifeson’s legal hassles, it was good to hear the guys having fun on record again, and the positive vibes carried over onto the band’s successful 30th anniversary tour that same year. The only thing left to do was hammer out the big comeback album, and true to form, Rush has delivered what is arguably their best work since 1990’s Presto.
Rush’s studio output over the last decade or so (which basically includes two albums, Vapor Trails and 1996’s Test For Echo) has not been without its share of memorable moments, including such tracks as “Resist”, “One Little Victory”, and “Secret Touch”, but the band’s move away from the synthesizer-enhanced music of the 1980s in favor of a more robust power trio set-up seemed to come at the expense of the band’s normally reliable sense of melody, in particular in the guitar work of Lifeson. His riffs started to sound too grungy, too thick, and in the case of Vapor Trails, actual solos were nonexistent. Snakes & Arrows, on the other hand, has Lifeson taking a completely different approach, and the band and its music sounds re-energized in the process.
Lifeson’s variation on the new album is like suddenly switching to Technicolor after a decade of monochrome. His guitar work is rich, melodic, and diverse, and fans will be thrilled to know that it doesn’t come at the expense of the band’s overall heaviness. In fact, lead-off track (and first single) “Far Cry” lets us know immediately that the fire still burns. Unlike “One Little Victory”, which relied perhaps too much on blunt force, “Far Cry” sounds far less stifling, the 2112-style intro underscored by fiercely strummed acoustic guitar, coming off as a cross between A Farewell to Kings and the Who, before the trio launches into a midtempo groove, slinky filtered guitar melodies interweaving with Geddy Lee’s authoritative basslines. Lee’s lead vocals hold up exceptionally well here; age has lessened his ability to emit those high-pitched screams of old, but the man is well aware of his vocal range, and he sounds comfortable, not only on the entire record, but “Far Cry” especially. It’s one of Rush’s best vocal hooks in many years, made all the better by Peart’s lyrics, which continue to reflect his own personal spiritual journey: “One day I feel I’m ahead of the wheel / And the next it’s rolling over me / I can get back on.”
There’s a spaciousness to Lifeson’s chords and accents during “Armor and Sword” that we haven’t heard since the days of Power Windows and Hold Your Fire, as he provides layer upon layer of clean chords, chiming picked notes, acoustic guitar, and tastefully-mixed distortion, highlighted by the wonky intro riff that hints at late ‘70s Zeppelin, and his screaming, discordant solo. Acoustic guitar dominates “Workin’ Them Angels”, but it’s Peart’s lonesome traveler lyrics (continuing where “Ghost Rider” left off on the last album) that lead the way, sung by Lee in a superb vocal turn. “The Larger Bowl” sounds downright relaxed, a masterful display of dynamics and discipline, restrained enough to keep those heavy chords from overwhelming the song, yet not above letting Lifeson shred away on one of his finest solos on the record. Lee, meanwhile, dominates the ominous “Spindrift”, thanks to his most assertive singing on the album, while providing a murky bassline that makes Lifeson’s mellifluous notes sound all the more foreboding. Meanwhile, Lifeson channels Stevie Ray Vaughan on the politically charged “The Way the Wind Blows”, and then gets all jazzy on us during his solos on “Bravest Face”.
Of the three instrumentals, two are especially noteworthy (not to discount Lifeson’s acoustic interlude “Hope”), showcasing the trio’s renowned chemistry. “Malignant Narcissism” cranks up the funk, anchored by Lee’s muscular bassline, while “The Main Monkey Business” is old school Rush mixed with a Middle Eastern element, Lee contributing both mellotron and subtle vocal harmonies, Lifeson balancing acoustic and electric guitar. For all the attention his massive drumkit gets, Peart has become even more restrained as the years have gone on, often exhibiting his usual technical flair, but at the same time laying down one of the most consistently air-tight backbeats you’ll ever here. Here, though, he’s clearly enjoying tossing different elements into the mix, from elaborate tom fills, African-inspired polyrhythms, jazz-influenced breaks, and even a very cool flange effect on hi-hat.
“Hold On” brings Snakes & Arrows to a conclusion that wavers between rousing and philosophical, the band’s propulsive performance grounded by Peart’s expressions of optimism in the face of adversity (“We could be down and gone / But we hold on”). Lifeson’s the star of this album, though, so it’s fitting that he leads the way as the album closes, unleashing serpentine guitar squeals over the taut rhythm section, climaxing with his most manic solo on what is, in the end, an immensely satisfying return for all three musicians. It’s enough of a marvel that Rush has managed to remain intact for 33 years now, but the fact that they’ve done so while retaining their musical vitality and integrity is an even mightier achievement.