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Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Photo: Fin Costello / Courtesy of Funhouse Entertainment

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Permanent Waves (40th Anniversary)


29 May 2020

Permanent Waves was an especially important album for Rush in a few ways. It came out a mere two weeks into 1980, making it one of the initial progressive rock forays into the new decade. It was their first record recorded at Le Studio in Quebec, where they would continue to create for many years. What's more, it signified the start of the Canadian trio's transition away from trademark stylistic components like prolonged track durations, impenetrable arrangements, and fantastical lyricism and toward more concise and accessible radio-friendly hits with relatable messages. Naturally, its follow-up, 1981's Moving Pictures, would cement that move by becoming arguably their most popular album, jump-started by their most widely beloved tune, "Tom Sawyer".

By and large, Rush's transformation between the two eras ended up far better than those of several genre peers, so it's no surprise that Permanent Waves holds up today. It's a golden example of how to merge selectively intricate and approachable commercial elements—in addition to both established and fresh timbres—to yield something as timeless as it is universally enjoyable. Of course, this expanded and remastered 40th-anniversary reissue sounds great as well, and it and serves as a fine way to honor the memory of perhaps the most influential progressive rock drummer of all time, Neil Peart.

Upon release, Permanent Waves was by far Rush's best-selling album, peaking at number four and number three on the Billboard 200 and UK Album Chart, respectively. It eventually earned Platinum status in Canada, too. As usual, the cover art was done by genre staple Hugh Syme (who appears in the image, alongside model Paula Turnbull and Flip Schulke's photo of Texas' Galveston Seawall during 1961's Hurricane Carla). Interestingly, Syme also plays a piano solo on one selection—"Different Strings"—which certainly helps give the album its great sense of captivating emotion.

Alex Lifeson's dominant Van Halen-esque guitar riff, coupled with Peart and bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Geddy Lee's matchless rhythmic designs, still makes opener "The Spirit of Radio" instantly enthralling. The reggae experimentation near the end is a novel and striving touch, too, that shows how Rush were innovating while also appealing to a more welcoming aesthetic. Its perpetual energy and the use of audience cheers make it joyously, well, spirited as well. It's truly an irresistible way to start.

Afterward, "Freewill" is at once contemplative and celebratory as its synthy stadium rock zest is nonetheless marked by comparatively dense and elaborate instrumentation. Even if it remains immeasurably divisive, the threshold of Lee's signature high-pitched singing is astounding, too. Then, the record shifts into more opaque and somber territory with the Biblical and nature-themed "Jacob's Ladder" (a powerful exercise in dynamic shifts and majestic scope) and the charismatically folky "Entre Nous" (which saw Peart exploring the relationship between audience and artist). Its ascending chorus is simple yet wholly endearing.

The penultimate "Different Strings" follows a similar path but with even more sparse somberness, making it one of Rush's best acoustic ballads. Whereas the lengthy closer, "Natural Science", finds the trio dipping back into the multipart prog-rock excursions they do so well. Not only is it awesomely ambitious and wide-ranging in its own right, but how it influenced countless proteges is evident than ever with four decades of hindsight.

The various versions of this reissue come with plenty of solid extras, but only the second (live) collection of tracks was provided by the time of review. It includes 12 previously unreleased selections from the 1980 Permanent Waves world tour. They all sound equally clear, all-encompassing, and generally good, so the superlative choices depend entirely on personal preference. That said, it's undeniably fascinating to hear how album inclusions like "Freewill", "Jacob's Ladder", and "Natural Science" compare to both their studio counterparts and earlier gems like "The Trees", "Xanadu", and even "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" and "A Passage to Bangkok". In that way, the bonus disc offers listeners a fine overview of Rush's catalog during their first decade or so.

Most aficionados rank Permanent Waves in their top five Rush albums ever, with many bumping it up to the number one or number two spot. While placements like that are always debatable—especially with a band whose adaptability, integrity, and overall quality were as steady and commanding as this—it's hard to find anything lacking with this seventh studio effort. Its ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more apparent and remarkable 40 years on. Permanent Waves' merits and legacy endure and swell through the myriad subsequent acts which embody its spirit.

Photo: Courtesy of Funhouse Entertainment


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