“Don’t be sad because it’s over, smile because it happened” is a phrase that Rush fans have increasingly grown accustomed to as years went on. After the Canadian trio performed their last ever show at the LA Forum, on a hot and windy August night in 2015, we were left wondering if the constant mention of the R40 tour being possibly their last, or “the last event of this magnitude” would hold true. A possible reunion for a special event at some point down the track is what we all wished for, but our hopes were crushed when we came to know that Neil was battling an aggressive form of cancer, to which he would succumb on January 2020.
Documenting the last tour, the last album and the last few decades of the holy triumvirate, “Driven: Rush in the 90’s and In the End” is Martin Popoff’s sixth book about the band, and completes the trilogy started with “Anthem: Rush in the 70s” and continued with “Limelight: Rush in the 80s”. Our readers might be familiar with his work, which we reviewed here and here. Martin’s attention to detail, and his access to exclusive statements about the group make this yet again essential reading for any half respectable prog fan.
Picking up where he left off on “Limelight”, Martin invites us to a deep dive on “Roll the Bones,” an album which continued the path initiated with “Presto” of bringing back a more guitar-centric approach, but which failed to impress a large chunk of the fan base due to its excessively slick production. With a detailed review of each track, the author conveys his critique of the material with tact and authority, and appropriately walks the thin line of objective criticism. Rupert Hine, the producer who sadly passed away last June 20th gives us great insight into the making of such a divisive album. True to their ambitions, with “Roll the Bones” they set off to make the complete opposite of what grunge represented, and achieved that in spades.
Continuing on, we see the band finally stripping down their sound and almost completely getting rid of keyboards, or at least giving them a much more subdued role than in their previous five or six albums. Enter renowned engineer Kevin Shirley, who shares endearing stories about the recording sessions, and about not holding his tongue when it came time to push Geddy Alex and Neil to their limits on the recording of “Counterparts.” In true Rush fashion, they were able to absorb the sonic zeitgeist of the mid-90’s on that album, with a million guitar layers on every track and a barrage of riffs that make this arguably the most aggressive album in their catalogue.
Perhaps the only constant in the trio’s career, the desire to change remained intact on the follow up to “Counterparts,” entitled “Test for Echo.” If the writing style seemed to follow a similar path than its predecessors, there was an unmissable sonic shift in the drumming department, as Neil reinvented himself and adopted the traditional grip on all songs on the album. Sadly, coming off of yet another victorious touring cycle, things took a gloomy overtone, with the now well documented tragedy that struck Neil’s family putting everything to a halt. Here it’s worth noticing how respectable Martin is with this unfortunate part of Neil’s life, and how he addresses the events without lingering too much – all that’s relevant about this has already been said.
The band’s triumphant comeback with “Vapor Trails,” and how difficult an album it was to make are described next, and what a joy it is to read about their triumphant return to the stage. The shows in Brazil, and the uncertainty faced every single day by the production crew on that country are once again revisited, and what a joy it is to read about their discovery of how passionate the audiences there are about the trio! Having been in the crowd for two of the three shows in Brazil at the time, this reviewer was particularly impressed with the many insights given into how challenging and yet surprisingly gratifying it was for the band to play in South America for the first time.
From that time onward, Rush seemed to go on a perennial victory lap: “Feedback,” their covers album, was released to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary, and a celebratory tour followed. They would push themselves yet again on the writing of 2007’s “Snakes and Arrows,” where another pivotal figure in their latter days would be introduced: producer Nick Raskulinecz, a long time fan of the band, who had the arduous task of capturing the essence of the band on the album. At that point in the band’s career, getting complacent was a risk too big to ignore, and Nick was able to challenge them while keeping their essence.
The band would once again enlist Nick for the final chapter in their discography, “Clockwork Angels.” Whereas previously they had conceptual albums which were more like one song bearing the central idea and others marginally adhering to it, this time they chose to fully adopt a concept. Lyrically, it tells of a journey through a fictional world, where the protagonist faces challenges, tribulations and interesting encounters, and at the end of his journey, nurtures a garden of all his achievements. This very organic, diverse and gratifying album was a welcome surprise this late in their careers, and a perfect effort to close such a dynamic recording history.
The two tours that followed the release of “Clockwork Angels” were immense – maybe not in length, but in ambition and in production values – and represented a fitting and triumphant conclusion to their story. Martin closes the proceedings with a few statements from the band, the crew and management, which make it perfectly clear that this was in fact the end of the road. The final lesson we learn from the book and from Rush as a whole was there from the very beginning: change is inevitable, so make the most out of it.
Martin Popoff’s “Driven” is available for purchase here.