Just one year after they began to challenge both themselves and their audience with new songwriting ideas and compositional presentations on Moving Pictures, Rush elected to ride that wave of inspiration with Signals – their ninth LP and second of a new era.
Right off, there’s no question that Signals takes its lead from Moving Pictures in that synths play a key role in the structure of each song and the songs reflect a less prog-influenced design, but there’s no doubt that this album is miles from its predecessor. The eight songs which comprise this run-time are succinct in their performance (the longest song on the album clocks in at six and a half minutes which is only about half the length of the longest on Moving Pictures), feature synthesizers playing an even greater roll than before (many of the other instruments in the mixes of these songs have a diminished presence to them) and the sound is denser overall. Simply said, Signals presented a new Rush in 1981.
Marking the change in Rush’s creative drive on Signals is the height of simplicity as “Subdivisions” opens the album frontloaded with brick-thick and unavoidable synth drones, but the alienation expressed in the lyrics is fairly captivating. Here, Geddy Lee sings dry-eyed but forlorn about sights common in the Eighties (“Sprawling on the fringes of the city/ In geometric order/ An insulated border/ In between the bright lights/ And the far unlit unknown” gives way to a chorus of “(Subdivisions)/ In the high school halls/ In the shopping malls/ Conform or be cast out/ (Subdivisions)/ In the basement bars/ In the backs of cars/ Be cool or be cast out/ Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth/ But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth”) and how it seems bleak while the sounds presented by Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson follow suit in an almost baiting manner – all sterile and dry.
After it ends, the tone of “Subdivisions” shifts on a dime to a more mathy and rocky form for “The Analog Kid,” but it doesn’t lose the tones (chorus pedals, ghostly and pulsing synths) which would come to be regarded as staple to the decade which gave birth to the “Me” generation. Here, Alex Lifeson steps up his game as produces some speedy, metallic leads which fit in with the synths that the band has down for a foundation very well, and lyrics about the scenes of suburbia (“A hot and windy August afternoon/ Has the trees in constant motion/ With a flash of silver leaves/ As they’re rocking in the breeze”), but the tone does not change dramatically in any way which forms a paradox; as hot or potentially excited as any one part of the song might become, it’s restrained by the rest of the mix – almost as though the whole thing is a scene under glass. That sensation of viewing everything as though it’s happening on the other side of a slick transparent wall has a tranquilizing quality about it, although it can leave listeners of the wrong mind cold; those who prefer to really dig into and inhabit an album will be put off by the slick sheen that everything is coated in here. Even the rolling, very bass heavy and reggae-adorned (that’s rught – “Rush does reggae!”) side-closer “Digital Man” feels a little slippery and slick for twenty-first century pop values.
While the album’s A-side features a tremendous number of anachronisms, Signals‘ B-side plays quite a bit better and less of a particular time. Easily the best song on the album is “Weapon,” which ignores all the timely cliches that the A-side got caught up in and just seeks to offer listeners a classic road-hardened song. While still a mathy Rush song, there’s precisely nothing disingenuous about “Weapon”; lines like “We’ve got nothing to fear…but fear itself?/ Not pain, not failure, not fatal tragedy?/ Not the faulty units in this mad machinery?/ Not the broken contacts in emotional chemistry?/ With an iron fist in a velvet glove/ We are sheltered under the gun” focus on classic (for Rush) themes and imagery, but truncates all the passages which would normally tend to meander off the map down into a six-minute rock song which could have easily found its way into regular rotation on the radio of the day [it ended up being the fourth of five singles released from Signals] and remains just light enough on the obvious Eighties clichés that it could play outside the confines of ‘retro’ now. After that, “New World Man” slides close to R.E.M.-inspired college rock before “Countdown” gets hearts racing as it meticulously observes a visit to Cape Kennedy to watch a shuttle launch. Even now, years after the release of Signals, the excitement about “Countdown” is infectious; it’s easy to see that the carefully crafted structure of the lyrics betrays excitement and a desire to ensure that listeners get an impeccably clear image from the band’s mind’s eye, and there’s no way to deny the passion in lyrics like, “Circling choppers slash the night/ With roving searchlight beams/ This magic day when super-science/ Mingles with the bright stuff of dreams” – it’s easy to see that the experience of watching a shuttle take off was a dream come true for the band.
After the proverbial rocket launches at the end of the record’s B-side, both the song and album end but the power of the performance of “Countdown” could easily inspire listeners to flip the disc over again and try to dig a little more out of Signals‘ A-side, or even just lift the needle and start the B-side again. The experience of the song is absolute magic and commands that listeners dig deeper into the album to see what other sparks of brilliance they may have overlooked on first listen. That’s the great thing about this album; Signals might not be one of the “big name” albums in Rush’s catalogue like 2112, Moving Pictures, Fly By Night and Roll The Bones are, but that doesn’t matter; those who find it will know they’ve found something great.
(Mercury/Universal Music Enterprises)