Music in the Abstract:
Three Ways to Listen to Rush

by Michael Channing

Not counting covers, Rush have recorded 165 songs, and I have listened to them all scores of times. So what's the best way to enjoy almost forty years of mostly great music? How about...

In Chronological Order (or Grand Designs)

Test for Echo album cover

It doesn't take an mp3 player for this, just pop in the CDs or put on the records or whatever you do to 8-tracks (punch them in?) in the order they were recorded and released. Listen to the songs as the band and god intended.

What you get with each record is a cohesive style and sound that functions as a snapshot of the band as they were at that time. Sometimes loud and furious, sometimes distant and aloof. You hear them evolve. The drummer and Geddy's voice both change for the better. You hear heavy metal sink slowly into the morass of synthesizers and effects pedals then arise glorious again like a phoenix with a Stratocaster.

There are no surprises with this listening method. If you don't quite remember what song comes next, it's printed on the back cover. Or on the spine of the 8-track? I'm not all that familiar with what 8-tracks are or how they work, but I've been told by those of authority to just pretend they never existed. I've also been told that about whole swaths of the 70s.

Rush in 2112-era robes

Some things really should be wiped from memory.

Listening chronologically, you always know when a sub-par song is coming up and when your next favorite is due to play. Helps you slog through the bad songs. Is it blasphemous to admit that Rush have bad songs? I don't think so. Do something 165 times, even something you're good at, and you fail once in a while. But Rush have always obeyed the golden rule of art: if you make mistakes, at least make interesting mistakes.

In Alphabetical Order (or Neurotica)

Counterparts album cover

With this listening style, you get all the excitement of experiencing an old favorite in a novel way but are able to sort of predict what song is coming next. I've been listening to Rush for twenty years now (why does that realization make my heart hurt?) but I still wasn't able to say exactly what song was next in the queue. Trying to guess the next song turns every listening experience into a game. No matter how familiar you are with the catalog, shifting it into a new light casts doubt on everything you thought you knew.

Here's an anecdote. When I first started listening to Rush half a lifetime ago, I copied my friend's CDs onto cassette tapes. While listening to a tape one day, I accidentally pressed record instead of play, which left a three second drop in sound permanently carved into "Middletown Dreams." Because I couldn't afford a CD of my own till years later, that damaged tape was all I had. To this day, I expect that clunky silence every time that part of the song comes along. Even though I know there's nothing wrong with my disc and I'm no longer living in my mom's basement, I fully expect that guitar break to literally break and go quiet for three seconds. It's what my brain knows is going to happen. So when you play all the tunes out of order, and a song that you know from years of experience should play NOW doesn't, it's jarring. You begin to doubt not only your own brain but the universe itself. Then you calm down and remember that "Red Alert" is actually called "Distant Early Warning" and just go with the flow.

Alphabetical listening also leads to the discovery of fun trivia facts about your favorite band. For example, what Rush song comes first alphabetically? That would be "Afterimage." What three letters don't start any Rush songs? Q, U, and Z. Come on, Neil, you can fix that. And here's my favorite discovery: Rush have three songs that all start with the same color word. "Red Lenses," "Red Tide." and "Red Barchetta." Now go amaze your friends.

Random Rush (or Roll the Bones)

Roll the Bones album cover

This is the wild west of listening. All predictability is out the window like so much baby-filled bath water. Just got time for one last song before you park your car and head into work? Too bad, it's "The Necromancer," and all you get to hear is the stupid slow-voice introduction. Today is going to suck.

I didn't mind the sudden shift in musical styles or instrumentation. It was the volume changes that drove me mad. If you've not noticed, the last few Rush releases have fallen prey to the loudness war that has been raging for a couple of decades now. Music companies have been artificially increasing the overall volume of songs to make consumers believe they're getting better music. But it really distorts the sound so much that it degrades the quality. This has lead to folks petitioning to have Vapor Trails remastered. That's a record from ten years ago. You should only have to remaster music that was cut into a wax cylinder by a vaccination needle, not music that was digitally captured in the perfectly controlled environment of a studio. But when you play a song from Signals followed by a track from Clockwork Angels, the difference is plain to hear.

When the newer songs followed the older ones, it was like a slap in the face by a soggy wet sponge. I already had "Analog Kid" pumped up because it rocks. But then "One Little Victory" punched me with its fuzzy distortion, and I recoiled in disgust. So I turned the radio down. Then the next song, which should have rocked just as hard, was wimpy limp because the volume cut by half. But it was still Rush, and I forgave them.

The only other downside I found from hitting that shuffle button was anticipating what the final song would be. I had been listening for a couple of months, so there was no way I could remember what had and hadn't played. With alphabetical listening, I knew from the start that the final song would be "2112," and that was a great thing to anticipate and prepare for. But in the wild west, that final song could be anything. I paused just before going into work, looking forward to driving home Friday afternoon to the last song of my two-month trek. And it was...something from Snakes and Arrows. I was so disappointed I don't even remember the song. But I guess it could have been worse. It could have been a sudden clonk as the sound dropped only to be replaced by own voice singing in my mom's basement.

I Can't Stop Thinking About Rush

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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing