Rush's 'Snakes and Arrows' Target Religion

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Rush's 'Snakes and Arrows' Target Religion

by Ari Armstrong, August 1, 2007

Rush's new album "Snakes and Arrows" is one of the band's best (and most rockin') albums -- and I write this as a fan of Rush's "synth" years. While some fans look down their noses at albums later than "Moving Pictures" from 1981, I love the more recent albums, too. ("Presto," from 1989, will always hold a special place in my heart as the first Rush album I ever purchased.)

"Snakes" displays some of the band's very best composition. While the Rush I want to listen to depends a lot on my mood, several of the tracks from "Snakes" have already joined the ranks of my favorites. The new songs "Armor and Sword," "The Way the Wind Blows," and "Faithless" join classics such as "The Spirit Of Radio" and "Tom Sawyer," as well as more recent tracks such as "Driven," as the band's most successful efforts.

"Snakes" warns against the dangers of religion. While the topic is not new for Rush -- "Presto" affirms, "We don't take anything on faith" -- "Snakes" is more overtly critical. "Snakes" is also surprisingly political with "The Way the Wind Blows."

"Snakes" is squarely in the tradition of Rush's "third phase" (my phrase) starting with the transitional album of 1991, "Roll the Bones," and then finding its groove with the studio albums "Counterparts," "Test for Echo," and "Vapor Trails" (which came out way back in 2002!). These are all hard rocking albums with many compositionally strong songs (as well as a few weaker tracks). These later albums are in some respects more like Rush's early hard-rock albums such as "2112" and "Moving Pictures," before Rush joined the '80s with a more synthetic sound. (While I really like 1987's "Hold Your Fire," its more breezy, more melancholy, almost new-agey-sounding tracks have quite a different feel from both the earlier and the later albums.)

Of course, too much can be made of these differences: all of Rush's albums are marked by a bright, exciting, even pushy "progressive" sound; intricate musical constructions; outstanding technical ability; Neil Peart's thoughtful (his critics say pedantic) lyrics; and Geddy Lee's distinctive, high-pitched voice (which one gets used to over time).

I do think that, in terms of overall album strength, Rush has never matched its early studio albums from "2112" through "Moving Pictures." The fact that "Permanent Waves" and "Moving Pictures" are amazing from start to finish, and that they were released a year apart in 1980 and 1981, is an unmatched achievement. But, then, "Moving Pictures" is 40 minutes long, while "Snakes" runs an hour. Even though I don't love all of the tracks on the new album, even its "worst" selections are better than what most bands ever produce, and the best tracks would by themselves constitute a full and powerful album.

In today's "iTunes" age, in which tracks are easily purchased singly, I will rank the tracks. However, anyone who likes Rush at all is advised to buy the whole album, listen to it a few times, and make your own judgments. (The difference between Rush albums and most albums with radio hits is that I like Rush albums more the more I listen to them, whereas I like most albums that carry top "hits" less the more I listen to them.)

I just noticed that iTunes sells a $13.99 version of the album that includes the booklet and a five-minute documentary about the "making of." Suck! I'll have to do without those extras, because I've already purchased the slightly less-expensive standard album (and the extras are not available singly). A DVD version of the album containing video and computer files is also available.

While it's a tough decision, I'll pick "Armor and Sword" as my favorite track of the album. (It contains the phrase that became the title of the album.) This is a little surprising, because the first part of the song isn't by itself very interesting. The first 41 seconds establish a couple of the song's themes, but then things get really interesting. Acoustic guitar begins a haunting and complex rhythm that's joined by Lee's wrenching vocals. Then strong electric guitar takes over with harmonized vocals. This builds strong tension that's then eased with gentler music.

The song is my favorite both musically and lyrically. Peart's lyrics leave no mistake regarding the intended target:

... What should have been our armor
Becomes a sharp and angry sword...
We hold beliefs as a consolation
A way to take us out of ourselves
Meditation or medication
A comfort, or a promised reward...
The battle flags are flown
At the feet of a god unknown
No one gets to their heaven without a fight...

Here's the complete list of my favorites, in order of their appearance on the album:

1. Far Cry. This is the song released as a single (and made available through the band's web page). It's a great rock song and a lot of fun.

2. Armor and Sword.

3. Workin' Them Angels. It took a while for this song to work its way onto my list of favorites. At first, I was put off by the title lyric. And the beginning of the song doesn't promise greatness. But with the line, "Memory humming at the heart of a factory town," the music hits an intense emotional chord. The idea of the song is that its author has been working his guardian angels "overtime," living a busy and full life. But only true Rush fans will fully appreciate the lyrics.

4. The Way the Wind Blows. This might overtake "Armor" as my favorite song on the album. It is very powerful both musically and lyrically, alternately intensely angry and calmly reflective. Uncharacteristically for Peart, it is directly critical not only of religion generally but of the Bush administration:

Now it's come to this
It's like we're back in the dark ages
From the middle east to the middle west
It's a world of superstition...
Wide-eyed armies of the faithful...
Pray, and pass the ammunition...
Now it's come to this
Hollow speeches of mass deception
From the middle east to the middle west...
It's a plague that resists our science
It seems to leave them partly blind
And they leave no child behind
While evil spirits haunt their sleep...

While Peart's lyrics often deal with complex political and religious themes, generally they are more abstract. (For example, "2112" is reminiscent of Ayn Rand's Anthem and is set far in the future.) I get the feeling that Peart was upset while writing for this song.

5. Hope. This is a short but touching acoustic instrumental. I include it on this list because I think that it is an indispensable link between "The Way the Wind Blows" and "Faithless." The previous track, after all, ends on a pessimistic note: "Like the solitary pine / On a bare wind blasted shore / We can only grow the way the wind blows." But "Faithless" strikes a renewed optimism.

6. Faithless. Its central lyrics, if obvious, are, I think, nevertheless inspiring:

I don't have faith in faith
I don't believe in belief
You can call me faithless
I still cling to hope
And I believe in love
And that's faith enough for me

And, unlike the earlier track, this songs ends on a positive note: "Like a forest bows to winter / Beneath the deep white silence / I will quietly resist."

For the next tier of tracks, I quite like both of the other instrumentals. The songs "The Larger Bowl," "Spindrift," and "We Hold On" are fairly interesting, even if not at the top of my list." Bravest Face" and "Good News First" are less-strong tracks.

On the whole, "Snakes and Arrows" is among Rush's strongest albums. This is in itself quite an accomplishment for a band that put out its first album more than three decades ago and whose big hit remains "Tom Sawyer" from 1981. These three guys can certainly be proud of their latest work and of their entire career. ("It's really just a question of your honesty.") And I'm proud to be a fan.

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