Rush Review – The 80’s: “Signals” and “Grace Under Pressure”

Grace Under Pressure – 1984

After changing producers, Rush went back to the studio for album number ten, Grace Under Pressure. This time, they self-produced it when the new producer backed out, but it all worked out. Grace Under Pressure went platinum status upon release and resonated with fans in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Grace made it to #10 on the Billboard 200 and hit #1 in Canada. It also charted in the U.K., Germany, and Sweden.

Grace Under Pressure, 1984. Cover art by Hugh Syme
Grace Under Pressure, 1984. Cover art by Hugh Syme

The album theme centered on people’s reactions to external forces (pressures) and was heavily influenced lyrically by the headlines of the 80s: The Cold War, environmental concerns, and political strife. Speaking of pressure, the band felt a lot in the studio. While Grace was quick to write, the recording process was a grueling marathon, putting our trio in the sound room sometimes over 14-hours a day.

Rush at LeStudio in Quebec, Canada
Rush at LeStudio in Quebec, Canada

“…once we got into the studio, things just took a long time. You can’t really help it sometimes, no matter how hard you work or how fast you work; there are certain things about recording that just take a long time.”

Alex Lifeson

Let’s get into the tracks and see what took them so long.

Grace Under Pressure: Track 1 – Distant Early Warning

Grace Under Pressure is billed as one of Rush’s darker-themed albums, and it kicks off with this somewhat doomsday-warning track. Distant Early Warning paints a dystopian scene with a world on the brink of nuclear war. Musically, it has a good beat that borders on The Police reggae-ish sound during the verse, but the chorus comes right back to rocking Rush standards. Lifeson kills it on the effects here, too, previewing the entire sound of their next album, Power Windows.

The video is very goofy. I like just seeing the band play the track, but here we get a kid riding a missile in a Dr. Strangelove-esque reference. To be fair, this was in a time where the threat of nuclear war was real and scary, plus it was the 80’s, so a little goofy video is par for the early MTV course. Of course, that’s when MTV was more about music and less about teen moms. A good song, nonetheless.

Grace Under Pressure: Track 2 – Afterimage

The opening beat of Afterimage is rockin’. It kicks off with guitar in your face and banging drums in your ears. I’m not a fan of the reggae beat it takes on, but this was Rush at the time. I’d rather have a screaming guitar all the way through. I like the beat, but this song feels like a filler that had more promise than what was delivered.

Grace Under Pressure: Track 3 – Red Sector A

In my opinion, this is the hit song of the album. It bases the lyrics off the accounts of Geddy Lee’s family interviews that survived the Holocaust. It paints a dark reminder of the horror of this event in history through the eyes of a child. The music here is superb, mostly because the drums and guitar are let loose to augment the story this song tells.

The gunfire flash in this video was an awesome effect. There is one line in particular that gets me every time I hear it:

“I hear the sound of gunfire at the prison gate. Are the liberators here? Do I hope or do I fear? For my father and my brother, it’s too late, but I must help my mother stand up straight.”

It’s a heavy topic for an 80’s rock song, but Rush lays it bare for all to see, and it’s beautifully horrifying.

Children in a World War II concentration camp, circa 1943 / Getty Images
Children in a World War II concentration camp, circa 1943 / Getty Images

Grace Under Pressure: Track 4 – The Enemy Within

I know I’ve been down on the reggae beats so far, but for this song, it works. It simply blends well in this track, where in others it feels forced by the demand of the music of the times. The Enemy Within is part I of the four-part Fear saga that kicks it off with things that scare us: needles, spiders, creepy strangers, and things that go bump in the night. Even with that theme, it’s a good, upbeat track that helps prop up this album.

Grace Under Pressure: Track 5 – The Body Electric

The highlights here are the solos between bass and guitar that starts at 2:59 and the outro. The rest of it feels like they should have got with Styx and made it a follow-up to Mr. Roboto. I want to like this song, I really do, but The Body Electric, while geeky enough, just does nothing for me. I can appreciate Rush’s embrace of processing and technology in music, but this one never grew on me.

Grace Under Pressure: Track 6 – Kid Gloves

Overall, I give Kid Gloves high marks for the guitar work. The whole offbeat signature of this song aligns with the overarching message the song delivers. I interpret it to be about controlling emotions and dealing with difficult circumstances. The guitar solo here and the drums that sneak in between riffs are the best showing of Rush’s musical depth on this entire album. I really dig this track, even though it never saw a lot of time on their live playlists.

Grace Under Pressure: Track 7 – Red Lenses

My least favorite track on this album. It sounds more like a lounge act in an empty bar than my favorite rocking power trio. The big-top vibe and loose allusion to Russians being the Reds it gives off make me hit the next button every time it comes up on my iPod. Sorry… I just don’t like it.

Grace Under Pressure: Track 8 – Between the Wheels

I remember the first time I ever heard this; it made me think of a rocking intro to an amped up Phantom of the Opera and I was digging the beat, but then it starts talking about running over rabbits and bugs splattering on the windshield. I get the alliteration, but I still didn’t get the song. The bass riffs here are beautiful, but that’s all it holds for me. I got to hear this one live during the R30 Tour and even though they rocked it, it still falls low on my list of “play it again” Rush songs.

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best)…

I give Grace Under Pressure a 6 out of 10. Again, there’s not a bad Rush LP, but this album feels over-processed, and a couple of the songs are nonsensical at the end. Aside from a couple standouts, like Red Sector A, Kid Gloves, and The Enemy Within, this is one of Rush’s thinner offerings. Critics and mega-fans love it, but it’s the only Rush album I don’t own. I just bought the songs I wanted on iTunes, and it hurts me to say that.

Two more albums down! Rush in the 80’s was an acquired taste. Legions of devoted fans would never leave them, even though their sound had changed with the times. Signals and Grace Under Pressure were far different in all aspects compared to early work, such as Fly by Night and Caress of Steel, but not everyone was hip on their new digital compositions.

A personal thank you, from me, to all the readers out there reading along with these reviews. It’s a thrill to be cataloguing my favorite band’s amazing works. The next review will cover two more rockin’ 80’s albums; Power Windows and Hold Your Fire! Also, check out Rush’s official webpage at Rush.com. Rock on!

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