Rush Review – 80’s-90’s: “Presto” and “Roll the Bones”

Roll the Bones, 1991

Rush - Roll the Bones album cover
Rush – Roll the Bones album cover

Her name was Susan and she broke my heart. She dumped me in a heap after senior homecoming and I ugly-cried for three days. I had bought this album a little before that fateful night and was digging the whole thing. The track Bravado, oh man, those lyrics were musical medicine to my love-lorn soul. That tune will always be special to me, as is this whole album. Eventually I recovered from my failed high school romance and went on to lead a semi-productive life!

Rush during Roll the Bones

Critics and many fans didn’t like Roll the Bones as much as I do. However that didn’t stop it from hitting #3 of the Billboard 200 and going Gold shortly after release. Platinum would come 10 years later, and this record deserved it. Roll the Bones cover art also won a Juno Award for Best Cover Design. This album was the gear change fans wanted for Rush to get out of processing and back to rocking, which they do from here on out. Geddy thought so too:

“I’m pleased with the way the band has been able to streamline the sound over the past couple of records. I think it’s a positive change. I’m also pleased with the way we’ve been able to utilize a stronger sense of melody and vocal harmony.”

Geddy Lee

Neil Peart and elusive confidence

Neil Peart

A final note before we get into the tracks. If you can imagine Neil Peart ever not feeling confident in his drumming, I’d call you crazy. But even the best in the world can struggle with their craft. Moving from Presto to Roll the Bones, Peart told Modern Drummer Magazine in 1989:

“I spent 20 years on technique and on learning the finer points of keeping good time, developing tempo and shadings of rhythmic feel, and keeping my mind open to other ethnic music and other drummers, and all of that was just flooding into me. When I finally became confident in my playing, all of these things finally came together [on Presto]. Confidence really was the key for me.”

Neil Peart after Presto’s release

That’s astonishing to believe, but a reminder of Neil’s humility while standing in the blinding light of musical greatness. Quotes like this is why so many people love this band. And now, let’s get out there and rock, and roll the bones…

Roll the Bones, Track 1: Dreamline

Dreamline is another opening rocker. Lifeson lingers with that little melodic pick riff through the verse until the heavens open up on the chorus. Crashing cymbals and snares, a little bit of synth, dirty bass flying all over and power chords that won’t quit. Toss in the nerdy lyrics and the recipe for hearty Rush soup is ready.

This live recording from Rio shows how much sound can come from just three musicians. I realize they sometimes use loops in songs with this many moving parts, but it doesn’t matter to me. And that guitar solo at 3:01… sweetness! Dreamline would hit #1 on the Mainstream Rock charts and be a staple in the live performance stable for years. This song rocks, and the backing violins are a stringed cherry on the kick-ass cake.

Roll the Bones, Track 2: Bravado

My anthem. Pay the price, don’t count the cost. Bravado starts out with a rolling guitar riff and high-hat tick that speaks to my soul. The verse drops out to a scaled back bass line that asks one over-arching theme throughout: Did you do your best? Because if you did, that was all you could do.

I particularly love Lifeson’s short-but-weeping guitar solo at 1:59. There is a sonic texture here that makes this offering soar. Then that closing drum line in the final verse is likely the most like an octopus any drummer would have to be. Geddy Lee commented on Peart’s unearthly abilities for this tune:

“There’s an example of limb independence that rivals any drummer, anywhere. The fact that [Neil] nailed that in one take blows my mind.”

Geddy Lee

Roll the Bones, Track 3: Roll the Bones

The title track of Roll the Bones gets a bad rap. Literally. There is a rap-inspired verse by Geddy Lee with a little voice modulation that pops up in the middle of a decent tune and is just goofy. The song is good. Lots of funk and a swinging bass with a slinky guitar riff makes it a foot-tapper for sure.

I’ll take a pass on some of the lyrics here though. The song is about taking chances and gambling with the unknown. Rush did that with mixed results here. It’s still a good track but I can’t escape that rap part at 3:11 about polyester slacks and gluteus max… nah, I’m good.

Roll the Bones, Track 4: Face Up

What is happening in here? I love the opening jangle and wild drums going on, but then Face Up starts and the corny circus starts. There are some redeeming qualities here, but the tune largely feels like a pop explosion where you have to clean up afterward. Instrumental, this song rocks. Otherwise, it’s got a little cringe to it.

Roll the Bones, Track 5: Where’s My Thing? (Part IV: “Gangster of Boats” Trilogy)

Speaking of instrumentals, here’s a speedy roller coaster of Rush just jamming out. Some fans turn their nose up at this one, but I love it. It’s an uplifting beat with all the musical parts and no cheesy lyrics.

This one was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental in 1992 and offers a little comedy with the title. A trilogy only has three parts, and this is part four. There never was a gangster of boats piece planned. I didn’t find it too funny because I’m one of the dummies that went back through the discography looking for the first three parts. Ha-ha-very-funny Neil.

Roll the Bones, Track 6: The Big Wheel

I like the power chords in The Big Wheel, and I even like the synthed backdrop but this over-processed offering falls short of a favorite for me. I want to like it but I can’t get into the groove behind it. Some fans thought this song was autobiographical writing by Peart, but he says not so.

“[The Big Wheel is] a universal of that trade-off between innocence and experience.”

Neil Peart

It’s an okay tune. I still like it but it’s not the Rush I’m looking for.

Roll the Bones, Track 7: Heresy

Heresy was never associated with Red Sector A, but to this fan, it always felt like a part two of that excellent tune from Grace Under Pressure. The theme here is a power ballad about the fall of communism in Russia, the end of the Cold War, and the Berlin Wall coming down. All those wasted years, who will pay? That’s a powerful question in these lyrics about individualism and freedom. A good tune with a triumphant message.

Roll the Bones, Track 8: Ghost of a Chance

Ghost of a Chance reached #2 on the Mainstream Rock Charts and has it’s roots in African drumming. Peart says:

“I was laying on a rooftop one night [in Togo] and heard two drummers playing the in next valley, and the rhythm stuck in my head. When we started working on the song I realized that beat would complement it well.”

Lifeson’s solo, yet again backed by Lee’s relaxed bass, is another highlight for the Rush reel. The theme here is the power of love, or finding power in love. Always a noble gesture, for sure. The lyrics may sound cheesy, but for a love-lorn teenage heart, they were magical.

Roll the Bones, Track 9: Neurotica

I like it, but Neurotica is the closest I’ve ever heard Rush get to bar-band status. I dig the nerdy lyrics and I like the tune, but the two feel forced together, like having to add an “a” to the end of words to make them rhyme. Across the board, this track feels stiff. Another song that’s good, but not a favorite.

Roll the Bones, Track 10: You Bet Your Life

Now here’s one where I feel like the fans under-rate it. You Bet Your Life is a really good track. It starts a little goofy, and it’s not the tightest lyrics Rush ever wrote, but for me the song works. It’s up-beat, peppy, and I don’t care what anyone says… I like the verse with all the social labels people get:

anarchist reactionary running-dog revisionist / hindu muslim catholic creation/evolutionist / rational romantic mystic cynical idealist / minimal expressionist post-modern neo-symbolist / armchair rocket scientist graffiti existentialist / deconstruction primitive performance photo-realist / be-bop or a one-drop or a hip-hop lite-pop-metallist / gold adult contemporary urban country capitalist

It’s dorky and catchy all at once. Oh, and don’t forget Lifeson’s whammy bar in the stratospheric solo segments. The whole song feels like an experiment from a soundcheck that they said, what the heck… let’s record that. It works and I like it!

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

I give Roll the Bones a 7.5 out of 10. Many fans feel that Presto and Roll the Bones are two of Rush’s lesser efforts, but I could not disagree more. There’s rock, rap, funk, a smidge of reggae, a sprinkling of electronica and a whole lot of lyrical genius on Roll the Bones. Album sales don’t lie. This would be Rush’s last platinum studio album (for now) and is the harbinger of the return to their prog-rock roots.

Rush R40 Tour, 2015
Rush R40 Tour, 2015

This album hit at a time in my life where I needed it. I wore out two cassettes in my VW Rabbit playing it and playing it again. These cuts rock and I’m not ashamed to say they are two of my favorite albums, warts and all.

Tune in next time when we peel apart “Counterparts” and “Test for Echo“!

Rush - Counterparts and Test for Echo covers
Rush – Counterparts and Test for Echo covers

I’ll be back next week with the next chapter in the Rush Review. We’re moving into the Nineties with 1993’s Counterparts and 1996’s Test for Echo. For more information on Rush, visit their official website at Rock on!

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