With a slew of new fans brought in by the popularity of Moving Pictures, Rush listeners new and old now eagerly anticipated what the band would do next. Shortly after that album’s release, the band went to Florida as a group to witness the very first space shuttle launch, Columbia in April 1981. This would become the inspiration for “Countdown”, the first of the new songs written for the follow-up album which would ultimately be named Signals.
It would also establish a pattern of disparate songwriting that would be present throughout on this album, including one song (“Subdivisions”) that was the product of Peart jamming with some of the road crew, one (“Chemistry”) with differing parts written by each of the three band members at completely separate locations, and one (“Digital Man”) that included a sequenced bass and guitar part that producer Terry Brown so strongly objected to that he would never again produce a Rush album after being involved with each of their first nine studio albums.
Signals would be an album that would depart from the band’s classic sound and migrate towards more modern genres of new wave, reggae, ska, and synth-driven pop music. When the album was finally released in September 1982, it was a bit of a disappointment for many of the longtime fans who grew with Rush’s classic sound and had really hoped the band would up the ante once again following the fantastic Moving Pictures with an even better album. They didn’t and it was not. That being said, Signals is still a very good album.
“Subdivisions” is the real highlight, especially due to the fantastic drumming by Peart. With the advent MTV, the band would produce their first music video for this song, which carries a duo meaning, exploring adolescent social constructs as well as urban geographical layouts. “The Analog Kid” is the closest to a traditional Rush jam song, led by a precise and crisp riff by Lifeson, but with Lee’s voice now in a markedly lower register than in the past.
The second side of the album features “The Weapon”, middle part of reverse “Fear” trilogy, “New World Man”, a new anthem for Rush in the 1980s, and “Losing It”, a mature and melancholy song that deeply touches the sadness of getting old and losing talent, while borrowing from the story of Ernest Hemingway.
Still, the band maintained their popularity as a live act and following the release of Signals, embarked on an eight month world tour that criss-crossed North America, Britain, and West Germany. When they finally got off the road in mid-1983, Rush returned home to write and record their next album. Having amicably parted ways with Terry Brown, the band approached Steve Lillywhite to produce this album but he withdrew at the last moment and the band decided to self-produce with the assistance of engineer Peter Henderson.
The band recorded the material for Grace Under Pressure at Le Studio over the winter of 1983-84, spending up to 16 hours a day trying to perfect the sound for this dystopian-themed album. Many of songs drew direct inspiration from the day’s newspaper headlines, while others, notably “Red Sector A” drew from events closer to home. Inspired by his mother’s stories of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, this song by Geddy Lee is one of unbelievable depth that touches on the most serious of subject matter.
Then again, there is very little on Grace Under Pressure that is less than heavy. “Afterimage” deals with the sudden death of a friend, while “Between the Wheels” deals with impossible, rock-and-hard-place situations. The opener “Distant Early Warning” tells of the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, while it musically provides a nice bridge between the classic Rush sound and their newer sound.
“The Enemy Within” is the odd first part of the “Fear” trilogy that actually has an upbeat, reggae beat to it. “The Body Electric” is probably Rush’s best journey into the synth rock sound which they explored extensively in the mid-1980s. It talks of futuristic, science fiction and has a nice drum backing by Peart and a fine guitar solo by Lifeson. It is about as far as Rush could go along these lines and still legitimately be Rush.
Released in April 1984, Grace Under Pressure became the band’s fifth consecutive album to reach the Top Ten and may have been their best effort at honing the synth-driven sound to which they migrated in the 1980s. They would continue down this path with their next two albums but the results were much weaker and less inspired. In the process Lee and Lifeson became less of a partnership in the creation of the band’s sound, with Lee moving more to the forefront with his keyboard melodies and riffs.
In 1985 the band traveled to England to record Power Windows, an album filled with songs that seemed to try to replicate “Distant Early Warning” but with much weaker results most of the time. Over and above the synth-driven sound that the band had been migrating towards on their previous two albums, Power Windows contains annoying little midi-trigger effects throughout, making one think that this album might have been better categorized as some experimental side project rather than dragging in the Rush name and Rush brand.
Laced with these sampled synth effects, “The Big Money” is nonetheless an exciting song with funky bass and grinding guitar on top of Peart’s wild yet precise drumming. Manhattan Project” could be classified as a cohesive 1980s pop song, complete with a “social message” and “Marathon” contains some nice bass and drum interaction throughout and a somewhat enjoyable chorus. But the rest of the album tends to go to this other, dreaded place which is flooded with synths with stereotypical, outdated fonts and songs that all very choppy, repetitive, and clichéd with limited presence by guitar or bass and distant, over-processed drums. Years later Lifeson openly expressed his frustration at the time; “…with Power Windows, I found it very difficult to work around the keyboards. What’s going on? They’re not even a real instrument!”
Still, Power Windows produced by Peter Collins and released in October 1985, did reach the Top Ten and have decent sales. Collins was brought back for the band’s next album two years later, their twelfth overall.
Hold Your Fire, released in the Fall of 1987, starts off strong but tends to get muddled and convoluted as it progresses on. The opener “Force Ten” kicks off the album on a better note than where Power Windows left off. It is a melodic song with good bass and less of those synth hits, but it still suffers from a weak guitar solo and a weird orchestral hit part later in the song. Other highlights of the album include the upbeat “Open Secrets”, the pop-laden “Lock and Key” and the inspirational “Mission”, which has been revived by the band for recent tours.
“Time Stand Still” is the true gem from Hold Your Fire. A very good song, with a respectable presence by each musician playing their traditional instruments, this song is drenched with nostalgia and features guest vocalist Aimee Mann singing the hook during the choruses. It is a song that felt at the time Like a sort of swan song for the band that had veered off the excellent musical course which they had blazed nearly a decade earlier. This fear seemed to be validated as sales of Hold Your Fire were weaker than any recent album and it was Rush’s first album that failed to reach the top ten since Hemispheres a decade earlier.
With another four studio albums in the can since their previous live album, the band would follow the pattern by next releasing A Show of Hands, which featured mainly live material from the 1980s. The album proved that Rush still had a formidable and energetic live act, even with these synth-driven songs, but sadly paled in comparison to their previous live effort, Exit…Stage Left, which highlighted material from their classic era.