Perhaps aware of their foray into the depths of synth-rock, Rush made a concerted effort to return to a more traditionally sounding album in 1989. Like they did at the start of the decade, they remained close to home where they wrote and recorded this next album, which would be titled Presto. The result is a true comeback album, which somehow seems to lack the gravitas and accolades that it truly deserves.
Listening to it today it is still an excellent listen, even if it does have some 1980s residue sound spread throughout. Having got lost in the muddle of their mid-eighties sound, it is an amazing step forward for the Rush, who seemed inspired to do some innovative and interesting stuff again.
“Show Don’t Tell” starts with a riff that instantly reminds fans of the classic Rush M.O., which was apparently done quite on purpose. The verse is still a bit slow and Peart is not quite back to himself again and there still is the accented synths lining the chorus and the solo is not really a solo so much as a synth backdrop, but hey – it is still a vast improvement from most of the band’s most recent work.
From here, the album only gets stronger. “Chain Lightning” breaks into a driving, entertaining rock song with an edgy and weird guitar/bass riff – a quantum leap forward in improving Rush’s 80s sound with some synth here and there, but not at the expense of the other, true rock instruments. Long held as one of the band’s favorite songs, “The Pass” is an absolute masterpiece. Lyrically it may be the pinnacle of the self-reflective, inner-space type of song. Even the calm, musical interlude contains some fine musicianship by Lifeson and Peart and the bass chords used by Lee are classic and distinct. It is melodic and uplifting and should be regarded as one of Rush’s all-time great songs, a true song of hope, reflection, and realization.
“War Paint” is another interesting song, musically like much of their synth songs, but much better held together by Lifeson’s guitars and a melody fueled by deep and relevant lyrics which examine beauty, vanity, and illusion. The song also contains a few rarities for Rush – a piano and a harmonized chorus line towards the end. The title song ends the first side with a sound for sore ears, a driving acoustic guitar, something that hadn’t been present in a Rush song for nearly a decade.
“Superconductor” is back to the classic three instrument sound, albeit not quite as dynamic and tight as the early days. Starting the second side, this arrangement lasts for a while until a slow, waltz-like string solo comes about just before the last verse. “Hand Over Fist” is a song with clever lyrics by Peart that plays on the rock/scissors/paper recursive power game and includes some of Lifeson’s best work on the album.
The most clever and entertaining song on the album is “Anagram (for Mongo)”, which partially derives its name from a line in the movie Blazing Saddles, but more importantly fuses together multiple word puzzles, in the form of anagrams, into a coherent and melodic rock song. It is a totally unique song that has multiple dimensions but sounds completely natural and effortless. This is the kind of song that Rush was supposed to write in their new, sophisticated 1980s form all along. It leads the listener from room to room of philosophical observances and absurd contradictions, all while playing with words in a most cleaver way.
Presto was the band’s first album with Atlantic Records, after their long association with Mercury. It did not fare much better commercially than its predecessor Hold Your Fire, but it was a definite symbol as Rush entered the 1990s that their sound and direction of the 1980s would be left behind. In the decade of the 1990s, the band would release three studio albums, each taking its own distinct tangential course.
With the albums Roll the Bones (1991), Counterparts (1993), and Test for Echo (1996), Rush continued their return to a more traditional form of rock, they returned to their roots. Alex Lifeson’s guitar and Geddy Lee’s bass were once again at the melodic forefront, and Neil Peart’s drumming was reformed with tradition grippings and styles. However, Peart’s lyric writing may have fallen off a bit. “Roll the Bones” off the album of the same name even contains a rap section further demonstrating Peart’s loss of lyrical inspiration and songs like “A Dog’s Life” and “Totem” from Test for Echo, are sophomoric in their lyrical composition and intellectual depth. This is not to say the other members of the band are blameless of the music’s blandness of this era. Geddy Lee’s vocals seemed stretched and lost on most of the material in the nineties and Lifeson constructed some poorly composed chord structures spread among these albums.
All this being said, these albums are not really all that bad – just not as memorable as Rush’s standards of excellence during their classic period. The high points of this era include the instrumentals “Where’s My Thing?” and “Leave That Thing Alone”, “Dreamline” and “Ghost of a Chance” off of Roll the Bones, “Nobody’s Hero” and “Between Sun and Moon” from Counterparts, and “Driven” from Test For Echo.
Commercially, each of these albums reached the Top 5, with Counterparts reaching #2, the band’s highest charting album ever. They had extensive and successful tours after each album, culminating with the nearly year-long Test for Echo tour on which the band performed as a solo, two-act headliner with no supporting act. That tour wrapped up on July 4, 1997 with a show in Ottawa. The band would not perform again live for five solid years.