Sound: Could someone please explain why I, a relative n00b to Rush, have to be the first to review two parts of what I view as Rush's '3-Album Master Streak?' (Hehe) Presto is installment 3; Power Windows was first, so fill in the blank
Presto was the culmination of everything Rush did in the 1980s - synthesizers, incredible basslines, acoustic/chorusy guitars, complex acoustic/electronic drums and mind-blowing lyrics. It is also the point where the band begin to shed their 80s style. Granted, it was released in 1989...
The single most striking aspect of this album is the bass guitar playing. It is so forward in the mix that it's practically the lead. I truly have never heard such pronounced bass; Geddy's use of a custom hand-made Wal bass and doubtless many tweaks to his amps led to this album. Just like on PW and HYF, Geddy solos with or instead of Alex on this album.
Alex also sports a hand-made 'Signature'-brand guitar; a departure from his Hentor Sportscasters (modified Strats) that defined his 80s sound up to HYF, the Signature Aurora has single-coil pickups, whereas Alex has always been more of a humbucker user. This has the effect of forcing his guitar sound into the treble area of the spectrum; it's very bright, with little midrange or bass, so it doesn't dominate as much. Added to this, Alex plays more chords than riffs, which crash on this guitar instead of simply sounding. It's an intersting sound, and an aquired taste - judge for yourselves.
Neil's drums are about the one constant - they're pronounced, clear and driving, like always. Vocals are also very clear and easily audible.
The main departure of this album is the reduction of the synths. My thinking is that Alex and Neil kidnapped Geddy's bass and ransomed it for dropping the synths (and it is a VERY nice bass...), with the net result that the album becomes more guitar- and bass-oriented. Ironically, by cutting back on the synths, Geddy's still playing leads, but on bass instead.
In terms of themes, this album had great potential grouping around the theme of magic; it didn't live up to it, but fear not, I'm not knocking severe marks off for that. Also, if you reinterpret magic as the structure of human civilisation, well, it kinda works. The only track to specifically address the album title is, fittingly, the title track itself. The vocals wander and it doesn't really go anywhere, but the guitar solo is rich and emotional. The rest of the songs follow Neil's new preference of themes of humanity, though there are some tracks addressing nature. I'll discuss these below.
In terms of style, I guess it's still prog-rock, but it's much softer. Alex cut back on his use of distortion during the mid-80s, and uses a predominately clean, chorused, arpeggiated approach to riffs, and with Geddy's dominating approach to bass, I think this album is difficult to classify. It's very easy to listen to the album as a whole. It's also easy to rock out to specific tracks. It's just, well, Rush... // 9
Lyrics and Singing: First things first. To me, Rush are gods. Like them or not, they are all talented in their own disciplines, or they wouldn't still be going today. Peart, as far as I'm concerned, is a great lyricist, a master of metaphors and analogies. On the previous album, HYF, the depth of the lyrics gave me a revelation when I listened to them and one track actually scared me, it was *that* deep. Neil's backed off a bit now, but the lyrics are still amazing.
Track one, Show Don't Tell, starts off softly and has a mild courtroom theme of prosecutor, defence, judge and jury. This is an analogy of the present state of mind of the general populace of always being right, and defending one's ideas as though on trial. Great bass solo.
Chain Lightning contains loads of natural imagery and it flows beautifully. It also has a single, brilliant line: "Meteor rains stars across the night," which I think is a beautiful comparison of a falling star. I think the guitar solo's too fast, but that's just me.
The Pass is just... Man, only Rush could do this. It's a song that could have caused so much controversy; instead, it's one of their best. Dealing with the sensitive issue of teen suicide, in which the character is fed up with walking the 'razor's edge' of life, the band implore him not to take his own, stating there is no dignity nor grace in 'surrender, ' implying the hurt those around him would feel, and getting him to realise his situation is far from unique, that people around him can help. Alex's guitar solo is beautifully emotional yet simple, not detracting from the song's message. According to Rio, it's the band's favourite, as it's so well arranged.
War Paint is so underrated. Geddy lets his synths loose in the background, while Alex plays some crashing chords and tranquil arpeggios over Neil's lyrics comparing the modern act of courting straight back to old fairytales; listen to it and you'll hear comparisons that you'd never think of before. It's still a fight to win the love of one's potential partner, and Neil hints that fairytale romance may still apply. My favourite song for quite a while.
Scars has an interesting bassline, actually done with a sequencer. The lyrics hint that every experience in our lives leaves a mark on our minds, a psychological 'scar' that we carry though our lives. I didn't really like the general mood of this track, so I didn't listen to it much.
Presto, the title track, is themed around magic. Like I said earlier, it's a wandering song, very acoustic but with little meaning; the singer would fix all the world's problems if they had a magic wand is the general (and repeated) conclusion. It's got what I feel is the best guitar solo on the album, it fits very well and is quite emotional.
Superconductor is a throwback to rock 'n' roll, heavily guitar-riff-based and very catchy. The lyrics are not about the electric device, but about a supreme master of illusion onstage (the titular Super Conductor), so OK, maybe another track about magic. Try and avoid humming the riff
Red Tide has a fitting title that sets the scene for the track. It deals with the mark human war leaves on the earth, about how, as the war approaches, so does the Red Tide, the harbinger of war. Very synth-heavy.
Hand Over Fist is a clever song; the lyrics switch perpective around the same topic, and to me, it suggests someone with multiple personalities trying to decide which opinion to take; they do so with a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Light on the synths and heavy on the guitars.
Available Light is a soft closing track, drawing the album calmly to a halt. Again, it uses a lot of natural imagery to instill calm, the light leaving the album as the timer reaches zero. Lots of arpeggiated guitar and synthesizer. Not one I listen to a lot, though, so I haven't really interpretted it.
Altogether, the band address multiple aspects of then-modern human society. Some of these tracks may mean something else to others; Neil's incredibly talented with metaphors, there may be other meanings to these songs.
Geddy's on top form as ever. He puts a lot of emotion into his singing, and though Neil does all the initial writing (with some exceptions), Geddy puts his own spin on Neil's lyrics in some cases, both of them working towards the final song. I guess it helps Geddy view the song as his own so he can apply enough emotion to it. And no, fortunately there's still no high-note wailing. That period ended in the seventies
I love the lyrics of these songs so much I have to rank it a ten. // 10
Impression: Presto builds directly off Hold Your Fire, to the point where I can directly compare some tracks (try Show Don't Tell with Open Secrets), but given how Rush are a genre unto themselves, I can't really compare them with anyone else. Well, maybe British New Wave band Ultravox, who had the same guitar/synth setup, but it's nowhere near the same. No, I can't really compare Rush to anyone, so you'll have to judge for yourselves whether you like this album. It's not an amps-to-11-rock album, but neither is it an ambient music album. It does, however, really suit background music. While at work, I would often have my iPod in my ears with Presto on quietly, as it really does work on low volumes. That's not to say you shouldn't listen to it loud, as you really can.
The highlights are in the first half. Geddy really digs in and shows his bass skills and Alex shows off his guitar abilities. They hold off on the synths until track four and keep them in reserve until track nine. The second half is more of the same, really. The best tracks are The Pass, War Paint, Show Don't Tell and Superconductor (ok, from the second half, but it's a good track). All of the songs, as above, have excellent lyrics and show great musicianship by the band. War Paint's my favourite; The Pass is a great pick-me-up song if you're feeling down, and definitely one to listen to if you've ever considered the 'S-word.'
I absolutely love the bass, the lyrics and the themes this album offers. I often put the CD in my car with its powerful stereo and massive speakers to appreciate this album fully. The cover artwork is quite good, and the booklet design is OK.
I don't hate anything Rush - maybe I'm an obsessive fanboy, maybe I found my true musical calling, decide for yourselves. I do, however, have a couple of issues - Alex's guitar sound is very bright, and chords sorta 'crash' instead of playing with a full sound; very trebly, not like the warmer, more mid/bassy tone he gets from his usual Gibsons. Also, I bought the album off iTunes firstly, and was not impressed by the bass on Superconductor, which sounded unusually thin. I bought the remastered CD and it was much better
I had this album as a digital download before I bought the CD and overwrote it. As such, it would never really get 'stolen,' but yes, it was my favourite album for ages (before I got HYF, which I might review if I can work up the courage :), so I would immediately buy a replacement if I lost it for real. It really is a great album for me; I'm not trying to convince people to like it, I'm trying to convince people to listen to it and decide for themselves. It is a seriously overlooked, undervalued album that ranks up with Moving Pictures and my previous review, Power Windows. I hope I've given a clear, low-biased review of this great album, and I hope that new people enjoy it as a result.
That's all, folks! // 9