In The Valley of the Shadow of Rush: Liveblogging "Moving Pictures"

1981; Le Studio(seriously), Morin Heights, Quebec; Mercury

So on the drive back to my dorm today, "Limelight" came on the radio, and as that song tends to do, it brought back a lot of old memories of cruising through town with my dad. It is on this whim that I have decided to attempt to liveblog my listening of Moving Pictures, Rush's most successful and popular studio album.

If you've been reading this blog, you may recall that I've given Rush's other works a shot before, and it didn't work out so well. I'm really hoping that this time will be different since, I must confess, I do sort of want to like Rush. I like progressive rock, I like goofy high concepts, but a myriad of factors seem to keep these things from working for me in the context of Rush's music. I'm going to enter this record objectively and see if there's something here I can find value in. This is a liveblog, which means that I'll be posting my thoughts as I listen. Here we go!

So we're starting off with "Tom Sawyer", and fuck, there's nothing I can really say here that hasn't been said before about this song. It's been saturated into classic rock radio rotation so thoroughly that it's essentially part of the collective unconscious at this point, but I can imagine that hearing this for the first time in 1981 would've been quite a thrill for a young prog-head. It's much more atmospheric than I remember it being and it's a good way to start off an album. The synthesizers are overbearing and silly, but that's to be expected somewhat.

"Red Barchetta" is a song I have no experience with, but I'm not thirty seconds in and it's already the sonic equivalent of something Magnum P.I. would drive, and not in a good way. This is absurdly '80s. And it seems like the guitar and drums are fighting each other:Peart wants this song to be peppy and Liefson is like "fuck that, we're doing moody". It goes without saying that Geddy Lee has no bearing on the sound other than to shrilly spit out nonsense. This guitar solo three minutes and thirty seconds in...is this actually happening? Did Liefson actually play that guitar solo and then a producer said, "Let's put that on an album"? Who thought this was a good idea? I don't mean to be ripping on this album so soon into the experience, but Jesus Christ these guys are not making it easy. "I leave a giant stranded at the riverside, I race back to the pond to drink with my uncle at the fireside". I bet you do, Geddy Lee, I bet you do. An inauspicious continuation of a good start.

"YYZ" is a song I have decided to stop liking. It tries to sound cool and powerful but there's no weight to it, there's nothing to ground the spacey keyboards and flighty guitars and it seems like every member of the band is trying to play a different song. Admittedly, that "wickawickawah-wicka-wickawickawah" thing that Liefson does at one point is pretty cool. And yeah, let's let those keyboards breathe, I can never get enough of those fucking things! God. Second part is the same as the first part, aaaaand...done. Bleh.

Now we get to "Limelight", and I think I've figured out what it has in common with the only other two Rush songs I sincerely enjoy, "Spirit of the Radio" and "New World Man". There's this sort of mysticism to it, a kind of romance about the way that things get built and the way things reach people, and it's got a real sort of "standing on top of a building with the wind rushing through your body" feel to it. I almost want to call it innocent, it's got such a profound sense of wonder to it. I may take shots at Rush a lot, but I'll defend this song 'til my dying breath. It's a perfectly built little prog anthem and if I could hug it I would do so.

"The Camera Eye" is 11 minutes and at this juncture I'm not too optimistic. These keyboards and traffic sounds aren't doing me any favors, either. Buildup is a little long, but that's standard stuff for a 10 minute+ prog song, I won't hold that against it. What I will hold against it are these motherfucking Goddamn keyboard riffs that make Keith Emerson look like a bastion of good taste and restraint. Ooh, nice little peppy guitar line, let's hope nothing screws this up...aww, I think Geddy Lee is singing about the wonder of Manhattan. Kind of cliche, but still cute, and I say that totally without snark. Hey, whattaya know, I sort of like this song! Or at least I did until it slowed down and holy shit KNOCK IT OFF WITH THE FUCKING KEYBOARDS!! Alright, we're back to the song proper and I'm happy again. Heh, okay, that's...long enough, fellas. Lee's voice is getting on my nerves now, let's move on. Okay? Guys? Wow, two more minutes to this song, really? Man, it's not the most long winded prog song I've ever heard but there's no call for the 11 minute runtime. And are we fading out with a minute of soft keyboards? Looks like it. Goddamnit.

"Witch Hunt" opens with some kind of xylophone thing, which isn't a good sign. Here are some crowd sounds now, they seem mad about something, and our good old friend the Dipshit Keyboard Riff is back to visit us. Cool guitar riff, but God Almighty can Geddy Lee not sing menacingly to save his life. "Faces are twisted and grotesque" is okay when you read it but sounds really clunky when sung, which seems to be a Rush tradition. Two and a half minutes and I'm pretty bored. Lee's attempts to sound scary are getting a good chuckle, though, so I guess there's that. Oh fuck, is this another one of their Rayndian parables about overbearing government? I think it is. Son of a bitch! We almost went the whole album without one of those.

"Vital Signs" starts out with a "weedledeedledoo" type keyboard riff and Geddy Lee is doing some sort of stupid echoy robot thing with his voice and I think this slap bass is trying to give me heartburn and I sort of want to die. Other than that, this is failing to have any kind of impression on me. Are they trying to do a reggae thing? Yeah, that's what I think of when I listen to Rush, is first progressive rock and then reggae. Fuckin' Toots and the Maytals, these guys are. Jeeeeeesus. This bass is really trying my patience. "Ev'rybody got to elevate from norm". Saying that over and over doesn't make it less idiotic sounding. And...we're done. The album is over.

Moving Pictures is not the pretentious bullshit festival that Permanent Waves was, and it is not the sheer aesthetic war crime that 2112 inflicted upon the world. This is what is known as "damning with faint praise", however, as it is still by no means a good album. Overstuffed with ideas both good and bad as well as being muddily written and featuring instrumentation that ranges from being long-winded to downright obnoxioius, Moving Pictures is a microcosm of progressive rock's worst aspects.

All that said, I did enjoy it more than I thought I would, and it's not completely without value. There is a prevailing sense of optimism that could be described as charming, and to their credit the members of Rush do manage to reign themselves in and keep most of their songs at reasonable run times in most instances. You can see them moving away from ostentatious prog epics and more towards digestable radio rock, a direction that doesn't suit many bands but one that Rush definitely benifited from.

Moving Pictures is not a masterpiece. It's certainly not something I'd choose to listen to again. But it is listenable, and I do not regret taking the time to hear it. Sometimes that's all I can ask for.

...It should also be noted that the album art is pretty funny.


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