After many years of derision and disrespect, Rush has finally achieved a degree of respectability in the world of music, capped off by their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many are coming to realize what fans of the band have known for years, that Rush is an innovative, talented, and forward-thinking rock band. For 40 years they have been reflective of the musical times, not following trends but instead constantly being influenced by the music around them. In the early 80s, the band found themselves with their greatest success yet thanks to the breakthrough of the Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures albums. They had gone from heavy-prog cult band to mainstream AOR. Their contemporaries went from Yes and Led Zeppelin to Styx and REO Speedwagon. But they really yearned to be in the company of The Police and Talking Heads, the bands they were listening to at the time, and this is what led to 1982's excellent album Signals.
Rush had been using synthesizers and keyboards for several years, mostly in a background or atmospheric capacity. Now, the synths moved to the front, not replacing but sharing equal time with guitar, bass, and drums. Geddy Lee proved to be as proficient on the keys as he is on bass. In fact, the first sound you hear on the album is the ominous synth tones of "Subdivisions," an early 80s version of the power riff. Like the previous two albums, Signals opens with its best (and best-known) track. Neil Peart's unusually angry lyrics attack suburban conformity and plasticity with a punk-like ferociousness. Guitarist Alex Lifeson proves guitars and synths can coexist as he reels off one of his most powerful and emotional solos. "Subdivisions" may not be as famous as "The Spirit of Radio" or "Tom Sawyer" but it's every bit as good as those undisputed classics.
For the rest of the album, Peart moves from anger to an attempt to find more positive ways for creative people to transcend their surroundings. "The Analog Kid" opens with a more traditional guitar riff and comes off as a great high energy rocker. Like many bands of the time, Rush began incorporating reggae sounds into their mix and that influence is most greatly felt on "Digital Man." All three band members are quite comfortable locking into a reggae groove and melding it with some classic rock riffing. This was the first album where the band completely abandoned long, multi-part compositions. Yet they still nodded to their prog past noting "The Weapon" as part two of a reverse trilogy that began with the Moving Pictures cut "Witch Hunt." Musically, "The Weapon" is actually the most 80s influenced track on the album, with pulsing synths reminiscent of Giorgio Moroder. The album takes a poppier turn with the catchy "New World Man," a song that actually became the group's first single to crack the Top 40. Underneath the verses, however, Geddy Lee tosses off some of his most intricate bass lines, proving he hasn't completely forsaken the bass for the synthesizer. The album concludes with the upbeat "Countdown," a tribute to the recent first flight of the space shuttle Columbia.
The world has finally come around to recognizing Rush as one of the all time greats. Diving into their catalog reveals a band always in touch with the musical world around them. They would move onto U2-style arena rock in the late 80s, a re-emphasis on guitar oriented rock with the grunge/alternative breakthrough of the 90s, and a recent return to their prog roots, but with a contemporary rock sound. Signals can be seen as a transitional album, yet the quality of the material and strength of performance make it an essential entry in the catalog of an essential band.