30 Years Ago: Rush Explore More New Territory on ‘Hold Your Fire’
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Hold Your Fire, Rush‘s 12th album, is one of the legendary prog-rock trio’s most overlooked efforts.
Throughout their massive discography, Rush have remained one of the most vital progressive rock bands for a number of reasons. For one, they’ve always been sonically fearless, embracing pop music’s trends, changes in instrumentation and studio innovation as the years (and decades) rolled on. No matter the musical context, they’ve never sacrificed their instrumental power or watered down their big ideas in favor of easy commercial appeal.
All eras of Rush offer distinct rewards (from their heavy, concept album ’70s peak to their new-wave-influenced ’80s phase, and into the more focused, rocking present), but if there’s one Rush era frequently written off by fans and critics, it’s the transitional late ’80s/early ’90s period. 1987’s Hold Your Fire is quite possibly the band’s most polarizing album (not to mention a commercial disappointment — their first sub-Platinum release in nearly a decade, at that point), even though its highlights rank among the band’s finest work.
Even Rush themselves (bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, drummer Neil Peart) have some major issues with Hold Your Fire, at least looking in hindsight. In 2009, the ever-candid Lee remarked to Blender magazine, ‘You’re supposed to be crappy when you make your first three or four records. But even in our middle period, we did this song called ‘Tai Shan,’ using a poem Peart wrote about climbing a mountain in China, and when I listen to that, it’s like ‘Bzzt.’ Error. We should have known better.’
Indeed, the Chinese-influenced “Tai Shan,” with its forced exoticism and clunky synth-flutes, is a low point if there ever was one. And it’s not an isolated blemish: “Second Nature” is one of the band’s weakest ballads, marred by gooey synths and a predictable arrangement (not to mention the lyric “Choices got to have voices”). But elsewhere, Hold Your Fire is often thrilling, with some of the band’s most uplifting melodies, many excellent instrumental performances, and tight production courtesy of Peter Collins.
By this point, Lee (from a singing perspective) had shed all traces of his former yelping, paint-peeling self. Throughout Hold Your Fire, his vocals are nuanced and elegant, particularly on the outstanding lead single “Time Stand Still.” Though the track, which landed at No. 3 on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock chart, was their first to feature an outside vocalist (singer-songwriter Aimee Mann), it’s a quintessential ’80s Rush classic, from Lifeson’s glistening 7/8 arpeggios to Lee’s funky bass runs to an effervescent chorus that easily ranks among their catchiest. Meanwhile, “Prime Mover” is another top-shelf gem, filled with epic new-age synths and crunching guitars that call to mind Yes‘ “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
Hold Your Fire isn’t considered a Rush classic, for good reason: The album’s dated moments (the whooshing, candy-coated synth swirls on “Force Ten”) or fits of confusion (the previously mentioned “Tai Shan”) keep it from holding up alongside front-to-back masterworks like Moving Pictures or Hemispheres. But each Rush album is a unique snapshot of the band at a particular time, in a particular context, and Hold Your Fire is still an interesting image, even if slightly out-of-focus. After all, as Lee sings on “Prime Mover,” “The point of the journey is not to arrive.”
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