The Goldmine-Signals by Rush

This week we are going to take a look back at Rush’s 1982 masterpiece Signals. The last of Rush’s trilogy of commercially successful albums that catapulted them into the international spotlight. The trio of albums mentioned are Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures, and Signals. They were removed from the band’s fantasy oriented, long and epic songs that dominated their early career. Rush was now a focused and well-oiled machine, releasing intellectually challenging but still commercially acceptable music. Signals was the beginning of the band’s extensive use of the synthesizer throughout the 80’s. The album is mostly thought of as a side note to the very popular Moving Pictures, which contained their celebrated track Tom Sawyer. The real strength behind the album is that it trades successful hit singles for a completely solid and energetic total album experience. Let’s take a listen. Side A The lead song on Signals also happened to be their biggest hit from the record, the radio-staple Subdivisions. This synth-driven mid-tempo rocker demonstrates the band’s full commitment to their switch over to the aurally striking synthesizer sound. Bassist and singer Geddy Lee is the man behind the keys on this record. He sings about the alienation that one receives in our fractured and unfriendly society. The subdivisions in question are the borders that people draw between themselves and others in an attempt to define themselves, this includes physical borders such as the subdivisions of a housing complex. Lee’s keyboard solos weave into the song between the verses and guitarist Alex Lifeson’s solo brings authentic life to this modern sounding aural barrage.

The second track is the upbeat hard rock song The Analog Kid. It is one of the songs that features Lifeson’s guitar more in the forefront of the album. One of the issues the band encountered as they adopted the synthesizer was how to balance it with Lifeson’s previously dominant guitar. For much of the decade it was relegated to a lower place in the mix, but on Analog Kid he is back in the spotlight and solos with impunity. Up next is Chemistry, which is the last song that Rush has released with lyrics credited to every band member. Rush’s songwriting dynamic is unusual in the chronicles of rock history, as drummer Neil Peart wrote the lyrics to nearly every song the band has released since he joined in 1974. Chemistry is a spacey experience that showcases a very balanced mix of bass, guitar, synthesizer and Peart’s always stellar drumming that pushes the song forward. The track is a good example of Signals’ exploration of the lyrical motif of communication, how it can separate or bring people together. The last track on the first side is Digital Man, which may or may not be related in title and theme to The Analog Kid (a fun little progression). Digital Man is a reggae influenced exploration of old and new that prominently features Geddy Lee’s steady bass play. There is an electronic freak out section that pulses through the song at the middle and the very end as the song fades out to close the first side. Side B Fading into the second side of the album is The Weapon. With a collage of electronic sounds, the song is part of the “Fear Series” of songs scattered throughout the Rush discography. The series itself is a collection of four songs dealing with different aspects of the emotion of fear. The Weapon is pretty self-explanatory when viewed in that light, it concerns weapons that humanity produces that inspire terror in the hearts of those it is aimed at. It can be inferred that the weapon is some sort of nuclear bomb, so powerful that its own creators were frightened of it. The tone of the song balances a space-age sense of innovation with an unsettling feeling of paranoia for what this technology could bring. New World Man is another technologically themed song. The ‘New World Man being described is a caricature of the people of the new world, being compared and contrasted to the ‘Old World Man’ and the ‘Third World Man.’ The song is melodic with a mid-tempo beat and promises both trials and triumphs for the New World as it tries to find its place among the old.

The third song on the second side is the melancholy piece Losing It. It features multi-instrumentalist Ben Mink playing electric violin. Think of U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday but with a more immediate feel to it in line with the electro-synth feel of the album. Losing It is a powerfully emotional song, and the saddest track on an album frequently visits the negative aspects of human interaction. The final track on Signals is Countdown, which describes the launch of a space shuttle and incorporates dialog recordings from the Columbia shuttle throughout. The song is similar to The Weapon in its fear of humanity’s reliance on technology, but offers a more promising future for those who use technology to keep advancing forward. Ironically, the track was used as a wake up song for the ill-fated last flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Signals by Rush is a transitional album, but like many bands that transition period is often when they write their most impressive work. It’s a highly-polished and dense record that offers intellectually stimulating and musically challenging songs for any listener who feels up to exploring them. Incidentally, Rush is the first band profiled in this series that isn’t American or British, yay multinationalism!

The Goldmine-Animals by Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd is a band that has released a fair number of great albums. Some of them were very obvious candidates for writing an album profile, in this series I try to make each review about one of the best albums by the band I select. For Pink Floyd the most obvious choice would be Dark Side of the Moon, that legendary album that influenced nearly everything since and is a landmark in the history of recorded popular music. The Wall and Wish You Were Here are the other best candidates. I don’t want to profile double albums too often and the story of The Wall is so important to the album that a proper profile would be far longer than anything else I’ll every write for this site. Wish You Were Here is like Dark Side, it is still an album that’s known well enough that I don’t think I need to promote it on this site. By the way, all three of these albums are near required listening for any fan trying to break into classic rock. If you haven’t heard them please go right ahead.

In choosing to write about another Pink Floyd album, Animals became the clear choice. It was released in 1977, in between Wish You Were Here and The Wall, and is sometimes overlooked because of its more inaccessible features. Mostly the fact that the album basically is made up of 3 songs each over 10 minutes long. It is also the first of three very politically charged albums, this coincided with the transition of bassist Roger Waters being the songwriting leader of the band to him being more or less the sole authority of what the band’s output would be. The tension in this change would bring eventually lead to him leaving the band and nearly ending Pink Floyd as an entity.

Nevertheless, Pink Floyd’s Animals is a thought provoking and critical commentary on modern society. The idea behind the album is that it uses the George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm as a template, classifying man into three different categories, the pigs, the sheep, and the dogs. Despite (or maybe because of) the tension within the band it is some of the hardest rocking music Floyd ever wrote. Let’s dive in.

Side A

Pigs on the Wing (Part I) is the first track on the album and it lasts only 1 minute 25 seconds. It features Roger Waters alone playing an acoustic guitar. It is a short and wistful song that stands as an island of comfort before the storm that is the rest of the album hits.

The entire rest of the first side of the album is taken up by the behemoth epic Dogs. Just over 17 minutes long, Dogs is the real face of Animals: harsh and angry. Going off of the Animal Farm connection, the dogs are the enforcers. They work for the pigs to protect their interests, doing the dirty work behind the scenes to maintain order and the power structure. The dogs in question are also victims of this world, being used by those in charge and then disposed of themselves when they can no longer carry out their duties. This is the only song on the album co-written by anybody other than Roger Waters. The song began as a composition by guitarist David Gilmour, and as such is the most guitar oriented song on the album. The guitar work on this song is sublimely intricate. The solos for this album are biting and snarling, which is fitting given the name of the song. As mentioned before, the first part of the song is very guitar driven, with acoustic and electric interplay by Gilmour and Waters. But around 8 minutes in, the song changes into a slow and spacey synthesizer solo by keyboardist Richard Wright as a middle section with dog noises and whistling dubbed in by Gilmour on a vocoder. Around 12 minutes into the song, the guitar format returns, mimicking the original section. This time Roger Waters is singing his lyrics, David Gilmour would later admit that it was very hard for him to sing all the vocals on this 17 minute long slog. The song ends with a roughly two minute electrically charged requiem for the dogs, who served their masters faithfully and without hesitation, only to be thrown away and replaced when they could no longer perform. A sad end to a sad life.

Side B

Pigs (Three Different Ones) is the first song on the second side of the album. It is an 11 and a half minute long scathing criticism of the powers that be. The pigs are the ones in charge, the ones pulling the strings in society. The “three different ones” in question are three different representations of people in power that Waters sings about in the three verses of the song. The first can be assumed to be a politician, the second is either an aristocrat or some kind of military class, and these of course can go together. From the very outset, the band plays sharp and determined. Nick Mason’s drums slowly plod along as the rest of the band creates a dense and furious atmosphere for the song. Richard Wright’s synthesizer takes the lead alongside Water’s rhythm guitar and David Gilmour’s lead guitar and overdubbed bass. After the second verse, the band extends into a lengthy jam that includes Gilmour screaming into a vocoder with animal like howls. After this, the third verse specifically mentions an actual person as one of the pigs. The person in question being Mary Whitehouse, a conservative social activist who was who was fighting the progressive changes in British society at the time. With two minutes left, the band fires into one of the most aggressive jams of their long and storied career. David Gilmour blasts away with the most intense guitar solo he ever composed. The song fades out at just at its most intense moment, giving away to pastoral sounds of birds and sheep.

From these recorded farm noises we come to the second track on this side of the album, the ten and a half minute long Sheep. It begins with a long and relaxed, jazzy electric piano solo by Rick Wright. As a droning bass begins to fade in, the song explodes into a mid-tempo rocker, again sung by Roger Waters. The sheep in question are everyone who isn’t a pig or a dog. They are the vast majority who has to keep docile and idle lest they face the wrath of the dogs. The sheep are beset on all sides but can do nothing to change their situation without severe consequences. The song features guitarist David Gilmour playing bass as he also did on Pigs, it is some of the best recorded bass by Pink Floyd. The middle of the song features an extended jam session of guitars and synthesizers before breaking into a more murky section of bass and synth that builds and builds until it explodes into the final verse of the song. Waters sings about the final social revolution where the sheep finally rise up to kill the dogs and pigs to take over. The song features another very hard rocking section that slowly fades out as we close the book on this world of dogs, pigs, and sheep only with the cold thought in the back of our minds that this world and ours are the same.

Just like on Wish You Were Here, one song cut in half bookends the album. Pigs on the Wing (Part II) once again offers a respite from the hurricane of raw anger and vivid images of greed and violence that dominate the album. Completely out of place, it could not be a more refreshing end to such an album.

In hindsight it is clear why Animals came out to be the least popular of Pink Floyd’s legendary four albums spanning Dark Side of the Moon to The Wall. Dark Side was all about the sad things in life that drove people apart, the beautiful music and universal nature of the lyrics made it an all-time great. Wish You Were Here was a musical collage of sound that served as a final tribute to former bandmate Syd Barrett but was also about so much more. The Wall was similar to Animals in musical and lyrical content, but it offered a more introspective look at the feelings associated with the political and social issues brought up in both albums. Animals is truly an angry album made by an angry band.

If you aren’t afraid of long songs and can look deeper beyond the tone of an album and into its core message, you may very well learn something by listening to this album.