Rush – Roll the Bones

Written by on February 25, 2020

 

“So I think you have to just juggle with those things and say, ‘Well, I’ll improve my odds the best I can,’ and also live to the point that if every day has to be my last one, ‘I could be satisfied with that.’ You spent your life up till now as well as you could, so there’s really no regrets except that you don’t get any more.”

It has taken me a few weeks to address this situation. You try to come up with the right words in this writing profession, looking to express what you feel and think in the most precise manners, but I guess there is no other way to say it: Rush drummer Neil Peart has died and Rock music will never be the same again.

Peart’s career is one of the greatest in Rock history and one of the most consistent, skillful and brilliant musicians that ever graced the scene, helping Rush, along with guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee, to become Canada’s best band of all time and a group that turned Prog Rock into an institution.

I was thinking of doing a whole review of Rush’s career to celebrate Neil Peart’s life and musicianship, but I decided to go for a simpler option: a review and retrospective look of their 1991 release, Roll the Bones, which also ranks as my favorite Rush album of all time.

So it’s time to look back on one of the most important albums in the band’s career and in a moment where I think Rush found, yet again, a place to shine.

Context.

“Wandering the face of the earth

Wondering what our dreams might be worth

Learning that we’re only immortal

For a limited time.”

  • Rush, Dreamline.

It’s important to look back on the context in which Roll the Bones was made. The albums that the band did in the 80s were heavily synth-focused and also had a more straightforward approach compared to some of Rush’s more revered works, such as 2112 or A Farewell to Kings. And while I don’t think there’s nothing inherently wrong with albums such as Signals or Grace Under Pressure with their most synth-based approach (in fact, I like them a big deal), I understand the band’s desire of going for a more streamlined sound and that’s exactly what they did with 1989’s Presto.

I personally feel that beyond a few good songs here and there, Presto worked better as a statement that they were going back to a more organic sound than as a final product, but it was still a step in the right direction. Love the synth-based sound or not, the 80s were coming to a close and the guys knew that in order to stay relevant and creatively fertile, they needed to explore other sounds.

“We have felt a new kind of realization,” said Peart during the promotional tour for Roll the Bones. “There is a long future ahead of us because we are so satisfied with working together. There isn’t an area of frustration for any of us – something that we don’t get to express in Rush.”

Beyond the usual positive comments that musicians say when they are promoting an album, there was an element of truth to what Peart was saying at the time. Roll the Bones wasn’t Rush going back to their roots–it was Rush embracing a third new era and mixing their technical playing of the 70s with the more accessible tunes they made in the 80s.

The 90s were an ever-changing landscape for a lot of bands and if you were a 70s/80s group, things were starting to look somewhat bleak when you take into account that Grunge was starting to be on the rise and more conventional Hard Rock bands were slowly losing mainstream acceptance, but Rush somewhat in between, as they always were and that is why their change of sound was done in the right time.

“In the studio, we’ve turned away from keyboards, back to more of a three-piece sound,” said Geddy Lee before the album’s release in 1991. “Some of the new tracks are really just the three of us, although others are quite heavily orchestrated-we can’t seem to resist that completely.”

Another element that people often don’t pay a lot of attention to in this period of the band’s career was that before the making of Presto they ended their partnership with the label Mercury Records, which was always pushing them to go in multiple directions and parting ways was a very intelligent move on the band’s behalf because it allowed them to have a lot more control of what was going on around them. They moved to Canadian label Anthem, which quickly gave them the freedom they craved in this new chapter of their career and which was in full display with Roll the Bones.

The album itself.

“The more we got to know Neil, the more we realized that his input, No. 1 lyrically and eventually rhythmically and musically, were important. Alex and I have never had this belief of the two of us, it has always been a three-way thing and it was our suggestion to Neil that he become involved in the lyrics and it was something that he had never thought about before. And once he started doing it he grew to like it and realized that it could be an important expression for him.”

I find it interesting that the album’s lyrical theme of luck and fate happen to coincide with the band’s return to a more guitar-driven sound–it seems fitting in a way that they are taking their chances towards a new bold era and that is exactly how Roll the Bones sounds like. Long gone are the synthesizers and we hear Rush mixing all they have learned so far in their careers to enter what I consider their “accomplished” era: they no longer have to prove anything and they are just trying to make the best possible music.

Obviously, the great winner of this musical change is guitarist Alex Lifeson, who, after perhaps a whole decade in a secondary role, comes back to be the one that carries the weight of the compositions. “This record, I don’t know, something happened,” Alex Lifeson said in 1991. “We got a new-found enthusiasm and excitement about what we do, about touring, about recording and we’re looking at a long-distance future now.”

You only have to listen to the opening of Dreamline to notice that things have changed; the band is pushing forward with great guitar work from Lifeson and Geddy Lee establishing that vocal tone that we would enjoy until the band’s retirement a few years ago. I think this is the modern quintessential Rush song: it ticks all the boxes of what makes this era of the band so well. You have great melodies and a chorus that is very catchy and accessible, but filled with that class and musicianship that only a band of Rush’s caliber can provide.

Geddy Lee usually gets a lot more credit for his vocal performances, but I think we need to talk about his bass work here, which is not only skillful and with a very rhythmic approach, but also sounding very distinctive and different to what we’re used of him until this point of his career and that is mostly due to his new bass selection.

“One thing that’s different about the album is the sound of my bass,” Lee said about the making of the album in 1991. “I have a new Wal with a slightly larger body, and it has a deeper, more luxuriant tone, I’m quite pleased with it, and I think it’s given the group a larger sound overall. On a couple of tracks, I went back to my other Wal-so those songs feature the twangy sound I’ve been using for the last few years-but most of the album was done with the new bass. That’s something should be quite noticeable.”

There is a free-flowing nature to this new version of Rush that feels fresh and established, which is something that is very clear with the second track, Bravado. What I like about this song is the peaceful and melodic approach that it has; in the hands of a less-capable band, this track would feel unnecessary and easy to skip, but Geddy, Alex and Neil know what they are doing and allow the vocals to take the helm for an enjoyable and calm piece.

What separates Rush from a t lot of other technical bands is the fact that they would rather create a simple track of great quality than adding a lot of unnecessary technique and musical meandering, thus proving in Bravado how much they have grown as musicians throughout the years. There is a time for slower pieces and a time for more complex tracks and Rush mastered that maxim during this period of their careers.

“It was really a way of calming down,” said Lee in 2018. “Rush has a tendency to play very hyper, very fast. We were just not very good at playing in a relaxed state. Roll the Bones was our answer to that.”

It’s telling that in such a relaxed track we can still hear Peart churning out some beautiful and complex pieces here and there. “Neil’s parts are complex, too,” Lee said to Guitar Player in 1991. “Listen to the end of Bravado. There’s an example of limb independence that rivals any drummer, anywhere. The fact that he nailed that in one take blows my mind.”

I always say that the title track should express the whole spirit of the album and this one certainly does, with Lifeson showing great melodies in the guitar while Peart does a remarkable work on drums, always active and always doing rhythm changes in a way that doesn’t feel over the top. Lee is on his zone, fully capable of what his voice can and can’t do, which in return makes him a much more effective vocalist.

Of course, the “rap” section in the middle section (who is actually Geddy Lee with vocal effects from the studio, much to my surprise) has gotten a lot of criticism, but, you know, I kinda dig it. It has a good rhythm and it is preceded by perhaps my favorite Alex Lifeson solo of all time, which sets the stage for Geddy. And unlike many rap songs that have no substance, I really like how it connects with the lyrical themes of luck, taking your chances and so on.

Lyrically, I think it’s one of Peart’s masterpieces. We all have asked ourselves the meaning of life, why things happen the way they do and Peart, ever the clever writer, answers through simplicity: Does it matter?

“The basic questions I ask in Roll The Bones—‘Why are we here?’ ‘Why does it happen?’—are the wrong questions,” Peart said back in 1992. “It’s ‘What can we do about it?’”

Face Up is yet another change of pace for the album (the fourth in a row) and it’s the fastest track of the whole work while also reminding us of a more organic version of what we heard of the band in the 80s. I love Geddy’s vocals here, especially on the chorus; there is a sense of urgency and passion on his voice that is so good and yet so precise. Rush has the weird virtue of playing passionately in such a meticulous manner –I don’t know any other band that can do it that way.

The band didn’t make a new instrumental in almost ten years and they went with the interesting Where’s My Thing?, which is a solid track and I think both Lifeson and Peart get the spotlight here with some intricate playing, but I also believe that it’s somewhat of a weak track compared to what we have heard so far until this point.

The Big Wheel goes back to the really melodic and uplifting feeling of Bravado and the title track, which I personally welcome because it’s where the albums shines the most. You can tell that Lifeson was having fun recording this album just for the fact that his guitar sounds lively, with a lot of rhythm changes and more straightforward than in a long time.

A common perception of the album’s lyrics is the fact that a lot of people seem to think that it is autobiographical in some ways, but Neil Peart denied that when he was asked about it.

The Big Wheel is a good example on this album; where it seems to be autobiographical, but it’s really not,” he said during the Roll the Bones Radio Special a few years ago. “It’s where I’ve looked for a universal of that tradeoff between innocence and experience, and that song certainly addresses that. Not in the circumstances of my own life so much, or if it is, it’s not important that it be autobiographical, that’s just by the by really. Very much I want to find universal things that others can relate to, and that’s a thing that’s part of everyone’s life, so I think that’s probably one reason why I’m drawn to it.”

I often feel that the album loses a bit of quality after The Big Wheel, with Heresy being a prime example of that. Mind you, there is nothing inherently wrong about this song, but I don’t think there is nothing particularly impressive about it. I do think that the lyrics are very strong and that is a constant through the whole album, this time evocating the loss of time and often leading a life astray due to things beyond our control.

And while Ghost of a Chance is far from being my favorite track of the album, it has some elegant musicianship and it shows Lifeson in the limelight, often aiming for a more bluesy approach that just fits so well–his main guitar melody is just gold and I think I have come to appreciate his work on this song a lot more as I have gotten older. There is a certain minimalistic nature to Rush in this album and I personally love the impact that it has on Lifeson’s guitar work. And he certainly seems to be a fan of it.

“The solos in Ghost of a Chance, Bravado and Roll the Bones are basically one- or two-take solos played all the way through,” he said on Guitar Player on 1991. “When we’re developing the arrangement in the writing stages, I toss a solo on tape so we have something to listen to. It’s late at night, the lights are down low, and I’m by myself.”

“These were supposed to be throwaway solos, but when it was time to do the ‘real’ solos, Neil had already adjusted his parts to fit what I’d played. So it came down to me trying to recreate everything – which doesn’t work. You might improve the sound, but even if you play exactly the same notes you’ll never capture that magic feel. The solos in Ghost of a Chance and Bravado are certainly my favorites on the record, if not among my favorite solos ever. When I listen to them, I heart the way I felt at that time. That’s really the key.”

Having said that, I think the last two songs on the album, Neurotica and You Bet Your Life, end the work on somewhat of a low note. Neurotica is nice, but it doesn’t do it for me and it has even been viewed by the band as one of the worst songs they have ever written.

On the other hand, You Bet Your Life suffers from sounding way too generic compared to what we have heard so far on Roll the Bones. Like the rest of the album, it is played very well and the band sounds tight as usual, but it misses the mark when it comes to delivering a proper hook and keeping the listener entertained. It’s okay, but by Rush’s standards it is not enough.

Beyond a somewhat lackluster ending, Roll the Bones is a very well-written album, with a clear idea of what they are aiming for (And succeeding at it) and a phenomenal comeback for a band that was struggling on the second half of the 80s. There is a sense of urgency and yet maturity on Roll the Bones that captures the band at the right place at the right time as far as creativity goes. It works tremendously well as a musical unit.

An album that was also commercially successful (it was one of the highest selling records of 1991) and the starting point from what I consider the band’s modern period.

Conclusion.

“You can be dealt the wild card and you can turn it down – or you can jump on it. That’s part of the ‘roll the bones’ aspect, too. When opportunity knocks, do you answer or do you pretend you’re asleep? Even when luck comes your way, you have a choice how you respond to it.”

I never met my father. He died when I was a baby and I have no memories of him being part of my life. All I know is that he was a good man to my mom and my older brother, which is what matters the most to me, at the end of the day. But one thing that always stuck with me was his CD collection and one album in particular: Roll the Bones.

I can’t fully talk about this album in an objective manner because of how much it means to me. Its music speaks to me in a very personal level and represents a connection to a person that I never had the possibility of knowing like a lot of sons all over the world could. It’s an album that, to this day, still takes me back to simpler times and reminds me of the power music can have to make you smile and to make you happy.

Neil Peart understood the importance of music as a medium to express the best of human nature and that’s what I think when I listen to the title track or Dreamline: a reminder that we’re still alive and we can do a lot with what we have. Yes, life has a lot of ordeals, it can be overwhelming at times and you can feel sad, alone or even angry at how things are turning out, but there is also a lot of beauty, meaning and happiness out there and you owe it to yourself to take your best shot at life. For you and for others that are no longer around to do the same.

Every time I listen to this album I connect with my father in a way that only beautiful music can achieve. It brings me joy of a life and memories that I will never have.

So, thank you, Neil, Geddy and Alex. For reminding us every day with your music that we’re only immortal for a limited time.

 

“If there is life after death, I’m prepared for it. I think I’ve lived a good, responsible, moral life. But at the same time, only in service of my own idea of that. I think we are self-contained units of life and have to make the best of what we have here. Your job is to live a good life here and now.”

 

 


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