Rush (The Band) Takes On The Religious Right

It's not necessarily a protest album, but more of a sympathetic mouthpiece for those of us who are seeking some fashion of light in this dark place: "a refuge from the coming night," as Geddy Lee sings in.
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rush-snakes-arrows.jpgWithin its first 60 seconds, the new Rush album, Snakes & Arrows, throws down against the Christian right:

Pariah dogs and wandering madmen
Barking at strangers and speaking in tongues
The ebb and flow of tidal fortune
Electrical changes are charging up the young

-Excerpt from Far Cry

Snakes & Arrows is, musically and lyrically, one of the best recordings of Rush's 35 year history and probably the most important as it tackles themes we're facing with respect to everything from the "barking strangers speaking in tongues" in the movies Jesus Camp and Alexandra Pelosi's Friends of God, to the crusades of the Bush administration and radical Islam, while appropriately and ominously describing this era in history as if "we're back in the Dark Ages."

Rush's drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, has always been an intelligent and outspoken proponent of secularism. In the song Faithless, Peart describes himself as not having "faith in faith." But it was his series of cross-continental motorcycle journeys -- first, his Ghost Rider exile following the deaths of his wife and daughter; then his road trips during the Rush 30th anniversary tour, documented in his book Roadshow: Landscape With Drums -- which motivated the construction of an album around the themes of religious fundamentalism and its symptomatic penchant for misguided warfare. Peart defiantly stands for his cause and even though he, also in Faithless, says that he's "quietly resisting," he and the band are far from quiet about the way the winds are blowing.

Peart describes this album as his "lover's quarrel with the world," and as such, it offers both dire and insightful observations, as well as reasons for hope. It's not necessarily a protest album, but more of a sympathetic mouthpiece for those of us who are seeking some fashion of light in this dark place: "a refuge from the coming night," as Geddy Lee sings in the album's second track, Armor And Sword.

What should have been our armor
Becomes a sharp and angry sword

We hold beliefs as a consolation
A way to take us out of ourselves
Meditation, or medication
A comfort, or a promised reward
-Exerpts from Armor And Sword

Backed with a nasty and heavy Alex Lifeson chord progression, these words offer a metaphor for both the religious and elemental motivation of our present wars, but also the nature of America's military power. First, isn't faith and religion supposed to be a means of protection and salvation rather than attack? Yeah, except when its been bastardized -- like now -- for the selfish "promised reward" of salvation. Second, isn't our military supposed to be used for defense rather than preemptive war? Yep. But more than either of these themes, America has, more often than not, tempered its unprecedented strength with reason (reason and balance is another longtime Peart theme). Cooler heads tend to win the day. Not so much recently, though.

Cooler heads, as described by Rush and Peart, have been almost drowned by the "dry rasp of the devil winds."

In the allegorical song Spindrift, Peart describes himself as frustrated, separated and disillusioned -- almost stymied -- by the devil winds from the east: the television pundits and radical religious "fools" who rip across the waves of modern reality.

The spray that's torn away
Is an image of the way I feel

As the sun goes down
On the western shore
It makes me feel uneasy
In the hot dry rasp of the devil winds
Who cares what a fool believes?

What am I supposed to say?
Where are the words to answer you
When you talk that way?
Words that fly against the wind and waves

Where are the words that will make you see
What I believe is true?
-Exerpts from Spindrift

I actually missed the climatological allegory here for the first couple of listens. The album concept of religious zealotry applies, in this case, to the mouthpieces in cable news who promote the radical Christian right's agenda. They know who they are. (It's worth elaborating on the allegory: Peart has lived in Los Angeles -- "the western shore" -- where he's observed firsthand the mystical phenomenon of the Devil Winds for the better part of this decade.)

But the most striking and moving song to play within this theme is the track The Way The Wind Blows:

Now it's comes to this
Wide-eyed armies of the faithful
From the Middle East to the Middle West
Pray, and pass the ammunition

So many people think that way
You gotta watch what you say
To them and them, and others too
Who don't seem to see the things the way you do

Now it's come to this
Hollow speeches of mass deception
From the Middle East to the Middle West
Like crusaders in unholy alliance

Now it's come to this
Like we're back in the Dark Ages
From the Middle East to the Middle West
It's a plague that resists all science
-Exerpts from The Way The Wind Blows

"Pray and pass the ammunition" is one of Peart's most precise and simultaneously big lyrical passages. In five words, Peart nails down the hypocrisy and madness of the American religious right movement. Genuflect to the Prince of Peace while dropping white phosphorous on civilian populations. But more subversive here is how Peart conflates radical Islam and radical Christianity. One fuels the other and the Dark Ages return as each side requires a Them to exist and flourish. Science and reason are demonized as the enemy and dismissed as sacrilegious myth while myth is promoted as science.

Pray and pass the ammunition -- until the end of days.

I don't like most album reviews, so I intentionally didn't spend a lot of time on the songs as a whole. Record reviews, and especially Rush reviews, have become almost ridiculously and cynically dismissive or riddled with clichés like "a return to form!" or "sounds like their previous album X!" or "it's an anthem!" or "it's powerful and majestic!" or the pejorative "old prog dinosaur suck rocks!" You name it. Rush isn't prog rock. Or, I've never seen them in that light. They've evolved into their own genre. Progressive, alternative, heavy rock. I have no idea and I don't care. But I've always liked Rush for their ability to reinvent their sound. So suffice to say, this album is very different from their previous release, Vapor Trails. No disrespect intended to Vapor Trails, but this is simply a better album in terms of production values and songwriting, and, thematically, Snakes & Arrows is a vastly more important album.

And fortunately for the cause of reason, it hasn't fallen upon deaf ears. It premiered this week at #3 on the Billboard Top 200, beating out Avril Lavigne, ex-Idol doofus rocker Chris Daughtry, and ex-Idol cupcake Carrie Underwood. Here's to hoping (there's a warm Alex Lifeson acoustic instrumental on the album called Hope) that everyone who bought a copy of the record this week will pay attention to what Peart and Rush have to say this time around. The stakes are high and the current's flowing...

It's a far cry from the world we thought we'd inherit
It's a far cry from the way we thought we'd share it
You can almost feel the current flowing
You can almost see the circuits blowing

-Far Cry

PS. Watch Mark Crispin Miller's latest video about the theocratic movement here. While I disagree and believe that satire is always a valuable tool against extremists like the religious right, he makes about a million other brilliant points -- as only MCM can do.

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