Not only did Permanent Waves kick-start the 1980s for Rush, it also reinvigorated the trio at the start of a new decade.
The first words Geddy Lee proclaimed while ushering in a new direction for Rush still resound heavily forty years later: “Begin the day with a friendly voice”. Permanent Waves, Rush’s seventh album, is arguably the sharpest, most important turn in the band’s career. Recorded in the early autumn of 1979, Permanent Waves found Rush surfing head-first into the 80s as pioneers of a new wave of progressive rock. It was more concise, more radio-friendly, more accessible, and yet more ambitious in contrast to their already progressive back catalogue. Rush strove to write at least one ‘philosophically epic’ track per album, reminiscent of Yes and Genesis, ever since 1975s Fly by Night. There is no dulcet moment on Permanent Waves, however; not a single bar or accent should be passed over. Each and every minute is absolutely drenched in what Jack Black describes as ‘Rocket Sauce’.
Rush was burnt out by the summer of 1979 after completing the enormity that was the Hemispheres tour. By then, they had families of their own, and the monotonous touring schedule and gruelling recording sessions of the past five years had taken their toll. Yet, Alex Lifeson’s opening guitar lick on “The Spirit of Radio” established that the spirit of the group was more wide awake than ever. Opening tracks on previous Rush albums always resonated with fans (“Anthem”, “Bastille Day”, “A Farewell to Kings” to name a few), but the ear-pleasing “The Spirit of Radio” goes the extra mile to set the tone for the rest of the album. Who would have thought that the group would experiment with reggae while lyrically paying homage to Simon and Garfunkel? It’s like your favourite ice cream company came out with a new flavour, and it goes down just as sweet, if not even sweeter.
“Freewill” makes sure there is no second-song-slump thanks to Neil Peart’s inhuman assault on the drums paired with lyrics on libertarian choice and following your own beliefs. “Jacob’s Ladder” (a song that’s earned a cult following because it’s only ever been performed live on the Permanent Waves and R40 tours) features heavy-layered synthesizers, complex time signatures, and ominous lyrics: “The clouds prepare for battle in the dark and brooding silence.” “Entre Nous” and “Different Strings”, the two shortest songs on the album, fit nicely into Permanent Waves‘s back half. The latter features Geddy’s sole lyrical contribution, a common trait on previous releases; the former’s themes stray from the philosophical and sci-fi approach Peart had grown accustomed to, offering up a more personal tale of his insecurities interacting with fans (something further explored in the song “Limelight” on Moving Pictures).
Permanent Waves closes with “Natural Science”, a three-part, nine-and-a-half-minute masterpiece that addresses the rapid emergence of technology and consumerism and is chock-full of everything Rush fans could ever want to (ironically) consume. After the acoustic intro (featuring ingenious production from Terry Brown), the trio let loose into hyperspace, each taking centre stage and exhibiting why they are master craftsmen (just listen to how casual Peart is with his three-second solo fill as the track approaches the four-minute mark). Ultimately, Permanent Waves stands the test of time in ways that other Rush albums have not. Fans may be divided about the band’s foray into electronics in the mid-1980s but there’s no denying these sonic experiments reinvigorated Rush and gave them a new lease on life. Just as 2112 piloted their progressive drive in the latter half of the 70s, Permanent Waves ushered in an era of commercial appeal that lasted through the 80s and beyond.
Sadly, as this post was being prepared for publication, Rush drummer Neil Peart passed away at age 67 after a three-and-a-half year battle with Glioblastoma.