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Presto! New Rush album reaches magical heights

PRESTO

Rush.

Atlantic Records.

By HORST GOVIN

IN 1974, AND IN MEAGER circumstances, the Toronto-based trio Rush released its first, self-titled album. The themes of their albums and songs have encompassed extended mythical epics, science fiction, politics, society and one's need for individuality, and even music itself. Neil Peart, drummer and percussionist, joined the group on their second album, Fly By Night, and has been writing their lyrics ever since, while bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson collaborate on the music. Now, 15 years into their career, with 12 studio albums and three live albums behind them, a new record label, and a new producer, Rush has released Presto.

What immediately stands out on Presto are the melodies of the songs, each of which has a distinct character. Listen to "Chain Lightning," which opens with drums and keyboards, adding an unusual note progression by the guitar, then Lee singing in a mysterious and magical voice. The song is about some moments in life, "brief but . . . bright." The title song features acoustic guitar with a short but beautiful electric solo in the middle, and Lee's singing is reminiscent of past albums.

"Available Light" is the black sheep on this album. There is much about this song that is unusual and new for Rush. It opens with slow, sullen piano chords and a droning beat by Peart. The song begins in a melancholy way, but the chorus becomes uplifting, and Lee reaches a note in falsetto that is almost unbelievable; but then again, he brought us the shrieking priests of the Temples of Syrinx on their 1976 album, 2112.

It's ironic that the most commercially popular-sounding song, "Superconductor," with producer Rupert Hine joining in on the infectious chorus, is about media and the entertainment industry: "target mass appeal . . . designing to deceive/that's entertainment." Another song, "Hand Over Fist," makes a round based on a schoolyard game and uses it as an analogy for personal conflicts. It explodes with energy in the two main stanzas.

Peart has used a considerable number of sampled drum sounds on the past couple of albums, mostly African drums, and Presto is no exception. They open the album, and the song "Scars" features them. With a repetitive bass line and a chant-like chorus, this song has a "tribal" feeling to it.

Other African-influenced sounds are used throughout the album, such as the flute in the background of "The Pass." Suicide is addressed in this haunting composition. Everything comes together in this song; the driving and captivating melody and rhythm, the despair in Lee's voice, the guitar solo, and the chilling lyrics ("No hero in your tragedy/no daring in your escape/no salutes for your surrender/nothing noble in your fate/Christ, what have you done?").

The levels of the songs shift from personal to societal to global and back, and the topics run through a tremendous range of issues. AIDS, environmental poison, and other man-made problems are the focus of the urgent "Red Tide." "War Paint" is a heavy rock anthem that deals with relationships and the fa,cades that so often are put up ("girl before the mirror/appraises her disguise"). The message is to put down these fa,cades, or "paint the mirror black . . . the mirror always lies." The opening song, "Show Don't Tell," argues that words aren't always true; you can't take anything on faith directly.

Much of this album deals with what things appear to be and what they really are. Take the title of the album, for instance. Magic is just that -- appearances. But "presto" is more than a term used with magic. It is also the musical term for "rapid" . . . which brings us to the topic of double meanings. (It should be noted that most of Rush's more recent album titles and covers have double meanings.) The song "Anagram" is a flowing rock song with neat twists and anagrams in every line! It is a wonderful play on words and meanings.

Presto is a thrilling voyage through music, melody, and lyrics. The music is vigorous and full of life, Lee's vocals are still going strong, and the themes have become both more personal and more encompassing socially. Three of rock's most talented instrumentalists and performers have put together another collection of music worthy of acclaim.