Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion by Durrell Bowman

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Canada’s Rush keeps its fingers in many worlds, including that of 70s heavy metal, and as a result often attracts metalheads. Durrell Bowman attempts to explain the appeal of this band through perhaps the best method possible, which is to analyze the music itself and only secondarily and sparingly reinforce what is learned with extracts from interviews. Unlike most rock writers, he focuses on the output from the band rather than the discussion or buzz surrounding it, and as a result is able to pull out intention through the band and its reaction to the changes in the experience of its members of the years and how that translates into artistic voicing.

Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion walks through Rush by eras of the band from its early hard rock days to its more progressive-rock influenced middle period to the later middle period of AOR (although this term is not used) very similar to 80s music like Boston, Asia, ZZ Top and the Eagles. In his analysis, Bowman attempts to answer one of the fundamental questions: is Rush a progressive rock band? If not, what are they? And how does this reconcile with their many different internal influences and the many different external styles, including a technologically-hip 90s format, which have cloaked the music of this band? Bowman gives his conclusions in a short introduction and then analyzes the work of the band song by song, divided into albums and the aforementioned eras. The result is a picture slowly emerging of a rock band with many different influences who wanted to play essentially power pop but with a guitar-driven appeal, like later Yes albums such as 90215. Into this, the self-taught musicians mix material from a wide range of influences as part of a philosophy of the band which Bowman slowly peels away during successive chapters: a leftist-libertarian political outlook, a personal individualism, dogmatic atheism and a studied eclecticism to find support for these ideas across different cultures and disciplines. Like their music, their philosophies are a grab-bag of what supports their fundamental worldview, which Bowman reveals as very much localized to and shaped by their experience growing up.

What Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion offers to the world of music is not so much conclusions, however, as critical points for analysis. The entire book functions as an outline of the output of the artist with vital points addressed such as musical techniques used, including juicy details on time signature and scale/harmony, but also rather intelligently looking into the music as a series of patterns and avoiding a deep immersion in music theory. As a result, Bowman compares abstract patterns found in the music to what they symbolize in life, which works well for progressive rock bands who tend to be mimetic in their approach generally, but works doubly well for Rush, who are differentiated from progressive rock (although they incorporate many of its techniques) by their tendency toward music that is more symbolic or defined in human terms rather than imitating the objects or experiences the humans are undergoing. This rather fine distinction highlights why many progressive rock fans find Rush distasteful, and why many Rush fans find progressive rock inscrutable: the two take different approaches, and the Rush approach is closer to that taken by power pop bands than what progressive rock bands attempt. It both makes the music easier to comprehend, because the meaning in the lyrics is “acted out” by the music, and explains how Rush is able to escape its normative AOR format by incorporating so many different styles as if they were brush techniques in a painting, namely that it uses whatever techniques are appropriate for rendering its vision, much like it picks from disparate philosophies, literature and religion bits and pieces which it can use to illustrate its own philosophy and ideology. Through this insight Bowman stands heads above the other writers on this topic.

Turning from the technical arts of the band to the technique of the writer, Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion shows us what rock journalism could be — some of us would say should be — by digging into this band in the only way that honors their efforts, which is to take them seriously as people by investigating their art for what it attempts to express as a communication between artist and fans. DMU has always taken this approach to death metal which has made us a minority in not just a metal underground but a rock scene which would rather write about where a band is from, their ironic personalities, the production of albums, how much the fans love it, or what trend the band belongs to. This treats artists like simpletons and fans like yeast with credit cards (although some might say this accurately portrays humanity anno 2015). Bowman takes the opposite approach, which is to avoid academic-ese and also rock journalist ideo-jive, and instead to look at this band with an intelligent common sense approach by picking apart each song to see what makes it work, both as a communications device and as an experience to enjoy. With the force of Rush fans behind him, hopefully Bowman can convince more of the music world to join him in this approach, which like the scientific method for materials should be the de facto standard for music.

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10 thoughts on “Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion by Durrell Bowman”

  1. Spinal says:

    cheers to the author of this book. I’ve only read one book on rock/metal that pays attention to the actual music. Black Sabbath and the rise of heavy metal I believe was its name.

      1. Spinal says:

        That’s the one. The author makes an important distinction between hard rock and heavy metal with Led Zep and Black Sabbath as examples. He is a bit lost on later (extreme) metal, but atleast he seems to be aware of that. If I remember correct there was one interesting passage where with an analysis of ‘War Pigs’, which the author correctly recalls was originally named ‘Walpurgis’ and had more sinister lyrics than the song that turned up on the Paranoid album.

  2. Susa says:

    Mr. Stevens I have had an enormous amount of respect for your thought which will never be dimished ever since I discovered the ANUS.

    Now I have two, perhaps improperly insolent, requests for you that will each presumably consume a considerable amount of the precious time of yours should you go through with them:

    1.) Please listen to and perhaps review the album “Projector”, released by Dark Tranquillity in 1999.

    2.) In response to what I have seen you voice on the forum in the past few weeks and months on occasion I ask you to read the manga NHK ni Youkoso!, and perhaps utter your thoughts on it in one way or the other that I’ll be able to read – even if just in a short message or PM on the forum if it just ended up to be a waste of your time which I’ll thoroughly regret and apologize for in advance. A certain other poster on there that has my utter respect might be interested in it as well and I hope he will see this post even if he won’t deem it worthy of a response.

    Directed at any reader of this comment: I’d be grateful for any opinions on Horrendous’ latest effort “Ecdysis” that goes beyond mentioning the obvious ATG/Asphyx worship in the vocals/the instrumental mid-album piece. Thanks to anyone who bothers to read this in advance.

    1. thisoneheredude says:

      I’m kind of curious as to what Brett’s opinion of anime/manga might be. I think I remember him speaking positively of Kiki’s Delivery Service elsewhere.

      I’m not too experienced with either myself, but from what I have encountered, I see them as essentially being like video games in that there is a lot of landfill (which has an unfortunate tendency to rise to the top) and there are a lot of toxic attitudes and behaviors that seem to characterize the fanbase, yet if approached the right way, there are some very worthwhile works to be found.

      One thing that the gamer and otaku camps share that is perhaps also worth noting is that the most devoted fans seem to be the ones who get the least out of their hobby; rather than using it to enrich their lives and get something out of the experience, they use it simply as an escape. This gives their chosen media kind of a bad rap, which is unfortunate, but frankly rather accurate, as it is admittedly rather easy to approach them the wrong way. The same could be said for metal, though; plenty of people are not in it even subconsciously for its profundity, but for its “brootality” and just use it as an entertainment product or means to appear edgy and different.

      Apologies for rambling, I guess I just had all that brewing in my head for a while and saw a chance to spew it all.

  3. Ara says:

    There is no way DT will be looked at favorably here, ESPECIALLY the Projector record. Then again I was just proven wrong about mbv so who knows.

    1. thisoneheredude says:

      Plenty of reservations, but not altogether condemning.
      http://www.deathmetal.org/bands/dark_tranquility/dark_tranquility-enter_suicidal_angels/

    2. Richard Head says:

      It’s been a while since I listened but “Of Chaos and the Coming Night” was pretty cool and one of the albums that got me interested in checking out more death metal. I remember it being considerably more melodic heavy metal than death metal but well-written and played. But at this age I probably can’t tolerate the cheesiness that escaped me when I heard it long ago.

  4. Jennifer Sweet Tits says:

    Mr. Stevens I’m so wet and I have had an enormous amount of respect for your thought which will never be dimished ever since I discovered the ANUS.

    Now I have ONE, perhaps improperly insolent, request for you that will each presumably consume a considerable amount of the precious time of yours should you go through with them:

    1.) Please listen and review the entire MALEVOLENT CREATION discography.

    Thanks to anyone who bothers to read this in advance.

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