Power Windows (1985) is the first Rush studio album I listened to and it remains my seminal Rush experience in the 80s Rush era (my other go-to’s are Hemispheres and Counterparts) . My perpetual fondness for this album is not based on any lurking nostalgia but for sheer prodigious musicianship and lyrical genius this album conveyed. Also, though my focus is more on the guitar wizardry, the virtuosity on the drums and bass together makes this album what it ultimately became.
An album forged during the height of the 80s synth boom, I’ve had numerous arguments over the years with other fans who (may rightfully) suggest this represents a low point after the grandeur of Moving Pictures/Permanent Waves or even the progressive heights of 2112 and Hemispheres.
The production quality is pristine with a landscape painted by every track that stands on its own right be it the polyrhythms of “Mystic Rhythms” or the 162 BPM synchronicity of “Manhattan Project”. The overall sound is produced and engineered to excellence.
Most rabid fans claim the CD’s re-issues are not in the same league as the vinyl ( which I don’t own ) but the remasters seem to do the original mercury recordings some justice. Incidentally, this was the first Rush album to ever be released directly to CD.
I’ve gone through a phase spending a lot of time replicating Alex’s 80s tone to varying degrees of satisfaction. Essentially they amounted to a lot of chorus and flanging delays, not ot mention tons of reverb. In some cases chaining multiple layers of chorus one over the other seemed to get the tone closer. Arguably all over the top as the 80s demanded. I plan to hopefully put up a guitar rig patch slightly closer to this tone.
The Big Money (5:36) – Named after John Do Possos trilogy of the same name. A tribute to soul-less capitalism, monetary value and fame. The opener delivers a banging riff thanks to a full step tuned-up guitar and open chords with ringing harmonics. The 80s were big on racks and this was Alex on Rolands and TC Electronics racks as told to guitar magazines in that era. The live version in “A show of hands” is a worthy live companion. “
Grand Designs (5:05) – Another title from the John Do Possos trilogy. Deals with individualism and non-conformance to group-think. Being stuck in a two-dimensional life and part of the mass production scheme, it takes courage and tenacity to go against the grain. The focus on “image” in the 80s and the “form without substance” also led to a competing and overlapping music/bands that the era is known for. Classic Rush style with repetitive patterns with the drums churning out progressively more complicated parts. The Allan Holdsworth influence comes out in this track with more whammy work and sonic feedback across tonal centers creating an atmosphere towering over the synth barrage. The 7 phrase ending is another nod to the progressive roots.
Manhattan Project (5:05) – About the birth of the nuclear age with a poignant description of the time (WW2), a man (Oppenheimer) and a place ( Los Alamos). The mention of the “Enola Gay” that dropped the atomic bomb completes out the last chorus of this orchestral majesty. The powerful imagery is complemented by a barrage of synth in the foreground with the opening verse melding into a tension-filled chorus. The lyrics shine in sections that drop out bass and guitar in a rare departure from the usual arrangements.
Marathon (6:09) – More inspirational fare about pacing your life partly inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s quote, “In life, one must (first) last“. Set goals to achieve them but don’t burn out too fast. A sublime chorus is overshadowed by a bassline that sprints through the song and the song unveils a middle section in 7/4 that this song is renowned for. Ringing notes sustained by the whammy bar from Alex’s Signature Aurora kick off the song and the texture continues into a mesmerizing middle section leading into a majestic solo.
Territories (6:19) – about nationalism. Beautiful lyrics backed by modern post-punk pop style sound under a big rock foundation. The context should suit the current times well – better being proud of being a world citizen than the bloody pride of being associated with a flag that divides. The Ibanez HD-1000 rack provides the sonic delay that resonates throughout the track. The solo or lack of a true one is understated and the song does well without requiring more histrionics to distract from the lyrics.
Middletown Dreams (5:15) – Similar themes to the suburban disillusion of Subdivisions from the Signals era. The power of dreams and ability to challenge your current environment to achieve those dreams. This excerpt sums it the best. The lyrics probably resonate the most of this album with me as an immigrant and sometimes stranger in a strange land (“Dreams transport the ones who need to get out of town”). Musically, the track ups the ante with more synths and a tempo change in the middle section and shifts a key. The synth and multi-tap delays create some excellent passages making way for the vocals and a busy bassline and a grand chorus. The sequencer in the middle around the 2 minute mark does get a little tiresome especially after all the space in the previous passages but that’s a minor blip.
Emotion Detector (5:10) – Seems like not about anything particular but a bunch of messages meshed together. Key standout are lines like “Illusions are painfully shattered right where discovery starts” – we have an illusion about who we really are. Probably the weakest track on the album – a bit too much veering to the pop side of the repertoire. The guitar tries in vain to save it with a brilliant solo accentuated by feedback and tasteful notes towards the climax of the solo. Guitar feedback in the beginning of the track washes you over with absolute sonic bliss until the synth authoritatively climbs all over it dampening it to a few notches lower. The vocals are a highlight and the standout. The synth drums have not aged well and sound a bit dated.
Mystic Rhythms (5:54) – A magnum opus to end the album. My interpretation is that this is about exploring our primal instinct about what behind the obvious and beyond and challenging our understanding about the universe. Surprisingly, this was an acquired taste for me and over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the musicianship and the poetry in this more. The guitar texture and the repetitive staccato patterns are the thread that keeps the song’s foundation as arpeggios add an air of sublime mystery to the track. Lots of vocal harmony and the imagery of the track takes you “under northern lights Or the African sun“. the guitar parts are understated but effective as they give way to layers of synth.
Despite the synth barrage and the guitar buried in the mix, the album reflects the times. The songwriting is just on another plane of existence and this evolution in their sound may probably the most accessible for the average fan if you can get past the 80s influence.