If Hemispheres was the “difficult birth” album that Rush struggled to capture on tape in the ’70s, then Grace Under Pressure was its ’80s equivalent. It began with producer trouble: Rush had split with longtime producer Terry Brown over artistic differences and settled on new wave specialist Steve Lillywhite, who dropped out at the last second after studio time had been booked. They would bring in Supertramp associate Peter Henderson, who soon revealed himself to be an excellent engineer but too timid to provide the challenging outside voice the band yearned for. Thus, the band found themselves co-producing what would become one of their darkest, most intense collections of songs. Despite all the backroom troubles, Grace Under Pressure emerged as a focused and well-written album.
It leaps out of the gate with “Distant Early Warning”: this song takes a unique slant Cold War nuclear paranoia of the era via expressing it through one person’s fear for their partner and draws out its tension by pitting fiery guitar leads from Alex Lifeson against a high-tech arrangement of chiming synths and electronically-enhanced drums. “Afterimage” is a tribute to a band associate who suddenly passed away. You can hear them working through their grief with a barnstorming heavy-rock arrangement supported by dramatic synths: listen for the call-and-response chorus where Lifeson responds to Lee’s emotive vocal with a weeping guitar lead. Dark themes continue on “Red Sector A”: despite the futuristic synth-rock textures, it’s a harrowing tale of a concentration camp prisoner struggling to find the will to survive. Lee gives a subtle yet emotive vocal reflecting his feelings as the child of concentration camp survivors. Fast, almost ska-like hard rock closes the side via “The Enemy Within.” It’s the first part of the band’s “Fear Trilogy” and conveys a deeply-felt message about refusing to bow to inner fears.
The second side begins with “The Body Electric,” a tense venture into sci-fi about an android who has escaped its laboratory to find freedom. Its clever arrangement utilizes programmed synth and a mechanically-syncopated tribal drumbeat to put the listener in a computerized mindset. Lifeson gets a nice riffing showcase in “Kid Gloves,” a thoughtful exploration of the tendency to act cool and tough to deal with a difficult world. It offsets its guitar-forward rock attack with quirky rhythms that reflect the albums’ new wave-ish tone. That new wave sensibility is heightened on “Red Lenses”: Peart’s lyrics riff on the different connotations of the color red (mainly anger but also heat, Mars, communism, etc.) and the tricky arrangement shifts on a dime from bluesy verses to danceable bridges that show off Peart’s new interest in electronic drums. The album closes as darkly as it began with “Between The Wheels”: a slow, pulsing synth riff evokes a mood of alarm as Lifeson slathers on heavy riffs that accentuate the lyrics’ theme of the relentless pressures of life in the modern age.
There’s a tendency to shrug of Rush’s post-Moving Pictures albums of the ’80s as favoring synths and recording technology over guitars. Grace Under Pressure is noteworthy exception to that line of thinking: Lifeson riffs and solos all over this album, conveying the tension of their recording situation and the dark nature of their subject matter with six-string theatrics galore. It’s also worth noting that while synths are prominent throughout the album, the mix allows the guitars to be toothy and prominent in ways that the next four Rush studio ventures would not. Thus, it’s well worth a revisit for listeners who think Rush just became a synth band between Moving Pictures and Counterparts. It’s not an easy listen but it has plenty of rewards for the riff-meisters in the Rush fanbase.