If they had wanted to, Rush could have easily coasted on the success of Moving Pictures. Its savvy blend of progressive mindset and accessible arena rock elements would have made a sturdy formula to follow to greater levels of mainstream success with similar-minded follow-up albums. However, Rush never enjoyed lingering in the same creative space for too long. They decided to record a more keyboard-oriented and new wave-ish album that would be controversial with fans and led to a severing of professional ties with longtime producer Terry Brown. It was called Signals and despite the controversy surrounding it, it is a well-written album that approaches the band’s prog-rock ethos from a different angle.
The album opens with one of the group’s most beloved songs: even the album’s critics have a soft spot for “Subdivisions,” a reflection on clique-induced teenage alienation that resonates with the many intellectual loners in the band’s fanbase. It shows off the album’s intriguing rhythmic approach to programmed synths, using them to add an extra percussive layer alongside Neil Peart’s taut, barnstorming rhythms and emotional solos from Alex Lifeson’s guitar and Geddy Lee’s pomp-styled lead synths. Lifeson gets to merrily riff away in “The Analog Kid,” a more nostalgic bit of coming-of-age reminiscing with elegant lead vocals from Geddy Lee and a scorching guitar solo outro. New wave sounds are dominant in the first side’s second half: “Chemistry” shows Peart bringing syncopation to the synth-pop bridges that break up its riff-driven verses and “Digital Man” has a reggae-rock crossover arrangement that references the Police before delving into prog for a half-speed closing section paced by Peart’s drum fills.
The second side takes the polyrhythmic drums-and-programmed-synths combo to its greatest height with “The Weapon,” the middle part of the “Fear Trilogy” introduced on the previous album. Peart provides the album’s best lyrics here via a meditation on how immoral leaders can use the public’s fear to manipulate them. These musings are layered over a pounding track where everything creates a throbbing, constantly advancing set of rhythms. A surprise single is up next in “New World Man.” It was quickly written at the end of the session to fill out the album and offers a deft mix of Police-style reggae, new wave synths and textural guitar to back up its tribute to a person of forward-thinking ideals. Penultimate track “Losing It” is an atypical song that became a fan favorite, a sorrowful portrait of the pain that comes when one’s creative skills start to fade. It’s surprisingly jazzy and gets added sonic color from electric violin by guest performer Ben Mink. Album closer “Countdown” is a breathless account of a space shuttle launch the band witnessed: they retrospectively dismissed the track but it’s a proggy gem that counteracts the darker moments of the album with a heartfelt tribute to the classic Rush theme of pushing forward to new breakthroughs.
Signals remains a divisive album for the Rush fanbase, with a lot of old-guard fans refusing to forgive the band for stepping away from a guitar-driven ‘pure prog’ approach and moving towards a more electronic sound that interacted with the pop trends of the day. However, the songs are consistently strong and inventively arranged, with producer Brown overcoming his objections to the electronics to devise a rich, balanced soundscape where the plush analog synths mix beautifully with Lifeson’s equally rich guitar textures. The end result pointed towards a future where the band would leave its classic sound behind for a more complex, less heavy mixture of influences but, for at least one moment, Signals showed them putting the old and new together on equal footing.