Rush of blood to the ears

by Gautam Raja

Pretentiousness in art, theatre and people irritates me. (Perhaps because it strikes too close to home.) But pretentiousness in music? Makes me weak in the knees. I love the overwrought genre of music known as progressive rock, or simply prog rock. Bring on the long-drawn intros, the ornate riffs, the frequent time signature and key changes. Bring on the 20-minute songs, the concept albums, the lyrics woven with science fiction and fantasy.

Consider the story told in 2112, the 1976 album by Canadian prog-rockers Rush. Set in a future society under a Solar Federation where all expression is controlled, an individual finds a guitar (an “ancient miracle”) in a cave behind a waterfall. He learns to play it and presents it to the leaders, only to be dismayed by their rejection of his skill, and the destruction of the instrument. His mind has been opened, however, and he cannot bear life under thought control. It’s okay though, because after his suicide, the Elder Race overthrows the Solar Federation. Presumably they will bring music back into people’s lives, though they rather ominously announce “We have assumed control. We have assumed control. We have assumed control.”

It’s long way from ‘Uptown Funk’.

Other things Rush sings about are the blackhole Cygnus X-1, the aftermath of nuclear holocausts, attaining immortality and waiting for the world to end, and “unrest in the forest”. Even one of their most popular and radio-friendly songs, ‘Tom Sawyer’ contains the lyric “What you say about his company is what you say about society”, which, if not poetic, will at least hold you for a while.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Rush live at the penultimate concert of the R40 Live 40th Anniversary Tour. And while bands are rarely to be believed when they announce they are stopping touring, I may have caught the second-last Rush concert ever.

At the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, the setting, music and musicians were excellent, but the sound quality was as if cheese graters were being pounded into my ears. It wasn’t just that it was frighteningly loud, but that it was distorted to the point of pain. It’s like a restaurant made beautifully cooked, inventive dishes with great ingredients, and topped them with fistfuls of salt just before serving.

Maybe I’ve missed the point. If you are perched high above a city with vistas for miles in every direction, and attentive wait staff pour, place and grate your every need, does it matter that the food isn’t as good as the sweaty den down in the valley with harried service and a view of a parking lot? Both are a trade-off, and surely one isn’t more authentic than another?

After all, a lot of concert-going is about the aura of concert-going. “This is my 24th Rush concert,” a cheery man announced loudly. Someone else, who hadn’t been to quite as many, snorted; defensively I thought. And concerts, especially of the more obscure bands, are social media gold. Nothing wrong with that, but when your ears are whistling the tunes two days later, and you’ve spent enough on the ticket to buy the entire discography on used CD, the scale tips wildly between the value of ‘doing’ versus ‘having’.

Consider that I’ve never before been to a concert where so much of the audience stood so still. “These are my people,” I thought, looking around at the fans standing and listening, really listening, to the music, barely even bopping their heads. So much more a pity then, that so much of prog rock’s flourishes and bombast were clipped in a pursuit of loudness above all else.

First published in Gulf News, August 18, 2015