Rush - Rush Replay X3 Review

I have this theory about the relationship between the quality and the odd/even pattern of Rush album releases. Every other album, in my opinion, sees Rush take a radical departure in song-writing style, sound and image. This sound is explored in the first album and then “perfected” in the next before they move on to a new style – hence the original Rush sound is nailed down with Neil Peart’s arrival on Fly By Night; the experimentation with longer concept pieces on Caress of Steel gives rise to 2112; the acoustic and English Romantic Poetry-influenced lyricism of A Farewell To Kings comes to fruition in the virtuoso Hemispheres; and so on. Furthermore, each of these periods tend to be further contained within a four album cycle where the period would be summed up with the release of a live album. Not everyone may agree with this theory, particularly in the qualitative judgement of these albums, and while there may be some later exceptions to the rule, there is at least something natural in this pairing off of adjacent albums (most notoriously A Farewell To Kings going as far as having a “To Be Continued Next Album” at the end of the track ‘Cygnus X-1’), and it is these pairings that form the basis for the set lists on each of the three archive concert performances that make up Rush: Replay X3.

Rush: Replay X3 is released in the UK by Universal Music. In what seems to be a direct port of the US set, each of the single-layer DVDs here retains its native NTSC format and is not region-encoded. The set contains three DVDs - Rush – Exit Stage Left, Rush – Grace Under Pressure Tour, and Rush – A Show Of Hands, as well as a CD Rush – Grace Under Pressure Tour Soundtrack, which is identical to the tracklist of the DVD. The discs are housed overlapped in a fold-out slipcased digipack. There are no extra features on the disc, unless you count DVD Credits and Track Selection, but an Original Tour Booklet is lovingly reproduced and included for each DVD in the set, is full of muso technical equipment details, diary notes from Neil Peart, and lavishly illustrated with photos.

Exit Stage Left (1981)
Tracklisting: Limelight; Tom Sawyer; The Trees; Xanadu; Red Barchetta; Freewill; Closer To The Heart; YYZ; By-Tor And The Snow Dog; In The End; In The Mood; 2112 Finale; YYZ.

Recorded on the band’s Moving Pictures tour in 1981 for Canadian television, Exit Stage Left (no longer called Exit... Stage Left it seems) captures Rush arguably at their peak (certainly as far as I’m concerned), the set list being made up principally of material from the paired albums Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, with a few old favourites thrown in. Not only does the show capture the band in peak musical form, they also look their best here – fresh and still youthful, but more confident and accomplished than the young lads who looked rather awkward bashing out their songs on the first three albums, and certainly showing a sartorial improvement over the costumes on 2112. On Exit Stage Left Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart look cool, sophisticated, young and fresh, musically and physically capable of effortlessly delivering some of Rush’s most complex song arrangements. I suppose a lot of that still holds true 26 years later ...except obviously the young bit.

Not having sold their souls yet to the swathes of synthesisers that would swamp Signals or the search for New Wave pop credibility that would mark out Grace Under Pressure, the Exit Stage Left sound design is characterised by the crunching guitars of the band’s latest album Moving Pictures, immediately given force by the opening number Limelight (No ‘Spirit Of Radio’!), Tom Sawyer and Red Barchetta though it is evident also in the arrangements of The Trees (without the ‘Broon’s Bane’ intro) and Freewill from earlier albums – two of the highlights of this show. Inevitably you’ll find Closer To The Heart here and Xanadu – the band’s performance of the opening of the 13 minute song quite stunning, through I must admit my patience with it always runs out when the Coleridge-inspired lyrics kick in. Drum solos are not included this time around and despite YYZ being credited twice on the track listing, it only features partly in one of the voice-over interludes scattered between tracks, blended into an excerpt of La Villa Strangiato (and I’m not convinced it’s not actually the drum section of ‘A Passage To Bangkok’) and also in part over the end credits montage. The performance is note perfect practically throughout, the band in exceptional form, running through prime material. Only the raucous rendition of the Medley of By-Tor, In The End, In The Mood and 2112: Finale’ sounds practically shambolic by Rush standards, although as usual the medley’s really are just an excuse for the band to kick back through some old tunes.

The show is filmed it seems with only 3 cameras, one in the pit which follows Alex Lifeson, one stage left on Geddy Lee, and one hovering to the back and side of Neil Peart, giving you occasional spectacular views of the huge concert hall, where the audience are being well entertained. Despite the limitations of the angles and video equipment, the available footage covers the performance adequately well. The quality of this now ancient VHS video footage is much as you would expect, but about as good as it could possibly be. Obviously the image is very soft and inevitably sometimes quite fuzzy in long shots and in low light. Red and blue lights dominate, making it occasionally difficult to define objects well, but full lighting shows a relatively clear and colourful image. When the lights fade, a greenish tone and various bands of VHS tape discolouration can be seen in the blackness. Nevertheless, the image is very stable and shows only a few scratches and dust marks.

The real joy of this DVD release however, is in the cleaning up and remastering of the audio track, which is by far the best of the bunch in this set. Originally produced by Terry Brown (and originally quite murky), it is remastered and remixed here by Alex Lifeson. Rather selfishly, his guitars tend to dominate, but I would imagine that this is certainly down to the quality of the source materials, the lower-end sound tending to suffer with the bass quite muddy and reverberating, and drums lacking any real dynamic, though you can certainly hear every beat and crash of snare, tom, high-hat and cymbals. Only the in-between narration by members of the band sounds muddy and indistinct. Three options are provided and they are all very impressive. The DTS mix is outstanding, vocals clear and defined, guitars driving the songs, with the bass and drums audible but less forceful. There is a fine brightness to the sound which gives excellent tone also to the acoustic guitars on ‘The Trees’ and ‘Closer To The Heart’. The surround mixing is discreet and never feels falsely distributed. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also excellent and there is really little to call between it and the DTS mix. It may even have a subtler distinction in tone, which some might prefer. The PCM Stereo is very forceful, has possibly better defined bass and certainly cleaner drum sounds. I ought to be careful about making such statements to Rush fans, but I don’t think anyone will be disappointed with the sound here, whichever mix you choose.

Ratings: Show – 9; Video – 6; Audio – 9.

Grace Under Pressure (1984)
Tracklisting: The Spirit Of Radio; The Enemy Within; The Weapon; Witch Hunt; New World Man; Distant Early Warning; Red Sector A; Closer To The Heart; YYZ; Temples Of Syrinx / Tom Sawyer; Vital Signs; Finding My Way / In The Mood.

Watch out! Eighties alert! Rush, it has to be said, not only embraced the glitzy primary-coloured look of the eighties, they went further than most rock bands of the time and incorporated the whole eighties sound into their musical range. So while the songs incorporate white reggae, new-wave and electro-pop, so too does Alex Lifeson appear on stage looking like Simon Le Bon, Neil Peart has a Curt Smith plaited mini-ponytail and Geddy Lee, well let's just say he wouldn't have looked out of place on stage with Kajagoogoo. Their set list for their performance on the 1984 Grace Under Pressure tour then, leans towards the previous two studio albums, Signals and Grace Under Pressure - not two of the groups best albums by any means, but they do contain some of their finest songs which, with those UK New Wave influences, expand and experiment quite successfully with a new sound and range.

There are two surefire ways for Rush kick up a storm when opening a show – ‘Tom Sawyer’ is one of them, the other, the one opening this show is The Spirit Of Radio. It’s effective, but a very rough booming sound mix rather dampens the true impact. The vocals are a little clearer on The Enemy Within, but the mix does no favours to The Weapon, a tricky live song that breaks the Rush mould, allowing Lifeson to experiment with guitar sounds and Peart to push some stop-start rhythms, but the whole effect, with the dreadful scansion of the lyrics, is chaotic – and in this mix it’s a real mess. Another unusual live song, Witch Hunt follows it, but is nevertheless delivered much more strongly. After a fairly perfunctory rendition of New World Man, Distant Early Warning really ought to make an impact – a great song, brilliantly constructed, inventively arranged and well-played – but it’s lost in a dreadful sound mix.

There’s something else wrong with this show – it just doesn’t seem to have conviction. Alex Lifeson is putting on all the moves, but it seems perfunctory, Neil Peart just puts his head down and gets on with it, but Geddy Lee, usually the consummate showman, just seems completely detached from the performance. Red Sector A which follows, is an emotive song, but Geddy looks like he is reading the lyrics off an autocue, such is the lack of feeling demonstrated as he stands by a bay of keyboards, swinging his shoulders occasionally. Fortunately, the band salvages a rather mediocre show towards the end. It wouldn’t be a Rush concert without Closer To The Heart I suppose, and however many times they must play it, it always seems to give the band and the show a lift. This continues through a fine more or less full rendition of YYZ, and although it’s far from the best delivery I’ve seen Lifeson give to the song, Geddy Lee’s bass playing here is simply incredible. It blends into a brief excerpt of The Temples of Syrinx which in turn segues into a full version of Tom Sawyer, which is greeted with a big cheer and the song is simply as awesome as ever. Vital Signs follows, another great and inventive song from Moving Pictures, and not one you expect to work well live, but it is better than half the other material performed in this show. The closing Medley of Finding My Way (amazing) and In The Mood is a joy for oldies like myself.

The video quality here on Grace Under Pressure is only slightly better than Exit Stage Left. It has a clearer image with a lack of the grain and damage that could be seen in the previous show recording. It is still soft, but reasonably well defined, the colour schemes allowing for a clearer image. It suffers most from an eighties-video haze, which causes quite a bit of haloing and colour bleed. There is also quite a bit of horizontal line banding, caused either by the video media or the lighting effects and there is a tendency for lines, particularly diagonal lines, to break up a lot. By and large though, the video quality is more than passable. It’s not going to look any better than this.

Unfortunately, as I’ve suggested in my coverage of the performance, the sound mixes here are far from impressive. In the DTS 5.1 mix, the bass booms out with no definition whatsoever – which for someone like Geddy Lee, surely has to be considered criminal (I’m sure there must at least in something in the statute books of Brazil’s constitution about it). The subwoofer merely emits a low flat echoing tone throughout, swamping the sound. It’s the synthesisers which dominate the mix though, against which the vocals struggle, the drums are submerged and the guitars sound strangled. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix isn’t really any better or worse, but again, it has a different tone that might make the faults in the mix less evident – reducing the booming and making the vocals slightly more audible. Incidentally, turning up the sound doesn’t improve the mixes any, but only exacerbates the problems. The PCM Stereo mix is the only way to go here. The bass has much more solidity and the synths don’t drown everything else out. In fact, they are well-placed in the mix to give an almost 3-D quality in stereo. It’s far from perfect, but it is easily the best of the mixes on offer.

Ratings: Show – 6; Video – 6; Audio – 4.

A Show Of Hands (1988)
Tracklisting: The Big Money; Marathon; Turn The Page; Prime Mover; Manhattan Project; Closer To The Heart; Red Sector A; Force Ten; Mission; Territories; YYZ / The Rhythm Method; The Spirit Of Radio; Tom Sawyer; 2112: Overture / The Temples Of Syrinx / La Villa Strangiato / In The Mood.

I have to admit to being progressively less than enamoured with subsequent Rush albums as they progressed through the late 80s and 90s with increasingly jangly-guitared, keyboard-based, commercial FM radio-friendly rock songs. My reaction to 1988’s A Show Of Hands tour and live recordings, with a set list principally made up of songs from Power Windows and Hold Your Fire is therefore somewhat ambivalent, since while the show performance sees Rush at their very best, I feel the material is often weak, the song lyrics characterised by puns and wordplay as in the very title of A Show of Hands itself suggests. This is of course something Peart has often indulged in, and is part of Rush from Hugh Syme’s cover art for Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, but it creeps ever more into the actual lyrics here, rendering them cold, clever and clinical rather than meaningful (a trend that would come to a head in Presto, with ‘Anagram’).

Big Money’ is a good opener to the show and gives, for better or worse, a good indication of what the show holds in store - the performance is tight and, dare I say it, on the money, the band lively and - as they often are before an English audience, filmed here at the NEC Birmingham - clearly relishing the atmosphere and in the mood to have a good time. Marathon is a strong, steady follow-up, an inspirational song, but one I feel is let down by lyrical excess and cleverness of idiomatic twists “your meters may overload”, “first you’ve got to last” and so on. It doesn’t help that the huge choral synthesiser arrangement is somewhat overblown. The following Turn The Page and Prime Mover from Hold Your Fire, followed by The Manhattan Project demonstrate tremendous imagination in terms of musical arrangements and technical proficiency, but like most of the material from this period, it just leaves me cold. It’s clever and easy to admire, but I just can’t love it.

Closer To The Heart follows. Have we ever heard this in a live set before? Usually, it’s a signal of the band starting to kick back and settle into a more familiar groove after demonstrating their new material. That’s achieved here, the sound rather more stripped-down and clear after the layers of synthesisers and sequencers that swamp the mix, but it’s only a momentary reprieve. Red Sector A follows, Peart’s rhythmic drumming here the backbone that holds it all together, but he’s fighting a losing battle with this sound mix. Similarly, Force 10 has impact, particularly in the strong mid-section work-out, but no definition. There is no doubting the quality or proficiency of the performances here, which is nothing less than heartfelt, but it feels misplaced in empty songs like Mission, with its swelling of keyboards arrangements to fake emotions – and the lyrics again playing around with idiom – “hold your fire” referring to the fire of inspiration. I prefer rather the directness of the anti-imperialist and anti-racist qualities of Territories - “Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world/Than the pride that divides when a colourful rag is unfurled”. And with lines like “Don’t feed the people, but we feed the machines”, Rush show a social conscience that is a far cry from the Ayn Rand inspired philosophy of ‘Anthem’ (“Live for yourself, there’s no one else more worth living for/ Begging hands and bleeding hearts will only cry out for more”).

While I may quibble about the songs in the early part of the Show Of Hands set list, there is no denying that it captures Rush at peak performance. This for me becomes even more evident in the latter half of the show. The extended length of this DVD recording compared to the other two might clue you into the fact that this more complete show comes with the traditional Neil Peart drum solo “The Rhythm Method” (see what I mean about twisting idiomatic use of words?), which forms the centrepiece, as it often does, of an uncredited YYZ. It’s a rather no-nonsense, less percussive performance than usual and it sounds fabulous, with a fair kick to the subwoofer, when it isn’t competing against the busy layers of the sound mix. Then comes The Spirit Of Radio, and you have one very happy DVD reviewer and Rush fan. Along with Tom Sawyer which follows (bliss!), the instruments once again have room to breathe, less weighed down by the layers of keyboards, synthesisers and guitar pedals. No matter how many of their live DVDs they appear on, I still get a thrill every time the band launch into their closing Medley, this time being made up of 2112: Overture/Temples of Syrinx, La Villa Strangiato and In The Mood, and you can sense that the band are enjoying this as much as the fans. The fun even extends to an on-screen caption during the censoring of Alex Lifeson’s traditional La Villa Strangiato rant, but I really think there should be an ‘Alex Is God’ caption somewhere there, as his performance here is outstanding. If I have some reservations about the show’s tracklist and sound mix, there is no such problem with the performance, which is well filmed here, the latter part of the show alone serving to amply demonstrate the fact that Rush are the best live band in the world.

A Show Of Hands has the best picture quality of any of the shows in this set. The image is stable throughout and there are no problems in respect of marks or flaws on the original recording. Again any difficulties with clarity are purely down to the choice of stage-lighting colour schemes, here often a pink-blue combination (and a very fetching one it is too), or dominated by reds, but there is more use of white spotlights here, which gives greater clarity and sharpness. Although I am sure it is ever-present, the VHS horizontal colour banding is only occasionally evident. Once again though the only real problem is the low video resolution which leads to broken lines, particularly in diagonals, and definition weakens further on wider shots.

The mix on the show is again very poor, ill-suited to the busy arrangements of the new material, though significantly better on stripped-down older material. The bass is confined to a low booming rumble with plenty of body, but again no great definition. Drums are slightly clearer here than on any of the other DVDs, but are mixed rather low. Vocals are weak, thin and tinny and have no body whatsoever, but are fairly clear. Synthesisers are thin and reedy and often swamp the mix. The guitars are relatively fine, but spread too widely across the speakers. With Lifeson’s use of effects pedals, they too consequently tend to lose definition and get rather lost in the mix. This all refers to the DTS mix, but the PCM stereo is no better. It may even be worse. With the busy, muddy and painfully bright mix restricted down to two speakers, it’s all a bit of an unlistenable mess. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix may be the best option here. It doesn’t have the body of the DTS mix and feels comparatively limp, but is consequently also less booming and allows the spread of the sound to work a little better. None of these sound mixes are really at all satisfactory.

Ratings: Show – 7; Video – 8; Audio – 7.

Well, there has been much dispute and disagreement among fans about the previous two Rush live DVDs of the more recent shows Rush In Rio and Rush R30, either over the sound quality or the tracklist selections and I don’t imagine anyone will be entirely happy either with Rush Replay X3. The packaging of all three shows together in a low price set is consequently a wise commercial move. While the performances and quality are variable, everyone should however find something in the set list of one or more of the shows to please greatly. Considering the reaction to the superior modern recordings of the more recent shows already on DVD, I can’t see how anyone however will be entirely happy with the rather muddy sound mixes and VHS-quality picture quality here. Personally, I’m just very happy to have the opportunity to watch these shows on DVD and for all their flaws one element remains consistent and ever more evident as you watch each of these shows, and that is that Rush are one of the finest live bands in the world. And I think we have an even album to look forward to next – isn’t that right?

7 out of 10
7 out of 10
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Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:59:41

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