When Rush toured in 2010 and 2011, the band billed it as the "Time Machine" tour. In addition to playing the band's 1981 hit album "Moving Pictures" in its entirety, Rush played other songs from its 38-year back catalog, and also debuted two songs that were earmarked for its next album - in a sense taking fans both back in time, while giving them a look into the future.
As a band, guitarist Alex Lifeson feels in a sense Rush is living in a time machine every day, one that takes the band back to its youthful days when he, singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart were eager to explore their sound and hungry to make a mark in music.
"I never expected it to be like this," says the 59-year-old Lifeson, whose band rocks Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort's Arena 8 p.m. Saturday, May 11. "And yeah, it feels like in a lot of ways like it did in 1976. We're just so excited to make the records, so excited to play, and always trying to play better than the last time or than the last rehearsal. It doesn't matter. We always want to move forward."
That enthusiasm has to feel sweet considering that for a time, it was uncertain whether Rush - which released its latest CD "Clockwork Angels" last June and was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame - would continue into the new century.
Together with its three current members since 1974, the band's future was thrown into question in 1997 when Peart's 19-year-old daughter Selena was killed in a one-car accident. About a year later, his wife Jackie succumbed to cancer.
The band put everything on hold, and Peart, who remarried in 2000, didn't even pick up his drumsticks for nearly four years. But the band got back together in 2000, made its 2002 album "Vapor Trails" and has been gaining steam ever since.
For its fine 2007 CD "Snakes & Arrows," the band found a producer in Nick Raskulinecz, who brought considerable enthusiasm to recording - an energy that carried into the "Clockwork Angels" project.
Working again with Raskulinecz, Rush took a far more in-the-moment approach than in the past to recording.
"It was very different this time," Lifeson said. "Neil started doing his drum tracks on the very first day, so very, very spontaneous performances for him. He's a typical Virgo. He's so anal about his parts and how he puts them together and he doesn't like to weave very much, whereas Nick (Raskulinecz), that's all he wanted Neil to do: just play like a maniac all the time. And I think it really, really worked. And Neil loved doing it, actually. It was fresh for him. He's always looking for a challenge."
During this time, Lifeson and Lee - who write the music in Rush while Peart handles lyrics - continued to play and tweak the songs while waiting until the drum tracks were done to record their performances.
"The stuff that Neil did, we were getting mixes that we imported back into our session so that we could play along to what Neil was doing, update what we were doing, and feed that back into him, so that the next day when he went back in to continue working on that song, he was working with fresher arrangements," Lifeson said. "It ping ponged right to the final performances."
The approach worked. "Clockwork Angels" has justifiably gotten rave reviews for a potent collection of songs - standouts include "Caravan," "BU2B" and "Carnie" - that combine sharp melodies, tight and complex playing and adventurous arrangements.
Lifeson agrees with those that view "Clockwork Angels" as a high point in Rush's career.
"I'm still kind of close to it, but I would definitely say it's one of our better efforts," Lifeson says. "It's cohesive throughout. I always feel there are one or two weak moments on a record once I've had a chance to get away from it. So far I don't feel that with this record."
On tour, Rush is continuing to push forward and take its show to new places.
For starters, Lifeson says, there's a new light show and new video over a three-hour set that includes most of "Clockwork Angels" and a number of older songs that haven't been played live in years.
Then there's something completely new to a Rush tour - a string section.
"'Clockwork Angels' has five or six songs with strings on them, and we thought that rather than triggering samples, why don't we think about taking strings out for a change?" Lifeson says. "We can pull out some of the older material from the past that we did string arrangements for and include that. And we sort of dove into it. It's so nice to go out and do something that's unusual and different and keeps on your toes. And hopefully you don't wreck anything for them and they don't wreck anything for you. So it's a challenge, and we're always looking for something to move us forward."
Making an album like 'Clockwork'
The enthusiasm producer Nick Raskulinecz - a longtime Rush fan - brought to "Snakes & Arrows" carried to its latest release, "Clockwork Angels," and struck a nice balance between concise rockers and longer, more adventurous tracks.
Rush sought to progress as a band by throwing a few new wrinkles into the process. By spring 2010, the band already had a half dozen songs in hand for the album. But rather than push forward with the songwriting and then go straight into the studio, Rush interrupted the "Clockwork Angels" project to do the "Time Machine" tour.
It wasn't until fall 2011 that Rush returned to the project in earnest, and still feeling the energy from playing live, the group (with Raskulinecz's considerable encouragement) took a far more in-the-moment approach to recording.