Rush's Permanent Waves Marks Forty Years With a Celebratory Box set

Every Canadian is bound to hear the question: “What does Canada offer to the world?” Maple syrup seems to be the general consensus among friends. While delectable, I’m not here to discuss maple syrup. After all, this is AnalogPlanet, not BreakfastPlanet! Rush better answers the question (Not to mention, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen the Band!, Arcade Fire and BTO (etc.)_ed.).

Though the group achieved top ten status at home well before its release, Permanent Waves brought Rush global recognition and assured its status in rock history and eventual induction in 2013 into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Featuring Geddy Lee on bass and vocals, Alex Lifeson on guitar, and Neil Peart (may he rest in peace) on drums, this trio produced a sound so incredibly tight that in the modified words of Ferris Bueller, “If you stuck a lump of coal up Rush’s ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.”

Each of them masterfully contributed to the group a unique sound. Peart’s technically marvelous drumming provided an assertive foundation from which the others could work. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Peart’s playing is so singularly “deep in the pocket” that he’s deserving of a similar though unique phrase reserved just for him!

Though he was the group’s sole guitarist, Lifeson, without overdubs, produces the illusion of multiple guitarists. Lee, with his unique Rickenbacker tone, managed, while nimbly fingering his bass, to simultaneously sing challenging lyrics. Together, these three musicians made up one of the “baddest” acts in rock history.

Permanent Waves pulled Rush out of its hard-rock phase, and landed the trio in progressive-rock territory, partly attributable to its reliance on both synthesizers and orchestral instruments. Unlike some later ‘80s acts Rush tastefully used synthesizers, mainly to add to the triple virtuosic playing a sense of much needed continuity and flow.

Critics often lambaste Rush for the group’s nearly nonsensical lyrics; note how I said “nearly”. Rush’s lyrics are certainly more imaginative and metaphorical compared to those found in standard pop songs, and that’s their beauty. Through Lee’s and Peart’s lyrics the music develops a story in the listener’s mind, populated by troubled characters and their triumphs. Brushing off these fanciful lyrics as “nonsensical” is such a waste!

Permanent Waves begins with “The Spirit of Radio,” a belligerently uplifting piece that addresses and challenges those who shun progressive modern music and its courageous straying from formula. Rush’s message is that though music advances with the passage of time, the essence of joy and passion that such art spawns remains.

The second track, “Freewill,” could potentially serve as the atheist anthem. Lyricist Neil Peart fearlessly states that we are all simply multicellular organisms who happen to have communication skills and common beliefs; there is no religious involvement in any of this. Allowing religion to make your decisions is to strip yourself of the freewill to which you are entitled. While I personally disagree with this message, I still find it very self-liberating and enlightening.

“Jacob’s Ladder” begins and you’re soon questioning if you’re listening to Rush or a drumline. You are indeed listening to Rush, and that is made evidently clear in the way this song’s nearly nonsensical lyrics are able to paint a portrait in your head. What did I dream up from this song? I pictured an ominous and thunderous violet sky over an untouched well-kept field filled with the greenest of grass, hinting at the inevitable clash between sky and Earth.

“Entre Nous,” the “we’re better off without each other” song, kicks off side two. Peart conveys this using astronomical metaphors. While the song is musically pleasing thanks to Lifeson’s gritty and therapeutic guitar work, it is without a doubt the album’s most elementary composition.

Next up is “Different Strings,” my personal favourite on the album. I feel it would be incorrect for me to even attempt to assign a meaning or theme to this song, as the lyrics are just so ripe for interpretation. I’ll leave this task up to you. Feel free to share, I’d be happy to read it.

Lastly, birthed from soothing ocean sounds is “Natural Science”: a song criticizing humanity for emphasizing scientific progression over co-existence.

As stated at the outset, Permanent Waves made Rush a true worldwide act. It was not only the first Rush album to chart on America’s Billboard top ten, but it also snuck onto the charts of the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands. This happened to be a moment where fans and critics alike agreed: the album sold well and the critics praised its content.

The album’s success produced the “Permanent Waves” tour. Lucky fans get in this box set two LPs of live tour performances. I was at first skeptical of just how enjoyable these would be. Could Rush maintain live its unified and impactful character? Hell yes they could! Not once did I find a song to be “dumbed down” or untidy. While I won’t provide an in-depth analysis of each live performance (if I did your morning read would run into the afternoon), I will say that these performances made for a delightful listen. Side three especially had me in a trance. I’d recommend starting there and then listening randomly to the remaining sides. The performances aren’t connected between sides, so there’s no shame in doing so.

With such magnificent content, I regret to inform potential buyers that this box set does lack something, and that is quality.

Before ordering, I sat down and listened to an original Canadian pressing. As expected, I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end. At numerous points I sat in awe as Neil raced across his drum kit, only to lead us into new musical territory. Sadly, I take no great pleasure in describing the sound quality of this reissue as lackluster. Upon receiving the set, I raced this album over to my turntable and lowered the stylus. The music commenced, and while it was all there… it wasn’t truly there. I quickly grew bored with the fidelity. At times I could hardly believe this was sourced from the same mix as my original. Instrumental separation, vocal decay, attack precision of drum strikes and bass plucks were all lost. Instead we’re presented with sound that’s muddy and mundane. Forget about the top end; Lifeson’s sublime work is buried in the presentation. Fascinating instrumental accents like the glockenspiel are nearly lost due to high end attenuation. “Bland” best describes this pressing’s sound quality.

With the underwhelming sound quality established, I must unfortunately share more bad news. The packaging is dreadful. The “box” designed to contain not one, not two, but three 180 gram LPs is constructed from flimsy cardstock. I could almost immediately see the box’s bottom rounding out due to the weight. I noticed that one corner was clearly smushed, and that the damage extended to the contents. The corner damage extended to both record jackets as well as to the lyrics/photo booklet. Also, every jacket suffered a one and a half inch seam split on top.

On a brighter note, I must praise GZ Media’s pressing quality. Every LP met the 180 gram claim, give or take a few grams, and each LP played through flawlessly. To those who actively avoid buying GZ pressings, I must ask why?

The music of course remains outstanding, on both the live LPs and the original album. The neat lyric booklet containing photographs of the band left me chuffed. Yet despite these things, I cannot recommend this box set unless you are a die-hard Rush collector. For a great Permanent Waves experience my recommendation would be seek out an original Canadian Anthem label pressing. I’m sorry to say that this set just isn’t at all what I’d hoped it would be.

(Nathan Zeller is a music-adoring Beatles fanatic from the chilling lands of Western Canada. Born with a piano teacher for a father, and a teacher at a music-oriented elementary school for a mother, you could say he didn’t choose this life, rather it chose him. Currently he finds himself spending his days hunting down affordable vinyl copies of each Vulfpeck album. Follow Nathan on Instagram @nathanmzeller)

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Tom L's picture

for the screechy singing.

Tom L's picture

for the screechy singing.

Hergest's picture

I can't imagine a more fitting vocalist for Rush than Geddy. HIs singing is perfect for the band and is one of the many reasons they stood out from most of their peers.

Canuckmgh's picture

...screechy is another's high-pitched (until the early to mid-'90s).

Hergest's picture

Great album, the original UK pressing on Mercury is superlative and needs no renewal. The MOFI Silver edition from a few years back was a disappointment just as the version you are reviewing appears to be and sounds flat and dull compared to the original.
Just a word on your review if I may and that's to drop the use of exclamation marks. I don't know why so many audio reviewers use them all the time, it really grates. Fremer seems to avoid them mostly and his reviews are worth reading far more than a lot of others.

Michael Fremer's picture
When I was 16 I used them a lot too !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! lol. Give the kid some slack. He's already a perceptive writer and will only improve over time!
AXington's picture

I thought the way it was presented was constructive criticism. I think he's doing a fine job, especially for a 16 year old (had no idea he was 16, actually), but everybody has room for improvement and if he learns from constructive criticism without getting upset, then he'll improve much faster.

Anyways, interesting review. Would love to hear his thoughts on some of the other DMM reissues. Personally I really love my copy of Moving Pictures, though, I don't have an original pressing to compare to. Kid is super lucky to have access to original or early pressings of stuff to compare the newer pressings with in order to do these reviews.

Jazz listener's picture

these days I think many Americans know exactly what Canada offers, which is why so many have considered immigrating here these past few years under your current political leadership. Putting aside your awful political leadership and horrendous response to the current pandemic though — this is a music review after all — a few other Canadian musical offerings that could be added to your shortlist at the beginning of your post include: Shawn Mendes, Drake, Celine Dion, The Tragically Hip, The Weeknd, Alanis Morrisette, Blue Rodeo, Sarah McLachlan, Bruce Cockburn, KD Lang, Diana Krall, Feist, Cowboy Junkies, Holly Cole, Chantal Kreviazuck, Brian Adams, Justin Beiber, The Band, Barenaked Ladies, The Guess Who, Trooper, and the list goes on.

DrJB's picture

First of all, music would NOT be among my reasons to move to Canada. Your list supports this argument. Second, never assume that all Americans think alike when it comes to "current political leadership." We are a bunch of stubborn individuals who don't like to be told what to do. So, yeah, when it comes to controlling our behavior during a pandemic, it's like herding cats. And do you really think that we're gonna listen to our 80 year old grandpa when he warns us how dangerous it is to leave our houses? We fought in Europe, Asia, Vietnam (yes, I know that's in Asia), Somalia, Baghdad, Afghanistan, Fallujah, and Portland. Yes, we'll gladly listen to Italian Yoda, but ultimately, we'll make up our own minds. That drives our "political leadership" crazy which is how we like them! Canadians could learn a thing or two. Maybe you wouldn't have to pay $15 for a pack of cigarettes, or worse, $15 for a six pack of beer north of the 49th.

But back to the topic. A few years back, UMe released Rush's Mercury catalog on vinyl. They were remastered using Direct Metal Mastering at Abbey Road. I thought they sounded very good, but the vinyl was often riddled with pops and clicks. It seemed that maybe the mastering levels were too low on some titles which required users to crank the volume of not only the music, but also the noise floor. Maybe that's an artifact of the DMM process or maybe Rush albums have dynamic range challenges. Otherwise, they were very cool with sweet midrange and tight bass. By comparison, an original copy of Hold Your Fire that I played a few nights back sounded exceptionally bright and harsh. I would imagine that if the 1987 US release were my sole frame of reference, the remaster would have sounded dull by comparison.

So I have a question for the reviewer: Is the box set the same Abbey Road/DMM remaster? Or is someone else doing the box sets? Thank you very much for your excellent review!

Nathan Zeller's picture

Thank you for the kind words about the review!

As far as the mastering goes, I know for a fact they were mastered at Abbey Road studios by Sean Magee. Whether or not Sean chose the DMM route, I'm not sure. I'll do what I can to find out, but I can't promise that I'll be able to provide a certain answer.

Jazz listener's picture

not to mention ignorance, is showing. Not a good look. No doubt you’re cranky due to the pending eviction of your “President“ from the WH and the prospect of not being able to wear your Maga hat anymore.

DrJB's picture

but I never indicated any political affiliation or who I support or don't support. I'm simply calling you out for making assumptions about politics in the US. There are hundreds of millions of people who support each of the two major candidates, and while it would be totally ignorant to make assumptions about people in either camp and lump them into stereotypes, I understand why some people might do that. You may be surprised to find out that I am a recently retired liberal college professor who spent 30 years at a fairly large state university. The most important thing that I learned was that people are complicated and by lumping them into groups based on stereotypes, it says more about you than it does about them, and you are only cheating yourself out of relationships that can be rich and rewarding.

And Rush totally rocks. I wanted to point out that I listened to the DMM/Abbey Road version of Exit Stage Left today and I think that Nathan would say the same thing about it. Yes, it lacks the top end bite, but that may not necessarily be a bad thing. All the World's a Stage, by contrast, has the best live guitar tones I've heard on a Rush album. Anthem! Lifeson is playing with no chorus pedal, just a Les Paul through a cranked ?Marshall? Sounds AMAZING and it has a more defined top end.

Rock on!

Jazz listener's picture

the only political statement, not assumption, I made in my first post is that you currently have a terrible president, and he has completely bungled the US response to this pandemic. Hard to argue with either of these. You’re defensive response suggested a Trump supporter, and I admit that was indeed an assumption on my part.

At least you can enjoy the music!

Canuckmgh's picture

Rush was the greatest of rock bands! Dave Grohl thinks so. :-)

The price of beer is generally lower in Quebec! ;-) Canadian prices of alcohol and tobacco are higher in large part due to higher taxes and and duties, which the most of us are OK with as it helps provides for more or less universal health care to all citizens and permanent residents. Among other things...

By and large, I'd like to think most Canadians and Americans have more in common with one another than not. Shared bonds forged in many of the same conflicts (Canadian forces have a reputation for stubbornness and perseverance) you mention and in other spheres are stronger than the political flavour (a slight difference there you'll note) of the day in either of our great nations.

volvic's picture

Funny Quebec reached a 100,000 milestone of COVID cases this past week. They don't seem to be doing a good job managing it either, despite their draconian measures.

In any event, the music matters here. You forgot Sarah Harmer, Sam Roberts, Joel Plaskett, Shania Twain, Gordon Lightfoot, Jeff Healey, and of course Canada's greatest export Oscar Peterson.

Thank you Nathan for helping me save money this just once. Seems every time I visit analogplanet it ends up costing me money. Don't get me wrong it brings me great pleasure to order more vinyl but with a pending PS5 purchase for the boy it is good to save a few quid.

Nathan Zeller's picture

Although it saddens me to do so if I love the music, I am very honest about the sound quality. It's nice to know that my experience is helping save you money.

As for that pending PS5 purchase, sounds exciting! I'm still unsure of which console I'll go with for this generation. The Series X and PS5 each have their attracting features so you really can't go wrong.

Stay safe!

volvic's picture

It's only fair I get it for the lad, I bought myself a phono preamp and matching power supply last month. I did get the two Coltrane Acoustic Sounds reissues this weekend and they are quiet and stellar sounding. Cheers NL

AXington's picture

I think the PS5 is the better purchase this gen as with the Series X, they're trying to make it into a living room PC as the Xbox OSes get closer and closer to being a fork of Windows. At that rate, you're much MUCH better off just building a computer.

With the PS5, you're still going to get hardware that's outdated day one to last for however many years this cycle is supposed to last, but it will at least have more exclusives, as Microsoft seems to be trending in the direction of Windows getting the Xbox exclusives as well. There might be one or two you have to wait a few years to hit PC, but most will hit PC at the same time or within a month or two, and run better.

Nathan Zeller's picture

It’s quite hard to tell which one will come out on top. On one hand the Xbox has better hardware, on the other hand the PlayStation continues to have much better exclusives.

You’re right about the OS on the Xbox resembling Windows. I don’t think you can come even close to matching the value of the Xbox though, even if you build the computer yourself. It’s been said by Microsoft that the Series X is capable of 4K 120fps. For a console that’s insane! Not to mention the fact that it has ray tracing capabilities. The cheapest GPU capable of ray tracing is the 2060 and that’s still a few hundred bucks.

Personally I’m leaning more towards PlayStation just so I can replay some exclusives (The Last Of Us, Uncharted, Infamous, etc). In the end though I think each console has their advantages and disadvantages that balance each other out.

volvic's picture

He now says he’ll settle for the Nintendo Switch and Console, so he can have the portability. If I get the PS5 the living room is the main listening section so he’ll be playing all day with the PS5 and I won’t be able to spin the turntables. Decisions, decisions.

DrJB's picture

I'd add the great Ian Tyson and Robbie Robertson to that list. But back to Rush--When they released Different Stages, I studied Alex Lifeson's live playing on that album for more than a year. It's a great recording because there are not a lot of studio tricks involved, and they do 2112 in its entirety. The way he blends the piezo pickup with his electric tone is mind boggling, and he never misses a cue. All the while, Both Geddy and Alex are triggering synth sounds with their feet which is remarkable considering the complexity of their music. A lot of bands will have someone off stage controlling those sounds, but not the mighty Rush! Alex said in a Guitar Player interview several years back that he is always careful to arrange his guitar parts so that he can play them in a live setting. In the era of Pro Tools and Ableton Live, that requires a lot of discipline. There will never be another Rush. I wouldn't be too hasty to write off the new Permanent Waves box set, but I very much respect and appreciate the reviewer's comments about the sound. The trend in progressive rock, possibly influenced by Steven Wilson's approach, has been to slightly burnish certain harsh high frequencies to more modern standards. Opeth has been criticized for doing this by some of their longtime fans. Engineers have modern tools like Izotope's Tonal Balance Control that provide guidance in order to balance the full frequency spectrum. I'm not saying that the new Rush box set is necessarily following that approach, I have no evidence--it's just something to inform the discussion. On the information card that is included with the Rush DMM/Abbey Road remasters, the claim is that the system "offers better high end frequency playback.." This could be contributing to what Nathan Zeller is hearing.

King Of Dirk's picture

Does every discussion on every site have to be political? Aren't there enough sites dedicated to politics, or must we befoul this one too?

And since you brought it up, you might consider holding your tongue about the state of political leadership in other countries, at least while your current PM holds office. The U.S. is grateful to you for saving us from having the most embarrassing chief executive in North America.

dial's picture

Neil Young and Cohen are/were canadians but it's difficult to tell = could be americans. Gilles Vigneault & Robert Charlebois, not to mention Lynda Lemay are more typical.

Jazz listener's picture

you are clearly a Quebecer, lol, 9.9 / 10 Canadians know neither of those “artists”.

volvic's picture

Would spend a lot of time in Los Angeles but also in Montreal, would see him walking up and down St. Laurent street and eating at the bar at Bagel etc., when I still lived in Montreal. When he passed he was buried next to his parents at the Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery in Montreal. Gilles Vigneault is a little too political for my tastes but Robert Charlebois, Garolou, Harmonium and Jean Leloup are very good. Let's not forget Men Without Hats, the lead singer Ivan Doroschuk who in the early 80s used to live down the street from me. Great musicians from Canada and we haven't discussed opera and classical musicians.

dial's picture

Everything is political. Gilles Vigneault is for the freedom of Quebec which is logical. It's like to be for anti-capitalism.

volvic's picture

Jean Leloup isn't political and most aren't as overtly political as some of Gilles Vigneault's songs are, while groups like Harmonium, Garolou, Offenbach, and Beau Dommage sang nationalist songs they weren't as in your face as Vigneault's are. I truly enjoy some of his songs even the political ones but I find him a little too unidimensional and the schitck wears thin after a while.

Canuckmgh's picture

Jessica is a fine jazz singer.

Catcher10's picture

Has any other Rush album been reviewed on Analog Planet before?? I'm not sure I ever remember Rush here. Fremer never discusses the progressive rock genre that includes some of the highest level of musicianship in the rock genre.
After thousands (ok millions) of reviews of every Beatles reissue, we now see one Rush review...Not sure if that is a breath of fresh air, or someone feeling guilty, shades of Rolling Stone magazine.

Michael Fremer's picture
I'm not a Rush fan. Nathan is. He is free to review whatever he wants. It's that simple. No guilt. No agenda. It's nice having new voices on the site and we welcome them.
cement_head's picture

The definitive pressings were done by AcousticSounds DMM a few years ago. All of those ones were spectacular. But I will say this, old 1970s era pressing of early RUSH still sound ridiculously good!