From the driving opening of “Far Cry,” it is obvious that the fierce stance Rush took on Vapor Trails was not a one-time diversion. Where that album steam-rolled ahead on layers of crunchy guitars and pummeling drums, Snakes & Arrows takes a more varied route through the sounds and styles of Rush.
There’s something of a return to form going on with Snakes & Arrows, the very thing many long-time listeners have prayed for, and yet, it proves slightly more prickly to deal with than any other Rush album. Where 2002’s Vapor Trails bared drummer/lyricist Neil Peart’s tragedy-battered soul (having lost first his daughter in a car accident and then less than a year later his wife to cancer), Snakes & Arrows finds Peart back in more familiar territory, writing lyrics about the state of the world today from much the same point of view that has divided listeners all along – the somewhat distanced stance on world events, which sometimes bore a sort of bemusement at them.
There is a difference in 2007’s Rush, however, and it’s one that it seems many listeners are missing while they focus on the events Peart writes about. This time around, there’s a hopeful serenity in the lyrics spoken from a perspective of one who has lost and seen the good in mankind, no matter how bad they, as a group, may seem, especially to outsiders.
The Neil Peart of “The Way The Wind Blows” is significantly different than the Peart of, say, “Distant Early Warning,” where he views us as hopeless, helpless victims of our circumstances. The Peart of today now sees, as in “Wind,” that people make the best of the situations they live in, but often can’t be blamed for the crooked, narrow views of the world they have because, well, as the lyrics say, “We can only go the way the wind blows/We can only bow to the here and now/Or be broken down blow by blow.” We, and whatever “they” that you want to apply it to, shouldn’t be to blame for not understanding the lives, practices, and beliefs of each other.
Peart also approaches the subject of faith from a new perspective – the message behind “Faithless” may seem simple on the surface, that the stance taken is an anti-religious one, but dig deeper and it reveals the message that a lack of religion doesn’t necessarily equate to a lack of spirituality and, most of all, hope.
It may be easier to see both sides of the issues that are tackled on Snakes & Arrows in “Armor and Sword,” a mesmerizing and addictive combination of the elements that made Roll The Bones‘ “Bravado” and Test For Echo‘s “Driven” so rewarding for fans. Here the issue of resolve and how it stands up against the toughest spiritual tests is played against the often unfortunate fallout from failing to stand strong. It can be seen as a miniature summary of the album’s themes, addressing globally what the rest of the album’s songs will assess within themselves.
Equally fascinating is the folk-meets-world tinged “The Larger Bowl,” whose format of a pantoum (the lines of the opening stanza are repeated in different orders in following stanzas which forces the reader to take a different view of each line) allows for a hypnotically contemplative nature, or album-closer “We Hold On,” in which the everyday struggles and comforts of the modern world are called into question.
Garnering the most attention, and rightfully so, is the album’s three instrumental pieces (a Rush first.) Where “The Main Monkey Business” finds the band attacking the instrumental as a mature weaving together of all the elements in each musician’s bag of tricks, it’s “Malignant Narcissism” that showcases the band doing what made “YYZ” so great – pure, unbridled passion in the form of a short, intense blast. “Hope” gives guitarist Alex Lifeson a rare moment to shine by himself, and it’s a beautiful moment at that. Thoughtful and folky, there are moments that reveal Lifeson’s influence by Led Zeppelin’s driving, blues-drenched Jimmy Page, so obvious in early Rush outings but an element which later disappeared as the guitarist found his own sound. Here Page’s “Black Mountain Side” is revealed as an unexpected influence – not as if “Hope” were a copy, but as an homage to a favorite great.
Faith, and the circumstances through which people come to deal with the faith of others as well as their own faith, and not only that but the lives they have to fit faith into, is a recurring theme throughout the album. As the effect of the unfortunate and tragic tricks cruel fate has played on him, it’s an unexpected boon to fans that Peart has grown as life has tested him. Many listeners may be focusing on the vibrant music that evokes memories of an earlier Rush, but Snakes & Arrows offers so much more for them to dig into for the future.