Here we go again! Rush are perhaps the only band that can get away with issuing a studio album and following it up with a live record of the tour for that same album, as is the case here. Is there any band on a major label out there that has as many live records as Rush does? People buy 'em. Lots of people. The reason is that yes, Rush fans are fanatics, and who wouldn't want that in a fan base? The other reason is that they issue new studio recordings so infrequently that fans are grateful to have live offerings documenting a particular tour. Another mystery is how, after 33 years, a band with this kind of longevity manages to stay focused and restless, changing gears and musical approaches to its core sound. Certainly not all of their recordings are on the same par, but regardless of musical and cultural trends, they've managed not only to remain true to themselves as musicians, but to be very successful in doing so. This band still sells a lot of records -- not even the Rolling Stones can say that. When 2002's Vapor Trails appeared, it had been six long years since Test for Echo. Rush shocked everybody: they came out rocking harder than anytime since the 1970s Four years later and the passage of their 30th anniversary, they followed that with Snakes & Arrows, a big bad noisy yet melodic album that continued in that vein.
This brings us to Snakes & Arrows Live. There are 27 tracks spread out over both discs recorded in Rotterdam over two nights in October of 2007. Nine of the tracks for the album are played here, with some nice twists and turns during the instrumental sections -- and drummer Neil Peart is just a wildman on most of them. The other 18 cuts come from throughout the band's career and mark some nice changes in the set list. Sure, "Tom Sawyer" is here, as are "Freewill," "Limelight," "Distant Early Warning," and "Spirit of Radio." That said, other staples, such as "Closer to the Heart," "By-Tor and the Snow Dog," "Anthem," etc., are absent. In addition, some of the aforementioned Rush standards have been moved to the end of the set, with a killer encore comprised of "One Little Victory," "A Passage to Bangkok," and "YYZ" closing it out on disc two. But it all begins with a stellar version of "Limelight." Geddy Lee's voice sounds better than it has perhaps ever. The years have been kind in lowering it just a tad and filling out its lower register. He is also playing the hell out of his bass. He -- like his other two bandmates, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer/lyricist Peart -- is just a monster musician. Lifeson's sound has grown wildly atmospheric in recent years, filling out whole corridors in the color and texture palette so that Lee can play more bass than keyboards. He can still let the solos rip (check "Freewill" for a stunner), walking some crazy line between prog, blues, and shred, but his manner of coloring sound at this point is truly wonderful. There's not much you can say about Peart that hasn't been said already. There have only been two rock drummers in his league : Ginger Baker and Keith Moon, and the latter is long gone. His playing all through this offering is hotter and tighter, more forceful and still somewhat restrained. His reliance on those numerous low tom-toms and bass drums has grown over the years, and that tribal edge it lends to the new music gives it a much more primal feel.
The band's live versions of the new tunes, like "The Way the Wind Blows" and the "Armor and Sword" (whose intro is directly inspired by King Crimson's "Larks' Tongue in Aspic") are simply awesome. Rush take their time and let the songs assert themselves from the written compositions, but only so far; they allow themselves to get inside and turn them every which way while never losing the thread. The new material is spread out over the two discs, with the largest portion of it happening toward the end of disc one with three cuts. Other highlights include "Malignant Narcissism" -- with a popping rumbling bass intro by Lee and Lifeson's power chords that bring on the feedback -- and "The Main Monkey Business." "Hope" is a transcendent two minutes and 12 seconds, with Lifeson's solo acoustic guitar working through modal and droning folk scales before the others rejoin him for the dread-inducing opening thunder of "Distant Early Warning," followed by "The Spirit of Radio" and "Tom Sawyer" just before the aforementioned encore. In other words folks: it is all killer. After nearly 35 years, Rush are as vital and creative as ever -- not just in the recording studio either, as anybody who's seen them live in recent years will attest. If you're a fan, you gotta have this, and that's it.