Rush came to prominence in the mid 1970s and quickly rewrote the rock music rulebook. Marrying the expansive concepts of the great British progressive-rock bands to a decidedly North American hard-rock aesthetic, Rush initially focused on complex song structures and instrumental pyrotechnics, in the process raising the performance bar for rock musicians and blowing the minds of their followers.
By the early ’80s, influenced by the sounds of new wave and other contemporary styles, Rush tightened their arrangements, wrote progressively stronger hooks and melodies, and incorporated more contemporary musical elements, all the while continuing to up the rhythmic ante. This unusual recipe found a welcoming audience on FM radio with slick yet sophisticated releases like 1980’s Permanent Waves (featuring their breakout track “The Spirit of Radio”), ’81’s Moving Pictures (“Tom Sawyer,” “Limelight”), and ’82’s Signals (“Subdivisions,” “New World Man”).
Through a series of classic records featuring brilliant, cerebral, and yes, busy drumming, Neil Peart ascended to the throne, inarguably becoming the most popular drummer on the planet. Importantly, each new Rush album documented the creative progression of a drummer who never stopped challenging himself—and, by extension, us. Here we trace that progression by homing in on Peart’s work on each of the band’s studio albums. Strap yourself in: it’s going to be quite a ride.
Fly by Night (1975)
The blueprint for all future Rush albums was created here. Distancing themselves from the Zeppelin-infused riff age of their debut, and making a key line-up change with Neil Peart replacing John Rutsey behind the kit, Rush storm out of the gate with “Anthem.” It was obvious these guys meant business, with odd meters, in-your-face vocals, and virtuosic musicianship taken up a level with Peart’s precision and aggression. The drummer fills every space of “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” with…well…fills—32nd-note tom rolls, hi-hat jabs, and all manners of outrageous playing set to “destroy” mode. But even early on, Peart knew how to simply lay it down for maximum effect and support, as in the chugging hi-hat 16ths on “In the End.” The meticulously crafted, multi-limbed drum parts and greater laser-like execution would come later as the scope of the band’s writing became more complex. But it was on this record, released with little fanfare in the mid 1970s, where the bar was set, soon to be bested with regular frequency. And in Peart, a Canadian kid still in his early twenties, a star was born.
Caress of Steel (1975)
Picking up where Fly by Night left off less than a year later, Caress of Steel showcases a band more assured after constant touring. “Bastille Day” finds Peart at his most driving and propulsive, working his ride underneath a powerful guitar progression, and the much-derided “I Think I’m Going Bald” still pleases with a cool, pre-disco, off beat hi-hat part. There’s even an almost funky drum intro to “Lakeside Park” followed by a straight-8ths groove with Peart leaving out the backbeat of 2. But it’s on the twenty-minute “The Fountain of Lamneth” where the band’s creative ambitions (some would say indulgence) would mix perfectly with their growing musicianship. And though their progressive counterparts had been making multi-movement compositions in England for years at that point, Rush jumped into the fray on “Lamneth” with the band’s most involved arrangement to date. In the “Didacts and Narpets” section, Peart solos in and around his toms, ripping flams and huge crashes in a burst of energy, another sign of what was to come in the form of lengthy drum showcases in concert. The side-long track intrigued, but the sections sounded thrown together, not quite a unified whole. That would come with the next album.
Rush’s commercial breakthrough came with the unlikely record 2112, after the band ignored record company pressure for something more palatable by continuing their extended-form compositional adventures with the twenty-minute, sidelong title track. The road made Rush a commanding, well-oiled machine by 1976, and the different sections making up “2112” highlight all the band’s strengths, from brilliant guitar and bass proficiency to the fully realized sound Peart had cultivated by this juncture in his career. Check out the chorus of “The Temples of Syrinx” for Peart’s simple, kick-heavy pattern, and the wild, 6/8 section in the “Grand Finale” section for a taste of the drummer going toe to toe with Lifeson during more guitar solo madness. But the rest of the album is equally impressive, as Peart trucks through “A Passage to Bangkok” with sloshy hats in between roundhouse fills, pseudo-shuffles his way through the verses of “The Twilight Zone,” throws in some nifty kick syncopations in “Lessons,” and executes the cleanest cymbal chokes in “Something for Nothing.” The record would raise the band’s profile and earn them an audience of devotees who would study the liner notes and come to the gigs, but Rush was only getting started.
A Farewell to Kings (1977)
The success of 2112 allowed Rush to go musically where they wished, and where they went was into the stratosphere. The band’s “middle period” begins loosely here, with an added focus on melodic songwriting that would lead to a radio hit with “Closer to the Heart” and the increased use of synthesizers rounding out the group’s sound. Peart was now using an arsenal of orchestra bells, temple blocks, and chimes along with developing an even greater dexterity and technical prowess behind the kit. On the epic “Xanadu,” Peart kills with a two-handed hi-hat assault, interjecting with striking snare hits, and plays the softest snare doubles on the subtler chorus of “Cinderella Man.” And as “Tomorrow Never Knows” signaled a change in direction for the Fab Four, “Cygnus X-1” points the telescope towards Rush’s future. The trio grooves hard together, Peart moving from one idea to the next, an odd-time splash beat here, another dark crooked waltz there, the recording more pronounced and immediate. The track’s finale includes the daring 11/8 Peart tour-de-force, before he evens it out underneath the most crazed vocals of Lee’s career. The band still rocked, but they were racing headlong into a new form of progressive rock.
Often cited as the high-water mark for this period of the band’s career, Hemispheres opens with another side-long masterpiece, “Cygnus X-1 Book 2: Hemispheres,” and now there truly is no manual. The music is yet more complex and demanding; Peart hammers home a martial rhythm with hip, left-hand snare work, and weaves in and out of 7/8 and 6/8 passages with flair, eventually moving into yet another hard-hitting disco hi-hats section near the end of the piece. Peart is on a tear throughout, floating atop a 5/4 figure in “The Trees” with an over-the-bar-line quarter-note ride bell and a snare he keeps stating on the “1,” then opening up on the cymbal for tension release. On “La Villa Strangiato (An Exercise in Self Indulgence),” the band works through several instrumental sections that allow each player to really shine. Check out the way Peart flips the beat on the atmospheric 7/8 guitar solo, the drummer building drama with each passing bar, before bringing in a “Sing Sing Sing”–style floor tom pattern and some swinging by way of Canada. Rush was having fun writing deadly serious music, and the band would quickly change direction again. Perhaps returning to the radio wasn’t such a bad idea.
Permanent Waves (1980)
Released in January 1980, Permanent Waves not only ushered in a new decade but also solidified Rush as a commercially viable entity, with increased record sales and concert revenue. Sure, the songs were shorter, but they were no less inventive than what came before. The band just squeezed those ideas into a tighter framework. By now, Peart had the ear of the drumming world, and his attention to detail combined with his focused power made him a major influence on many musicians. Just check out the number of different parts he whips out during “The Spirit of Radio,” from that dancing ride bell thing he’d return to time and again over the next few decades, to a newfound infatuation with reggae beats. Peart is smooth as silk in the middle 6/8 guitar solo section of “Freewill,” and he brings a tireless array of blazing fills and his toughest 16th-note groove yet to one of the band’s last long-form, multi-movement compositions, “Natural Science.” These songs are still heard on FM radio today, and Peart’s “more is more” approach on them continues to be studied by aspiring rock drummers serious about their craft. But what the band delivered next would make them, and Peart, legends.
Moving Pictures (1981)
Regarded by Rush fans and prog aficionados alike as the band’s masterwork, Moving Pictures brilliantly combined their fully realized penchant for melodic hooks with prodigious playing leaps and bounds beyond the group’s early-’70s roots. And it sounds like it was recorded yesterday.
Opener “Tom Sawyer” became a signature song, a demanding workout of shape-shifting perfection, a performance for the ages. But check out how Peart toys with time on “YYZ,” navigating the Morse Code 5/4 with scalpel-like exactitude, dropping off beat kicks in a call-and-response with his hands. On tracks like “The Camera Eye,” Peart shares space with synthesizers, which grew louder in the mix, anchored the arrangements, and helped the overall sound have even more weight. But Rush was a power trio at heart, and the hard-hitting “Limelight” finds Peart balancing between start/stop verses and some fancy ride work during a wicked Lifeson guitar break. Peart leans heavy into his hats on “Red Barchetta” and lays down one of his signature spacious tom patterns in “Witch Hunt,” a compositional drum approach that would be revisited often throughout the 1980s. Rush had released its most popular and arguably most accomplished record to date, but the pace, and imagination, would not stop there.
By the time of 1982’s Signals, Rush was firing on all cylinders, existing in a brutal cycle of album/tour/album/tour that somehow still managed to yield fresh material and novel musicianship. This was the last record with longtime producer Terry Brown, and the band allowed current music to influence their sound. The Police-inspired, new-wave reggae flavors crept in for their highest-charting U.S. single, “New World Man,” on which Peart alternates between hip, upstroke doubles and sizzling openings on the hi-hat. Though recorded at the same Toronto studio as the band’s previous two records, Signals boasts Peart’s thickest and crispiest drum tone to that point, even while synthesizers became a crucial fourth voice. Peart highlights abound, from the off beat China pattern ending “Subdivisions,” to the double-time rock urgency of “The Analog Kid,” to the grooving, four-on-the-floor dotted gallop in “Digital Man.” Rush was now bringing intelligent but catchy rock music to the masses, and Peart played nightly to a sea of air drummers showing him love. He also began to appear in drumming publications as the guy. The next, keyboard-heavy phase in the band’s career begins loosely here, and 2112, released a mere six years prior, seemed like the creation of an entirely different band.
Grace Under Pressure (1984)
Rush returned in 1984 with a new collection of songs featuring a bit more Lifeson guitar than was on Signals, as evidenced by the aggressive rock of “Afterimage” and “Between the Wheels,” both with heavy off beat cymbal work from Peart that gets the head bobbing. Some electronic drums can be heard on “Red Sector A,” and the ska-like “The Enemy Within” gets a healthy dose of Peart fills that blur the “1.” The drummer lays down a flam-laden snare groove on “The Body Electric,” accenting with a kick-and- toms syncopation to deceive the ear, before moving to a two-handed hi-hat accompaniment underneath a guitar solo. And even though Rush was all over the airwaves at this point, they still composed using tons of different odd times, and Peart is fierce in the 5/4 verses of “Kid Gloves” and the back and forth between seven and six in “Distant Early Warning.” Peart and Lee were also by now one mind, locking in together on fills that were written out but sounded improvised. The band continued a relentless touring schedule, and their growing songbook meant that some earlier material was retired from the stage. Ten years in, and the future was still bright.
Power Windows (1985)
1985’s Power Windows, often maligned by fans for being too slick, too synth heavy, and too poppy, is nonetheless another excellent outing for a band whose well was not running dry but simply changing flavors. This wasn’t the progressive rock of the 1970s any longer, but careful listening shows inventive arrangements on complex songs that were difficult to play and not so easy on the brain. Check out one of the later verses of “The Big Money,” where Peart opens his hats in and around a snare backbeat, or the song’s dramatic coda containing the drummer’s tasty snare rolls. Keyboard sequencing is a major characteristic of tracks like “Grand Designs” and “Middletown Dreams,” but there’s no shortage of rhythmic fun coming from the drums, and no shortage of over-the-top fills. The middle section of “Marathon” is mid-’80s Peart at his best, crushing a two-chord 7/8 progression with snare injections and tension building. And “Mystic Rhythms” is all moody toms and percussive samples, with Peart sounding like he’s got another limb. The old faithful might have cried “Where’s the guitar?” but Rush, along with the ever-changing Peart, was already onto the next thing.
Hold Your Fire (1987)
Never ones to rest, by 1987 Rush still had settled into the comfort of more concise and palatable songwriting, but the quality of their output remained at a high level, and their albums were still automatic blind buys for musicians, especially drummers. “Force Ten,” the uptempo rocker opening Hold Your Fire, grabs your attention with Peart’s chugging snare. Later he ornaments the atmospherics with simple, accented hi-hat work that eventually moves over to the snare. The sharper edges of Rush’s music were being rounded off in an effort for greater accessibility, but these guys were still players, and the ping pong-like tom and cymbal pattern in the first chorus of “Time Stand Still” was still unlike anything else on
the radio, or by this point, MTV. Check out the instrumental section in “Mission,” with its ultra-tight Peart and Lee unison licks, and the seismic drum breaks following the guitar solo in “Turn the Page.” Peart was doing his unique thing all over Rush’s version of pop music, as he delved deeper into composing machine-like parts by incorporating all the random elements of his kit, filtered through his own sense of groove and swing. The wild-eyed abandon of a decade past was now in the rearview mirror.
A transition period was upon Rush by 1989, as their movement away from keyboard dominance began in earnest. Maturity and discipline were also now the tools employed by Peart, the master craftsman, and his deliberate straighter rock parts in tunes like “The Pass” was the work of a thinking drummer playing for the song. But there’s everything from jazzy snare ghosting in “Show Don’t Tell” to hypnotic African rhythms in “Scars,” which would later appear in some form during Peart’s show-stopping live drum solos. Dig his four-on-the-floor kick plus off beat splash groove in “Superconductor” and his strong, dynamic approach alternating between the softer ballad-like parts and tom-heavy sections of “Available Light.” With synths being tucked away subtly, more space emerged in the group’s sound, but no player filled the gaps with excessive fills or licks. Peart, specifically, emerged as a grand supporter of the vocals, the bigger picture. Dated only by its digital, wet sheen, which was the norm for much rock music from this era, Presto did manage to chart several singles and return the band to a more pronounced power trio sound. As a new decade approached, Rush was securely in the lead pack.
Roll the Bones (1991)
As the 1990s commenced, Rush were veterans in a music business that had chewed up lesser bands unable to adapt to changing tastes. Peart, Lifeson, and Lee continued their commitment to organic music-making, and the songs making up 1991’s Roll the Bones were Rush’s usual assortment of pop-infused hard rock, with occasional prog tendencies. But labels never really applied to Rush, so the record contains everything from funky jams with rapping (“Roll the Bones”) to kinetic, midtempo rockers (“Face Up”). Peart lays down a solid side-stick pulse in “Dreamline” and brings things down to a whisper with a softer ride cymbal in “Ghost of a Chance.” Check out some of the licks Peart plays in the instrumental “Where’s My Thing?” including a thunderous toms/double bass fill and a lightning-quick accented snare roll in a measure of 6/4. On “Bravado,” Peart builds the part from the ground up, starting with an insistent kick and layering toms and snare on top, until the last chorus, where he’s working all the cymbals and drums, achieving a completeness that makes the track whole. There was a wind blowing from the Pacific Northwest, but Rush was anchored in, holding ground, and ready to turn up.
By 1993, that Seattle wind had turned into a hurricane, and the unifying factor for all those West Coast “grunge” bands was their undeniable heaviness. Not to be outdone, Rush delivered the heaviest record of their career, and Peart’s drums were firmly assigned with the task of bringing the weighty stuff . The tone of his kit was deeper, darker, and fuller, and this time Peart brought a fully realized “less is more” understanding to his written parts. Sure, there were drum fills, but songs like “Stick It Out” and “Cut to the Chase” came at you with a fury not heard since the band’s earliest days. Still, this was Rush, and “boring” was not on the agenda. That ride bell gets a workout on “Animate,” and there are slick kick drum doubles on the instrumental “Leave That Thing Alone” that are basic but perfectly placed. Check out the third chorus groove of “Nobody’s Hero,” where Peart syncopates his snare hit and ends the phrase with a floor tom backbeat, à la Steve Gadd. The band must have done something right, because Counterparts reached #2 on the Billboard Albums chart. And for Peart, a break between records would allow time for reinvention.
Test for Echo (1996)
By the mid ’90s the members of Rush had families and other commitments, and they no longer needed to work at the breakneck pace of the past two decades. When the band reconvened for 1996’s Test for Echo, it followed a period where Peart wanted to revamp his playing with help from instructional guru Freddie Gruber. And revamp they did, modifying Peart’s grip, posture, drum and cymbal placement, and approach. The resulting record might not sound exactly like Peart was a new man, but the conviction with which he played was never greater. It was all about flow now, from the triplet feel of “Time and Motion” to the big spaces left in “Resist.” Peart throws in some polyrhythmic cymbal hits in “Driven” and continues his heavy and intense drumming on the aggressive verses in “Virtuality.” The recording, it should be noted, was big but clear, the mix bringing out all the nuances of Peart’s kit. The instrumental “Limbo” is made up of different parts Peart experimented with in the studio, beats with no home eventually stitched together in the final product. This looseness was new for the band, but the results satisfied them internally. Little did anyone know it would be six years before Rush returned to the studio.
Vapor Trails (2002)
Following the Test for Echo tour in 1997, Peart endured personal tragedies that sidelined the band until they returned in 2002. After having filtered their creative process through a variety of popular music trends over the previous thirty years, Rush decided to take a different approach with their newest record: post melody. It’s not that there are no hooks in the tunes—it’s just the obtuse nature of the material was yet another direction for a band always searching. Regardless, Peart comes out throwing haymakers with the pummeling double bass assault in “One Little Victory,” effectively dispelling any fear that he would be rusty after a long layoff . He flips the beat with some downbeat snare trickery on the chorus of “Earthshine,” and spices up the verses of “Ceiling Unlimited” with simple little tom fills, breaking up the straightness of the basic groove just enough without being overbearing. As the millennium turned, Peart’s parts were still carefully orchestrated, but his studies with jazzers and the inevitable maturity that comes to musicians who’ve been at it a while allowed him to become more improvisational, or at least sound that way. Of note: the negative reaction to the compressed muddiness of the original Vapor Trails caused Rush to release a clearer, remixed version.
Snakes & Arrows (2007)
Another five years would pass until Rush dropped original material (a covers disc, Feedback, came in 2004), and the results showed clearly that these guys were still not coasting. The band continued to write hard rock music with equal parts dynamic shade and riff muscle, and Peart still played with the conviction of an unknown out to prove himself. Check out the end of “Far Cry,” with Peart soloing over the staccato rhythm with some rumbling toms, and the quarter-note China and double-bass groove opening “Armor and Sword.” There are multiple instrumentals here, and Peart gives each something different, from the snares-off tom pattern in “The Main Monkey Business” to the bass and drum breaks in “Malignant Narcissism,” echoing “YYZ” from Moving Pictures. Peart alternates between the 3/4 and 4/4 in “Workin’ Them Angels” with little fuss, taking his time, letting things breathe. And if an old(er) dog could learn new tricks, this breathing space that permeated Peart’s late career drumming was a good one.
Clockwork Angels (2012)
Fans waited a half decade before another Rush studio record appeared, and longtime listeners were rewarded with one of the band’s strongest efforts in years. The members of Rush were now living legends, and they had nothing to prove. Peart was now the elder statesman, the wise Zen master who had a lifetime of innovation behind him, but whose thirst for the new still informed his approach. And, oh yeah, he was still hitting harder than metal dudes half his age.
“Caravan” is Peart bulldozing his way through everything, all lip-curling snarl and attitude, while the 6/8 title track moves from double-handed hi-hat parts to big toms. Old-school Rush heads will also notice a nod back to 1975’s “Bastille Day” on “Headlong Flight,” complete with unison bass and drum hits and similar guitar drive. Check out the track’s cool snare intro and initial pattern. Elsewhere, Peart attacks his parts with intricacy and attention, but as always, plays the role of the anchor his bandmates can rely on.
With Peart’s passing, Clockwork Angels became Rush’s final studio statement, and with it they and Neil went out on top.