Deep Music Criticism #10 – Rush – Presto

Presto – Rush’s 13th studio album – was the first album they released after I became a fan when I was 14, in 1988. I remember it was released right before Christmas 1989. I bought it the morning that my Dad and I were to travel up to Vermont with a friend of his and his son to their ski condo on Okemo mountain. I persuaded the adults to pop the cassette in the player, to eat up the first hour of that 3 hour car ride. I remember how, by the time the player turned over Side B and was about to start the entire album over again, Rich (Dad’s friend) said in a mildly annoyed tone “Can we give it a rest now?” Rush is not for everyone…

It may be this special personal connection I have with this album – and the specific time in my life when I was just beginning to take music seriously –  that makes it my favorite album by the band. If I was paying attention to rock in 1981 when Moving Pictures was released, I’m sure that would the the one to stick with me. But regardless, Presto is my favorite.

And my favorite track on the album has always been the title track, Presto.

Arrangement & Orchestration

Geddy Lee has said that Presto was intended to be “a singer’s album”. There are no extended instrumentals or “filler” sequences on the album, and every song seems more welded to the lyrics and lyrical message than any other Rush album. The vocal treatment in the mix also conveys this – not overly compressed but forward, bathed but not drenched in echo and reverb. Geddy’s voice was never stronger and yet refined than it was on this album. His early 1970s performances were pure higher-pitched Robert Plant – powerful but a bit shrill. Geddy’s voice on this album is awesome: pitch-steady, emotional, just the right touch of vibrato, and still powerful.

This album also features more ambient acoustic guitar than any other Rush album, although the guitar sound is heavily altered through chorus and reverb effects. Presto (the song) displays this prominently, with solo voice+acoustic sections contrasted with full-on rock in the 2nd-half verses that feature only acoustic guitar, bass and drums.

Subtle Climax

I visualize this song’s textural ebbs and flows as a line that begins mid-height on a page, dips down slightly, then gently and gradually bobs up and down – but steadily up – to reach a climax of normal-volume and energy rock by the time the coda section arrives at around 4:00. In fact, its that coda that is the most thrilling and beautiful part of the song. Its one of those song sections that makes you want the thing to never end. Its exactly the kind of feeling I was going for in the coda to my song “Saint Martha“. What’s so special here is how they used the chorus section which, prior to this last iteration, was always performed with sparse and halting instrumentation and irregular (read: non-4-on-floor) beat pattern in the drums.

But this last go-round in the chorus, Neil Peart lifts up this lullaby of a section into a Keith Moon-like, swinging ensemble rock. In fact, this last minute or so of the song really has me believing what the guys in the band have said for decades: that The Who are their biggest heroes and influence.

Here’s the videocast and podcast version of this:

  • Cakes and Sparrows

    What did you think of the first-ever live version of the song on the last tour?

    • bensommer

      Haven’t heard it but fellow fans mentioned it sounded great