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Rush: Signals - Album Of The Week Club review

An album that split Rush's following clean down the middle, Signals saw the Canadian trio beginning to experiment with keyboards

Rush Signals logo
(Image: © Vertigo)
Rush: Signals

(Image credit: Vertigo)

Subdivisions
The Analog Kid
Chemistry
Digital Man
The Weapon
New World Man
Losing It
Countdown

Following the live Exit… Stage Left, Rush simply picked up from Moving Pictures and added more keyboards. Lots more. The result was an album that split the band’s following clean down the middle.

Where Signals saw the trio beginning to experiment with keys, played by bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, it meant that the potency of Alex Lifeson’s guitar was sometimes sacrificed. For some, this was tantamount to heresy. However, The sheer quality of songs like New World ManSubdivisions and The Analog Kid render such quibbles pointless.

More radical changes to the Rush soundscape, though, are in evidence on Chemistry and Digital Man, both of which further explore Police-style techno-reggae (this a full year ahead of The Police’s Synchronicity), and The Weapon, built on a dance music drum pattern. Then after a brilliant guest solo by electric violinist Ben Mink on Losing It, Rush reach for the stars with Countdown, based on watching a shuttle launch as VIP guests of NASA.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in September 1982

  • It's Hard - The Who
  • Peter Gabriel 4 - Peter Gabriel
  • The Dreaming - Kate Bush
  • New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) - Simple Minds
  • The Philip Lynott Album - Philip Lynott
  • Under the Blade - Twisted Sister
  • Love over Gold - Dire Straits
  • Forever Now - The Psychedelic Furs
  • Nebraska - Bruce Springsteen
  • Acting Very Strange - Mike Rutherford
  • Death Penalty - Witchfinder General
  • Ice Cream for Crow - Captain Beefheart
  • Magic - Gillan
  • Zombie Birdhouse - Iggy Pop

What they said...

"On their twelfth album, Rush makes a strong argument for the view that advanced technology is not necessarily the same thing as progress. Unfortunately, they do so largely by screwing up. Although Signals is chockablock with state-of-the-studio gadgetry, ranging from the requisite banks of synthesizers to the latest in digital recording and mixing, none of these electronic add-ons enhances the group’s music." (Rolling Stone)

"While other rock bands suddenly added keyboards to their sound to widen their appeal, Rush gradually merged electronics into their music over the years, so such tracks as the popular MTV video Subdivisions did not come as a shock to longtime fans. And Rush didn't forget how to rock out – The Analog Kid and Digital Man were some of their most up-tempo compositions in years." (AllMusic

"Every single song has something special be it the epic chorus of The Analog Kid (“You move me” part is just fucking epic) the simple complexity of Chemistry the amazing melodic intro of The Weapon played out again in the chorus and the lovely vocal lines of New World Man. If you look at it in terms of progressiveness, yeah sure it doesn’t touch their previous albums, but in terms of sheer enjoyment and replay ability the album does stand proudly with the giants." (Encyclopaedia Metallum

What you said...

Vinnie Evanko: To be honest, I started to lose interest in Rush somewhat around this time. As a fan of the more progressive, guitar driven 70s sound I was not crazy about the change. To top it off I saw them live around this time and being in my early 20s I saw mostly 15 year old boys at the show and I felt old. Eventually I did circle back and I now find this album to be excellent.

Jonathan Spatz: This is the album that turned me into a Rush fan. I was 13 and the first time I heard those opening keyboard chords I was hooked! I have loved every phase of Rush. Only two albums I am not a big fan of are Hold Your Fire and Presto. But this was the one that started it for me. As always, amazing drum work, but I think it stands out a lot on this album.

Charlie Davidson: This was my cut-off point with Rush. Their subsequent albums left me cold. It's readily apparent that big changes were underway here but any album with Subdivisions on it can't be all bad!

Jack Meldrum: Thing I’ve always loved about Rush is that even though they evolved their sound around this time, however polarising it might have been, they were always technically incredible in a musical sense. Some people prefer the 70s rock stuff and some people prefer the more commercial 80s stuff but every time they managed to produce incredible music. Which really is all just testament to how talented this band really is.

Bill Griffin: The last of the bands 'classic' albums and I think the loss of Terry Brown has a lot more to do with that than the keyboards did. He was the constant while they improved as musicians, songwriters and arrangers. He was the anchor for their experimentation. Ironically perhaps, my favourite song on the album is the one that caused the rift; Digital Man.

I did have an issue with the promotional tour though; as was always their practice, all of this album, save one track, made the setlist. My problem is that, because Moving Pictures was so popular, so did most of it and that left very little room for older tracks.

Wade Babineau: Last Rush album produced by Terry Brown. I had gotten into Rush via the Exit... Stage Left live album and this came out afterwards. The video for Subdivisions drew me in to buy this. Haven't played this one in awhile, but upon a refreshed listening I was brought back to being 13 when this came out. Not a bum track in the lot. Had part two of the "Fear" trilogy with The Weapon. Analog Kid was another standout along with New World Man. 9/10 and a very appropriate choice this week after the news of Neil Peart's passing.

Arthur Comix: I bailed after this. The songs are weak, the "progression" turned them into a cheap copy of The Police (as did many other bands at the time), and the tour was dull. Time has not improved it for me either. Sorry, but not for me. 3/10

Joe Cogan: I was in high school at the time, so Subdivisions hit really close to home for me. It's still my favourite Rush song, and the album is a sentimental favourite as well; the keys don't dominate over every other element like they would on subsequent 80s efforts, and the songs themselves are excellent, striking a balance between accessibility and virtuosity. 9/10.

John Stout: To those of us who'd discovered Rush through heavy metal, Signals felt like a step too far towards the trendy synth-pop bands in the singles charts. But with the benefit of hindsight, it was simply the band progressing in a logical new direction started in Permanent Waves. Now it's one of my favourite Rush albums, with Subdivisions as worthy a classic as Tom Sawyer or The Spirit Of Radio. Terry Brown's last production for the band brought out the best in all three players, and while the synths, drums and bass might be upfront in the mix, close listening shows that Alex Lifeson's guitar was as active creative as always.

Ian Kingston: The great thing about Rush is that the band never stopped evolving. For me, Signals is part of the superb run of albums that began with 2112 (I never cared much for the first three albums) and ended with Grace Under Pressure.

While never my favourite Rush album (that would be Permanent Waves), Signals is a very listenable collection of songs. Only the last track, Countdown, feels like filler. The standout tracks are Subdivisions, New World Man (which feels like a more nuanced update of Tom Sawyer) and Losing It, and those hold up well against anything that went before.

There are still plenty of riffs, and the synthesizers never seem to take over unnecessarily. It's the sound of a band that wants to expand its musical range and is continuing to mature without losing its youthful excitement. And the album is definitely less pretentious - more grounded in the real world - than some of its predecessors.

Jonathan Novajosky: There are things about Signals that I really like and things I do not. It starts out great with my all-time favourite Rush song, Subdivisions. The lyrics are some of the best in any rock song in my opinion, and that opening synth is just so smooth and catchy. I imagine the song is meaningful to a lot of people given its subject matter and feeling of being different or an outcast. The Analog Kid is also solid; I love the opening riff and how it almost "goes together" with New World Man later on the album. Between those two songs, I start to lose interest in the album. Chemistry, Digital Man, and The Weapon are forgettable when compared to the opening tracks.

I'm sure a lot of people were turned off by the heavy synths in Signals, and while I think they aren't too overbearing for the most part, they overstay their welcome in a few of these songs. Fortunately, New World Man saves the album from being very one-sided. The riff and bass during the hook are so groovy (it somehow reminds me of Siberian Khatru) and Lee's vocals are some of the best on any Rush song. Losing It is decent, but sort of a snoozer and Countdown is only slightly better. 

Overall, I wish Signals was a little better start to finish, but any album that is tasked with following Moving Pictures is held to high standards. Still, Signals has Subdivisions and a few other songs worth going back to that earn it a good score. 8/10.

Roland Bearne: The thing about Rush is that most often the new album doesn't just slap you in the face with instant brilliance. They open up as you invest your time and indeed as circumstances arise in your life. For instance, on first listen Losing It for example might have seemed a bit fay to a something-teen year old lad looking forward to "starting it!", whereas Subdivisons hit some social nails right on the teenage bonce. 

Actually, it took me a few years to get Signals. At the time I yearned for the sounds of the earlier albums. The penny actually dropped with the arrival of Grace Under Pressure. The sounds and songs on that album hit me almost immediately, they seemed to have their "crunch" back (let's ignore Ged's horrendous mullet!) So, I tentatively slipped Signals back on the turntable and ...sapristi! 

There it was, in full bloom with my ears ready to accept its new and nuanced approach. It has since remained one of my absolutely favourite Rush releases. It was then that the pattern of Rush's continued evolution started to emerge, the phases, the growth and it always felt as though my infinitesimally little journey was sort of guided by this, or indeed their music felt like a constant, an emotional anchor almost. 

That's the thing about the band both musically and in Maestro Peart's incomparable lyrics. They endure, they have relevance over the years in different circumstances and for different moods. I still know of no other band who are even comparable. Neal Peart is a devastating loss and you know, it feels almost like a personal loss. Signals is a triumph within a triumphant canon of achievement. 

Yes, "suddenly you were gone" but, what a catalogue, what a lot of music, of thoughts, sensibilities, stories and perceptions and Signals stands proud as a pivotal moment in their evolution. My first 10!

Randy Banner: This album was the logical progression from Moving Pictures and the last stop before diving headlong into the eighties. While enjoyable, it sounds very much of its time, though it doesn't sound as dated as, say, Hold Your Fire. As always, excellent musicianship and good songs, but every release through the rest of the decade sounds (to me) very "same-y". 7/10

David Ferguson: Cut my teeth on 2112, All The World's a Stage and A Farewell To Kings, so Signals was a bit of a disappointment for me. Some good songs on there to be sure but I didn't like the direction Rush was taking with the move towards more of a pop sound, more synths, thinner sounding guitars and Geddy's toned down vocal approach. Ended up taking a two decade hiatus from them as a result. 

With the passage of time, I'd put it dead in the middle of the Rush canon - better than just about everything they put out post Signals, but not as good any of their prior output. 5/10.

Rick Averdahl: Rush/Geddy Lee stated early, even right after the release of Moving Pictures, that Vital Signs was their way of moving forward, being heavily inspired by The Police. And he was right, they delivered what they promised, a Policeified version of Rush, short songs, keyboards and reggae rhythms along with sort of heavier/obscure/darker tracks, just as The Police on Ghost In The Machine released the year before. I loved it then, I love it now.

Steve Torrens: I don’t mind it, I liked The Police so the change to that kind of sound didn’t really bother me unduly, but following the perfection that is Moving Pictures was always going to be a tall order.

Looking back this was where Rush was lost to me until Counterparts. I liked the odd song or two from other albums, and Grace Under Pressure was okay, but Rush was about a huge guitar heavy sound in my mind and they strayed too far from that over the albums in between. I missed the heft, and I still don’t like their synth years to this day.

New World Man and Subdivisions are excellent but the rest of the album is, for Rush, a little pedestrian.

Richard Cardenas: At this point I had moved to punk and felt this record was a bit sterile. As I’ve gotten older I’ve circled back and have listened to their entire collection finding jewels in all of them. Funny thing is, listening to it now makes me realise it was still part of my soundtrack and it stirs some great memories. I give it an eight.

Jochen Scholl: When it was released I was 13 and depending on my brother to bring new music in my life on tape. I still remember he selected Losing It (still my favourite) and Countdown. After playing the LP I only added Subdivisions. The other songs I discovered 10 years later after becoming a Rush Fan and owner of all the CDs. Now this album was the one I listened to very often because all the others I'd already heard a 1000 times. As a result I can't judge it. But I must name another song highlight: New World Man is a lyrical masterpiece... they can't replace Neil Peart as a poet.

Graham Tarry: Having been a fan for many years, I remember being disappointed when I first played it. Too many keyboards, and I didn't like the reggae guitar (The Police were a big influence apparently), but many of the songs have stuck with me over the years, though it pales in comparison with the earlier classics.

Brian Corry: At the time, I didn't love it. Thought it was ok. However, over the years it has become one of my fave albums from them. Not a bad track. Love the deep cuts like Chemistry and Losing It, and Subdivisions is a top five of mine. The live shows from the era are incredible as well.

Gavin Norman: just listened to this on vinyl: my first Rush album, and I've still got it along with all the others. It’s stood the test of time well, and Subdivisions may be my favourite track of theirs. It’s beautifully produced, with thoughtful lyrics. A great listen. 9/10.

Mauricio Telles: Same as some other fellows here: shocked at first listen, but you cannot give away Rush.

I insisted and it grew over me after time. They were becoming more commercial since Permanent Waves but always in a slow and consistent way... In those years the majority of the bands were trying synths and I think Rush did that brilliantly.

I remember arguing with friends that Rush was turning New Wave, and when Grace Under Pressure was released we tried to put some songs like Kid Gloves in our garage parties to dance with the girls together with Devo and B52, and it worked!

After many years, Signals became one of my top five Rush albums, I absolutely love Digital Man, Subdivisions, Losing It and Chemistry. 9 of 10.

David Bunting: When I first got into Rush I bought 2112 first. My next album was Signals and was so shocked when I heard it I had to double check the sleeve notes to check it was actually the same band. I wasn’t too sure of the album at first but it became one of my favourites and most played, along with Moving Pictures and Permanent Waves.

Andy Price: I wasn’t a great fan of the album when it was first released but it’s probably the one Rush album that has grown on me over the years. Some fantastic tracks including Subdivisions, The Analog Kid and Losing It. Considering it was released in the 80s the production has also stood the test of time. 9/10.

Adam Ranger: Not the best Rush album by a long way in my opinion. Not a big fan of the first few albums released after Moving Pictures. This one has a lot of synth, it sounds very 80s and quite dated now as a result. To me at least. I cant say it's terrible, but it's a long way from my favourite Rush. More background music than music that makes me want to listen. 6/10.

James Last: To me this is equal to if not better than Moving Pictures, it's definitely a companion piece as well as the next logical progression like most of Rush's albums were in those days. Some liked it, others thought it was a step too far. To each their own. All the songs are strong, but I'm particularly fond of The Weapon, and Losing It. I think both are quite unique in Rush's catalogue, they really did a song like either again.

Mike Knoop: I really enjoyed re-listening to this album. 80s Rush may have evolved into a softer, gentler Rush, but the songwriting and musicianship are still impeccable. In particular, the lyrics are some of Neil Peart’s best. They are his most direct and accessible, less literary and obtuse than the 70s output while not as self-help new age or overtly “lecturey” as later in the 80s. 

Subdivisions is so on point that my throat still clenches up sometimes when I hear that song. Same with Losing It and its gorgeous electric violin. Those downbeat songs are balanced by the downright breezy Analog Kid, Digital Man, and New World Man. Even The Weapon is light when compared to the rest of the Fear Trilogy. And what a great first-person account of the shuttle launch in Countdown

Geddy Lee’s voice also adopts a warmer tone; much more singing, less shrieking. And while there are keyboards by the kilo, it’s not like Alex Lifeson is just sitting on his hands. His solos are still great throughout and, while my understanding is that there is little to no guitar on Losing It, Lifeson still came up with the song. The 80s were a decade smothered in keyboards, but Rush was one the bands to use them best.

Shane Reho: This album will alienate people who don't like synths, but when synth-driven music is good, it's good. This album certainly fits that bill. Granted, calling it a synth album is an oversight, as Alex Lifeson gets plenty of time to shine, even if it is less than on any previous album. 

The album's opening two tracks are one of the best one-two punches that ever opened a Rush album. Subdivisions sets the tone perfectly from an instrumental standpoint and has one of Neil Peart's (RIP) best sets of lyrics, something that anyone who's ever set foot in a high school can relate to. The Analog Kid is a cut that deserves more attention, it probably wouldn't have sounded out of place on Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures. 

Chemistry isn't all that great, but it isn't bad either. Digital Man might've been better as an instrumental, the lyrics on the chorus aren't up to par (I know how wrong it is to say that one week after Peart's death, sue me). The Weapon is one of their coolest songs, hard-hitting both lyrically and musically. It's easy to see why New World Man was a hit, it's got all the makings of a good single, while being arty enough to feel right on a Rush album. 

The album ends with two of Rush's most underrated songs. Losing It is a perfect meditation on growing old and losing the ability to achieve what was once so easy. Another one of Neil's best sets of lyrics. It's hard not to get a little pumped up during Countdown, aside from Analog Kid it's the album's most upbeat song, and captures the buildup of a rocket launch quite well. Overall, sure this album was a change for Rush, but a damn good one at that. 9/10. RIP Neil.

John Davidson: Let me set the tone first by saying Rush were the band that I most admired as a teenager. In a time before being a geek was cool, these guys were icons for the demographic where Heavy Rock met D&D in the front of the science class.

Signals was their ninth studio album (to put that in context: Led Zeppelin produced eight) and while it might not be my favourite it certainly isn't bad by any standards.

Rush endured, thrived even, because they evolved over time and took on new instruments and new approaches but always managed to sound like Rush. It does no harm at all to observe that all three are (were) outstanding musicians at the top of their field and still hungry to improve.

I first heard Subdivisions on the Exit Stage Left tour at Ingliston (just outside Edinburgh) in November 1981. The song it most reminded me of was Vital Signs - the last and my least favoured track on the otherwise superlative Moving Pictures. I confess I was not blown away, but the rest of the set was packed full of gems and I kind of forgot about it.

Fast forward to the back end of 1982 and it kicked off their next album in fine style. Maybe they changed it, maybe I changed. Either way I now think it is one of their stronger tracks.

As an album overall, Signals sees Rush in one of their more obvious transitional phases as they got to grips with new synth sounds, played with reggae style beats and generally lightened up a bit. Lyrically they (Neil Peart) largely dropped the science fiction and literary allusions and started to concentrate more on human stories and while the band had used synths and electronic sounds to fill out their songs and provide atmosphere in the past, Signals sees the first real use in carrying the melody and otherwise being central to the majority of songs.

Subdivisions is typical of the album, great lyrics, strong guitar - definitely a song that spoke to me as a young person trying to find my place in the world. Analog Kid is a great guitar led rocker with fine sing a long lyrics. Chemistry is again a personal favourite with clever but accessible lyrics and great instrumentation Digital Man on the other hand is a song I sometimes struggle with. The guitar work is fantastic and the playing all round is flawless, but the ska/reggae rhythm is something I have to be in the mood for.

Side two starts off strongly with The Weapon - a companion piece to Moving Pictures'  Witch Hunt - that examines how our fear is used as a weapon against us. Frankly it's a message and song that would be just as valid if released today. New World Man is a bit of froth and bubble and shows that even a Rush filler track can be a killer. Losing It is (I know) very popular, but to be honest I find it lyrically a little trite and unsubtle. The violin is a lovely touch, but without Lifeson's guitar binding the song together it just doesn't work so well for me. Countdown is a fanboy/man-crush on NASA and on that basis alone I should love this song, but unusually the lyrics aren't complemented with a song structure that conveys the wonder and excitement of the subject.

Of the four 'synth heavy' albums of the 80s (Signals, Grace, Power Windows and Hold Your Fire) I'd put Signals second behind Power Windows - which is the album where they perfected that era of their sound and had the right production/mix to really get the best from it.

Marco LG: My introduction to Rush was fairly late both in my life and in their career: it was 1998 and they published the live album Different Stages. The two things that left a permanent impression on me about those live performances were the energy of the trio and that incredible drum solo. Up until that point I could not imagine a drum solo being actually exciting, listening to Neil Peart changed my mind forever. The only song from Signals contained in Different Stages is Analog Kid, which is great because it is probably my favourite song on the album. The melody is delicate and Alex’s guitar solo is intense.

The discography of Rush is signposted by a live album every four studio albums, and Signals came at the beginning of such a sequence: published after Exit… Stage Left and documented in A Show of Hands. Although the only song from the album to make it into A Show of Hands is Subdivisions. Another immortal tune, which in this version acquires more energy than in the studio.

The third highlight for me on Signals is the song Losing It, which was not performed live until the very end of their career, and appears on the R40 video. Rush fans like to quote this song to explain the ability of the trio to choose the right moment to retire: “Sadder still to watch it die/ Than never to have known it” (it being the skills of the artist). The presence of an electric violin makes the tune particularly poignant, the lyrics of course being curtesy of Neil Peart, The Professor.

It is a fact Signals marked the beginning of Rush’s ‘keyboard period’, and with that an inevitable evolution away from the heavier sound of the previous albums. But one thing they never lost is the ability to combine their incredible musicianship with some form of poetry, which doesn’t just mean lyrics. Case in point is Countdown. A song celebrating the height of the space age, oozing excitement not only for the launch that it describes but more generally for what this means for the future of mankind.

Ultimately Signals marked a turning point in the career of Rush and contains some of their best loved songs, together with the anthem which perfectly accompanies the final curtain of their last show. It’s a great album, and deserves a high score for that.

Chris Downie: Despite tragic recent circumstances, there is a case to be made for reappraisal of sections of the Rush back catalogue outside the immortal five album run that saw them raise the bar and ultimately lay waste to the prog and hard rock playing fields between 1976-81. 

Whatever retrospective appeal their vast catalogue enjoys, the so-called "keyboard era" of 1982-87, which saw four experimental studio albums and culminated in the underrated live album A Show of Hands the following year, will forever remain their most controversial and divisive era. For some, it was a step too far from the majesty of their epic, heavier period, while many saw it as a continuing natural evolution of one of the most naturally gifted bands in history.

Listening back to Signals, there is no disputing the quality of songwriting, whether it be the timeless hits Subdivisions or New World Man (both of which remained live favourites to the end) or the experimental but undeniably Rush-sounding classics The Analogue Kid and The Weapon, the latter of which continued Neil Peart's insightful multi-part "Fear" concept piece. The sombre Losing It, famously rolled out for their farewell R40 tour in 2015, sounds more profound than ever and will now serve as one of their most poignant moments on record.

Where Signals falls just short of classic status however, is in the disappointing production. It is notable for being their last with long-time collaborator Terry Brown and for the unbalanced mix, in which (with the notable exception of the excellent deep cut Chemistry) Alex Lifeson's guitar is reduced in impact, particularly in the aforementioned opener Subdivisions. This flaw is compounded by the fact live versions of many of its eight tracks always sounded superior.

Ultimately, Signals falls roughly at the midpoint of their 19 studio album output, both chronologically and in terms of quality. It is nonetheless an essential part of their evolution, for it paved the way for their new direction, one they would better on the next two albums, the superb Grace Under Pressure and equally classy Power Windows, before the watershed Hold Your Fire saw them re-evaluate and ultimately take steps back towards their revered 'power trio' approach.

Final Score: 8.06 ⁄10 (329 votes cast, with a total score of 2655)

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