‘Classic Albums’ Takes Fascinating Look Behind the Scenes

Recent release Rush: 2112 and Moving Pictures serves as a great example of the insight and demos of what goes into an epic recording.

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One of my colleagues, and our most knowledgeable A/V guy here, Bob Archer isn’t your typical audiophile. He’s reviewed and listened to audio systems that cost as much as people’s houses, but he’d prefer to watch grass grow than hear another selection from Diana Krall. Bob can speak to any form of music, from classical to hair bands to traditional audiophile fare such as Krall, but when he brings his own demo material you can bet there’s a good dose of guitar from the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Monty Montgomery and Steve Morse — and among his favorite tracks is a killer Morse cover of the Rush instrumental La Villa Strangiato.

So when I think of demo material, critical listening and audiophile sound systems, it may be unusual but I think of Rush — I’ve been to many demos with Bob and heard La Villa soar through top-notch electronics and speakers from the likes of Revel, RBH, Paradigm, Anthem, Snell, Mark Levinson, Classe, B&W and others.

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And I also had that in mind when I sat down to watch (and hear) one of the latest in the excellent Classic Albums series of documentaries, Rush: 2112 and Moving Pictures, which was recently released on Blu-ray from Eagle Rock Entertainment, which specializes in music docs and concert films.

I’ve seen about a half dozen of these Classic Album docs, and they’re nothing short of masterful for music fans who want a behind-the-scenes look at what went into such epic recordings. But they also do a great job of sitting with the artists, picking their brains and also letting them illustrate how certain tracks were engineered and mixed together, which really provides another level of appreciation for the music — as well as an excellent lesson for listening like an audiophile. One way to “critically listen” to songs is by following the individual instruments, whether it’s a bass line, guitar riff or drum tracks, and then playing the song again and focusing on another instrument. The Classic Album interviews are perfect for that, and the Rush installment, especially because the band only has three players, is ideal.

Rush: 2112 and Moving Pictures offers tremendous backstories behind those great and very different recordings, from the perspective of the band’s Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart, as well as others such as 2112 producer and engineer Terry Brown and David Fricke of Rolling Stone magazine.

The portion of the documentary devoted to 2112 shows how the band was almost dropped by its record label, and that the 1976 release was nearly a last-ditch effort — but one that Rush would only have if it was done their way. With an us-against-them mentality, Peart borrowed from author Ayn Rand’s Anthem novelette for the concept part of the album that comprises the title track and side one of the record. Through the Classic Album interviews and live playing by the trio (as individuals), we get to hear what went into the key parts, right from the famous opening notes showcased by Brown while at the mixing board through the different vocal styles of Lee to symbolize the individual and the totalitarian government.

The band continues to discuss 2112′s second side, with more engineering insight from Brown, including fun little things to listen for like the sound of a toke discreetly mixed into A Passage to Bangkok and the many odes offered to the TV show during The Twilight Zone.

Moving on to 1981′s Moving Pictures, we see how the band began to evolve, and just how different, but equally epic, Moving Pictures was and how it catapulted Rush into fame. And interestingly enough, how Peart was already feeling some of the pangs of being in the limelight when he wrote Limelight, which then ironically made the band an even bigger hit with fans. Listen to how Lifeson describes the several parts of that song, and then goes on to sample what he called a haunting, lonesome guitar solos that quickly become one of his favorites to play — again, as Classic Album docs do, allows you to hear a song in a new light, so to speak.

We get another great look at a great song during discussion of Tom Sawyer, where the documentary shows Peart playing the solid drumbeat, and follow as Lee and Lifeson sit at the mixing board and start adding in their own parts.

Overall, if you’re an audio enthusiast, the Classic Album documentaries are a must-see. If you’re a custom electronics pro looking for some alternate demo material to the usual jazz or blues picks, check out some of these episodes and you’ll be pretty much scripted on what to listen for in certain songs.

I’ve viewed others in the series on Steely Dan’s Aja, Paul Simon’s Graceland, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe and Over-Nite Sensation, Cream’s Disraeli Gears, U2′s The Joshua Tree and the Grateful Dead’s Anthem to Beauty. They’re all fascinating in their own way, and you’ll find yourself immediately popping in the album afterward to hear again what you just saw discussed — indeed, after watching Rush: 2112 and Moving Pictures, I spun the latter on vinyl and heard YYZ like never before.

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