Snakes & Arrows

SKU: 135484-2
Label:
Atlantic Records
Category:
Progressive Rock
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"When Rush issued Vapor Trails in 2002, they revealed that -- even after Neil Peart's personal tragedies in the 1990s had cast the group's future in doubt -- they were back with a vengeance. The sound was hard-hitting, direct, and extremely focused. Lyrically, Peart went right after the subject matter he was dealing with -- and it was in the aftermath of 9/11 as well, which couldn't help but influence his lyric writing. In 2004 the band issued a covers EP that was in one way a toss-off, but in another a riotous act of freewheeling joy that offered a side of the band no one had heard for 30 years. There were a couple of live offerings and a 30th anniversary project as well that kept fans happy perhaps, but broke -- though Rush in Rio was the kind of live album every band hopes to record. Snakes & Arrows represents the band's 18th studio album. Produced by Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Velvet Revolver, Superdrag), the record is another heavy guitar, bass, and drums...drums...and more drums record. The title came -- unconsciously according to Peart -- from a centuries-old Buddhist game of the same name about karma, and also from a play on the words of the children's game Chutes and Ladders. Its subject matter is heavy duty: faith and war. From the opening track (and first single), acoustic and electric guitars, bass hum, and Peart's crash-and-thrum urgency in the almighty riff are all present. When Geddy Lee opens his mouth, you know you are in for a ride: "Pariah dogs and wandering madmen/Barking at strangers and speaking in tongues/The ebb and flow of tidal fortune/Electrical charges are charging up the young/It's a far cry from the world we thought we'd inherit/It's a far cry from the way we thought we'd share it...." At the same time, inside the frame of the refrain, Lee refuses to be conquered in the face of chaos: "One day I feel like I'm ahead of the wheel/And the next it's rolling over me/I can get back on/I can get back on." Alex Lifeson's guitars swell and Peart's crash cymbals ride the riff and push Lee to sing above the wailing fray. Great beginning.

"Armor and Sword" contains an instrumental surprise. After an initial ride-cymbal clash, the guitar and bassline sound exactly like King Crimson playing something from Red or Larks' Tongues in Aspic. The theme is repeated on an acoustic guitar before Lee begins singing about the shadowy side of human nature brought on by the many times children are scarred in development. The boom and crackle of electric guitars and bass are all there, but so is that sense of melody that Rush have trademarked as Lee states, "...No one gets to their heaven without a fight/We hold beliefs as a consolation/A way to take us out of ourselves...." There is no screed for or against religion per se, but a stake in the claim of hope and faith as absolutely necessary to accomplish anything, hence the refrain. Peart beautifully articulates the dark side of life's undersurface; he has been writing the best lyrics of his entire career on the band's last two studio records -- only two in the last ten years. The dynamic works against the melody and Lifeson's brief but screaming solo is a fine cap on it. "Workin' Them Angels" blends the acoustic against the electrics gorgeously, and Lee sings counterpoint to the guitars. "The Larger Bowl" is one of those Rush tunes that builds and builds both lyrically and musically, beginning with only Lee's voice and Lifeson's acoustic guitar. Its shift-and-knot rhythms and spatial dynamics offer the impression -- as does the rest of the album -- that the bandmembers are playing in the same room at the same time (it happened to a lesser degree on Vapor Trails, but here the impression is constant). The sounds -- both hard and soft -- blend together wonderfully. The live feel of the record with its sonic washes and overdubbed guitars and vocals creates near chaos without loss of control. It's like teetering on the edge of an abyss with one eye on both sides of it. Song by song, the notions of tension build, taking the listener to a place where hope and faith are challenged continually, not only in the face of the entire world, but in one's personal relationships -- check "Spindrift." Echoes of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Robert Frost, Matthew Arnold, and The Odyssey are glanced upon, as is The Dhammapada in the Buddhist scriptures -- with more of a thematic than referential purpose.

Amid all this seriousness, there is a bit of humor. The instrumental track "Malignant Narcissism" references a line in the comedic film Team America: World Police from Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame. It comes from a line in the film that reveals how terrorists think. It's one of three absolutely stunning instrumentals; another is "The Main Monkey Business," which sounds like the closest Rush have gotten to jamming in the studio in over 20 years. Think of the intensity of 2112 with the musicianship of Vapor Trails, and you begin to get a picture: screaming guitars, deep bass thrum, soaring keyboards, and all those pop-and-boom drums from Peart's massive kit. "The Way the Wind Blows" is Rush taking on the blues in massive metallic style, and it feels more like Cream in the intro. Lee's vocal drives deep inside the lyric -- it's tense, paranoid, yet revelatory. It's about the perverse magnetism of religion and war, and how both are seemingly designed to be cause and effect: fanatical religiosity leads to war. There are different theories on this, but Peart distills them well, as if he's read (but not necessarily completely understood) René Girard's seminal work Violence and the Sacred. The album changes pace a bit with the instrumental "Hope," a largely 12-string acoustic guitar piece played off a medieval theme by Lifeson. "Faithless" is anything but. It's one of those Rush tracks where counterpoint vocals against the guitars and basslines create that unique welling of sound that occurs when the band is at its peak on-stage. The set ends with "We Hold On," a track that expresses the sum total of all the struggles life offers and holds. Here Eliot the poet is quoted directly at the end of the third verse. It's anthemic, with backmasked guitars, Peart playing actual breaks, and Lee's bass holding the chaos together with a constant pulsing throb, guiding the various knotty musical changes back to the center of the verse and refrain, which is the place where the cut just explodes in sonic fury. Snakes & Arrows is one of the tightest conceptual records the band has ever released. Musically, it is as strong as their very best material, without a lapse in texture, composition, production, musicianship, or sheer rock intensity. There are real heart and fire in this album. It was well worth waiting for." - Allmusic Guide

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Many people do not realize that Roberto was actually in Thundercross in 1993, the band that would change its name to the famous Rhapsody in 1995 (though he did not play on the “Land of Immortals” demo of 1994).For any true fan of the band, approaching “Dark Wings” brings a certain level of both excitement and concern, especially considering Luca’s absence, the band’s back catalog and history, and LTR's post-split opening salvo that only raised the bar. It is nearly impossible for any fan of these bands to simply turn off the past and not instantly begin with comparisons. By giving “Dark Wings of Eternity” room to fly and breathe, I guarantee with each successive spin any concerns will quickly fade. In the end, you will find that RoF really isn’t all that far from where it already was! 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The title track is slightly more mid-paced with a De Micheli riff that is just as lethal as the speed. The song has one of the coolest guitar vs. keyboard solo battles, something that happens in multiple tracks on the album. “A Tale Of Magic” is an up-tempo half-speed with one of the most memorable choruses on the release. It’s a challenge to pick and outright favorite, but for now the pendulum swings in favor of “Tears of Pain,” with its simple, though highly fetching, riff that just draws more anger from Fabio’s voice.As for the “slower” side, which encompasses ballads and mid-paced tracks, the crop includes the building layers of “Fly to Crystal Skies” - galloping into the chorus along the bass pedals of Alex Holzwarth and the stunning ballad “Custode Di Pace”- a song like so many other greats from RoF and another pedestal for Fabio. “Angel of Light” showcases Fabio’s current strengths - the upper mid vibrato – matched in perfection only by Alessandro Conti. 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  • Limited edition digibook comes with two bonus tracks and enhanced artwork.I think its pretty much agreed that Echo Street was a bit of a mistep for the band.  It seems like they've gotten the message.  Mystoria finds the band returning to their space rock Pink Floyd meets Black Sabbath meets XTC sound.  The band is a quirky bunch - you will find the songs are filled with hooks and heavy riffs that will stick with you but also there is always a bit of a cosmic vibe."Following the release of Amplifier's sprawling grand opus, The Octopus, in 2011, the band have most definitely had their ups and downs. After the departure of long-time bassist Neil Mahony, the band were forced to regroup and rethink their approach: the lengthy process of writing and recording The Octopus had been a trying experience for all the praise the record subsequently received. Looking backwards to look forwards, Sel Balamir and his band re-visited previously demoed material and used it as the basis for the subsequent Echo Street, a more streamlined and concise record that reassured everyone, not least the band themselves, that their quest for sonic adventure remained undimmed in the face of all that life had chosen to throw at them.It's immediately apparent that Mystoria is a very different album to Echo Street in terms of sound, although in terms of ethos the two albums are probably closer related than any of the other records Amplifier have made. Mystoria eschews the gentler, more stripped-back feel of Echo Street and glories in its chunky twin-guitar riffing and thunderous rhythm section, much as the band did when they put together Insider and The Octopus. At the same time, the tendency of the band to indulge themselves in sprawling psychedelic space rock jams has been reined in. Mystoria is subject to the same intense focus on trimming the fat that Echo Street was subject to - indeed, the band have emphasised that they spent some time honing the songs and finalising their arrangements before they started recording, something they haven't tried before. On the basis of Mystoria, this approach certainly seems to suit them.This new sense of focus, allied to their delight in generating planet-sized riffs, is immediately apparent in the one-two punch of the opening tracks, 'Magic Carpet' and 'Black Rainbow'. The opener is a delightfully psychedelic instrumental built around a sturdy riff that might have lasted eight or nine minutes on previous albums. Here it arrives, says what it needs to say and is done in under four minutes, without sacrificing its loose, jammed-out feel. 'Black Rainbow' makes for a striking contrast, a gargantuan doomy riff powering along a muscular rocker that possesses energy to spare. "And I’m going to sing my song", bellows Balamir, "Been stuck in a throat far too long / And I’m going to get me gone / Going to get me some!" As the song crunches to a halt, Balamir opines "Well, we did it again", as if anyone was in any doubt by this point. And so the scene is set for a really crowd-pleasing album, one that will delight existing fans and appeal to those new to Amplifier's swirling psych-influenced rock.The album has been described as a "party record", with Balamir stating that "It’s a summer time rock record to hopefully make people feel good when they listen to it. That’s the only intent.” In many respects that is absolutely the case. Jammed full of catchy hooks, sing-along choruses and Balamir's trademark guitar, this is an album that impresses immediately, sticks in your mind like velcro, yet has the variety and substance to withstand repeated plays without losing its appeal. Some of the songs here are so quintessentially Amplfier that they might as well have the word 'Amplifier' written through them like a stick of rock: the two openers, the playfully off-kilter 'Bride' and 'Named After Rocky' (which contains a really crowd-pleasing moment as a clearly gimlet-eyed Balamir breaks the fourth wall to tell the listener "Dance toe to toe with the devil /And I’m gonna do you proud / I’m gonna make you proud!") are all good examples of this.However, it wouldn't be an Amplifier album if Sel and company didn't have something new and unexpected to present: here, the unexpected is provided by a surprising voyage into ska with 'Cat's Cradle' and the baleful, shoegazey 'Open Up'. The former comes across like Kula Shaker re-imagining something from the Madness back catalogue, the unmistakeable skanking ska rhythm underpinned by a wonderful turn by the rhythm section of Alex Redhead (bass) and Matt Brobin (drums), paired with a playful lyric that indulges in some social commentary ("Well, the world is like a cat's cradle / Too much tension in a cat's cradle") and a wry vocal turn from Balamir. 'Open Up', on the other hand, is the song most removed from the sunny, somewhat carefree feel of a lot of the other songs, coming across like 90s indie darlings Lush at their most metallic, a fuzzy wall of sound framed by reverb-laden icy sheets of guitar and a pleading lyric as Balamir asks a lover "Well, are you looking for a man / To try to solve / Well to open up / Won’t you open up?"he somewhat nightmarish 'OMG' continues this darker thread, a juddering riff and bleak lyric ("Did you look 'em in the eye / As life was choking you / Choking you...") meaning that these two tracks dunk the previously sun-kissed listener in freezing water, enabling them to return refreshed yet unsettled to the remainder of the album, which picks up the more carefree feel established by the earlier tracks. 'The Meaning Of If' may have a somewhat fatalistic lyric ("Well, any simple man can see / That there ain't no cure to the meaning of if / 'Least no meaning I can see") but the swirling guitar that runs through the track is pinned to the wall - as is the listener - by a titanic Sabbath-style riff that intimates that if Balamir believes that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, he'll be going out with a smile on his face, dancing like no-one's watching.The album closes with a pair of tracks that are clearly closely interrelated, as the mellow 'Crystal Mountain', with its strong 60s psychedelic pastoral feel and suitably surreal love ballad lyric gives way to a building tension that resolves itself into the wonderfully typical fuzzed guitars and lumbering riff of 'Crystal Anthem', that manages to pack in a truly jaw-dropping storm of squalling guitar before collapsing, exhausted, into a heap. The chorus of 'Crystal Anthem' seems to define both Balamir's world view and the band's approach to Mystoria as a whole, as Balamir sings "And I just want to say / That life is a kind of game / We’ve all been born to play." As with all the best games, life may be sometimes difficult: the path to victory designed by sadists and the pieces easy to lose, but ultimately games are designed to be fun. And the new-look Amplifier, not least Balamir himself, would appear to be playing this game to win.Mystoria is a resounding triumph for Amplifier. Whilst Echo Street was full of great songs and superb performances, its comparatively sedate feel did sometimes leave one wondering if the freewheeling sense of adventure that so typified the band had been tempered permanently by the problems and setbacks that they'd had to deal with. Mystoria is both a sure-footed restatement of Amplifier's intent and evidence that, like all the most positive survivors, the band have learnt a lot from the bumps in the road. The band that recorded The Octopus are back, older, bolder, wiser, and with a fire in their eyes and in their bellies. Long may it be so." - Echoes And Dust 
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