1 Show Don’t Tell 5:01
2 Chain Lightning 4:33
3 The Pass 4:51
4 War Paint 5:24
5 Scars 4:07
6 Presto 5:45
7 Superconductor 4:47
8 Anagram (For Mongo) 4:00
9 Red Tide 4:29
10 Hand Over Fist 4:11
11 Available Light 5:03
Released in the penultimate month of the 1980s, Presto itself marked the end of an era for the Canadian power trio. It was their first effort for Atlantic Records, after a long association with Polygram, and it ended their run of UK Top 10 studio albums which dated back to the Seventies. A peak of #27 was slightly bettered in America, where it reached #16, but it also failed to produce even a Top 75 hit although the label’s reluctance to actually issue any kind of single in Britain didn’t exactly help!
A further new ingredient to this mix, in addition to a new label and the no-single strategy, was Rupert Hine replacing Peter Collins in the producer’s chair. Hine’s most successful work in the Eighties came courtesy of the first two Howard Jones albums, and his penchant for unorthodox arrangements and crisp, clinical yet playful electronic sounds is all over Presto: the teasing intro of opener Show Don’t Tell (several seconds of ambient synths interrupted by an almighty cacophony of drums, bass and guitar), the jokey sampled voices in Chain Lightning (“that’s….nice!”), the stop-start power pop of The Pass, Superconductor’s MTV-friendly sheen and swagger, not to mention the chilling beauty of final track Available Light.
Bass lines are sinuous and propulsive, drums take more of a back seat in the Rush sound than before but still do their drum thing when called upon (though elongated solos are absent), whilst the banks of keyboards that occasionally threatened to overwhelm Power Windows and Hold Your Fire are used more economically and more effectively.
Lyrically, it’s mostly business as usual; the human spirit’s struggle to survive in a social, financial, political and ecological wasteland. Teen suicide, and cultural peer pressure, are touched upon in The Pass and War Paint, Scars is a rumination on “atmospheric changes” making “scars of pleasure, scars of pain…sensitive again”, Red Tide is a self-explanatory rally against “nature’s new plague”, and typical Rush imagery such as “meteor rain stars across the night”, or “electrical storm in your veins” colours most of the material.
It works so convincingly this time largely due to Hines’ clever and sympathetic production, shadowing the stilted wordplay and often clumsy phrasing with little tricks and treats that actually make a virtue of the lyrics’ idiosyncracies. In fact, when the more literal hippy-dippy sentiments of the title track come along, it’s quite jarring. Only the gorgeous widescreen arrangement saves it from platitudinous, if well-meaning, mawkishness.
There’s an irony in how the most accessible Rush album of their career became their least popular and most unloved. Tracks such as Anagram (For Mongo) and the title song itself occasionally get namechecked as the best of a supposedly poor bunch, but Presto ought to have been their Synchronicity; artistically, if nothing else, it evokes the same brooding force-of-nature vibe as that record’s Synchronicity II.
There is simply no flab on Presto, which for a group of old prog rockers more than fifteen years into their career was a remarkable achievement.