“Presto” may have done things no Rush album had done either before or since, but the band themselves still felt a bit “eh” about it, and only five cuts from the album made it onto the subsequent tour.  Only “The Pass” and the title track ended up having long term staying power in set lists (and the latter only recently).  Nevertheless, Rush doubled down again with Rupert Hine for “Roll The Bones”, and admitted they were much more satisfied this time around with the final result.

While I still really enjoy “Presto”, and feel its underrated in Rush’s catalog, it’s hard to argue with the results.  “Roll The Bones” would be Rush’s first US Top 5 album since “Moving Pictures”, it would go Double Platinum, and there are no less than four songs on this album I would point to as stone-cold classics.  Some people feel this is Rush’s darkest record, and in terms of lyrics, it does indeed feature some of Neil’s darkest material.  Naturally, the title “Roll The Bones” refers to a slang term for rolling the dice, so it would seem a big theme of the album is “chance”.  But really, I feel the album refers more to a sense of defeat, as a lot of songs are about not just loss, but the inevitability of loss in the long run.  Still, the album has bright composition and production to offset this darkness, unlike say “Grace Under Pressure” which had a stark, cold feel that only brought you deeper into the mire.

The album opens with one of Rush’s best songs, “Dreamline”.  Taking a positive bent to the album’s theme of chance, it’s a song about heading into the dark, unforgiving world and taking your chances in pursuing your dreams.  In the end though, what other option do we have? It’s a song about youth and rolling with the punches in taking what you want out of life, for good and for bad.  Alex’s echoing arpeggios during the verses are some of his most creative guitar work, and live remixes on his solo are some of his most intense.

“Bravado” proves my point about the prettiness of the production and composition offsetting the darkness of the lyrics on the album, because Alex’s guitar is easily some of his “prettiest”, but Neil’s lyrics are all about defeat.  All about the “dust has cleared, and victory denied”.  This song has lasted in live sets as long as “The Pass” has, and the songs are oddly mirror images of one another.  “The Pass” is about giving up (through suicide), while “Bravado” is all about losing, but accepting the loss and suiting up anyway.  In some ways, it’s a song more about courage, even in the face of resignation.

The title track ironically returns to some of the funk dabbled in on “Presto”, but it’s much more sharp and angular this time around.  Going with what I know about Neil’s spiritualism (what little he has), the lyrics take a very humanistic approach to existence.  “Why are we here?  Because we here” is the only answer he can come up with.  The pitch-shifted rap section during the bridge could have been really awkward and embarrassing, but Neil actually turns in some really clever lyrics so it makes it a lot of fun and tongue-in-cheek.  Even on a dark album like this, I love seeing Rush embracing their sense of humor and the rapping skeleton they’ve used to represent this part on tours has become a fan favorite.

“Face Up” feature very limber playing from Neil and Alex, the latter of which embracing his edge again, even with the bright production.  Going with the theme of defeat, this song is perhaps the most confrontational.  It’s about fighting back instead of taking things lying down.  You can either accept your fate, or you can do something about it.

Like I said before, “Roll The Bones” would be the band’s first Top Five record since “Moving Pictures”.  It also features their first instrumental since “Moving Pictures”, in the form of “Where’s My Thing? (Part 4 of the Gangster of Boats Trilogy)” (the title again showing Rush’s sense of humor even about their multi-section songs).  I enjoy all of Rush’s instrumentals, but this one remains a personal favorite because of its energy, killer riffs, and dexterity.  I can’t say much more about it except recommending you listen to the sample below.

Rush themselves would not have kind things to say about “Face Up” years down the line, and while I don’t think it’s the best track on the album, I feel it fits in with the larger theme of the record.  “The Big Wheel” doesn’t as well, especially since it feels like it treads the band already has by this point.  I still rather like it, but have to admit it’s probably the weakest track on the record.

“Heresy” is probably the song that digs in deepest with the theme of defeat on “Roll The Bones”.  The composition is perhaps the brightest, sounding almost triumphant during the choruses.  The lyrics refer to the fall of the Berlin Wall (then recent when the album was written and recorded), but while other bands wrote happy and hopeful songs, Rush took a more pessimistic route.  They saw what a big waste of money, resources, and man power the Communist revolution and the Cold War ended up being, and how it had effectively ruined so many lives during its run.  Geddy’s singing is positively venomous, talking about “all the crap we have to take”.  Never have I seen such a disconnect between lyrics and music, from this band or any other.

Alex’s guitar work occupies an odd space on “Roll The Bones”.  Things were veering more towards his favor finally than on “Presto”, but he hadn’t taken the quantum leap in production that he would on “Counterparts” or “Test For Echo”.  His playing is very eclectic on this album though, ranging from epic, to bluesy, to haunting.  Perhaps that’s best exemplified about “Ghost Of A Chance”, a track I like to refer to as “delightfully haunting”.  Even through this though, Neil’s lyrics find a bit of humanist hope.  Even if he doesn’t believe in destiny or fate, he does believe in lasting love, and that perhaps can offer us some peace in this world.

Alex’s haunting guitar work on “Ghost Of A Chance” moves into Geddy’s haunting bass work on “Neurotica”, a track his dominates while Alex’s riffs before more spartan again.  I admit the lyrical concessions on this track are a tad goofy, especially during the chorus, but I still like it for the music and how it fits into the larger theme.  Like I’ve said, this album is about chance, but “Neurotica” is about being so scared of failure you don’t even take that chance, and end up sitting on your butt as a result.  It’s literally about feeling impotent, and perhaps how that can be the worst thing of all.

The themes of chance and the gambles we take in daily life come together with “You Bet Your Life”, ironically with one of the brightest riffs on the whole record.  In the end, life is a fifty/fifty chance, and we ultimately have to go out there and give it a chance.  The vocals are perhaps the most unique, Geddy using his trademark layering to add an odd effect to not just his voice but Neil’s lyrics during the rapid fire sections.  It’s a great show of not just voice but wordplay, and how Neil and Geddy know how to bounce other each other extremely well by this point.

“Roll The Bones” may some of Rush’s darkest material, but the songs themselves are so fun and stand as such solid classics I can’t help but be too depressed listening to them.  You can truly never predict when the zeitgeist will hit, but I like that this album was such a hit and remains such a favorite years later.  Next time, Rush would bring back Peter Collins for production, and achieve the guitar-based quantum leap they had been hoping for…

BEST SONG: “Dreamline”
WEAKEST SONG: “The Big Wheel”

BEST LYRIC: “I don’t believe in destiny/Or the guiding hand of fate/I don’t believe in forever/Or love as a mystical state/I don’t believe in the stars or the planets/Or angels floating from above/But I believe there’s a ghost of a chance/We can find someone to love/And make it last”
WEAKEST LYRIC: The chorus of “Neurotica”

MY RATING? Highly recommended