Technically speaking, Alex Lifeson’s solo record “Victor” came out a full six months before “Test For Echo”, putting its release at least a year or so before the tragedies in Neil Peart’s life that put Rush on hiatus until “Vapor Trails” was released in 2002.  Still, the point of covering the “solo projects” of Rush’s members and how it related to Neil’s tragedies wasn’t really my intention (although trust me, that certainly won’t be ignored).  My goal was more to cover parts of Rush’s catalog that haven’t often highlighted, and also discuss what each individual member of Rush brings to the fold, and subsequently how they function on their own.

Often in a trio, you find a least one person leans towards representing the ego, the superego, or the id.  Or, if you like: the Kirk, the Spock, and the McCoy.  The Spock is often the most logical, The McCoy is the most passionate, and the Kirk is the blend of the two.  It’s a matter of brains, heart, and muscle.  In this case, Alex Lifeson is definitely the McCoy and definitely the muscle of Rush.  Make no mistake: Alex Lifeson is a spectacular guitarist with a wide range of tones, skills, and moods.  The only reason he’s over-shadowed is because he’s in a band with Geddy Lee (who impresses with his dexterity on vocals, bass AND keyboards in a  live setting) and Neil Peart (one of the greatest rock drummers and lyricists of all time).  Because of this, there’s a large portion of Rush’s catalog where Alex finds himself trying to fit in between these two, rather than taking center stage.

What else can we say about Alex Lifeson though?  Well, he’s no purist when it comes to tone or playing style.  His compositions will literally be jangly acoustic folk one minute and grinding heavy metal the next.  He constantly updating his rig and his guitars so as not to get complacent, but still be ready for anything.  He has a dark, manic sense of humor, as shown in his rants during instrumentals in concert.  And while all the members of Rush have a great sense of humor, his always errs more towards absurdist, dare I say even Dadaist.

So what’s the man to do when on his own?  Well, anything he pleases I suppose.  “Victor” was mostly recorded in Lifeson’s home studio over the course of a year, featuring numerous guests from Canadian rock and even his own family.  He said at the time that he was really inspired by “The Downward Spiral” by Nine Inch Nails, and there are a few industrial touches in the production and programming.

It goes beyond that though.  Alex has always been the gleeful dark heart of Rush, and on his own, he takes the chance to indulge himself.  How far can he go in subject matter?

…Well, pretty far.

The album starts with “Don’t Care”, which throws down the gauntlet early with heavy riffs and raw vocals.  In terms of riffage, this song is rather close to compositions later explored on “Test For Echo”.  The difference here though is that…well, frankly, I doubt Rush would ever write a song about rough sex, which is totally what this song is about.  Right away, what strikes me is Lifeson’s vocals.  It’s fascinating to hear a 40-something man sneering and snarking like a much younger man, saying straight up “Do it hard and make me pay”.

“Promise” has a harder bass thump to it, and a more melodic bent to boot.  It’s no less dark, singing about “breaking the promise you made”.  The instrumental breakdown it thrilling though, and the epic guitar solo is classic Lifeson.  It’s one of the more accessible songs on the record, so it’s no surprise it was released as a single.

Lead vocals on “Start Today” are handled by Canadian singer Lisa Dal Bello, providing a soulful bent that’s no less wild than what’s come before.  Alex’s guitars chime and grind from the periphery, but Dal Bello’s powerful voice is the real star on this track.  Dal Bello is a bit of a local treasure in Canadian, having written or produced for numerous artists in addition to her own output.  Part of the fun of this record is hearing Lifeson collaborate with artists he has an affinity for.

“Mr. X” is the first instrumental, and let me tell you, it sounds quite unlike “YYZ” or “La Villa Strangiato”.  Aside from the bubbling synths, the rhythm of this song has more of a solid groove while Lifeson solos over it.  The melody comes together in the chorus, showing what separates Rush instrumentals from other bands.  It’s great to hear a track that’s tight rhythmically, but still allows Lifeson to go wild and have fun.

“At The End” was the one track that gave me pause, and I resolved to listen to it all the way through before writing my notes.  The keyboards and programming are quite stark on this one, providing more atmosphere than instrumentation.  Alex’s guitar is more bluesy, setting a cold, distant tone rather than providing melody.  The lyrics aren’t so much lyrics as a poetry reading by Lifeson, describing in sad, gruesome detail a man who’s so depressed at the loss of his wife that he decides to commit suicide.  It’s something completely unexpected from the guitarist, but to see Alex go so emotionally dark becomes more fascinating than depressing.  Probably the stand-out on the album.

“Sending Out A Warning” would probably have a more classic rock feel if not for the programmed drums.  The chorusing verses are classic Lifeson, and it’s great to see his swagger and menace front and center.  An honorable mention should go to drummer Blake Manning, who provided most of the live drums on this record.  The choruses are his time to shine.

“Shut Up Shuttin’ Up” starts with funky guitar clearly meant to mock the stereotypical soundtrack of a porno.  Alex’s wife Charlene and a fellow vocalist only credited as “Esther” don’t so much “sing” as “babble endlessly”, having a frank conversation while Alex noodles.  This song might as well be classified as an instrumental, since it’s all about Alex’s noodling and “the vocals” don’t provide any melody not their own.  After some of the dark subject matter on this album, this song is a bizarre change of pace, and kind of shows Alex and friends are in on the joke.

“Strip And Go Naked” comes in with the Wild West acoustic guitars, and Lifeson’s bluesy playing.  Things get more shrill on the chorus, but no less intense.  Of the various instrumentals on this record, this one relies more on mood than melody.

“The Big Dance” is the big showcase from the record, featuring Les Claypool (who opened for Rush with Primus on many a tour) and Edwin from I Mother Earth on lead vocals.  This song has the biggest metal bent, being on onslaught of riffs while Edwin does his thing.  Sadly though, Claypool’s presence isn’t felt much on the track (Claypool’s bass can be identified from a mile away) and Edwin doesn’t do much vocally that Alex himself couldn’t have done.  Probably one of the bigger disappointments on the record.

The “Victor” album took it’s title from a poem by W.H. Auden, so it’s only fitting that Alex provides a reading to programmed drums and synths.  Alex’s voice is well suited for what I called “gleeful menace”, and that’s front and center here.  It’s ironic hearing this song at the end of the album, because it’s oddly set the tone for everything thus far.  “Victor” is an album based on dark humor, self-loathing, despair, and anarchy.  This track makes everything painfully clear if it wasn’t already.

Album closer “I Am The Spirit” brings back what I call “The Test For Echo Riffs”.  I seriously wouldn’t be surprised if variations of this track made its way into the “Test For Echo” writing sessions.  Edwin’s vocals are the only thing separating it from a track on that album.  It’s probably the most “standard”, which makes it the least memorable for me.

When “Victor” was released, it peaked at #99 on the Billboard chart, and was nominated for a Juno award for Best New Group in Rush’s native Canada (though what by the band hasn’t been nominated for a Juno, honestly?).  Despite this though, the album has seemed to slip through the cracks and seems to only be known by hardcore Rush fans.  While there isn’t anything approaching classic status like “Tom Sawyer” or “Spirit of Radio”, I still find it a fascinating window into the mind of one of my favorite musicians.  If nothing else, Alex Lifeson is unpredictable, veering between serious and silly at a whim, often within the same song.  That, to me, makes “Victor” unique and I highly recommend Rush fans track it down and give it a listen.