How does one pack up 40 years of career? If you are guitarist Alex Lifeson, it is done with bubble wrap, a whisper and a kiss.
The guitarist, who is famous as one-third of the legendary Canadian prog-rock trio Rush, recently decided to auction off 63 of his guitars for charity. Before parting with the instruments, he polished them, changed the strings and tuned them all. Each guitar case was then protectively wrapped in puffy plastic for delivery.
The toughest guitar to give away was his white, custom-built 1976 Gibson ES-355, used on each Rush album from 1977′s A Farewell to Kings through 1996′s Test for Echo, and on tours up to 2015. Before it was loaded into the moving van, Lifeson spent time with it alone.
“I was whispering to it,” he says. “I asked, ‘Do you remember that time we did that gig?’ It was kind of corny. Then I kissed the case, hugged it and slow-walked it to the truck. It was really, really, hard, but I did it – I got through it.”
It’s not hard to see the purging as a metaphor for Lifeson, putting his Rush days behind him. Though no formal announcement was made at the time, it was in 2018 that Lifeson told The Globe and Mail that Rush, formed in Toronto in 1968, was more or less finished as a band. Two years later, drummer Neil Peart died of brain cancer. Lifeson has since sold his country house north of Toronto, moved back to the city full-time and formed a new band.
That quartet is Envy of None, consisting of Lifeson, Coney Hatch’s Andy Curran, singer Maiah Wynne and musician/recording engineer Alfio Annibalini. Released on April 8, the band’s self-titled debut album starts with the urgently thumping pop of Never Said I Love You and finishes with Western Sunset, an acoustic-guitar expression of grief that warmly pays tribute to Peart.
At turns ambient and industrial, the album is a departure from the sounds normally associated with Lifeson. Not until the ethereal third track, Look Inside, do we hear the type of signature lick expected from the 68-year guitarist – and even then, it’s used more for tone than as a song-carrying riff.
Not all the guitar on the album is even Lifeson’s. Having Annibalini as a bandmate freed Lifeson to be more explorative. His own guitar sounds were manipulated with effects, sometimes to the point of unrecognizability,
“I was trying to make it sound as unlike a guitar as possible,” says Lifeson, speaking to the Globe on Zoom. “That was my goal, and it was a joy to do.”
The 11-track album was made during the pandemic, with the bandmates sending digital files back and forth. It’s a far cry from the lavish rock recordings of Lifeson’s past.
“The cost of making this record was barely out of the hundreds of dollars,” he says. “That’s amazing to me, but that’s the way things are now.”
It’s not surprising that Lifeson is surprised at today’s low budgets. The album design alone for Rush’s 1981 album Moving Pictures, for example, cost nearly $10,000 to produce. The price tag was so exorbitant that the band’s label at the time, Anthem Records, insisted the band cover some of the bill itself. (Some things haven’t changed – record labels can still count beans with the best of them.)
Though the bulk of Rush records were released on the Canadian indie label Anthem, the trio’s final studio album, 2012′s Clockwork Angels, was released on Roadrunner Records, a division of the major label Warner Music Group. Ten years later, the music industry is a different world.
“Today you take an album to a record company, if you can actually find one, and they’re not interested in doing anything,” Lifeson says. “They might release it for you, but you have to pay for everything and promote it yourself on social media.”
Envy of None’s debut is being released on Kscope, a relatively obscure British label dedicated to progressive rock. Lifeson was pleased with the company’s enthusiasm and support. Looking back on the record industry’s “golden years,” as he calls them, Lifeson doesn’t romanticize the era of limousine-sized excess.
“Maybe young musicians now think things are exactly as they should be, and that it’s the best that it’s ever been,” he says.
But don’t austerities take the fun out of being a rock star?
“It’s all relative,” Lifeson says, “Besides, being a rock star is overrated.”
Lifeson refers to these days as his post-Rush era. And, yet, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band with roughly 40 million worldwide album sales to its credit still remains relevant. During a halftime show at a football game this fall, the Ohio State University Marching Band played a choreographed medley of Rush classics, including The Spirit of Radio, Limelight and Tom Sawyer.
On the merchandising end, Rush now has a signature beer (a golden ale made by Toronto’s Henderson Brewing Co.) and a Rush-themed pinball machine. And, with a tour that kicks off this month, the California-based rock band Primus will perform the 1977 Rush album A Farewell to Kings in its entirety. The schedule includes 10 Canadian dates in nine cities.
“They’re fans of ours, and they’re great musicians,” says Lifeson, who endorsed the project by giving Primus’s Larry LaLonde one of his double-neck guitars. “These things are feel-good things for sure. It makes you feel humbled, and a little embarrassed.”
Despite the legacy-preserving Rush tributes, Lifeson’s energy is firmly focused on Envy of None. Though he says his touring days are “over,” a handful of shows are a possibility. The making of the album, his first major non-Rush project since his 1996 solo album Victor, gave Lifeson a renewed sense of purpose.
“Listen, I could sit around and play golf every day, which I kind of did for a lot of years,” says the 14 handicap. “But music is what I know. I have the gear. I can still play. I mean, why wouldn’t I do this?”
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