Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #92. Rush – “YYZ”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 25, 2007


Most critics hate Jam Bands. Rather, they would hate Jam Bands if they cared enough about them, but lucky for critics, the Jam Band genre differs from other critically-maligned genres such as pop-punk, nu-metal and adult contemporary, in that it is exceptionally easy to avoid–stay out of coffee shops and away from festivals that sound like they’re named after a tree and generally, you’re pretty safe. I am, of course no different from most critics here–I couldn’t give a shit about Jam Bands, and the one time I borrowed a bunch of Dead bootlegs from my hippie-ish friend, I was fairly unimpressed (it did help me get some sleep that week I was sick Junior year, so I guess props for that). It’s a phobia I’m not terribly proud of, but one I’ve yet to hear too convincing an argument against, aside from the fact that Phish covers whole albums live on Halloween, which at the very least is awesome in theory.

Rush are not really a jam band, in that they’re far too dark and aggressive (not that that’s saying much), they sound too nerdy to do drugs with any seriousness, and they actually have songs that non-jam band fans like, ones that y’know, were actual hits, and get played on the radio and whatnot. But then again, they sort of are–write Rush out on paper and they sound exactly like a jam band. Three dudes, all of whom are at the highest level of viruosity on their respective instruments, playing songs with complex solos (on every instrument, no less!), trippy lyrics and long-ass running times. Yet their music is highly palatable and often, especially in the case of super-instrumetnal “YYZ,” rather trasncendent, because even though it’s loopy and solo-heavy, it’s also tight, hooky, and cool as fucking shit.

“YYZ” has, by my count, six sections of roughly equivalent length, including a total of at least a half-dozen solos. Usually, in prog-rock instrumental terms, this’d add up to a song that would run at least eleven minutes (think “Shine on You Crazy Diamond“), but Rush manage to stick the landing under the four and a half minute marker. The result is one of the fastest-running, most jam-packed (no pun intended) rock instrumentals in history, a jaw-dropper the first time through and still at least a “wow” every time after.

The structuring of the thing is fucking brilliant. You’ve got the intro, with all three instruments playing the same syncopated rhythm, which as I’m sure everyone north of Michigan knows is the morse code for YYZ (itself the code for Toronto’s Peabody International Airport, apparently the band’s favorite). It sounds harsh and dark and awesome, and ends with a photo finish at the lead-in to the song’s main hook, which is similarly jagged and wonderful. Then it’s the song’s bridge, which means it’s solo time.

The song’s solos progress in a way that reminds me of when I was in Jazz Band in middle school. During the song’s solo section, while everyone else is playing in the background, one instrumentalist steps forward and plays into the mic for eight or sixteen bars, then everyone claps and he goes back to the fold (maybe all jazz works like this? I hope not). That’s what “YYZ” feels like, except bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart only get about one or two measures at a time, and they both sound a hundred times better than anyone in our fucking band did. Anyway, the mini-solos are great–so compact that it builds up tremendous tension, before finally guitarist Alex Leifson gets some breathing room for his 16-bar solo, presented as the song’s breathtaking climax.

It explodes into the song’s instrumental break, which provides the perfect respite from the almost seizure-inducing first three sections. Waves of slow-rolling synth wash over Leifson’s extended final note, and you can almost hear the band catching their breath before jumping back into the song’s main hook (playing the song on Guitar Hero II the hundreds of times I have really drive this point home). The final hook is almost an anti-climax, but it’s good to bring it back to the beginning, especially with the song’s last section, a hook which repeats the “YYZ” intro, before winding the song down with an almost punchline-like descending four-note riff.

Despite the million things happening in “YYZ,” despite the lack of vocals, despite the jamminess of the whole thing, it still feels like a regular rock/pop song. I don’t understand why more rock instrumentals don’t sound like this.

One Response to “100 Years, 100 Songs: #92. Rush – “YYZ””

  1. abegrand said

    Another great example of just how well “YYZ” works as a pop song is Rush’s performance if the song in Rio. It’s the only time I have ever seen an audience sing along to an instrumental. Brasilian rock crowds are the best.

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