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Back in time 

Rush still playing the game after 30 years

They come from a time when power chords ruled the musical universe and rock lyricism was a game of dungeons and dragons. Most of the rock behemoths of that era were slain by demons from within or without. Thirty years down the road, Rush still plays the game, titillating a new generation with its unique brand of bombastic arena rock and fulfilling an older one's need for rock visionaries that can stay the course.

Charlotte musician Ryan Sullivan has been a fan for decades. "Rush is actually what got me started playing guitar and bass back when I was a teenager, and I turn 35 around the time the show comes through town," Sullivan says. "It's gonna be like the birthday present to myself to go see Rush again." The guitarist says he has every album the band has released since its self-titled 1974 debut. "Even the solo albums that nobody else seems to like, except for me."

But Sullivan is not just a fan. He pays homage to Rush with his tribute band, A Farewell to Kings, named after the band's first album to go gold in the United States in '77. It's somewhat of a departure for Sullivan, who has previously led punk bands in the area. Pen15, which he describes as "transcontinental UK pub-brawling music," sounding like Slade inbred with early Green Day, was active from '96-'99, putting out a full-length CD, In Beer Goggles, in '97. You can still find spiffy videos featuring Sullivan and his punk pals in Pen15 on their MySpace site and on their own site, His next, Hungry Ghost, built up a local following in the late '90s before imploding. He now fronts Tax $lave, which he says is "kinda like libertarian political punk."

But his heart still pumps to the Rush beat. Their music made him a fan, but it's the songs that keep him coming back. "I never heard songs before that were like a science fiction movie," he says of drummer Neil Peart's otherworldly lyrics. Peart is one of the most well-read songwriters in rock, merging elements of the works of writers including T. S. Elliot, Shakespeare, Robert Frost and Ayn Rand in his musical vocabulary.

Peart says the title for the band's latest effort, Snakes and Arrows, comes from a game invented by Buddhist sages over 2,000 years ago as a game of karma. It was later adapted in the '70s in America as a children's game, Chutes and Ladders. He's not as extraterrestrial in his musings on this outing as he has been in previous incarnations. On S&A, his worldview is more down to earth, as in how did we as a people get this way and what are we gonna do to fix it.

But that's not to say he can't still get out there a bit. On the opener "Far Cry," he has "pariah dogs and wandering madmen barking at strangers and speaking in tongues" as he's being broken on the wheel of karma: "One day I fly through a crack in the sky, the next it's falling on me."

The lyrics may have softened somewhat, but Rush hasn't mellowed sonically over the years. Bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Eric Lifeson and Peart still bear down hard. It's been a long journey from their first single, a cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," in 1973. Their current sound is a return to the hard driving arena rock of their early days.

Their synth-laden '80s era soundscape is a thing of the past, with Lifeson once again out front thundering out power chords.

That suits Sullivan just fine. "I really like 'Which Way' -- got that blues riff that switches into a metal riff. It's very unusual to hear Alex Lifeson play that style of blues guitar again." The song starts as a bluesy, psychedelic, Hendrix-like glide before trotting off into a head-banging metal gallop.

He's also impressed with Peart's polyrhythmic percussion at the beginning of the song. He says he's mystified as to how he's doing it because overdubbing is against Rush's religion. "Rush doesn't have a religion; they're atheists, but if they did have one, I guess it would be that if they can't pull it off live, don't put it on the record." Peart, the acknowledged inventor of the rock drum solo, still keeps things more inventive and interesting than the majority of the generations of rock drummers he influenced, who too often reduce the percussion showcase of a show to something that sounds like a drunk falling down a flight of stairs.

From the reaction to the new release, plenty of fans share that opinion. Released in March, Snakes and Arrows' first single, "Far Cry," charted in the top 10 on rock radio. "It's the best thing I've heard from them since at least ('85s) Power Windows, one of my favorite albums from the '80s," says Sullivan.

But there are a couple of problems Sullivan has with Rush. Unlike that group, who's had the same three guys for more than 30 years, he's having trouble holding his tribute band together. "As soon as we get somebody and we're starting to move forward, somebody drops out." The band hasn't played their first gig yet, but he and core member/guitarist Eric Esposito get together once a week to practice the classics, from 1976's 2112, 1981's Moving Pictures, to the present.

Then there's the sound. "Anybody can tell from talking to me that in order for me to sing like Geddy Lee you'd have to surgically remove couple of pieces of my anatomy," Sullivan says of the difficulty of reproducing Lee's Robert Plant-like wail. "So I just play the bass, and that's a job enough in itself."

Meanwhile, he'll continue to practice before doing some up-close scrutiny courtesy of his Rush tickets.

"I bought them the day they came out," Sullivan says. "I can't wait."

Rush plays Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on June 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 and up.

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