Unlike Working Man, this disc isn't chock full of well known players in the progressive rock and heavy metal fields; no James LaBrie, John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater, no Steve Morse, no Billy Sheehan, no Devin Townsend, even; but there are a couple of notable holdovers in ex-Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach, super-bassist Stuart Hamm and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Robert Berry. Instead, we have some interesting and unusual choices, from Winger bassist/vocalist Kip Winger to Zebra guitarist/vocalist Randy Jackson to Sepultura guitarist Andreas Kisser (!) to Warrant singer Jani Lane (!!) and ex-Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick, right on down to Simple Plan guitarist Jeff Stinco and Pulse Ultra guitarist Dominic Cifarelli and keyboardist Jeff Feldman. Shrapnel Records veteran Vinnie Moore, late of UFO, provides all the rhythm guitars, while the aforementioned Stuart Hamm and drummer extraordinaire Mike Mangini form a spectacular rhythm section, and the basic keyboard tracks are divided between Berry, Feldman and Magellan main main Trent Gardner.
Jackson proves to be a fine choice with his plaintive vocals on Distant Early Warning, and young guitar virtuoso Daniel J is all over the track, starting with the above-mentioned intro solo and continuing throughout with ripping fills and solos everywhere. Everything else is more or less faithful in terms of keyboards, rhythm guitars, bass and drums, but listeners will either love Daniel J's no-holds-barred approach to the lead guitar, which certainly bears no resemblance to Alex Lifeson's fairly muted performance on the original, or loathe it for that very reason.
Sebastian Bach follows Jackson with a fine turn on Lakeside Park. The song is re-arranged to allow for the addition of keyboards, and there are some entirely new parts added, with the track stretched out to nearly seven minutes. Daniel J provides another excellent solo, sounding to these ears not unlike Michael Romeo of Symphony X. He's got a ton of talent, and he gets ample time to show it, whether you agree with his approach or not. Hamm's elastic bass playing is, as always, fun to hear, and one notices that Mangini reproduces Neil Peart's original parts flawlessly whenever the songs aren't going off into directions that weren't in the original song, like the long keyboard coda at the end of this track, and this continues to be true throughout the entire album.
A new - and heavy! - introductory riff opens Limelight, which brings Kip Winger to the microphone for the first time. Like Jackson, his voice brings a little different flavor to the song, as he takes a more aggressive approach than Geddy Lee did on the original. Kisser's two guitar solos are surprisingly tasty and lyrical, not at all what one might expect from a death metal player. Mangini gets to display his excellent double bass drum chops when that introductory part reappears in the middle of the song, and right through Kisser's main solo. He nails the famous closing fills perfectly as well.
Subdivisions is next, and here it's stretched out to nearly eight minutes with a long synth introduction. Randy Jackson returns to the microphone for this one, and once again the song is rearranged with new music that's blended into the original. Cifarelli's guitar solo is impressive; this reviewer hadn't heard his playing before, but was pleasantly surprised. The song closes with the introductory synthesizer theme and fades out as Mangini tips his hat to Neil Peart's penchant for adding military snare drum whenever possible.
Robert Berry's interpretation of Different Strings follows, and it's fairly faithful to the original, with layered acoustic guitars and piano. His multi-tracked harmony vocals in the choruses are very well-done, as is his acoustic guitar solo. He takes some liberties with the vocal melody in the verses, but the original essence is present throughout, even with the synthesizer solo that takes up the last minute or so of the song.
Purists will no doubt howl at the new opening of Tom Sawyer. It's not long, but it's different enough to cause some consternation. Sebastian Bach returns on lead vocals, but as one might expect, the song is a showcase for the rhythm section, and Hamm and Mangini do not disappoint. The famous Mini-Moog synthesizer melody is here, but Cifarelli dramatically reimagines the guitar solo. Again, the song is true to the essence of the original, but there's a lot of new music mixed in with the old. Again, how much you like it is determined by how much you can stand hearing even the slightest changes from the original version.
Bastille Day is next, and again, there's a short new intro before the familiar guitar riff comes in. Alex Skolnick's guitar work is simply stunning - possibly worth the price of the disc all by itself - but again, purists may object to Jani Lane's presence as lead vocalist, with help on the choruses from Slammin' Gladys vocalist Dave Brooks. The tempo is slower throughout, which may also irk some, but there's no denying Skolnick's tour de force solos, which bring Allan Holdsworth to mind, even as you hear keyboards, which were of course not present on the original version. Even so, it's still a powerful, anthemic track.
A Farewell to Kings opens with synthesizers playing the classical guitar theme that kicked off the original version before those famous power chords ratchet up the intensity. Randy Jackson is back on lead vocals and gives his best performance on this track. Keyboards are prominent in the mix, and one hears something that sounds like slide guitars in the choruses. There are stinging lead guitars to be heard under Jackson's vocals as well. New material has been added to this one too, and Kisser's solo is a wah-wah flavored monster. The end of the song is more or less the same, with some changes at the end.
Kip Winger's back on vocals for The Spirit of Radio, and his performance is enthusiastic and largely faithful. Jeff Stinco's guitar solos are melodic and energetic, and happily, the 'reggae' bit at the end has not been excised, while Hamm and Mangini continue to amaze with their rhythmic prowess on this fun and more or less faithful rendition of what is arguably the most well-known and popular song in the Rush canon.
Didacts and Narpets, a short drum solo, has Mangini replicating Neil Peart's performance from Caress of Steel perfectly - which is pretty cool, but for this reviewer, if you're going to replicate a Peart drum solo, you should try the one from All the World's a Stage.
The closing track is Overture/The Temples of Syrinx, the first two parts of the classic title suite from 2112. Again, some listeners will scratch their heads at the choice of Jani Lane and Dave Brooks as co-vocalists, but as on their earlier appearance, they really don't acquit themselves poorly at all. Lane is not exactly Mr. Vocal Range, but he seems to know his limitations and performs reasonably well within them, which is why Brooks handles the high harmonies - causing one to wonder why they didn't just let him sing this one by himself. Mangini has a field day playing all those classic Peart fills, while adding some little flourishes of his own here and there. Vinnie Moore handles the lead guitars on this track with his trademark neo-classical/fusion style and shows once again why he's one of the best-loved veterans of the Shrapnel roster. A long - some might say unnecessary - synthesizer coda stretches the track out to seven and a half minutes and brings the disc to a close.
It's pretty easy to sum things up for this one: if you liked Working Man, you'll probably like Subdivisions. If you didn't like the earlier tribute, then you definitely won't like this one. For the record, this reviewer liked and enjoyed both; if one wants to hear these songs played exactly the same way they're played on the original albums, then of course those original discs are always available - but if one wants to hear those songs played in such a way that you can hear how they influenced the musicians performing them, then these two tributes are an interesting and intriguing way to look both back - and forward - on the enduring legacy of Rush as one of the most important bands in rock history.