Ah yes, we all remember a time when just the hint of a new Rush album would get your blood moving. You’d search endlessly, finding out any information about the new release, and marking the date into your brain so you could rush out (bad pun, excuse me) and pick it up the day it was released, so you could go home and begin digging into Neil Peart’s lyrics to see what the man had to say this time around and listening to his ever evolving drum prowess. Always, Alex Lifeson’s guitar riffs would eventually stick into your head, with Geddy Lee’s bass playing grooving along underneath. Above, carrying Neil’s message, was Geddy’s ever-evolving voice and sense of melody, giving the lyrics a tune to stick into your head.
Well, now its 2012 and Rush have disappointed us a few times. 2002’s “Vapor Trails”, a return after a 5 year hiatus turned into a badly produced mess, a sad casualty of the loudness war that left us all grabbing for the volume knob to turn down the onslaught. The live record that was culled from that tour, “Rush in Rio” was not much better: audience roar with Rush accompaniment. 2007’s “Snakes and Arrows” was a bit of an improvement, produced by Nick Raskulinecz, but provided as many strong songs as week ones. Many of us, myself included, had begun to give up on Rush , hoping for a return to good old, hard hitting Rush that had produced such masterworks as 1976’s “2112”, 1978’s “Hemispheres” and 1981’s “Moving Pictures”, albums which demonstrated a band that knew how to rock and engage your brain.
In 2010, something happened that changed Rush and their connection to pop culture forever: filmmakers Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn released “Beyond the Lighted Stage” a film which sparked a new interest in Rush, perhaps making them more popular than ever. Kids in high school were now buying Rush albums and going to Rush concerts. Suddenly, a fire was lit under the good old boys from Canada, leading them to release two powerhouse new singles “Caravan” and “BU2B” before catapulting them into one of their biggest tours ever: The Time Machine Tour, a tour which featured the band performing their best selling record of all time, “Moving Pictures”, in its entirety, an album that the band admits was their most complex ever recorded. Before the tour began in June of 2010, the band announced that the new singles were from an upcoming album entitled “Clockwork Angels” and would see a release after the tour wrapped up in 2011.
Finally, nearly a year after the Time Machine Tour wrapped up in July of 2011, “Clockwork Angels” hit the shelves on June 12th, 2012, a concept album, which Neil Peart describes as “In a young man’s quest to follow his dreams, he is caught between the grandiose forces of order and chaos. He travels across a lavish and colorful world of steampunk and alchemy, with lost cities, pirates, anarchists, exotic carnivals, and a rigid Watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life.” Needless to say, Rush fans of old were as equally stoked about the new release as they were apprehensive. Helped with a third single, “Headlong Flight” (a song which references 1975’s “Bastille Day” from Rush’s 3rd, highly under-appreciated gem “Caress of Steel”), the album sold 103,000 copies in its first week, shooting up to Number 2 on the Billboard Top 200, the highest charting Rush release since 1994’s “Counterparts” (arguably the last great Rush album).
So, onto the album itself. I took the time to listen to the album in its entirety on the vinyl format, which in my humblest of opinions, provides more clarity than the CD release. The opening track, “Caravan” is a shifting monster, transforming from one musical twist to another, like a thundering passage to another world. Things look good from the hook “In a world where I feel so small, I can’t stop thinking big” a section of the song which brings the chaos to order, reminds us why we are here: to discover, to move forward, going where we want, instead of where we should. Here “Caravan” gets a remix from the single version, and so does the B side, “BU2B” (brought up to believe), which is also treated with some acoustic strumming at the beginning to tie into the other short intros and outros that can be found throughout the album, before launching into Alex’s guitar riff that we all know and love. In the context of the album, the song makes more sense. Our unnamed protagonist has been taught that his place in the universe has been predetermined by The Watchmaker, a sort of Godlike character in Neil’s narrative. The last selection on side 1, the title track, has Geddy Lee’s voice at its best in years. Probably the most progressive piece on the album, it shifts through different sections, led by Geddy’s grooving bass. With Clockwork Angels, Rush fans raise their hands as if too fly… There’s a great acoustic section near the end that sounds almost country. For some reason, this always makes me smile .. maybe its because Rush hasn’t another thing like it in their catalog? Clocking at nearly 8 minutes, this is the longest song on the album, but it all flows together so well and the transitions are so carefully crafted, that the whole thing seems to go by before you know it. At the end, a character known as the Pedler, whispers a question, “What do you lack?” … folks, if the answer is “Clockwork Angels”, then you really do lack something special…
Side 2 opens up with some trademark Neil Peart thundering-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse style drumming, in a tune called “The Anarchist” … which answers the Pedler’s question with “Vengeance”. It’s a heavy tune with some intense playing and introduces the strings, which will play a large part in the band’s upcoming tour, which leads into one of the nastiest, dirtiest riffs in the Rush canon.. “Carnies”. Another great tune that changes up enough to keep everything interesting. The power, thought provoking line “sometimes the Angels punish us by answering our prayers” works when applied to Peart’s fantasy narrative and perhaps real life. It’s an interesting lyric that could create a topic of its own. The side ends fairly early with a ballad, “Halo Effect” which tells of our protagonist falling for a performer in the bizarre carnival described in the previous track. Once again, Neil’s fantasy world reflects our own … the protagonist projects the perfect companion and sees the error of his ways. “What did I do? Fool that I was, to profit from youthful mistakes?” could apply to any situation in our lives, but hints that he has projected like this before, “So shameful to tell, just how often I fell, in love with illusions again”. Interesting, wise lyrics as the piece builds up to a solo that sounds almost banjo-like from Alex Lifeson. In the context, in works perfectly, adding variety to the trio’s sound and Geddy’s voice is perfect for this mini-epic that rises and falls. One of my early favorites on the album.
Side 3 opens with with a piece called “Seven Cities of Gold” a song which begins with a funky bassline from Geddy Lee, which follows with some light percussion and some searing, almost backwards guitar from Alex Lifeson, before erupting in an epic climax which is the tune’s main riff … and that’s just the beginning!! The whole tune is chock full of great riffs and the hook “A man could lose his past, in a country like this”, before morphing into a thin, but epic, dissonant solo by Alex Lifeson .. the man may not be the most proficient guitarist in the world, but man can he put some interesting sounds together (like the solo for “Limelight”) … like most songs on this album, its hard to listen to it without nodding one’s head. The song calms down to a maelstrom of a piece called “The Wreckers”. Narrative speaking, its a tune about people who guide ships to a crash for looting purposes, but the lyrics ring true in reality, as well … “All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary, Of a miracle too good to be true. All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary, Everything in life you thought you knew, All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary ‘Cause sometimes the target is you.” The song changes climates near the end, when the strings enter and I swear, if you close your eyes, you can actually feel the crash of the ship on to the rocky shore and feel yourself “washed away in the pounding waves”. This is my favorite tune on the album, hands down, because there’s just nothing like it in the Rush catalog. It tells a story, and the music has a frightfully epic climax, just like the lyrics. After the heights of “The Wreckers”, Rush take you on a “Headlong Flight”, a song which is full of more lyrics dripping in wisdom, written for Neil’s drum teacher, Freddie Gruber who sadly passed away in the past year. The song’s main hook “Some days were dark, I wish that I could live it all again. Some nights were bright, I wish that I could live it all again” is a direct quote from Gruber, as is “I wouldn’t trade tomorrow for today”. Gruber is further paid tribute with a character in the narrative name Freidrich Gruber, a leading alchemist. This was originally intended to be an instrumental on the album, but Neil’s lyrics bring it to an entirely new level: “I’ve stoked the fire of the big steel wheels, steered the airships right across the sky”. After this, our airship is taken on an intense journey through another ace Alex Lifeson solo. Folks, this tune just plain rocks in a way only Rush can.
The Pedler returns once more, to ask “What do you lack?” and at the beginning of Side 4, the answer is very clearly ‘faith’. Our hero, a man taught to believe that whatever happens is for the best, finds himself depressed and without faith in “BU2B2”, “BU2B”‘s evil twin, in a similar way that “The Light Dies Down on Broadway” contrasted “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” on Genesis’s 1975 double concept album of the same name. It’s a short tune, before leading into a song called “Wish them Well” which carries the line “Even though you’re going through Hell, Just keep on going, let the demon’s dwell” a song that sonically would fit on 1996’s “Test for Echo”, but for my money, so much more inspired than that album and has a fantasticly exciting middle section where the boys just rock out for a few seconds. It’s great, fresh, songwriting, from the now 35 year-old band on their 19th studio album. The last song on the album, one of the more popular tunes, “The Garden” references Voltaire’s “Candide” (this is what I meant by Thinking Man’s Band) and says “Now we must tend our garden”. Starting simply, voice, strings, and acoustic guitar, its one of the quieter moments on the album, carrying a ballad-like melody. Once again, there’s not another tune like it in Rush’s catalog and provides an excellent end to Neil’s narrative. In its latter half, the tune brings Rush’s new album to emotions higher than can be found in many of their back catalog. Its just a beautiful cap to a wonderful album. Not my favorite on the record, but it just works and gives “Clockwork Angels” a soaring ending.
In summary, this album is one of the finest releases of the year so far. It’s one of those highly anticipated releases that actually delivers so much more than originally expected. As far as my opinions go, its the strongest Rush album since 1994’s “Counterparts” and the first Rush record that I’ve liked all of the way through since 1984’s “Grace Under Pressure”. Each song feels like the proper time and consideration has been taken so the pieces will work on their own and in the context of the narrative. My only criticisms lie in the CD’s production and a few of the holes in the storyline. How do we jump from “The Wreckers” to “Headlong Flight”? Hopefully all will be revealed on September 1st, 2012 when noted Sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson’s novelization is released, to create a great companion to what is a very, very impressive album.