“Clockwork Angels” is the album Rush have been threatening to make since 1976. Their first ever long-form concept album, it harks back to the side-long opuses on “2112″, “Hemispheres” and “Caress of Steel”. Thematically, it treads familiar Neil Peart lyrical paths: the individual’s place in society and in the universe; authoritarianism; the transience of life; the search for love, self-worth and meaning in the interim. Lyrically it is inspired by classic literature, classical mythology and the steampunk genre. While its form might look back to their 70s prog era, this album could not have been written at any other time in their evolution. Musically and lyrically it is the apotheosis of many sides of Rush, coupled with decades of songwriting craft, culminating in a sophisticated yet accessible modern rock album.
Those of a certain age will remember the “2112″ gatefold, lyrics interspersed with snippets of narrative to set the scene. The lavish “Clockwork Angels” booklet reprises that device, portraying a steampunk fantasy world incorporating airborne steamliners, traveling carnivals, terrorists, alchemists and the eponymous clockwork angels – mechanized prosaic substitutes for true spirituality. The full story is told in an upcoming novelization, a collaboration between Peart and sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson. The lyrics themselves use the concept primarily as jumping-off points for Peart’s musings on life, the universe and everything.
The opening two tracks, “Caravan” and “BU2B”, were released as a digital single two years prior to their inclusion here and both were featured on the Time Machine tour. “Caravan” picks up the thematic thread of classics like “Middletown Dreams”, “Subdivisions” and “Circumstances”, of longing to be elsewhere, while “BU2B” can be linked to “2112″, “Freewill” and “Faithless” (or indeed the whole of “Snakes and Arrows”) as expressions of distrust in and distaste for religious dogma at the expense of individual thought. Musically these are two hard rockers full of effortless twists and turn-on-a-nickel time changes, as if they’ve condensed some of their more complex proggers into urgent 5 minute arena rock anthems.
The title track weighs in at seven and a half minutes and goes through several changes in pace including an atmospheric pulsing synth intro and a blues pastiche but the flow between sections is effortless. “The Anarchist” is another mini-epic and is the most reminiscent of that kimono-clad late 70s era, evoking “Hemispheres” in its flanged riffing. Middle Eastern chords add some prog exotica and modal soloing from Lerxst – return ticket from Bangkok? “Carnies” keeps the VU meter in the red with its pinched harmonics and Iommi-esque riff leading to a hook-laden chorus before a frenetic supercharged gallop takes over – there are enough musical motifs in this song’s five minutes to fill an album by a lesser band.
“Halo Effect” takes the foot off the accelerator briefly for a meditation on misplaced affection for “the goddess with wings on her heels”, a gender-flipping allusion to the Roman god Mercury: “Little by little I burned”. Peart was never one to shy away from classical mythology – Apollo, Dionysus, Bacchus and Sisyphus have all been explicitly name-checked in the past, Mercury is only hinted at here, leaving the listener to make the connection.
“Seven Cities of Gold” and “The Wreckers” tell the story of the protagonist’s ill-fated voyage in search of adventure and his subsequent ship-wreck, recalling equally the legend of El Dorado, the mythological Sirens and those who would lure sailors to their deaths off the Cornwall coast to plunder their wares (an idea that was influenced by Daphne du Maurier’s novel “Jamaica Inn”). “The Wreckers” has a huge chorus which would be radio-friendly were it not for its otherwise complex arrangement, complete with orchestral backing and multiple movements.
“Headlong Flight” with its heavy riff and punctuated bass/drum interjections exits the traps like the more worldly and sophisticated cousin of “Bastille Day” before a prog metal blowout in the instrumental bridge. It’s astonishing that a band can still sound this fresh and exciting after four decades. “BU2B2″ is a brooding strings-and-vocal interlude before the climactic “Wish Them Well” – the Townshend influence well to the fore here in a comparatively straightforward rocker, comparative in Rush terms that is.
“The Garden” continues in the tradition of balladic closers like “Available Light”, “Everyday Glory”, “Carve Away the Stone”. An uncharacteristically naked and sincere vocal takes ‘Voltaire’s Candide” as its source for a positive concluding message of tending the garden of our lives with love and respect. The closer builds to a majestic guitar solo which is an instant Lifeson classic, and a lighter-in-the-air outro rounds off an album that is so bursting with ideas that it demands repeat listens.
“Clockwork Angels” features some of the best vocals Geddy Lee has recorded in years. Since “Roll the Bones’ Neurotica” he has had a tendency to write lacklustre “oh-oh-oh” harmony parts, here his 2 or 3-part harmonies really enhance a powerful lead vocal with big singalong choruses. Similarly Alex Lifeson’s guitar parts are more multi-layered than of late, he seems to have been encouraged to write complementary parts and worry about how to play the music live at a later stage. This approach sees guitar take over a lot of the duties which might have previously been performed by keyboards – there are no prominent keys parts whatsoever, they are used only for occasional colour and atmosphere. The result is a tight, driving hard rock sound aligned with sophisticated arrangements, tapping into The Who’s “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” but sounding utterly modern. Rush hasn’t rocked as consistently hard as this since the early 80s.
Assistant producer Nick Raskulinecz must take a lot of the credit for the leaner meaner sound. He encouraged Peart to try a more improvisational approach to recording drum parts. Nick conducting the structural changes, literally with baton in hand, left Peart free to explore possible patterns measure-by-measure rather than keeping the map of the whole track in mind at all times. The result is some of the most energised, insistent and propulsive drumming he has ever recorded.
Rush are a trusted and reliable brand, millions of fans have come to expect quality as standard. Despite this I wasn’t prepared for just how good “Clockwork Angels” is. 39 years from their debut album, not only are Rush still vital, they have produced one of the best albums of their long and enviable career. Certainly their best since “Counterparts”, arguably their best since “Hold Your Fire”, this is an angelic masterpiece.