Clockwork Angels by Rush

Clockwork Angels by RushIt’s quite a “rush” to listen to a new album by rock’s holy triumvirate, the Canadian band Rush. I can still recall the excitement in the air when I purchased Snakes and Arrows on a bright May 1, 2007. That album was a true revelation of rock and seeing them twice on the subsequent tour only deepened my appreciation for the band and that album. Now, five years later Rush has released their long awaited follow-up to that album with Clockwork Angels, a 12 track concept album. It is the group’s 20th studio album since their eponymous debut way back in 1974, but only their 3rd this century.

Ever since Rush returned in 2002 with the album Vapor Trails after a six year hiatus, they have been consistently fantastic in all facets of their career. They have even become a little less camera shy, appearing on some television shows and in the 2009 comedy film I Love You Man. In this later stage of their career Rush has achieved the fame, success, and appreciation that they should have had in their prime (although the buffoons at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame haven’t yet seen it). Despite being continually wound down by time the men in Rush continue to stay on top financially and musically. Preceding this latest release, the two albums Rush has released since the dawn of the 21st century have been two of their best, but does Clockwork Angels match up to their previous accomplishments?

Before I get into moral values like good or bad, I must first do a bit of explanation on why Clockwork Angels is a historic album. Not since 1980’s “Natural Science” has Rush done a true extended, multi-part concept song and they had not done a “concept” album since 1978’s Hemispheres. Strangely, although Rush is perhaps best known for concept albums; Clockwork Angels marks their first one end to end. You read that correctly. Their most famous concept work 1976’s 2112 had unrelated tracks on its second side, as did all of their previous and post “concept” work. This is the first time Rush has dedicated an entire album to a single concept; or perhaps more fittingly – a story. Rush fans will recognize the importance of this album as it infuses the science fiction tales that were present in their early career with the hard rock sound of their most recent work.

Like all their previous albums by Rush, the packaging on Clockwork Angels is intricate and detailed. Note the time displayed on the clock on the cover, it is set to 9:12, or 21:12 military time, a definite nod to that classic album three and a half decades in the past portraying events which will take place exactly a century from now. The booklet inside the album gives a summary of every song along with the oriented lyrics. This is something I actually dislike as I feel a concept work is made better by leaving the better part of interpretation to the listeners, but at the same time the snippets of story are kept small. Artist Hugh Syme, who has worked with the band on virtually every album since Caress of Steel in 1975, does an awesome job with the artwork throughout the booklet. In many ways, the artwork itself stimulates the imagination better than the story summaries.

Lee, Peart, and LifesonOn the subject of the story, it is good. Not as new or interesting as 2112 or Hemispheres, but it keeps the listener and the thinker entertained. Written by lyricist and drummer Neil Peart, the story follows a young man and his adventures throughout his life in a steam punk world (steam punk being a sort of art style and fictional setting in which steam is used to power things like flying wooden ships). Much like Hemispheres, which explored the left vs. right brain (logic vs, emotion), Clockwork Angels story has two opposing forced – order vs, chaos. The “order” in the story is the Watchmaker while the “chaos” is the Anarchist. The protagonist makes his way from his small farm, through the capital city of Crown City, to the far north, and finally settles down after many adventures and tragedies. Throughout the journey he examines his own metaphysical beliefs, attitudes, and outlooks. In many ways this is a musical bildungsroman.

The story and the music start with the song “Caravan”, a song that was originally released as a preview to this album two years ago in 2010. This track may be the most balanced of the album as vocalist/bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and Peart all seem to be equally represented, something that is not consistent throughout this album. The song starts with a simple, straightforward, Rush-like riff before getting more complex in its arrangement, including a funky bass-driven section, The story aspect of the song is clearly presented with the refrain “I can’t stop thinking big”, a lyric that reflects the restlessness at the beginning of the story.

“BU2B” starts with a weird, surreal beginning of strummed acoustic and wild vocal effects before crashing in hard and strong led by Peart’s wild yet precise drumming. Peart seems to have returned to a much “younger” form of drumming on this album as he crashes from song to song with the intensity of a Keith Moon or a John Bonham. My only real beef with this song is the title. What’s wrong with “Brought Up to Believe”? “BU2B” makes it sound like a dumbed down shortcut for texting! What is happening to the King’s English? Although I object to the title, this song also has some of the most potent story and metaphysical based lyrics;

“Believe in what we’re told, until our final breath / While our loving Watchmaker, loves us all to death…”

The title song “Clockwork Angels” is, in my opinion, one of the three best songs on the album. The bass and drums dominate this song but the changes are fairly interesting throughout, with some vocal changes found within. The song lovingly describes four towers dedicated to light, sea, sky, and land that are literally clockwork angels in that they are dedicated to the Watchmaker and reach into the heavens.

There is an interesting metaphysical prompt between “Clockwork Angles” and the next song “The Anarchist”, probably the best song on the album. A hardly audible peddler asks, “What do you lack?” As the Watchmaker embodies order and God, the anarchist is the polar opposite, a rebel who fights against every bit of the establishment simply because it is “the establishment”. The song has a great jam introduction and possibly the best use of guitar by Lifeson on the album. A little more change may have been nice, but overall this song is great and Lee’s bass is also quite fine. Peart’s lyrics are some of the most interesting and thought provoking;

I never wanted to belong, I was so strong / What I know I’ve never shown, what I feel I’ve always known, I plan my vengeance on my own…”

After this comes the almost equally great “Carnies”, starting with an awesome guitar riff by Lifeson. Although I do find the idea of the protagonist running off to join the circus beyond cliché, the overall quality of the song brings it up to the quality level of the rest of the tracks. Peart again displays exception drumming and the last bit of the song really rocks out, making this song one I can imagine being great when played live.

The album finally slows down a bit with “Halo Effect”, a song which gives a great description of love as we often seek to impose the idea of our perfect lover on a person that is not what we make ourselves see. This is one of the few songs on this album I actually enjoy in its mellow form. Once it kicks in a bit it loses some tranquil quality it had prior. “Seven Cities of Gold” may be the most disappointing song on the album to me because it has such a cool funky bass at the beginning and it would have been really awesome if Rush would have followed through with an equally groovy tune but they did not. The lyrics are the saving grace as they start describing the desert and end describing tundra; so a listener really feels like they went on a lyrical journey.

“The Wreckers” contains some of Geddy Lee’s most soothing vocals. There is also some really fun changes throughout the song and the lyrics pop out to me. The only major disappointment here is the nearly awesome guitar solo that is hinted at as the song fades out. Why does Rush tease me by holding back on the full use of Alex Lifeson? “Headlong Flight” is another song with a really awesome beginning as the bass is joined by the guitar and then the drums which build to a rock out. Unfortunately the song sort of fades and repeats the same patterns from there on out. The Peddler once again asks “what do you lack?” before the short reprise “BU2B2”.

Peart, Lifeson, and LeeThe album surprisingly concludes with perhaps the two most pop-oriented songs on the album. “Wish Them Well” is melodic and upbeat and may be Rush’s philosophical equivalent to Jesus’ proclamation to “turn the other cheek” when someone offends or angers you. Peart’s drums again crash and pound throughout the song and Lee uses multiple vocal parts masterfully. The album closes with “The Garden”, a soft acoustic song accented by fine orchestral strings. The song has a bit of an eighties “power ballad” feel but with much more lyrical depth. After suffering the “dark night of the soul”, the narrator reflects on what he’s learned. This song seems to exist outside of the protagonist’s journey in the story, as if Rush is performing directly to the audience with no extra metaphysical layers. What is really great about this song is that as you listen it is constantly adding more layers to itself. Violins are joined by guitar are joined by bass are joined by piano and drums, not particularly in that order, before the song ends in a more electronic sounding way. This is a very complex, interesting, and good ending to this album.

Overall, this album is very good. It is vastly different from Snakes and Arrows and takes several listens to actually appreciate because it is packed very dense. The album seems to take it easy on Geddy Lee’s voice as he sings in a simpler fashion than in any of Rush’s previous work, but musically it as complex as anything they’ve ever done. If you enjoy progressive rock, it is still alive and well with Rush.

~
J.D. Cook

         

11 thoughts on “Clockwork Angels by Rush

  • June 24, 2012 at 5:04 am
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    First, let me say I am huge RUSH fan, will be seeing them for the 15th time this fall and believe I am pretty fair and objective when evaluating their music. J.D., to say Vapor Trails and Snakes & Arrows are two of the best albums is to prove your total confusion about th talent and quality that is RUSH. Although there are certainly a few great songs within those two albums, as complete albums they are average at best. “Clockwork Angels” is a masterpiece compared to this other two but even with this album, your opinions are somewhat deranged. The title song isn’t even close to the top three songs on the album. In fact, although I like every song on the album, the song “Clockwork Angels” is closer to the bottom three than the top. Also, in my opinion Caravan stands side by side with Clockwork as two of the three worst songs on the album but are still good tunes. Anarchist – “the best song on the album” is as ridiculous a statement as any in this article. Again, the song is good but “the best” ???? not even close. It’s amusing that you label “Halo Effect” as when the album “slows” down. Perhaps literally, the songs in a couple cases are slower but overall it is with Halo Effect that this album turns the corner and subsequently delivers, by far, the best songs on the album with “The Wreckers”, “Seven Cities of Gold”, “Headlong Flight” and the amazing down to the core ballad “The Garden.”

    Indeed the album is vastly different than Snakes and Arrows because it is vastly better. Clockwork Angels not only breaks into the top ten best RUSH albums of all time but makes a case for being number five or six after the top 4 of “Moving Pictures”, “Grace Under Pressure”, “Roll The Bones” and “Test For Echo.” I realize several RUSH fans would replace one or two of my choices from the top four with something from very early on but I would disagree. Regardless, my point is that Clockwork Angels fits comfortably in the top ten and makes a case for the top 5 or 6. it is an exceptional album where the worst song on it still probably gets a rating of 3 stars out a possible 5. Fantastic album… Can’t wait to see it live!

  • June 24, 2012 at 5:04 pm
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    Jimbo – everything in your comment is an opinion. That’s nice. You have your opinions about songs/albums and so does JD. My opinions are probably a hybrid of both of yours. None of our opinions are right or wrong. Don’t sweat it if someone likes/dislikes a song more/less than you do.

    Thanks for the review JD, I appreciate the thought you put into it.

  • June 24, 2012 at 5:34 pm
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    One nitpick – regarding the title “BU2B”, Neil was making a joke with his use of textese (he said so). Not as funny when you have to explain it, but I think he was trying to be ironical by using such modern inane brevity to summarize something so “important” as theology.

    Also, while your point about the cliche of running away to join the circus is well taken, I think the carnival imagery is very compatible with the steampunk thing. In addition, Neil said in a recent interview that he said the Watchmaker was using the ancient Roman Empire strategy of “give the people circuses and they will not revolt.” So even though it’s cliche, there was some thought behind it.

  • June 24, 2012 at 6:35 pm
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    Jimbo,

    The funny thing is, this is his review, not yours. Your opinions are just that your opinions, not final fact (though you express them as being so throughout your post). Case in point, the author of this artice feels the title track is one of the 3 best (his opinion), you don’t but you state your opinion as fact (“In fact … blah blah blah). Well my opinion is the Author is correct, the title track is one of the 3 best.

    While I agree with you about S&A and VT, I would disagree strongly with T4E being put on the bands top 4. I would put them this way: Moving Pictures, Permanent Waves, Clockwork Angels (though I could put CA as #2 and PW as #3) and rounding out 4 I could put 3 or 4 in 4th place.

    See it’s all about taste and opinion, not fact. I do believe as you do that CA is a masterpiece and one of the best they have put out in over 20 years. Usually by this time with a new Rush I have already started hitting fast forward on songs or taken them off my IPOD. S&A only had 7 of 13 songs on my IPOD at this point after its release. CA still has all 12. And that, IMHO, is what, for me, makes this such a masterpiece of an album.

    This is a great time to be a Rush fan, and I’m proud to have been one since 1980.

  • June 25, 2012 at 8:25 pm
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    I completely agree with you on 7 Cities. The song starts off great, even with the verses but the chorus is boring and predictable. Defintely my least favorite on the album.

  • June 30, 2012 at 8:27 pm
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    Any opinion on Rush, by a Rush fan, is just that…their own personal feelings on what they find compelling about Rush’s work. I like to break it down like this: Rush has been through StAGEs in their career. Categorized by the concept albums of the seventies, the Moving Pictures and SIgnals years (which birthed two other great albums Grace Under Pressure, and Power windows) then there was what I like to refer to as the TINNY period, with their albums Hold Your Fire, Presto, and Roll the BOnes never really reaching their full SOUND potential but being equally impressive bodies of work. By the time they got to Counterparts it seemed they desparately wanted to return to the hard rock scene, and for the most part they accomplished just that, but it seemed their music lacked some punch due to burnout by the band, which painfully enough was very evident with Test for Echo. I loved the last era of their releases, Vapor Trails was a triumph that suffered poor sound quality, especially for us die hards who thought that the tragedies that Neil was put through would be the end of Rush. I think that Nick Rasculanicz has been the sound genius behind the last two albums, but Clockwork Angels is such a refreshing change from everything that they have done since, oh I would have to say, Roll the Bones.
    You see, opinions amongst us Rush fans vary for different reasons. SOme love the music and lyrical approach that they offer, others are musicians who are impressed with a certain individual in the band, or for someone like me who has played the drums for virtually his whole life, the band represents everything magical that music can offer. I don’t get offended by other’s opinions, but rather enjoy hearing how this band has made someone else’s life enjoyable.

  • July 2, 2012 at 9:34 am
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    Good job Timothy. I agree with most of what you said. This is certainly the best thing they have done since power windows.

  • July 5, 2012 at 3:02 am
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    For anyone paying close attention, that reply to my post was from my older brother, also a drummer and Rush enthusiast.

  • August 15, 2012 at 9:07 pm
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    I love this album! The first couple of listens had me feeling as though this could be their worst effort put forth. I know enough about Rush to know that you must continue to listen, listen, listen until the magic reveals itself, and it did. I force fed myself this album and now I’m feeling that this might be the best album they have evr come out with. I enjoy this album just as much as any of their albums, but I feel this new energy that just makes me feel like we have been blessed with something very special by the boys. As for which song is the best which song is not in my opinion the title track and The Garden are my favorites. The halo effect is the only song I skip when listening to the album, and that doesnt mean I dont think its a really good song, I just seem to wanna bybass that one for some reason. Anyway keeping it short and sweet I have been a die hard fan since 1985 never missed a tour since Power Windows and with all the music thats come out since 1985 Rush and other, this Clockwork Angels piece is something from another world of music. When you get to heaven dont be suprised to hear Clockwork Angels playing in the background!

  • March 5, 2013 at 2:44 am
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    Honestly, I believe that different “emotional constitutions” determine whether or not someone is receptive to a particular music. You can, perhaps, judge the merit of music by comparing two songs that act on similar constitutions and comparing how evocative one is to the other. That being said, this album is amazing and forms for me a “holy trinity” of albums starting with Vapor Trails.

  • July 29, 2013 at 5:51 am
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    Excellent post. I continuously checking Modern Rock Review and I am inspired! Very helpful info specifically the information. Clockwork Angels is a great Rush album.

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