"Clockwork Angels"

By Dark Starr

If you wanted to write a very short review of Rush’s latest album, you could say, “this is the best album Rush have done in a very long time.” While that would be accurate, it really wouldn’t convey what Clockwork Angels represents. For one thing, it’s the first concept album they’ve done since their progressive rock hey-day in the 1970s. Rush always seems to do what’s least expected of them and a concept album (tied into a novel – Neil Peart worked with the author on the lyrics and the book came out shortly after the album) is probably the least likely thing anyone would have expected from Rush in this day and age. Let’s have a look at each track on the album before focusing on the project as a whole.

There’s sort of a weird bit of near ambient music, kind of symphonic meets hard rock that opens the disc on “Caravan” When the song proper pounds in, the riff that drives it really feels like something from Hemispheres or A Farewell to Kings. In fact, the whole song seems like it wouldn’t have been out of place on one of those albums. Mind you, Geddy Lee’s voice is not nearly as high these days and the melodic chorus section to this is far more in line with modern Rush. There’s an instrumental section later in the track that has a guitar solo that feels very much like it would have been at home on Caress of Steel.

The mellow section that starts off “BU2B” feels perhaps a little like the mellow section of “Natural Science,” but with a weird twist to it. The riff that drives a lot of this is another that has a very classic Rush feeling to it. Like the opener, there are a lot of interesting changes built into this beast. Sections of this also lean towards the …Farewell or Hemispheres albums.

The trend of using a mellower introductory section before a riff driven burst to start the tune continues on the title track. However, rather than building the song proper on that riff section, like on the opening numbers, they drop it to something very ballad-like for the first vocals. There’s a burst of hard edged jamming after and a little bit of pre-echo on the vocals. Both of those things call to mind the 1970s musical output of Rush. While Lee’s vocals are lower, even the chorus feels like a much earlier period in the band’s history. There’s an unusual mellower jam later with distorted distant vocals. It almost feels like jazz in some ways. Yet there’s also a bit of a garage band sound on it. It’s definitely a different sound for Rush.

“The Anarchist” has some sections that feel very much like Moving Pictures.  It’s a guitar heavy track but the bass reminds me a lot of the kind of thing Geddy Lee used to do in the 1970s. It’s another that often feels closely related to that earlier period of the group, yet there’s also a odd, kind of symphonic section mid-track that is quite modern. Still, they take it through some changes and it’s more rooted in the Rush of old than the more recent outings from the group.

After some atmospherics, Alex Lifeson’s guitar screams “Carnies” to life. It’s definitely a screamer in terms of the guitar on the verses. That said, the choruses are more melodic, but they have a much older Rush sound, too. A section later in the piece really feels like something from Hemispheres in a lot of ways.

“Halo Effect” is one of the most purely modern Rush songs on the set. It’s sort of a melodic ballad, but that doesn’t mean it’s slow. In fact, Rush have, on many of their more recent albums, shown that they can create songs that have a rocking intensity and drive in terms of the rhythm section, while remaining rather mellow in terms of instrumentation. The arrangement has strings on it, and feels to me like something from Presto, perhaps.

The rhythm section opens “Seven Cities of Gold” and Lifeson screams in over the top of that. This really has an old school Rush vibe, in some ways feeling like something from the very first album, at least on that riff driven section. There are some more modern sounds on some of the melodic sections, too. It’s certainly not one of the most instantly accessible tracks on the set, but it’s also very cool.

After powering in hard and energized, “The Wreckers” drops back to a melodic movement for the verse. In some ways it’s the least “Rush-like” track on the set. That said, the choruses are pretty typical modern Rush. Three is a killer dramatic section mid-track with lots of layers of keyboards over the top. That section, particularly as it works out in some lush dramatic and quite symphonic sounds (and then gets heavier) manages to elevate the track. Up until that point it’s just sort of mediocre. Of course, even mediocre Rush is pretty darned good.

Parts of  “Headlong Flight” feel almost like bonus material from the 2112 or Farewell… albums. Still, the melodic sections are more closely tied to the modern Rush sound. There’s a killer rocking section with some distorted vocals that really feel like a call back to things like Caress of Steel.

“BU2B2    1:27” is just a short little symphonic, atmospheric number. Less than a minute and a half in length, there’s not a lot to it. “Wish Them Well” is another cut that is closer to the modern version of Rush, but it still has some older Rush styled guitar riffs. There are some high pitched vocals from Lee, too – seeming closer to the older periods of the group, but they are sort of in the backdrop and might be processed loops. There is a killer guitar driven section later that really rocks.

“The Garden” closes the disc and it’s a mellow ballad. That said, it’s not something that’s staid by any means. There are a lot of changes and different moods built within it. It’s often quite lush in terms of arrangement with strings and other elements adding texture. There are even some bits that call to mind world music like European café music. Lifeson manages to put in a cool guitar solo. The piece has some hints of the older Rush sound, think of some of the mellower stuff from 2112, but also feels different in a lot of ways from anything I’ve ever heard from Rush. For one thing, there’s a piano ballad segment. I can’t remember ever hearing piano (at least not in any kind of prominent way) on a Rush song before. Even that Lifeson guitar solo section feels kind of like a soaring progressive rock movement, again, different from the Rush prog of old, and again, different from anything else I can think of hearing from the band. While this is a ballad, it’s certainly not boring or expected.

This album is surely a step back in the right direction for Rush. Although, they often move this way and that, so whether this is any indication of where they’ll go next, only time will tell. Rush has always been a band that changes their sound, often dramatically, from disc to disc. It seems each Rush fan has a particular period of the group that stands as the favorite.  For me, it’s the prog era of the band from 2112 through Hemispheres that is the best music. Even when they release stuff outside that type of sound, though, Rush always produces quality.

Clockwork Angels is sort of a conundrum. A lot of the album feels like it could have come from that earlier period of the group. Surely, just the idea of a concept album ties it to those days. Yet, as much as I want to feel this is a new prog album from Rush in the tradition of those discs, something feels missing. I really had to think long and hard about what it was, and I think I’ve narrowed it down, coming up with, at least in part, what’s been missing from Rush for a long time.

After Rush started moving into a more, for lack of a better term, modern rock sound, it seems that the music became “flat.” I mean, the older Rush music had peaks and valleys and moved between them. The contrast between them was really a lot of what the magic was. Sure, one could point to the amazing riffs, shifting time signatures and heady concepts, but really those were (at least for me) part of the picture. The dark and light of alternating mellow and screaming hard rocking sounds were really the bigger bit of magic for Rush.

With Clockwork Angels, they’ve recaptured a lot of the old glory through more of those complex riffs, heady conceptual lyrics and complicated song structures. The problem is, it still seems sort of flattened. We don’t get a lot of those peaks and valleys. So, while this is the best album from Rush for many years, it’s still not up to the level of those old classics. The magic is back, but they’re not quite into the real masterpiece zone again. In other words, if this album were released by just about anyone else, it would be among their best. Rush has such a strong back catalog, though, that it’s got a lot with which to compete. Even leveled against their collection, though, it’s still pretty darned good.