Rush embark on uncharted territories with a concept album of immeasurable depth and a consistent spirit of excellence.
The long awaited new Rush album is finally here as promised on June 12, a date that became indelible in the hearts of all Rush fans. "Clockwork Angles" was a title that teased Rushaholics for a long time since the release of the first single, 'Caravan'. The picture sleeve of the single depicted the intricate decorative clock and I had thought this would be the cover of the album, however the cover design was released, and I could not help but feel a twinge of disappointment that it was such a simple design, having been used to some more dynamic art on previous album covers over the years. I have since grown used to seeing that iconic red cover with the medieval clock in the swirling turbulent clouds. The simplistic design is memorable and indeed all the artwork in the booklet is incredibly provocative, capturing a steampunk future with dreamy scapes and structures, illustrated by Hugh Syme. There are some breathtaking designs including a spacey look at a blue world with clouds and that giant clock ticking ominously above. Some of the art reminds me of the future fantasy worlds of Myst, such as the beige colour painting of art deco sailing ships in the air over an enormous clock face and there are details of steam emanating from the wheels and cogs of progress. It is a place of dreams and fantasies with characters wandering around such as the peddler in a darkened forest, there is a shipwreck graveyard in stormy seas, two hands reaching for a mystical clock object, sun dials, mysterious enchanted worlds and the everpresent watchmaker icons. Beautifully realised, the art captures the feel of the album and transports us into the world of the protagonist's journey.
The musicianship is brilliant on this album; Peart has stated in interviews that he intended it "to be my highest achievement lyrically and drumming wise" (from website rushisaband Excerpts- from-Classic-Rocks-Prog-magazine-Rush-feature). He further went on to say that he took a new approach to writing and recording; "I played through each song just a few times on my own, checking out patterns and fills that might work" then he called on Nick who became his conductor, "and I was his orchestra". Peart would attack the drums in order to respond "to his enthusiasm, and his suggestions between takes, and together we would hammer out the basic architecture of the part (with) half-time bridges, and double-time outros" therefore there was no need for counting, or endless repetition.
The concept is strong and takes some comprehensive power to interpret it but the liner notes clearly outline a very intricate and compelling tale that is also told within Peart's thoughtful lyrics. The concept is based on the work of Peart's friend, science fiction novelist extraordinaire Kevin J Anderson, who announced that he would write the "Clockwork Angels" novel and he related many of the concepts of the novel, involving the forces of order and chaos that inflict themselves upon a young traveller, who dreams of travelling to a steampunk alchemist world of hidden cities. It is a world of piracy, carnivalesque settings and colourful characters such as The Watchmaker, who imposes precision on the lives of the inhabitants, and the evil Anarchist who desires that precision to be turned to chaos.
The tale that has made its way onto this album is concentric around a farm boy who had an idyllic lifestyle with peace and stability but it became too much to take, and ultimately stifled his dreams of exploring what the world offers. It is set in the village of Barrel Arbor, where steamliners descend onto the rails on their way to the Winding Pinion River to Crown City. As the farmer watched these massive machines he longs to escape to live out his dreams. This is where 'Caravan' comes in, and after hearing it out of context for so long as the first single unleashed upon the world, it is so refreshing to hear it finally as the opener on the album. From the first time I heard it I was very taken with the song as it is a heavier Rush than that of recent years, and it sounded vibrant and dynamic with very thought provoking lyrics and excellent musicianship. It begins with atmospheric clanging bells and the sound of machines moving across the hemispheres. The familiar guitar sound of Alex Lifeson cranks up with that powerdriving riff. Then Neil Peart races around his drum kit, then maintains a steady rhythmic figure until a bassline begins, followed by the golden tones of Geddy Lee; this is Rush! The production and mixing of Nick Raskulinecz is exceptional capturing a crystalline sound with all musicians audible including the orchestrations. The melody of the song is certainly infectious, especially the way the chorus builds to the mantra of the album, "I can't stop thinking big." The interlude is grinding guitar and some accomplished fret work. A low key synth drone is heard in the background. The choppy time sig is repeated until a lead break with some incredible string bends to lift up the sound and then back to the chorus. The structure is effective and it is a great way to open proceedings. It is easy to be accustomed to the standard of excellence that Rush maintain from album to album, but occasionally an album simply stands out as being above the rest simply due to strong songwriting and powerful melodies that jam themselves into the brain. "Clockwork Angels" certainly qualifies in this regard.
A transition is heard leading into 'BU2B', another song not unknown as it was the B side of the single, but the new intro was a nice touch with reverb vocals and mystical undertones. It was never a song I was immediately taken with as a B side, but on the album it makes more sense, and tells the story admirably that introduces The Watchmaker, who is integral to the concept. This figure ruled from Crown City through the Regulators, and the alchemist-priests had provided coldfire in order for the power and light of this world to be possible.
'BU2B' (brought up to believe) concerns the whole concept of belief as a human condition; "the universe as a plan, We are only human, It's not ours to understand." The protagonist is expressing that the world in which he exists always has told the occupants to "Believe in what we're told, Until our final breath, While our loving Watchmaker, Loves us all to death." 'Clockwork Angels' is where the album becomes more than just great, as this is one of the most progressive songs from Rush for years. It is little wonder that Lifeson referred to it as an "epic song", "very dynamic" and a "multi-parted piece" (from website roaddrunnerrecords, article).
It begins with a Gregorian Monk chant, setting the scene and then a hovering synth and loud crashing guitars explode. The percussion builds up and it breaks to a pleasant clean guitar phrase and Lee's vocals. He sounds excellent and at times uses multi tracking on his vocals to enhance the tones. The bassline is pulsating along the metrical patterns of Peart. The lyrics follow the deepening storyline, that moves to the bustling city of Chronos Square, where the farmboy finds himself gazing in wonder at the huge formations of the Cathedral of the Timekeepers, massive sky towers, and the radiant Angels of Land, Sea, Sky and Light, with the iridescent floating globes. It is a surreal scene that is captured brilliantly in the artwork. The song is compelling with some dynamic time sig changes and mood shifts. It builds with many variations on the main themes, until the outbreak of the instrumental that is a hammering riff. The "synchronised and graceful" Clockwork Angels are the creatures that "promise every treasure, to the foolish and the wise, Goddesses of mystery, spirits in disguise, Every pleasure, we bow and close our eyes, Clockwork angels, promise every prize." There is a Biblical pretext based on Proverbs 3:5 "Lean not upon your own understanding". The people of this fantastical land worship and adore the Angels and celestial spiritual machinery. The song ends with a quiet whisper and it has been quite a journey with some complex structures with Rush at the top of their game.
'The Anarchist' follows with a terrific guitar riff and heavy rhythms. Lee's vocals are more forced and are full of conviction, with some moments that sound processed like a robotic announcer on a PA system. His register is high on verses such as, "In all your science of the mind, seeking blind through flesh and bone, Find the blood inside this stone, What I know, I've never shown; what I feel, I've always known, I plan my vengeance on my own, and I was always alone." Again it is a heavy song with a ton of distortion and loud musical soundscape. The interlude is a wonderful lead break with phase effects on guitar that soars heavenly. It is as good as anything I have heard on the best tracks of recent Rush albums. It definitely has a modern sound unlike the 70s years. The lyrics are from the point of view of The Anarchist who shuns the optimistic cry of the Pedlar, "What do you like" to which he replies, "Vengeance!"
The plot thickens and the next song 'The Carnies' augments the atmospheres with a strange intro of carnival sounds and distant voices. The amazing riff locks in and opens one of the metal tracks of the album. It feels heavier with the metal distortion and then the next section breaks into an electronic spacey soundscape. It is certainly one of the highlights of the album, but none of the songs thus far have been less than excellent respectively. It may be one of the strongest first halves of a Rush album since "Moving Pictures" and "Counterparts". The lead solo is again absolutely virtuoso as only Lifeson can be, with a different sound but an appropriate feeling to the steampunk theme. This song really grew on me and I love the melody and the overall chord structure, and especially the heavy riffing throughout.
The concept was inspired by Peart who was reading about circus settings in Robertson Davies' novels. The story continues that the farmer finds work at a carnival beneath the ever watching angels, where "Bodies spin in a clockwork dance, The smell of flint and steel, A wheel of fate, a game of chance." He sees the Anarchist holding a clockwork detonator, and he hurls it but the farmboy catches it just in time saving all the onlookers at the carnival. However, the "ticking box, in the hand of the innocent," causes the angry crowd to move "toward him with bad intent."
'Halo Effect' is the first time the band are able to settle into a serene tranquil atmosphere. An angelic howl, and wind blowing lead to acoustics and gentle vocals that whisper on the wind. Lee sounds flawless and emotional on this ballad that has really grown on me finally. It builds like a power ballad but this is not 'Closer to the Heart; the sound is modernist and has a heartfelt feeling. The sound reflects the story that involves the protagonist falling in love with a carnival performer, acrobat dancer. He pursues her, and then after a fling she rejects and holds contempt towards him. It is an illusionary lover, "A goddess, with wings on her heels", but the real girl was not "the ideal, that I wanted to see." The song is very thoughtful and has a lovely melodic style. The dreaminess of the song works well to break up the intensity of previous heavier tracks. I look forward to hearing this song now on every listen.
'Seven Cities of Gold' is another masterful track opening with powerful bassline and dark lead guitar string bends that echo and slice with serrations on a knife edge. The 'Working Man' style riff soon cranks up that drives this powerhouse track. The riff reminds me of vintage 70s Rush which is a sheer delight. It has a sensational chorus that builds with innovative chord changes. The time sig even has a progressive feel that skips a beat here and there. The lead solo is more of the guitar serrations and high pitched string bends, that add to an ominous atmosphere. It has an infectious melody and again is one that is bound to grow on the listener. Peart explains, "I'd read a lot of history from the south-western part of the US and that figured into the story of the explorer Coronado, who kept going out into the desert to find the fabled cities of gold" (from Classic Rock). The plot of the album gets into the historical legendary story that fascinates the protagonist. The Legend is that there was a land hiding the seven cities of gold and the only way to them was on the steamliners across the Western Sea. The protagonist bravely crossed to Poseidon, a port city, to work on the steamliners serving the alchemy mines, and onto Redrock Desert with its stone monuments. The traveller eventually set out on a quest to find the infamous city of gold, Cibola. These legends were part of the man's dreams as the lyrics tell; "Glowing in my dreams, like hallucinations, Glitter in the sun like a revelation, Distant as a comet or a constellation."
The lyrics of this song are superb with mystical imagery such as the desolate landscapes of the fantasy world; "Canyons and cactus, Endless and trackless, Searching through grim eternity, Sculptured by prehistoric sea." Overall, a wonderful track with esoteric imagery conjuring up the Rushian scapes and mystique of "2112", where any minute one might expect to see the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx turn up on the scene. Dare I say that this is one of the most brilliant tracks of Rush for decades.
'The Wreckers' was once one of the weaker efforts of the album, though I always thought still had a nice rocking energy. It was not initially as captivating as the other songs thus far so it was one of the more pedestrian songs for me even after many listens. However, this too grew on me eventually and after my 9th listen I finally succumbed to its wonderful chorus melodies and sweeping orchestrations. The storyline is more compelling though concerning a narrow escape from the frozen dessert with the protagonist making his way half dead to Poseidon aboard a ship. A storm breaks out but a beacon of light helps navigate them from danger; "a ghostly light, Appears through the driving rain, Salvation in human chain." Unfortunately, the preternatural signal is false to lure seafarers to crash on the rocks. Once the wreck occurred the crew would be plundered of their cargo; these were The Wreckers. Peart explains his inspiration; "The Wreckers was actually from Daphne Du Maurier, that's been in my mind for 30 years. I guess it's an episode in Jamaica Inn. So all of that coalesced into the character and the history of the story, the whole concept."
The lyrics state the warning in a cryptic manner; "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." Of course if you were unaware of the concept story you could interpret these words as part of coping with the trials of life, something that Peart is very familiar with having lost his wife and daughter in recent times in the same year.
The next track is an instant masterpiece, one that I have heard many times prior to this release being the second and far more superior single of the album. 'Headlong Flight' has a glorious riff and melodic line. Lee's wandering bassline is outstanding and the percussion is Peart at his most frenetic as he chases his cymbals and skins around like a maniac. The main riff is lifted from the glory of 'Bastille Day' and that has caused some controversy among fans, but for me there is nothing wrong with returning to the vintage sound if it works and is reinvented to provide something very special. Peart has actually stated that he hopes that song will be in their setlist for live performances indefinitely; "What was it that Oscar Wilde said: self-plagiarism is style?" He believes that "We certainly do a few tongue-in-cheek nods to 'Bastille Day' in 'Headlong Flight' - that's deliberate," so when we fans recognise it, that is a compliment to the band who want us to do precisely that.
The speed of the track is quite breathtaking and Lee sounds absolutely full of passion and drive; "All the journeys of this great adventure, It didn't always feel that way, I wouldn't trade them because I made them, The best I could, and that's enough to say." The song builds to the chorus that changes time sig into a beautiful melodic moderate feel. As soon as I heard the melody of the chorus and the lyrics I was mesmirised; as chills went down the spine, when Lee sings; "I have stoked the fire on the big steel wheels, Steered the airship right across the stars, I learned to fight, I learned to love, I learned to feel, Oh I wish that I could live it all again." Amidst that fantastic melody hides a story of airships, turning cogs and wheels and machinery that now makes perfect sense amidst the rest of the conceptual material. The song has even more power on the album and comes in at the perfect moment when things were beginning to become too easy on the ears. The frenetic pace and intensity of this track makes this stand out as a magical moment of the album. The way the song changes seamlessly from a fast tempo to the half time feel is a master touch. This is Rush at their most adventurous and heaviest after a long hiatus and 20 albums. The lyrics are poetic beauty put to music that resonate so powerfully in my spirit.
Lee's high register vocals are everpresent and he has not sounded this good for years. In the half time section there is an instrumental that has some fast Peart drum fills and deliciously delirious axework from Lifeson. The band are in full flight and one can tell they are enjoying their golden years rocking as hard as ever; you have to be inspired by their energy and commitment to excel. Lifeson incorporates wah-wah pedals, with hyper fast picking and is like a tiger loosed from its cage; a far cry from his lead work on the past few albums.
The words could be taken in any way you want outside of the actual storyline; "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." The highs and lows of life are captured perfectly here. In context of the album, the protagonist is thinking over all the great adventures and quotes the great alchemist, Friedrich Gruber, "I wish I could do it all again." He has steered the great airships across the stars and travelled to cities of gold, so he fondly remembers the adventures without regrets; one of the most optimistic moments of the album.
The pedlar returns and asks "what do you lack" again and the protagonist considers how he was "brought up to believe", and "no philosophy consoles me in a clockwork universe". The tone turns to a pessimism with the man pondering over the pedlar's words, so he loses faith in higher powers, remembers the pain, dwells on the illusion of love. He holds onto the belief that love conquers over all the rejection of the past because that is the way he was brought up; to believe. This song is a melancholy short passage of orchestral music, consisting of symphonic strings, conducted by David Campbell. The strings have also appeared on 'Halo Effect', 'The Anarchist', and 'The Wreckers', but on 'BU2B2' they are prominent and quite daring. The lyrics are downbeat and gloomy; "Belief has failed me now, the bright glow of optimism has failed me somehow, life goes from bad to worse." This may not appeal to many, it is easily the worst track of the album, but as a diversion for the album as a whole it works, and I count it as more of a transition into the next masterful track. If taken out of context this track is a morbid downbeat filler, but I still love the way it transforms the atmosphere after the bright vibrant uptempo rock of previous tracks. It is the diversity that makes the impact rather than taken on its own. This is a veritable fish out of water but the album would not be complete without these oddball moments and transitions.
'Wish Them Well' is another outstanding track that grabbed me the first time I heard it. The loud guitar and pounding drum is augmented by very melodic vocals that are back to a more hopeful resonance; "All that you can do is wish them well." The hook is catchy and it leads to some wonderful verses. I especially love the multi tracked harmonies on the section; "Thank your stars you're not that way, Turn your back and walk away, Don't even pause and ask them why, Turn around and say goodbye." I grew to love this song over a few listens, it just jumps out at me and prepares for the epic to end the album. The lead break is stellar playing with emotive bending, speed picking and arpeggios. There is a strong harmony in the refrain too, and the words impact my spirit; "The ones who've done you wrong, The ones who pretended to be so strong, The grudges you've held for so long, It's not worth singing that same sad song." This is about dealing with our demons that is essential to our wellbeing, and Rush have a lot to say about how we must learn to move on even when we are going through trials, "just wish them well."
In context of the storyline, the protagonist has come to terms with his life, even after feeling victimised and defeated. He reasons that it is not worth holding grudges as it is just burning him up like coals on his heart. The best response is to avoid the ones that hurt him and simply wish them well. Now I can relate to this in my own personal journey. Peart has really hit the nail on the head here and it is spiritually uplifting to hear this song with these thoughts in mind. I have seen how people have become scarred over the words of others and hurtful actions and it is all because they hold onto grudges and refuse to let go. It is only when we choose to let go that we can truly be free from condemnation and the curse of rejection. It is a choice and if we remember that we can choose to not allow the defamation of others to scar our character. Thank you, Rush for reminding us of these valuable important lessons.
The lessons continue and culminate in the next wonderful epic song 'The Garden'. It begins with tranquil beautiful acoustics and a violin, and ends with a sweeping majestic orchestral soundscape and soaring melodies that are soothing to the soul. The music includes a gorgeous piano interlude by Jason Sniderman. The lyrics are some of Rush's most powerful and uplifting to the spirit. The protagonist muses on his life and finds that ray of hope he had been searching for; "The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect, So hard to earn, so easily burned, In the fullness of time, A garden to nurture and protect". The hopeful lyrics o a metaphorical garden are reflected in the way that the music builds to a crescendo and it really feels like the ending of an epic journey. There is a sadness in the atmosphere but it is a relaxing beautiful mood generated. There is a hint of remorse that the journey is over but the protagonist, who has experienced a bildungsroman quest, has learnt all the valuable lessons of life and nothing more needs to be said; his life is complete having learned that the measure of love and respect is integral. "The arrow flies while you breathe, the hours tick away, the cells tick away, The Watchmaker has time up his sleeve," continues the lyrics, stating the case for all of us who only have so much time in which to make life count so we must make the most of it before time runs out. These are simplistic ideas but they are conveyed with poetic resonance and it all ends on this ray of hope; "The future disappears into memory, With only a moment between, Forever dwells in that moment, Hope is what remains to be seen." The album concludes on this hope with sweeping symphonic soundscapes that pour out of the speakers, embedding the album upon our conscious. At the end of the album on every listen I feel the same way; emotionally uplifted and with hope in my spirit - not something I can say for the last few Rush albums.
This is an unforgettable album that took some time to grow on me but once it became engrained in my spirit I was totally captivated under its powerful hold. It could easily pass by without fanfare on a casual listen by the average music listener disinterested in understanding the concept or the lyrics. Furthermore, if one does not relate to the lyrics and interprets them as just some fantasy world out of reach, it is possible that this could become rather incomprehensible. The lyrics are deep, perhaps as deep as anything Peart has written, but he has a lot to say about the emotional rollercoaster of existence, faith, love, respect, freedom, resilience, defeat and the purpose of our lives. None of this comes off as convoluted or pretentious in any way; there is a definite conviction in this work and it is trying to say something important to us that we can take with us into our own circumstances. The music itself is a mesmirising virtuoso augmentation and this is embellished with symphony orchestra strings and ethereal atmospherics. It transports us directly into the fantasy worlds and becomes a full sensory experience; aurally with the music and visually tangible thanks to the artwork, liner notes with story lines, and of course the lyrics.
In conclusion of this review (that unwittingly became an essay, written over a weekend while I listened 9 times...) this is Rush back to their absolute best after some rather forgettable albums and straight forward rock releases. "Clockwork Angels" is almost the perfect concept album, where everything works to become a coherent whole with masterful song structures and music literally dripping with innovation. It has been a long time since I have heard a masterpiece album from Rush; I would have to go back to 1981's "Moving Pictures" to find a 5 star album in my opinion. However folks, finally Rush have produced a masterpiece with their new inimitable mature sound. It is far superior to anything from the catalogue of albums from 1985 - 1991. It is marginally better than "Counterparts", that had a weaker second half after a brilliant first half.
The difference with "Clockwork Angels" is that the whole album is consistent in terms of strong musicianship and infectious melodies with powerhouse lyrical content, and that is not something I can say for the rather patchy material of "Test For Echo" or Vapor Trails". And again it is better than "Snakes and Arrows" that had some ordinary tracks marring an otherwise excellent album. To state that this new album measures up to the glory days of "A Farewell to Kings", "Hemispheres", "Permanent Waves" or "Moving Pictures" is perhaps stretching the credibility too far. However, this is still the best Rush album for decades and deserves accolades and high recommendation, therefore ultimately a bonafide masterpiece status for all the reasons stated. I did not expect it to stand up to my rather high expectations, we Rush fans are rather demanding, but I am absolutely delighted to announce that this album is a tour de force that lives up to the hype, and is an exceptional treasure from start to end. So far, I hail it as album of the year!