Album Review: Rush, “Clockwork Angels”
Clockwork Angels, the 20th studio album by the Canadian power-trio Rush, makes its debut in North America today. One thing about Rush is clear: there’s no denying the impressive staying power of the band. From their Led Zeppelin-inspired beginnings in the early ’70s, through their long-form concept albums, the “synth years,” and then to a more mature hard rock sound, Rush is a band who have really never compromised their musical integrity. Yes, they are clearly influenced by groups like The Who, Yes, Led Zeppelin, The Police, and Pearl Jam, but they are influencers as well. Why? Well, part of the reason is that their musical complexity, lyrical depth, and a commitment to progressing as musicians has endeared them to both fans and fellow musicians — and said fans and musicians have shown their love of the band in movies, books, and homages. The other part is that certain something that some bands possess: a unique sound that’s difficult to copy in a world where pop/rock/hip-hop/country styles of music tend to be replicated when a song “hits” with the public.
At Popdose, three of our writers (and fans of Rush) got an advanced copy of Clockwork Angels and were able to spend time with the songs. What follows are Dw. Dunphy, Chris Holmes, and Ted Asregadoo’s reactions to the album.
Well, I’m happy with it. There are moments on this album that seem to be classic pop-Rush moments (like “The Wreckers” or “Wish Them Well”) and you can hear a concerted effort for more arrangement (i.e., deeply submerged keyboards, strings from David Campbell, and exotic backing vocals here and there). That’s not to say they’ve forsaken the heavy (there’s plenty of that, too!) but the album is well-rounded. There are things on Clockwork Angels Rush have never done and, for them, are almost minimalist. For example, every now and then you’ll hear Neil Peart paying direct homage to Keith Moon (his self-admitted favorite rock drummer). If this is their last studio recording (God knows, seventeen live records will emerge from this tour) then Rush goes out with a true career-spanning slice.
To me, I am amazed by how often they go for it than not on this album. They’re not playing like they’re teenagers, but at the same time, they’re not sitting in wheelchairs practicing skiffle with ukeleles. I feel good about the album because there’s a sense the band is growing older gracefully — but not quietly. I do appreciate that.
Like Dw., I’ll credit Rush with not being timid in their old age (in rock terms, anyway). This is easily the most ambitious project they’ve released in a damn long time.
I do have a pretty big beef with Clockwork Angels, but I don’t know who to target. There is a really good concept record here, but it’s buried under a crushing wall of homogenized production. Too many of these songs blend into one another — and I’m not just talking about the cross-faded outros and intros. On the great albums of Rush’s past, they managed to tie together songs that sounded quite different. But here, it sounds like one giant slab of prog rock — with only a few standout moments.
I’m going to pin at least part of this on Nick Raskulinecz. He clearly has Rush playing their asses off, which is commendable. But whereas Snakes & Arrows had ebbs and flows, and some good dynamics, Clockwork Angels is one big sonic attack.
If this all sounds too harsh, I suppose it’s unavoidable. I continue to have very high expectations for new Rush music, which I suppose is a good thing. And I certainly plan to listen to this a lot more before settling my views.
There’s a difference between writing career-defining concept album in 1976 (when the members of the band were in their early 20s) and revisiting the idea now that the members of Rush are pushing 60. On 2112, there was a “go for broke” attitude that was angry, defiant, and signaled if they were going down for the count (which, at the time, Mercury Records was considering dropping the boys), they would go down swinging. The one-finger salute of 2112 to those who wanted Rush to be more radio-friendly bought Rush their freedom to make records how they wanted — and they haven’t compromised their art since.
On Clockwork Angels, Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, and Alex Lifeson return to the concept album, but do so in a more lyrically subtle way without sacrificing their hard rock roots. The concept of Clockwork Angels is based on Candide by Francois-Marie Voltaire — whose main character is raised to be an optimist. Like Candide, the protagonist in Clockwork Angels is also an optimist, and only after he leaves his home and journeys to Crown City and other locales, does he realize the “best of all possible worlds” he was brought up to believe in is not a reality at all. In other words, he learns a painful lesson that human nature is not fixed like clockwork, but rather is a plethora of contradictory behavior that shatters his idealism. Yet, despite all his pain and loss, the hero of the story is not cynical in the end — or suicidal like the main character in 2112. Love, respect, and hope are seeds nurtured in the hero’s garden in the album’s final track.
Rush has drawn upon their 30 plus years of playing to create songs that, at times, are among some of their most daring on Clockwork Angels. “Headlong Flight” has some wonderfully un-Rushlike bass work by Geddy Lee during the intro, Neil Peart’s drumming is powerful, energetic, but shuns the kind of power fills he’s known for, and Alex Lifeson’s guitar work transcends his usual style of playing in favor of metal flourishes. “The Garden”(download) provides a nice contrast to the bombast of most of the songs on the album with delicate electric and acoustic guitar work by Alex, emotional singing by Geddy, and lyrics that display a mature self-reflection on Peart’s part. Where the album falters is on what Chris Holmes highlighted in his review. That is to say, some of the songs do not stand out, but rather tend to blend into one another. “Seven Cities of Gold,” “The Wreckers,” and “Wish Them Well” come to mind as tracks that didn’t rise above the “sonic attack” Nick Raskulinecz and Rush decided was appropriate for songs.
Overall, the album has the kind of mature depth that I was hoping for in a late-career album from Rush. Many of the songs on Snakes & Arrows disappointed me — leaving me hoping that the boys would rekindle their dedication to their musical progressivism on their next album. With Clockwork Angels, they have by and large done just that.