Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rush - Clockwork Angels

Rush has been around a very long time.  In the early 1970s they were clearly influenced by Led Zeppelin.  By the late Seventies they produced three science-fiction themed albums [2112, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres]. With Permanent Waves [1980] and Moving Pictures [1981] they opted for shorter song structures and seemed to have put the epic storytelling to bed.  Starting with Signals in 1982, Rush went hell bent for leather with synthesizers which de-emphasized the guitar work of Alex Lifeson.  The nadir of this development came with 1987’s Hold Your Fire [the less said about that album, the better].  With 1989’s Presto things started to look up for those of us who wanted Rush to get away from the cheesy synths and get back to making rock records with cojones.  Presto and its follow-up Roll the Bones [1991] were steps in the right direction but the sound was a little thin.  But in 1994 Kevin Shirley produced Counterparts.  Alex Lifeson and his guitar were back with a vengeance, and Geddy Lee’s bass provided a massive bottom end.  It was the album I wanted them to make since 1984, the year they released the synth-driven Grace Under Pressure.  Since Counterparts Rush has made some good records [Test for Echo (1996) and Snakes & Arrows (2007), both of which were very nimble and dynamic], and one not-so-good record [Vapor Trails (2002) – too loud and crunchy].  This brings us to the newest release, Clockwork Angels.  With this latest release, Rush has done what I thought to be unthinkable – they made a concept album!  What they have done with Clockwork Angels is combine the epic storytelling of the late 1970s with the heaviness of Counterparts, with a dash of dynamics from Test for Echo and Snakes & Arrows.  They’ve borrowed from their past and produced an album that far exceeded any expectations I had after a five-year wait.

What is the concept behind Clockwork Angels?  Kevin B. Anderson is a science fiction writer, and a good friend of Neil Peart.  He’s going to novelize Clockwork Angels.  According to this tidbit attributed to him that I found from the Rush blog Rush is a Band:  “In a young man's quest to follow his dreams, he is caught between the grandiose forces of order and chaos. He travels across a lavish and colorful world of steampunk and alchemy, with lost cities, pirates, anarchists, exotic carnivals, and a rigid malevolent Watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life.”  I’m thinking the Watchmaker is a lot like the dictatorial priests from 2112, since there isn’t a God per se in Neil Peart’s worldview.  He’s more of a secular humanist than anything.   His storyline one based in a dystopian steampunk world and fusing sources such as Joseph Conrad, Voltaire and Daphne Du Maurier.  Until this album came out, I had no idea what “steampunk” is, so I had to look it up.  So I found this from the online Urban Dictionary:

“Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan "What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner." It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.”

This is the first time they've done an entire concept album.  The 2112 story was just a side-long affair.  Cygnus X-1 was broken into two pieces over two albums [A Farewell to Kings (1977) and Hemispheres (1978)].  Fear was three songs over three consecutive albums [Witch Hunt (Part III) - Moving Pictures (1981), The Weapon (Part II) - Signals (1982), The Enemy Within (Part I) - Grace Under Pressure (1984)].  They added a Part IV on Vapor Trails 20 year later [Freeze].  But Clockwork Angels is the first time they made a single story into an entire album.

Ok then…I think I’ve got the concept.  What about the music?

The songs:  The album's first two songs, Caravan and BU2B, were released as singles in 2010.  Rush played them on their Time Machine tour.  Both songs appear on the live document of that tour.  Two songs [Clockwork Angels and Headlong Flight] clock in over seven minutes.  Three songs [The Anarchist, Seven Cities of Gold, The Garden] clock in over six minutes.  With a couple of exceptions, the rest of the songs are around the five-minute mark.  So what is my point?  These guys get to stretch out and play.  Rush doesn’t improvise much, but longer songs and multiple time changes within those songs more than make up for it.

Favorite songs (so far):
Clockwork Angels
The Anarchist
Seven Cities of Gold
Headlong Flight

Given that these are the longest songs on the album, this short list of album favorites shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Geddy Lee’s voice:  He’s no longer communicating with bats like he did in the 1970s.  He sings in a middle register now, so the vocals are more than tolerable.

Geddy Lee’s bass:  Geddy’s bass is more forward in the mix than in albums past.  I’ve always liked the sound he gets from his Fender Jazz Bass in concert, and that sound is present on Clockwork Angels.

Alex Lifeson’s guitar:  Like Counterparts, Clockwork Angels is a guitarist’s record.  Unlike records past, Lerxst resisted the temptation to layer guitar part on top of guitar part.  He wanted the guitars he did put on the record to have more of an impact, and in that regard he succeeds.  On many of the songs Lerxst solos without a rhythm guitar underneath, just the way he would play it live.  Without the rhythm guitar, one can hear more of Geddy’s bass.

Keyboards:  They’re there, but they’re in the background and “unobtrusive.” Rejoice!  An acoustic piano makes an unexpected appearance on The Garden.

Neil Peart’s drumming:  Once again, Neil Peart proves he is the best drummer in rock – period.  Here’s an interesting bit I picked up on the Net – Neil didn’t work out his drum parts ahead of recording like he usually does.  For this album he worked out his drum parts differently than on previous albums.  Alex Lifeson would usually make copies of songs for Neil with drum programs or click tracks so that he has some reference points that he might want to use or develop. He’ll go through the songs methodically, works on his drum arrangements, and he memorizes what he’s going to play. When that’s done, they record.  On this album co-producer Nick Raskulinecz wanted Neil to learn his parts on the fly.

Strings:  I can’t remember there being strings on very many Rush songs [Nobody’s Hero from Counterparts, Mellotron strings on 2112’s Tears immediately come to mind].  Strings make their appearance on Halo Effect, The Wreckers, BU2B2, and The Garden.  But don’t think that because there are strings on a Rush record that our friends from the Great White North have gone soft – they haven’t.

Acoustic Guitars:  Like Snakes & Arrows, there are plenty of them on Clockwork Angels.  They work well in the arrangements the band have created.  Halo Effect, the shortest complete song at 3:13, is primarily an acoustic song.  The final song, The Garden, is the same way.  The Garden is a soft landing after all the stürm and drang that came before.

Instrumentals:  Unlike Snakes & Arrows which had three (!), Clockwork Angels has none.  With the longer songs, it doesn't need any.

Bottom line:  Clockwork Angels shows a band at the top of their game.  These guys are all pushing 60, but this album proves they are nowhere near ready to retire.  As much as I love Counterparts, Clockwork Angels is better.  I would go so far as to say it’s their best effort from start to finish since Moving Pictures.  A must-have for any Rush fan.  Today is Father's Day.  Give the gift of Rush for Dad!


Keith Andrew Akow said...

Hey Tony... I bought this album after reading your review and man, I love it. Didn't want to hijack your post here with my thoughts but I agree with everything you said and posted more on my own blog with credit to you. Thanks for tipping me to this one.

Tony Howard said...

Thanks for reading, Keith. Glad to be of service. :-)

Ben Sommer said...

Clockwork Angels is the best - I'm with you. What a varied and surprising song.

It makes #6 on my all-time top 20 list

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