Their twentieth studio album, Clockwork Angels is a monstrous musical achievement, replete with the imagery, thematic elements, and technical virtuosity fans have come to expect from the holy triumvirate. But beyond all that, what makes the album truly satisfying is the knowledge that Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart can not only still tolerate each other after almost forty years together, but also put out some of the best music of their career.
Rush is defined by — among other things — different periods and changes in musical direction. They began with the blues-based, Zeppelin-inspired rock of their 1974 self-titled debut before transitioning into their epic progressive era, which reached a peak with 2112 in 1976. The albums that followed — A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres — featured even more epic tracks, unparalleled musicianship, and fantastic elements.
The weight of Hemispheres, with its eighteen-minute opening suite and nine-and-a-half minute instrumental, “La Villa Strangiato”, caused Rush to immediately switch direction with 1980’s Permanent Waves and the seminal Moving Pictures in 1981. These records saw more accessible, radio-friendly songs, although they featured no less instrumental process and contain some of the band’s most well-known pieces.
As the 80s wore on, the band’s synthetic side came to the forefront with increasingly keyboard-driven songs and less prominent guitar work. This stylistic direction would last through 1987’s Hold Your Fire. Fans of Rush’s heavier side were finally placated with 1993’s Counterparts, an aggressive alternative rock record, and 1996’s Test for Echo, the last album to be released before the tragic loss of Neil Peart’s daughter and wife within a year’s time.
Snakes & Arrows is a solid modern rock record, and although it’s laden with faith-based lyrics and imagery, the songwriting and musicianship remain quite strong.
Five years later, we arrive at Clockwork Angels.
In the Rush chronology, of which I have just given you a brief synopsis, there are several landmark records. 2112 and Moving Pictures in particular are often cited as the “must-listen” Rush albums, and I agree. These records are unquestionably regarded as some of the band’s best work. Where the other albums rank is mostly a matter of personal preference. Personally, I prefer the progressive era of the mid to late seventies, particularly Hemispheres.
With so many records and so much achieved, it’s hard to imagine the band topping itself after so long.
And yet, Clockwork Angels is a landmark in the band’s career.
Notably, it’s a concept album, complete with an upcoming novelization by Kevin J. Anderson:
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 Watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life.
That’s the album in a nutshell. For all of Clockwork Angels’ variety — straight ahead rock, sweeping multilayered pieces, crunchy grooves, and (by Rush standards) quiet moments of reflection — it remains one of the band’s most cohesive records. There is no need to skip any of the eleven tracks here. Each is a memorable entry in the band’s catalog, and together they create a powerful body of music that stands up to even their most lauded records.
The album opens with the thunderous “Caravan”, heralding the band’s return with a stomping groove and tales of “a world lit only by fire”. The song features one of Geddy’s all-time best bass solos before continuing its onslaught.
“Caravan” segues into “BU2B”, which now features a wistful acoustic opening. It quickly explodes into one of the band’s heaviest tracks, however, giving “Stick It Out” a run for its money. Both “Caravan” and “BU2B” were released as radio singles in 2010 prior to the Time Machine Tour, but they take on new meaning here in the context of Clockwork Angels, and they’re stronger for it.
The seven-and-a-half minute title track follows, opening with quiet, wailing vocals before creating a foundation of droning guitar, driving cymbals, and churning bass. The track swells for a full minute before blossoming into its first verse. Despite the holy quality of the song’s title, “Clockwork Angels” doesn’t lack anything in the power department. But rather than achieve its greatness through sheer aggression, it opts to soar “synchronized and graceful” into our ears. One can’t help but imagine the titular angels in flight above some grand gothic cathedral. The song is multilayered and sweeping, and it’s absolutely worthy of carrying the album’s namesake.
The familiarity of the first two tracks and the beauty of “Clockwork Angels” makes the album easy to get into on a first listen. But with the fourth track, “The Anarchist”, we find ourselves in true uncharted territory. Admittedly, the middle of the album was the most challenging for me to digest. That’s not to say it’s weaker than its bookends. Rather, it requires the most time to get to know.
“The Anarchist” is a guitar-driven track with a slight Middle Eastern flair. It’s also full of bass and drum fills that will make any Rush fan smile. The song alternates between dark and uplifting tones and contains a subtle hook while maintaining the high level of musicianship and powerful imagery set by the first three tracks.
“Carnies” is a strong companion piece to “The Anarchist” in that it also features heavy guitar and moves between a speeding chorus and slower, churning verses. The album’s steampunk themes continue here, with “the smell of flint and steel”. Neil’s drumming is particularly driving, and the track stops on a dime, emphasizing the trio’s ability to work as one.
We’re granted a respite with “Halo Effect”, a song about “a goddess with wings on her heels”. It’s one of the album’s quietest tracks, although Rush fans know that the band’s definition of “quiet” is far from the norm. It’s also the shortest full track on the album and features a beautiful bridge section. After the frenetic rage of “The Anarchist” and “Carnies”, “Halo Effect” provides a wonderful oasis of strings and elegance.
Lucky #7, “Seven Cities of Gold” will immediately have Rush fans grinning from ear to ear as it opens with some of Geddy Lee’s greatest bass work to date. The song’s title belies its personality; this is Rush at its funkiest. But unlike “Roll the Bones”, you’ll find no hip-hop influences here. Rather, we are reminded that for all their technical virtuosity, Rush is still capable of writing a great hook that’s anything but simple. The driving backbeat and crunchy groove will have listeners bobbing their heads for all six-and-a-half minutes.
Supposedly, Alex and Geddy switched instruments while writing “The Wreckers”, but the result is anything but a gimmick. It’s a medium-tempo tune with one of the best choruses in the band’s catalog. Perhaps no other song on the album encourages a singalong as when Geddy cries, “All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary / Of a miracle too good to be true”. There’s also a gorgeous, chilling bridge, as the story of a ship being lured to its doom unfolds, “washed away in the pounding waves”.
The 7:21 monster, “Headlong Flight” was released to radio stations earlier this year, accompanied by a lyric music video. Despite being a single, this one is sure to please diehard Rush fans, as the music recalls “Bastille Day” with its bass and drum fills and high-flying chorus. The song takes no prisoners, and the instrumentation is relentless from start to finish. As its name implies, “Headlong Flight” is a high point in an album of consistently great performances.
“BU2B2” is a brief, ominous, string-driven piece, detailing the failure of belief. For all its sobriety, though, there remains a ray of light: “Life goes from bad to worse / I still choose to live”.
It’s a dark cloud that fades with the opening notes of “Wish Them Well”, probably the most accessible track with its memorable chorus and vocal hooks. It may be the most overt song on the record, but it’s also the “happiest” sounding. After all, “It’s not worth singing that same sad song… All that you can do is wish them well”.
It’s hard to imagine how such a grand album could or should end, but Rush pulls it off with “The Garden”, a song unlike anything else in their catalog. It opens with gorgeous strings and beautiful arpeggiated bass work before Alex’s acoustic guitar takes over for the verse. The chorus is powerful and will inspire more than a few goosebumps over “a garden to nurture and protect”. The album’s final minutes feature a wonderfully grandiose guitar solo before the vocals and strings carry us off beyond the horizon. One always wonders whether it’s better to end an album with a bang or with a moment of thoughtful reflection. Perhaps uncharacteristically, Rush chooses the latter, and it’s the perfect conclusion to a concept album that promises to and succeeds at taking us on a far-reaching musical journey.
Clockwork Angels’ cover art features swirling red clouds and a clock displaying the time 9:12, i.e. “21:12”. It’s a fitting homage to the band’s first towering achievement, and yet Clockwork Angels features very little in the way of nostalgia. Rather, it’s incredibly forward-looking. The Rush of 2012 is clearly at the peak of their powers, and amazingly, they are still capable of producing work on-par with their most timeless albums. It’s comforting and inspiring to see three men who’ve been together for almost forty years put out something of this caliber.
Clockwork Angels is a brilliant addition to the band’s discography, and it’s more than worthy of being their twentieth record. As a Rush fan, I couldn’t be happier with it.