Review: Rush's Clockwork Angels

To fully understand the significance of Rush’s new record, Clockwork Angels, one must look at it in the context of the band’s entire discography.

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.

After a lengthy and painful hiatus, 2002’s Vapor Trails saw the band’s triumphant return, and it was followed with Snakes & Arrows in 2007.

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.

Required Listening III

Today’s post is my third Required Listening piece over at First Today, Then Tomorrow.

If would mean the world to me if you clicked over and checked it out.

As always, my thanks to Randy for having me and Penny for making sure I sound smart.

The Top Nine Long Winters Songs

You probably woke up this morning and thought to yourself, "Damn it, Andrew Marvin; You haven't written about The Long Winters in forever. What the hell is going on?"

And you would be correct. But fortunately, I'm here today to guide you through a small portion of the Long Winters discography. Prepare your ears for an auditory orgasm.

Since I've already detailed my discovery of The Long Winters, why you need to listen to them, and my thoughts on one of their albums, I thought I'd take a different route and offer my top nine Long Winters songs.

"Why nine?!" you exclaim with incredulity. Because I can't bear to pick a tenth. It's different on any given day. It might be "Sky Is Open", or "Samaritan", or "Rich Wife", or "Nora", or any of the other songs John Roderick has written.

See, the hard part about picking your favorite Long Winters songs is that they don't have any bad songs, and thus this is not so much a list of my favorites so much as it is a list of my most favorites. Each Long Winters song is unique, and thus each is the best in its own way.

And to be honest, other than number one, these are in no particular order. That would be like trying to pick my favorite child, of which I have none, thus only adding to the impossibility of such a task.

So without further ado...

9. Teaspoon

Best Line: I know I wasn't made to play on a team...

Album: Putting the Days to Bed (2006)

Length: 2:54

Listen!

The introvert's anthem, "Teaspoon" is a concise little number, whose length belies its infectious groove and soaring personality. This is a sunny day song if there ever was one. Its chorus begs to be sung at full volume, and its horns are uplifting and celebratory. Featuring one of my favorite John Roderick vocal performances, the lyrics evoke a sense of longing, but one that gives you chills and makes you smile uncontrollably. This was my first favorite Long Winters song.

8. Delicate Hands

Best Line: I held you under / Wanting to feel you wanting to breathe...

Album: Ultimatum (2005)

Length: 3:59

Listen!

The 2005 Ultimatum EP features just four studio tracks, accompanied by two live acoustic performances by John. Of note, three of my nine favorite songs can be found on it, which makes this little EP a musical treasure. John himself explains that the album is largely about disaster and dissolution, and "Delicate Hands" is no exception. The lyrics are vague, and we don't know to whom the singer sings. A lover in trouble? An aging relative? What we do feel is a sense of wanting to help someone who — for whatever reason — cannot be helped. Despite the melancholy subject matter, the music comforts and soothes, even as the speaker cries out for something he thought he knew.

7. Mimi

Best Line: Those flaming babies / Came down from the sky

Album: The Worst You Can Do Is Harm (2002)

Length: 5:06

Listen!

Bonus! Acoustic performance by John Roderick

The lyric notes describe "Mimi" as a song about "a road in Alaska where beautiful and terrible things happen." It's a slow song, with lyrics indicative of tragedy and music befitting a silent, winter landscape. It's haunting and gorgeous and powerful. I love it.

6. Clouds

Best Line: The ground is so proud just to hold us up

Album: Putting the Days to Bed (2006)

Length: 3:34

[Damn! Can't find it on YouTube. Guess you'll just have to buy the album.]

A stark contrast from "Mimi". "Clouds" is a fitting title; the song is wandering, whimsical, and light-hearted, best enjoyed on a beautiful day with a big blue sky. Listen for the banjo (or is it a ukelele?). It's hard to pick a favorite line, as each is delivered so perfectly, imbued with the uplifting-yet-slightly-sad tone found throughout Putting the Days to Bed. This one always makes me smile.

5. Ultimatum

Best Line: And I hope I can keep seeing you / Just as long as you don't say you're / Falling in love

Album: Originally appears on Ultimatum; rocked-up version appears on Putting the Days to Bed.

Length: 3:38 and 3:06, respectively.

Listen!

"Ultimatum" is the only Long Winters song to appear on two albums: first as a quiet, acoustic, string-laden number on the eponymous EP, and second as a soaring, dynamic rock song on Putting the Days to Bed. I will admit that I prefer the up-tempo version a bit more. Like most Long Winters songs, this one demands to be sung aloud, preferably on the highway with the windows down. The lyrics are pained, yet cautiously optimistic, as if the speaker is climbing his way out of the depths of heartbreak, ever upward towards the sun.

4. Carparts

Best Line: Baby wasn't down with the heist!

Album: The Worst You Can Do Is Harm (2002)

Length: 4:05

Listen!

Bonus! Acoustic performance by John Roderick

More Bonus! Merlin Mann's thoughts on "Carparts"

What can you say about "Carparts"? It's a classic, and a monument in the Long Winters canon. The inhale at the beginning, the brilliant lines, the soaring music, the mischievous bridge, the vocal delivery... It's hard to beat. Listen, learn it, and sing your heart out. See Merlin's post above for more.

3. The Commander Thinks Aloud

Best Line: The crew compartment's breaking up...

Album: Ultimatum (2005)

Length: 5:26

Listen!

John's beautiful elegy, "The Commander Thinks Aloud" is about the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. According to S1E31 of Back to Work, John felt that such an event was too big to be turned into a metaphor, hence the lyrics' literal quality. The song is sparse, featuring just three piano chords, swelling synths, and a somber, marching drum beat. But this space allows the song to be filled with tearful emotion. The song's imagery is unparalleled as John describes the Commander's last thoughts, and the fact that we know the shuttle's fate makes our hearts ache for him and his crew. Easily the most powerful song in the Long Winters catalog. You will be moved. Don't miss it.

2. Hindsight

Best Line: And if I hold you now will I be / Holding a snowball when the season changes / And I'm craving the sun?

Album: Putting the Days to Bed (2006)

Length: 4:07

[Damn! Can't find it on YouTube. Guess you'll just have to buy the album.]

Arguably the strongest track on Putting the Days to Bed, and certainly one of John Roderick's finest pieces. In some ways, "Hindsight" seems to be a follow-up to "Stupid" on When I Pretend to Fall. Whereas the voice of "Stupid" is clearly heartbroken — he has to be held back from calling her — "Hindsight" sees the singer in recovery. He asserts, "In hindsight / You're going to wish you were here", and we get a sense we're all going to be OK. One of the most lyrically dense songs in the Long Winters discography, every line is flawless, delivered with courage and backed by uplifting harmonies. There's so much depth here. My heart feels better every time this song comes on.

1. Scared Straight

Best Line: You were cursed, and scolded, and scarred!

Album: When I Pretend to Fall (2003)

Length: 4:18

Listen!

I love everything about "Scared Straight": the organ intro, the groove, the celebratory horns, the this-song-was-written-for-me lyrics, the perfect vocal delivery, the arrangement, the bridge... It's a masterpiece. There's not just one good part — every part is so good, and they come one after another. "Scared Straight" speaks to me. It's one of those songs you wish you could play for someone because it so perfectly expresses everything you wish you could say to them. It's my favorite Long Winters song, and I'll never skip it.

Change Your Life

And there you have it. Let me remind you that each Long Winters' record is full of musical gems from start to finish, and I could have just as easily listed my top forty songs here. Once you've digested each album as individual entities, feel free to put the entire discography on shuffle. You can thank me later.

iTunes Links

$36 for a lifetime of love? C'mon.

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Required Listening II

Today’s post is my second contribution to Randy Murray’s excellent Required Listening series, which features great albums you might be missing from your favorite genre.

This record is one of my favorite live albums and concert films, so please click on over to First Today, Then Tomorrow and check it out!

Special thanks to Randy and Penny!

Required Listening

Today, I have the privilege of contributing to Randy Murray’s Required Listening series.

Required Listening discusses great albums you may be missing from your favorite genre. The series has featured wonderful pieces by writers like Patrick Rhone and Penny Mattern, and I’m honored to be featured alongside them.

Randy himself is a professional business writer, and his site, First Today, Then Tomorrow, is one of my favorite blogs. My sincerest thanks to him for this opportunity.

Be sure to click over and check out today’s post, and then stay for Randy’s inspiring thoughts on writing, productivity, and life!

You can read my Required Listening piece here, at First Today, Then Tomorrow.

"Blue in the broad light of day"

Yesterday, I called The Long Winters the band you need to know. Today, I’ll discuss the album I’d recommend starting with. Although I love all of The Long Winters’ records, this was the first one I heard. If you hate The Long Winters, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled program tomorrow. Also, shame on you.

The Long Winters’ 2006 effort, Putting the Days to Bed, sat quietly on my iPod for almost four years before it became one of my most treasured albums. It encompasses everything that makes the band — and music in general — such a joy to listen to: catchy melodies, honest lyrics, and ultimately, a sense that no matter what you’re going through, everything is going to be OK.  

With eleven tracks totaling just 38 minutes, Putting the Days to Bed is a concise, yet highly memorable, indie rock record. The longest song is barely over four minutes, but rest assured, the album’s brevity belies the depth found within every song. A paragon of its genre, Putting the Days to Bed makes a brilliant addition to any music collection.

John Roderick’s lyrical prowess sits atop a long list of reasons why I love The Long Winters. As I took notes for this article during what must have been my hundredth listen, I found myself wanting to write down almost every line. It’s not just the words themselves that are great, but also the way they are delivered. Putting the Days to Bed is full of wonderful lines begging to be sung at full volume.  

Like me, I’m willing to bet you won’t be able to decide on a favorite. It might be the horn-backed triumph of “Teaspoon” (I know I wasn’t made to play on a team), or the guarded cries of “Hindsight” (I’m bailing water and bailing water because I like the shape of the boat).

Other days, you might prefer the cynicism of “Rich Wife” (Now tell me, is your high horse getting a little hard to ride?), or the quiet longing of “Seven” (Distance helps me only so much…).

Personally, I always come back to the upbeat vulnerability of “Ultimatum” (I hope I can keep seeing you just as long as you don’t say you’re falling in love). I could pour over each song line by line, but that’s a journey best taken on your own. We’ll compare notes when you’re ready.  

You could argue that Putting the Days to Bed is an exercise in heartbreak, and in a way, you’d be correct. None of the romances here seem destined to succeed. In fact, many are already a thing of the past. But, if all you had was the music, the singer’s plight would probably go unnoticed. Despite its lyrics, this album is soaring, infectious, and will have you rocking out within seconds of pushing PLAY. That’s what makes Putting the Days to Bed such a wonderful paradox. These are celebratory songs about broken hearts, and the result is a cathartic journey designed to lead us out of dark places. 

I often find myself thinking no matter how tough life gets, it’s hard to feel down as long as music exists. Putting the Days to Bed may feature the anguished lover, but the music reminds us not to forget just how incredible life is, heartbreak and all. There may be pain in the moment, but this is an album that encourages us to sing and dance our way through both the best and worst of times. It tells us to look at the big picture and find the comfort and beauty that resides there. What seems to be an exercise in heartbreak, then, is really a lesson in perspective. That’s what makes Putting the Days to Bed required listening. It shows us that, as painful as love can be, it’s a beautiful thing all the same.  

You can buy Putting the Days to Bed on iTunes.