It's astounding when you think of it: one of the greatest "prog rock bands" in history waited until their 20th studio album in their fourth decade of existence to record their first "concept" album. The elements of the concept album have been staples of their sound -- epic song lengths, complicated, possibly esoteric storylines, etc -- but Clockwork Angels is their first attempt at the conceit so common among bands considered their peers.
That's all fine and good but let’s get something straight from the outset: the story is, by far, secondary to the music of Clockwork Angels.
It’s obvious upon that first time through and that remains even on my dozenth time – the story here isn’t front and center like it was with “2112” or “Hemispheres.” And that’s okay. Sacrifice story for the sake of tighter writing, sacrifice story for the sake of music – the band is seasoned enough to know not to sacrifice anything the other direction. So while the story is a bit muddled and incoherent (cleared up with the help of the lyric sheet and snippets of the story Peart and novelist Kevin J. Anderson are piecing together for this fall’s novelization), they pumped it all back into what matters most.
And that’s where the exciting action comes in. As a band with nearly forty years of recording behind them, they have a large and dedicated fanbase behind them who will support them through pretty much anything, including lesser albums. It’s one thing for to churn out some fodder for store shelves, something to get their name out there again before the big tour. It’s another for a band of this vintage to knock one out of the park, and that’s just what Rush has done. For Angels is no mere shelf-filler, name-reminder. This is pure Rush. This is the Rush that has always had fans foaming at the mouth, raving to friends. This is Rush at the peak of their game, four decades into their career. It seems impossible and yet…
While the Angels material stylistically careens wildly from one period to the next – that’s one benefit of Rush having been so flexible and curious all along – it never slogs down to a snail’s pace as so many other “dinosaur acts” seem to. Rush, a band of men on the cusp of 60, throw nearly as many twists and turns into this new music as they did in Permanent Waves.
Which brings up an interest thing – that great album Permanent Waves. For some reason, it’s the only album I find an analogue in throughout their catalog for Clockwork Angels. While not a concept album, it’s another almost flawless album that has a similarly ambitious feel throughout, taking listeners on an involving ride that only makes them want to jump back on again at the end. Though the Rush die-hards will disagree, the band, like all bands, have few near-flawless albums. Time after time, however, I find myself reaching to re-queue Clockwork Angels when the last notes fade.
What is it that brings me back? Most simplistically, it’s hearing Rush sound so vital and vibrant. Rush has typically done what it wanted to do, but just like you can sense a smile on the face of someone on the other end of the telephone line, music listeners can sense that same smile, maybe in the form of enthusiasm, in the playing. A little extra finesse here and there from Neil Peart’s expert drumming, a little something extra wild in Alex Lifeson’s guitar solo, or the flair of a grace note or two in Geddy Lee’s bassline. The band always at the top of their game – that’s what Rush is known for - but sometimes the play at the very top of the top, as here.
But that’s not enough, it’s not concrete enough. Moments are what bring us back, aren’t they? Not just whole songs, not at first – though we love the songs, too, obviously. There’s always a pull to hear a specific this and another perfect that. I’ve just got to hear “The Anarchist” again, again, maybe again – so good, so perfect, how Geddy leads with his stair-stepping bass until Alex comes in with that phasey guitar, and the song’s later shades of '80s Rush with the keyboard washes. But it’s Alex’s solo that seals the deal, an Arabian-tinged cascade of notes that evokes all those great solos that somehow disappeared in the '90s. Shivers up the spine, goosebumps all over my arms – every time. It’s the first time I’ve gotten shivers from new Rush music in a long time.
Or how about “Carnies,” a tune whose name I cringed at when the tracklisting emerged simply because of the thought of Peart shoe-horning the title into the chorus? Simply put, it’s become one of my favorites on the album, from the opening homage to “Working Man” to Geddy’s clever reworking of the familiar bouncy carnival theme that underpins parts of the song. And, again, Alex cuts loose with more great solo moments – the smile sounds obvious to me.
There’s more, though – “The Wreckers” resurrects, stylistically, at least, the feel of Rush in the late 80s, without so many keyboards. There’s a bit of “Mission” here, in spirit, if not in sound – though this may be the most keyboard-laden of the album’s dozen. Those shivers come again right at the end of the song as Alex’s guitar steps forward, peaking its head up and squawling away into one of his signature yearning solos… only to get faded out seconds later. It is one of the most tragic edits I have heard in ages. Why? Why?! Why cut that out?!
Rush saved the best for last, however. Tucked into the culmination of the album is one of Rush’s most moving songs ever, “The Garden.” Here, the whole band evokes goosebumps and shivers. Everything clicks in exactly the right way at exactly the right time. A bed of strings back the band, gentle piano chimes in during the break, and Alex lets unfurl another of his signature solos. Rush has attempted songs like this before, and mostly succeeded (think “Available Light,” from 1989’s Presto) but here, this song, is where they got it all just right. The message of the song is uplifting despite its melancholy disposition.
The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen
And that is what makes me hit “play” again. The words ring true, strong and emphatic, like the final notes of the song as they ring out into the fade… It’s not enough. Go back around again for another ride. The cycle repeats. Go back around. It still won’t be enough.