Clockwork Angels, the new album from veteran prog rockers Rush, is a masterpiece in the truest sense of the word. The nineteen albums preceding this one enjoyed varying degrees of success both artistically and commercially, but if forced to pick a single disc to demonstrate the band’s brilliant forty year career this would be the one.
This album finds our intrepid Canadian heroes in the best fighting shape of their lives, not in spite of their age but because they have done so much road work. Clockwork Angels is a bass, drum, and guitar clinic — three master craftsmen at the tops of their respective games. Geddy’s bass is powerful, punchy, and tasteful. It’s so foregrounded in the mix that I wonder if his bandmates quietly agreed to give the old man a chance to take a victory lap. “The Anarchist” and “Headlong Flight” in particular showcase his busy, muscular performance. All pretenders step aside: the one true king has claimed his throne:
But everybody is busy on a Rush album — it’s the only way three guys can make so much glorious noise. While Geddy is pumping away on bass, bass pedals, keyboards, and vocals, Neil Peart drives right along with him. It’s hard not to gush about Peart as the guy has been venerated as the elder statesman of rock percussion for thirty-five years, but his performance here really is something special. Seventy-five percent of the drum work on Angels is first-take improvisation. In other words, what you’re getting here is the sound of a man so adept at his craft that he can depend on his first thought being his best thought. Think of Peart’s performance on this album as the musical equivalent of Kerouac’s automatic writing but with a floor tom.
That leaves guitarist Alex Lifeson. In my non-fiction pieces I write about a character name Matt. Matt’s brother was maybe five years younger than us, which means that he was an elementary schooler when Rush hit their early eighties commercial peak. More than once while Matt and I sat and marveled at Lifeson’s guitar heroics, Matt’s little brother interjected: “Hey, look. It’s Hot Shot.” The mighty Lifeson called out by a fourth grader.
But that’s what makes Clockwork Angels the band’s masterpiece. Hot Shot is still there, lurking, waiting to call his shot, and when he does it works. Be it a crunchy riff or shimmering arpeggios every lick fits its song perfectly. “Headlong Flight” is yet again a great example, wherein Lifeson lets Hot Shot out of his cage to shred and pay homage to the classic “Bastille Day.”
Everything is here: the soaring vocals; the shifting time signatures; the brilliant performances; the impenetrable concept. A lyric sheet is enclosed with the CD version along with some really beautiful images. Both go a long way toward illuminating the album’s Candide meets steampunk concept. The band also commissioned sci-fi writer Kevin J. Anderson to write a novelization, so inevitably the whole story will be laid out for us if that’s important to you. To me the cryptic nature of all of this is another part of what makes Clockwork Angels Rush’s masterpiece. Here I sit at forty-five with my headphones and my lyric sheet, trying to untangle it all in the same way that I wrestled with Hemispheres as a kid.
Which is not to say that the new album sounds like Hemispheres, or any previous Rush album for that matter. This is not Rush performing as the world’s greatest Rush tribute band, and yet it sounds precisely like a Rush album. Like every band, the trio experienced a mid-career walk through the wilderness, making embarrassing stabs at relevance (“Roll the Bones,” I’m looking at you). But Clockwork Angels has the crispness of a band who hopes you enjoy but inevitably doesn’t really care what you think. A lot of heritage acts can learn from their example.
The bottom line is this: Clockwork Angels might not be my personal favorite Rush album, but it is a brilliant artistic summary of a forty year career. It isn’t going to bring Rush a new level of commercial success. There’s no crossover single that will connect with One Direction and Bieber fans. But if you’re already a Rush fan you’re going to eat up all twelve delicious tracks, regardless of whether you prefer seventies, eighties, or later Rush. And if you happen to know a smart kid with a good ear who likes to rock and wants to poke Katy Perry in the eye, give him or her a copy of Angels. They’ll love it so much they just might forgive you for that time you tried to turn them on to Hootie and the Blowfish.