After 38 years together, Rush is not so much a band as it is a musical genre unto itself.
Never a mainstream critical favorite, and forever deemed too uncool for the hipster stamp of approval, the trio – bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, drummer/lyricist Neil Peart – simply went about its business, becoming the most virtuosic live ensemble in all of rock. Its string of finely detailed albums spoke directly to the hearts of one of the most loyal international fan bases extant, built upon viscerally uncompromising progressive music. At the same time, it has stayed off the radar of mainstream deities like Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This outsider status only further endears the band to its fans. It has also provided its lyrics with much of their philosophical perspective. Many of the band's finest songs and strongest albums detail the struggle to assert one's individuality in a world that all but demands homogenization.
In that sense, "Clockwork Angels," out today, is a continuation of a time-honored theme. In almost every other sense, however, Rush's 20th studio album represents a radical reinvention of the Rush ethic.
"Clockwork Angels" is that dreaded (in some quarters) indulgence of ?prog-rock elitism – the concept album. Rush hasn't made an overtly thematic collection since "Hemispheres" in 1978 — an album that served as a demarcation point between the early, epic-length period of the band and its later effort to pack its virtuosity and mega-ambition into shorter song-structures. "Clockwork Angels" is an incredibly dense collection of songs, many of which come in well beyond the six-minute mark.
It also is stunningly heavy in spots — not brawny in the heavy metal sense, but rich, layered, powerful, muscular and sonically assertive. Yet for all the power and heft, the album boasts the sophistication, subtlety and command of dynamic ebb and flow common to the band's best work.
The album — which is receiving a novelization by science fiction author and longtime Peart friend Kevin J. Anderson — traces the path of an unnamed protagonist as he wrestles to retain some sense of humanity in "a world lit only by fire," possibly, but not necessarily, in the future.
For Peart, the setting — akin to the post-apocalyptic dystopia in Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road" — offers ample opportunity to pit a vigilant idealism against oppressive forces of the social, political and personal variety. "Clockwork Angels" is a "road movie," in a sense; our hero is forever on the move, from the opening, restlessly propulsive "Caravan" through the more ruminative closer, "The Garden."
Along the way, he indulges in a race against time, as represented by a "loving Watchmaker" who "loves us all to death." The Watchmaker — the notion of God in Peart parlance, it would seem — sets traps for the hero, be they the comfort afforded by delusion and religion ("Clockwork Angels," "Halo Effect"), the roadblocks erected by "Spirits turned bitter by the poison of envy/always angry and dissatisfied" ("Wish Them Well") or the lure of exotic and forbidden fruit ("Carnies").
It isn't explicit in the text, but "Clockwork Angels" seems to cover a broad span of time — from the protagonist's adolescence to his late middle-age. The almost desperate clinging to vigilant idealism and compassion — a common Peart trope — is most powerfully expressed within the epic "Headlong Flight," during which the narrator expresses a hard-earned stoicism, an acceptance of life's trials and torments alongside its fleeting glimpses of joy. "I wish that I could live it all again," he cries, via the impassioned voice of Lee, who offers the finest singing of his career throughout the album.
Having survived his dark night of the soul, the narrator reflects on what he's learned in "The Garden" and finds that "the treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect/the way you live, the gifts that you give/and the fullness of time is the only return you can expect." The song unfolds as an elegiac epic, and is startlingly poignant. Fans aware that Peart has suffered immensely in his own life, having endured the death of his 19-year-old daughter and wife of 22 years within a 10-month period in 1997, will likely find these lyrics even more touching.
"Clockwork Angels" would be an impressive record even without its beautifully rendered libretto. The album's production — handled by the band, returning collaborator Nick Raskulinecz and engineer Richard Chycki — ranks among the most astute of the trio's career. There is a "live" feel throughout, particularly in the abundantly virtuosic drumming, some of Peart's finest. Guitarist Lifeson is a master when it comes to constructing shimmering arrangements built of broad arpeggios, walloping power chords and harmonically inventive solos. Lee's bass playing is beautifully busy, but equally groove-conscious. The interplay between the three musicians is simply breathtaking, perhaps more so than ever.
Someone forgot to tell Rush that rock music this ambitious is not particularly in style at the moment. But then, these guys probably wouldn't have listened anyway. "Clockwork Angels" is a sublime creation.
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Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)