RUSH – Clockwork Angels (2012) – an album review

It’s been a handful of years since the last studio album of original music by Rush, the Canadian power trio that has played just about every style of rock music you can think of except electric polka… wait, in their last concert video, they did some of that, too. I guess that just leaves Industrial Metal, which to the best of my knowledge they have never done, and I don’t particularly need them to. Point is, they’ve been around for my entire lifetime (and a little extra), and if you’ve never heard of them, there is little help for you. Oh, except that they’ve just released a new album. You might want to check it out.

tl;dr Version: NEW RUSH ALBUM! W00T! Wuh… What do you mean, you don’t like Rush? GTFO!

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Okay, so it’s true, Rush is not precisely the People’s Band, though up here in Canuckistan, they’ve come mighty close a number of times. They’ve been a staple of Canadian rock radio since I was a boy. I can still remember the red clear vinyl Hemispheres album, which was a mind-blowing album even at 8 or 9 or whatever year it was I first I heard it. Rush has been part of my living soundtrack, and even in later years when their music has gotten a little less immediate and a little more dense and challenging to fall in love with, still they have never flagged in their ability to turn out a powerful and thought-provoking album.

Boring Version: The thing about Rush is, they’ve been recording and performing some of the densest, richest power trio music of the last 40 years, and despite some pretty serious upheaval in the life of Neil Peart, the master drummer and main lyricist of the band, they’ve remained close friends and confidants. They haven’t allowed the business to overshadow their work or their playtime, and they’ve managed after all of these years to keep pretty much the same business model and group dynamic without ever sounding stale or geriatric. The magic of Rush is just as vibrant today as it was back in the mid-70s when they first started recording with original drummer John Rutsey (born July 23rd, 1952 — died May 11th, 2008). They still ROCK. That’s not something most rock bands from that era can claim, even if they are still together.

Anyway, I could write a whole hell of a lot more about Rush, and have in fact done so on at least one other occasion, but I’m anxious to hear the album myself. This is a ‘first time listen’, blow-by-blow review, so I have no preconceived notions of the album as a whole, though I have already heard the first three songs in one form or another from previous pre-releases. We’re embarking on an adventure together, here. Let’s get started.

THE REVIEW
Caravan opens with street noises, a bell ringing, and the music creeps in in relaxed fashion, building to something. When the main riff finally asserts itself, it’s a mid-tempo rocker, not entirely unlike something from Roll the Bones, except that the music itself, particularly in the change-up (call it a chorus, I guess), isn’t as straightforward. Geddy’s bass bounces along to Neil’s solid, hard-pounding drum rhythm, until they arrive at the instrumental, which allows Alex to paint in both atmospheric and heavy guitar tones, while Geddy and Neil dance and chop up changes with gusto. It’s a peculiar mix of 70’s, 80’s and 90’s styles, but the sound is big and the production is excellent. I heard the early version of this song, but I don’t seem to recall it, and frankly, it must have been an off day if I don’t remember hearing a song like this. I’ll have to go back and review that early version later on, to see what’s different, if at all.

BU2B starts with an acoustic and some heavily treated vocals, before a slightly Zeppelinesque riff crashes in and then itself gets distorted through the prism of Rush’s own sensibilities during the refrain, which has certain Moroccan Roll characteristics without being too obvious. The monster verse riff returns, followed by another pass at the refrain and chorus, and then we arrive at the bridge, which is moody and atmospheric, with certain mid-80s sensibilities, but followed by that monster verse riff, which gets served up with a spare but emotional guitar solo in the instrumental. I’ve apparently heard this song before as well, but it doesn’t feel like it, because I just don’t remember having heard this. It’s pretty incredible, actually.

Clockwork Angels sneaks in quietly on symbols and buried vocals, before a very atypical guitar part creeps in, all compressed distortion and burbling bass over hi-hat, and then the title track takes on an almost 2112 opening quality, until the false verse riff arrives, and we have a smidgen of catchy 80s rush, followed by crunchy 90s Rush taking over the verse. The chorus is strident and moody, building off of the intro riff, and leads to a bridge with that 80s riff again, so it’s not just a tease. The structure of this number is pretty busy, which makes one prog-era fan very happy. The song has hooks, without being commercial. Very nice. The instrumental allows Alex to trot out one of his 80s-type guitar solos, which fits perfectly here, despite the very different sonic landscape. The instrumental breaks down to a very different, slightly blusier sound with flattop acoustic slide and a 12-bar blues rhythm section heavily treated to sound ‘authentic’. Then we bounce back to the catchy verse, which is followed by that 70s intro leading into the chorus, and my brain is highly amused. Heading for the finish line with a repeat of the chorus, and then it goes out on a monster recap and a little faded vocal treatment. Very nice.

The Anarchist opens like a number of songs from the last ten or so years of Rush music, but it’s very welcome here. They play a bit of an overture of styles and sounds before the verse arrives, which to these ears is like something off of Presto or Counterparts. They use more treated vocals in the bridge, over top of a slightly tribal sounding drum rhythm and a keyboard sound evoking an Indian string ensemble. The chorus has a nice hook and even returns to that overture segment. The impression I’m getting from the structure is that it’s like listening to one of their concise 80s mini-epics,but with their sound palette of the 90s. I can think of a lot of fans I know who are probably very happy to hear that analogy. There’s a nice proper bridge that leads to a heavy instrumental, once again putting Alex in the spotlight with an early 80s-sound playing a Middle Eastern-inflected solo which doesn’t overstay its welcome. They return to the refrain and build to the finish. Fabulous tune. I’m already in love with this album.

Carnies starts with carnival atmosphere noises, including cheering children, which fades away to introduce a VERY 70’s era Rush rock riff right out of the Working Man vein, but they don’t stay here long before shifting to a late 70s prog-inflected riff, which leads directly into a light quote of Hemispheres on guitar. This leads back to the Working Man riff, and back to the chorus, which takes us up to the 80s again, except with the heavy rock sound palette that tips it on its ear. The Hemisphere quote returns, followed by a very dense combination of some of the other riffs, and then a return to the very listenable chorus. They finish on an extremely dense outro version of the 70s riff, and head into…

Halo Effect introduces itself on synths, followed by a very melodic acoustic guitar and bass passage that manages to evoke both A Farewell to Kings and Counterparts in equal measure. Lovely tune. This would be the radio release, if radio were worth pursuing anymore. They slip some string ensemble into the mix of the final chorus and end nicely.

Seven Cities of Gold stomps in on a funky bass and broken drum pattern over a squall of buried guitars, which eventually makes way for something akin to 70’s-meets 00’s (thinking mainly of Snakes and Arrows,though some of their radio songs from the previous two albums comes to mind here, too) Rush in the verse, and a bridge built around bass and organ. The chorus proper has a little skip beat and a lot of dense bass and guitar, before returning to the heavy verse riff. The lyrics seem to be evoking a little something that makes me think of Moving Pictures, but it sounds nothing like that. The instrumental is a little unusual in that the guitar sits a little in the background and features Neil playing percussion over a driving bass line, before rocking back to the chorus. Nice. Geddy’s bass playing is in fine form on this track, making me want to reach for my bass and figure out what he’s doing there. The outro is a slight return to the instrumental, again with Alex’s main guitar in the background, but overwhelmed by heavy guitar washes and a sparse but intense rhythm.

The Wreckers opens with what sounds a bit like a Rickenbacker 12 string electric guitar sound. The verse and chorus are very reminiscent of their radio-friendly sound of the late 80s and early 90s, except for that opening riff that revisits in the bridge, which sounds like something from the 60’s. The chorus also has some of Geddy’s atmospheric synth wash, which makes the return to the 60s Byrds-type riff that much more dynamic. A lengthy bridge section is very moody and heavily synth-layered, but rocks mightily before heading back to the chorus. It closes on a radio-friendly fade with strings and guitars wailing.

Headlong Flight builds with a doubled bass line and percussion before the guitar kicks in. This song I’ve heard recently, and I’m happy to say it stands up to a repeated listen, that very funky bass line and heavy guitars gently quoting Bastille Day. There’s a bridge section that again sounds like something left over from the 70s, but the heavy-but-melodic tones of Vapor Trails or Test For Echo. There’s a nice mini-epic quality to this track that keeps the ears busy and the foot tapping. It’s a pretty heavy tune that will have heads bobbing in arenas. The instrumental section recalls some of Alex’s 70s lead guitar work, including a guitar lick that sounds like an outtake from their first (eponymous) album. Trying to decide if it’s Finding My Way or Working Man it most reminds me of. It’s in that very frenetic, razor-thin ES-335 lead tone vein though. Then it shifts to a heavy drum & bass bit that leads back to the verse, and quickly to the chorus. Geddy’s bass work reminds us of his biggest early bass influences like Chris Squire and John Entwhistle. The outro chorus is dense and heavy, and ends pretty suddenly.

BU2B2 is a wall of ambient sounds and a string section, with Geddy singing in the midst. Short, effective, somewhat mysterious.

Wish Them Well opens with guitars and drums, and soon joined by Geddy singing what must be part of the chorus, before the bass joins in and asserts a very hooky recapitulation of the chorus. Then it circles back and dishes up a dense but cool verse riff, followed by the reintroduction of the catchy riff, which now serves as a bridge to the chorus. Nice structure. Somewhere around Counterparts in form and sound. Great, solid 90’s Rush instrumental, and then a cool middle eight, before the hook returns on jangling guitar and then bass and drums, before riding out on the chorus. Nice work.

The Garden slips in on a cool- atypical guitar riff and swirling, swelling strings, before switching up to an acoustic and Geddy singing over top. It takes on a slightly Zeppelin III feel here, before the chorus arrives with a mood shift that doesn’t sound like anything I can quite pin down, except perhaps the Hold Your Fire album. The next pass at the verse returns to acoustic, but with the bass burbling along, it takes on a different sonic quality. The chorus returns, and I’m sure it’s most like HYF. Then they shift to a bridge played lightly and featuring piano, which sounds just lovely here. Then the instrumental dives in, loud and passionate, Alex playing perhaps the sweetest guitar solo he’s pulled off in at least 20 years. Very pretty and understated. This is definitely a closing track, very much in the vein of their album closers of the late 80s and early 90s. Gorgeous tune. The piano returns for the close, as the building soundscapes converge and fade.

SUMMARY
I’ll keep this simple. As I’ve made abundantly clear, I’ve been a Rush listener for most of my life, and a fan for more than half of it. That said, I’ve found most of their output of the last fifteen or so years to be a bit less than best, for me. The heaviness was important, but the melodicism started to take a serious back seat. Well, on this album, they’ve at long last struck the balance. The heaviness and the sonic landscapes have finally met with the melodicism and catchiness of their late 70s and especially their 80s output. I used to say that it generally takes Rush about three albums to explore and sum up a stage of their development, sound-wise, but for me, the last fifteen years have felt like an extended exploration, like they were searching for something that I couldn’t hear. With this album, they’ve at last arrived somewhere I recognize. Not quite Progressive Rock in scope, but still noticeably progressive in style and structure, and incredibly diverse in sound. A beautiful album. I’ve been waiting a long time for this, and I’m glad it’s finally here. This is the best album they’ve released in decades. It’s a recapitulation of all things Rush, and yet something entirely new. My only regret is I won’t have the money to see them perform any of these songs live when they go on tour next year, unless things change radically for me financially. This is an album/tour I’d love to support.

So do me a favour and go out and buy a copy for me, and when you see them live, remember who sent you.

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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