Rush: Clockwork Angels

Progressive rock can be a tricky thing, both to listen to and to make. For those not in the know, progressive rock (or prog rock) is an attempt at expanding the scope, the meaning, the technicality, and the significance of music. Missing from most prog rock songs are the trappings of pop music, including (at times) even a chorus. Even the idea of a “single” is missing, and instead the focus is on the album as a whole. Artists typically take the advantage of an album’s full runtime to tell one huge, overarching (sometimes epic) story. A multitude of instruments are used to this end, with some songs simply being instrumentals intended to convey a particular emotion following (or preceding) a particular song. Prog rock albums tend to be, in and of themselves, entire rock operas. Rush’s 2112 is an excellent example of a prog rock concept album; it’s set in a dystopia controlled by the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx, who control Earth and are agents of the Solar Federation, who in turn control the universe. The priests control all cultural matter, from the posters that people can hang on their walls to what they can listen to. The protagonist finds a guitar and is amazed at it’s beauty and perfection; he shows the priests, who destroy it and rebuke him. The protagonist commits suicide just as another planetary war breaks out which frees the planet. 2112 is one of the best concept albums ever made which, for Rush, is (and has been) a tough act to follow.

Clockwork Angels is definitely a step in the right direction and is probably one of the best Rush albums to be released in years.  The music is clean, highly technical, and ultimately comes together for a great album. While it is a concept album per se (which follows a young man on a journey through a steampunk-esque landscape), Rush leaves a lot of the storytelling to the guitar, drums, and bass, and less to Geddy Lee’s singing; each track, in fact, is very lyrically subtle, relying a lot on the accompanying instruments to send its message. Each song, more or less, stands on its own however and each track works independently. The songs are all mostly darker or edgier than typical Rush fare, with most of them being lamentations more than anything.  I found the tracks “Headlong Rush,” the title track “Clockwork Angels,” and “Seven Cities of Gold” to be especially poignant; the last of them opens with “a man can lose his past  in a country like this”, and switches it each chorus with two different words, going from “past” to “way”, then to “himself” and “his past”. The issue of losing one’s way or his past or his identity or anything like that, and being spiritually lost in addition to being actually physically lost is of import in this song, and in this album, and “Seven Cities” is a key track in the entire piece. Lyrically and musically, it is beautiful.

Some of the dark, edgy stuff can start to feel a little old, unfortunately. It’s produced by the same guy who produced Rush’s last album, Snakes and Arrows, and while Snakes and Arrows had some great tracks on it and was definitely a great release by such a legendary band, it certainly wasn’t one of their absolute best albums and, I felt, it was kind of hurt by it’s “darkness” or edginess or metal-ness or whatever. Clockwork Angels continues in that direction. While Snakes wasn’t a concept album, it definitely was a more pessimistic reflection on life, with songs like “Far Cry”, which lamented that this world was a “far cry from the one we thought we’d inherit”, or “Faithless”, which while less pessimistic, was a sort of sad reflection and/or realization that love is the only thing worth believing in. Both are fantastic songs, of course, but while I felt that Snakes and Arrows was a huge leap forward for such an old band, Clockwork Angels is just a hop from Snakes. That is, all in all, a minor gripe, I think.

The album, overall, is awesome. It’s “inspired” by Voltaire’s CandideCandide rooted itself in disaster, and like Voltaire, writer/drummer Peart obviously does the same, rooting Clockwork Angels in his own personal disaster, that being the death of his wife and daughter in the matter of months. I think that some of the “Rush-ness” of the album is lost somewhere along the way, which is unfortunate, but it is still an exceptional offering from the band. The album is filled with meaning and each and every piece is essential — while the album feels like it’s missing a thing or two here and there, nothing feels like it was unnecessarily added and the album doesn’t feel unnecessarily heavy in any way. I’ve listened through it several times now and each time pick up on something different. The tracks, while they obviously work best with eachother, do stand alone. While I don’t think Rush has birthed any timeless classics here, they have made a terrific piece of art that can easily stand alongside 2112. If you’re a Rush fan, buy it.

The hands of the clock point to either 9:12 AM or 9:12 PM. 9:12 PM is 21:12. Clockwork Angels is more like 2112 than anything else they’ve done, so it seems appropriate.

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