Released in June
Until the release of their newest album, Clockwork Angels, you'd have to go all the way back to 1993's Counterparts to find a new Rush album that's managed to engage me. That lengthy span, it should be noted, has included only three other studio albums, plus a covers EP, a host of live albums, and a 4-5 year recording hiatus stemming from some personal tragedies experienced by drummer/lyricist Neil Peart. Advance notice from the band explaining that Clockwork Angels would be a concept album about "A young man's quest across a lavish and colourful world of steampunk and alchemy as he attempts to follow his dreams. The story features lost cities, pirates, anarchists, exotic carnival, and a rigid Watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life" definitely didn't inspire a lot of optimism on my part. In fact, my eyes pretty much glazed over at the prospect of the progressive rock trio at their conceptual proggiest. But if you're less of a lyrics guy, like myself, it's not difficult to place Peart's geeky prose (recently turned into a Clockwork Angels novel written by Peart and sci-fi/fantasy writer Kevin J. Anderson) in the background and just enjoy the great riffs and awesome musicianship that lives up to the band's legacy.
The lasting impression of Clockwork Angels (and I'll focus just on the instrumental side here and not on the album's lyrics or themes) is that this sounds like the work of a band feeling truly inspired and anything but complacent or creatively bankrupt, an impressive feat for an outfit now in its sixth (!) decade and on its 20th studio album. Some of Rush's classic rock peers who have released cruddy new work in the past couple of months (I'm looking at you Aerosmith, KISS, and Heart) could take a few pointers. Bassist/lead singer Geddy Lee and Peart are obviously well-entrenched in the upper echelons of respect for the proficiency they demonstrate on their respective instruments and there's no shortage of extraordinary displays here for the bass guitar and drum fanboys. I won't even mention specific songs where they individually shine, as there are standout moments from each on literally every song. Same goes for guitarist Alex Lifeson. While revered among musicians and Rush fans, Lifeson still tends to get overshadowed by his partners' prodigious talents, but it's his work that really adds the most depth to Rush's music. A wide array of guitar textures course through the album and he also has a plethora of fine moments, particularly with some great solos on "Caravan", "Headlong Flight", and "Seven Cities Of Gold". Kudos to producer Nick Raskulinecz and engineer Rich Chycki as well - each instrument really stands out in the mix on every track, which contributes to the confident and cohesive sound of the music.
Rush has a reputation for creating music that's overly busy and mostly inaccessible to the mainstream, which is somewhat undeserved. They've adapted a commercial sound plenty of times throughout their career, such as on tracks like "Nobody's Hero", "Fly By Night", "New World Man", or "Closer To The Heart", and Clockwork Angels contains four tracks that might open the eyes (or ears, as it were) of those turned off by a perceived commercial deficiency from the trio: "Halo Effect", "The Wrecker", "Wish Them Well", and "The Garden", which is absolutely brimming with grandiosity via it's soundscape of shimmering acoustic guitars, keyboards, and strings. "The Wrecker" is also notable for the fact it featured Lee and Lifeson departing from their normal songwriting process by having each come up with the other's instrumental parts. As Lifeson recently told Goldminemag.com, "On the original demo, Geddy played guitar and I played bass. When it was recorded, Geddy played the bass, but he learned my bass part. He said, 'I would never play this song like this.'"
Rest assured, Clockwork Angels also balances its more accessible material with the kind of intricately composed 6-8 minute songs that have long been the group's stock-in-trade. The multiple time signature changes that contribute to Rush's endearingly schizophrenic musical nature dominate tracks like "Caravan", the brawny "BU2B", "The Anarchist", "Clockwork Angels", "Carnies", "Seven Cities Of Gold", and "Headlong Flight", which clearly tips its hat in a snippet of the bass and drum arrangement to "Bastille Day", the opening track from 1975's Caress Of Steel. The subdued 88 second long "BU2B2" shows little musical similarity to the song it's acting as a callback to, featuring just Lee's voice, some keyboards, and a string arrangement.
Rush has experienced somewhat of a renaissance over the past several years, moving further from their previously "uncool" status towards mainstream acceptance with the widely praised Beyond The Lighted Stage documentary (which I reviewed here in 2010), an appearance and as a significant plot point in the hit comedy film I Love You, Man, their first appearance on American TV in 33 years on The Colbert Report back in 2008, being awarded the prestigious Governor General's Performing Arts Award from the Canadian government this past March, and recognition from the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. The Hall Of Fame's nominee committee finally pulled their collective heads out of their asses and put Rush on their shortlist of candidates for the next induction, after inexplicably passing the group over every year since their first year of eligibility in 1998.
Clockwork Angels doesn't significantly tinker with Rush's established sound, shouldn't alienate most listeners with its high-minded conceptual themes, and features wall-to-wall freakishly good musicianship from the power trio, who wisely capitalize on all of this newfound attention by creating their best album in eons.
Fun fact: Clockwork Angels' album cover, created by Hugh Syme, the band's longtime artist, includes a reference to Rush's classic 2112 album - the time on the clock reads 9:12, which is 21:12 in military time.