A new release from Rush is always a welcome treat, since it wasn’t that long ago we thought we’d never get another one. About 2 years ago they released a couple of teaser tracks, Caravan and BU2B. These lead off the new release, and BU2B gets a new intro. Both of these are thundering rockers with some lyrical meat behind them. Caravan starts off with some train or caravan bells, signaling the beginning of a journey. And Clockwork Angels is indeed a journey – a concept album, 66 minutes long, Rush’s first real concept album since 2112, and seems to be loosely based on, or at least influenced by, Voltaire’s Candide, as noted by Popdose. A bit esoteric for a rock album, but this is Rush we’re talking about here. It’s definitely a literate work – Caravan lyrics lead with “In a World Lit only by Fire”, a nod to Manchester’s well-known work on Medieval history. It’s the story of a young man’s journey through a steampunk / medieval world – and apparently will be novelized by Kevin Anderson, the Sci-Fi writer.
I’ve been living with the CD for about week, listening to it constantly. I find that Rush CDs really require a break-in period of a few weeks to really appreciate them, there are so many layers. Behind the extraordinary musicianship one finds deep lyrics, and hooks and solos that resonate more each time you listen. There are a lot of atmospherics and textures in this disc, more than any other Rush disc in recent memory. Caravan bells, string orchestra backdrops, the wind sounds on Halo Effect, vocal processing effects, a carnival backdrop and a repeating, echoing ratchet sound on Carnies, all make their appearance, and lend a depth to the songs. But they are always subtle and not overdone.
In fact I find the word that most describes this disc to me, for a 30 year Rush fan, is “distilled”. All these songs are distilled to their essence and the core of Rush’s approach. There is a delirious, Middle-eastern inspired guitar solo in The Anarchist that is about 30 seconds of blistering guitar work that would have been a 10 minute interlude for Rush 20 years ago. Distilled. (And oh by way intermingled interestingly with a string ensemble – this song would have felt at home on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, were that remade today). As always, the songs show the typical Rush bent for philosophical introspection together with a musical change of meter and change of key, and unwillingness to just play it straight – the title track Clockwork Angels packs three different movements (including a jazz interlude) into a 7 minute solid track. And it works. Scattered amongst the power rock are a couple of well done ballads, including Halo Effect, a song about seeing what you what to see in someone, instead of what’s there.
Interestingly I found many echoes and nods to previous Rush material scattered through the music. BU2B’s remixed opening immediately makes me thing of Permanent Waves; the guitar solo on Carnies cannot help but remind a Rush fan of YYZ from Moving Pictures, the winds on the opening of Halo Effect feel sampled direct from 2112, and if you are true long time Rush fan, you’ll hear By-Tor and the Snow Dog from 1975, echoed in the back half of Seven Cities of Gold. Headlong Flight clearly echoes Bastille Day from Caress of Steel. There are too many of these for it be un-intentional; much as Robert Plant did on Tall Cool One, they’re sampling themselves to remind you where they were, and that they’re better now than they were. I love it when people late in their career are still innovating.
A small bit of media commentary. It’s legendary how much the music “establishment” dislikes Rush. But how an album from a group that’s sold more music than practically anyone, can debut at #2, and have virtually NO reviews out with in a week, is beyond me. Rolling Stone, where are you? I’d like to think the reviewers were doing the same as I was, letting it sit for a week to really “get it”. But then Billboard throws up a review that’s 1 paragraph long and dismissive, with no content, that took about 30 seconds to write. Seriously?
Well, whatever they think, if you like Rush or any form of hard rock, or just appreciate powerful musicianship, get Clockwork Angels and let it spin for awhile. I’m not sure where this disc is in the pantheon of Rush CDs (Snakes & Arrows was a masterpiece), but it’s near the top….