Rush’s 20th studio album (and as of this writing, their latest release) Clockwork Angels was an ambitious project in many ways. It was the band’s first studio record since 2007’s Snakes & Arrows, during which time they had seen a huge uptick in pop culture awareness and mainstream acceptance, bolstered by appearances in the 2009 feature film “I Love You Man” and in their own 2010 documentary “Beyond The Lighted Stage”. They had also released the album’s first two tracks in mid-2010 as a digital download purchase, in essence creating a new release model for their music — a year-and-a-half before the album’s release, they were already performing these songs in concert. Pretty nifty stuff.
Clockwork Angels is also a return to epic concept album format, an entire LP devoted to a single storyline conceived by drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, one that would eventually be published in novel format in association with science fiction author Kevin Anderson. The tale is set in a steampunk world (think of the future as envisioned during the dawn of the Industrial Revolution), filled with all sorts of carnivals and delights and Watchmakers and Anarchists and desert landscapes and gardens and who knows what. I’ll admit up front that I have not read the novelization or truly tried to piece together the narrative flow. As far as the story goes, I’m taking the abstract musical program approach. I’m more interested in the feel of the story rather than the specifics.
There’s also an entirely different sound to the album. Don’t get me wrong, the album is unmistakably Rush, but as Peart had mentioned in interviews, he was striking out to create something entirely more ambitious with his lyrics, his storytelling skills, even his drumming. The use of warm orchestral strings and piano (with outside musicians!) expands the scope of the music beyond “just” the three main principals. Check out the Middle Eastern rhythms, strings, and vocalizations on the title track, the distant echoes of calliopes and childlike joy on “Carnies”, or the introspective orchestrated balladry of “The Garden”.
The album has a distinct feel, and it’s an engaging one. Sadly, much has been discussed about the production and mastering of the record. So much effort went into giving the songs such a deep, textured musical palette that it’s a shame the dynamic range is buried under a heap of loudness and distortion. The result is an excessively noisy production that robs much of the album of its majesty. One can only hope a remix will someday be in the works. On a track like the otherwise engaging opening rocker “Caravan”, it feels like an absolute onslaught, but it’s even more pronounced on the softer songs that need the room, range, and clarity to really soar. The production doesn’t totally ruin the album, but it does make for an entirely less optimal listening experience.
The aforementioned “Caravan” and “BU2B” open the album, and were the tracks initially released as digital downloads in 2010. Both exemplify the misty, otherworldly milieu within which Peart’s story is presented; something seems purposefully off-kilter, but by design. Geddy Lee’s vocals are well-entrenched in a strong lower register without sacrificing expressiveness and musicality, while Alex Lifeson’s guitar tone is a thick wall of crunch and distortion and bridge-pickup wail.
The desert-sands opening moments of the title track hint of exotic flavor and distant locales, which is then seemingly obliterated by that wall-of-distortion motif that returns constantly throughout the LP. Still, it’s a winning song that shifts stylistic gears around a bit while delivering the story’s central themes and conflicts. Meanwhile what I think is the narrative’s main antagonist is introduced in “The Anarchist”, a steady uptempo rocker anchored by Peart’s rhythmic expressionism and highlighted by the orchestral punctuations during the chorus.
Four heavy rockers in a row, and the trend continues with “Carnies”. Alex is tipping his hat to Tony Iommi with thundering riffage that could have been found gestating in an abandoned pod from the “Master of Reality” sessions. The tenor of the song expands during the verses, sounding a lot less power-chord jungle and a lot more prog-hard-rock’ish. It’s not as interesting as “Anarchist”, but it mostly hits its marks. The same can’t be said for the next track… “Halo Effect” is a bizarre number; it’s probably the closest the band ever got to sounding like they were aping the structure and feel of a prototypical 80s power ballad. Witness the acoustic opening that erupts into a swell of power chords over a singalong chorus. There’s a lot more going on with the song that reducing it to a puzzling pop cultural artifact seems dismissive, but I’d be lying if I couldn’t picture the late Jani Lane covering this.
Geddy’s opening bass riff to “Seven Cities Of Gold” is reminiscent of one of his signature lines hearkening back to “Cygnus X-1 Part I”, but it segues into a fun midtempo rocker anchored by more of the same thundering heaviness we have found in abundance (at least before “Halo Effect”). There’s a bit of straining in Lee’s voice during the verses, but it’s mostly forgivable. Mostly.
The power-pop feel of “The Wreckers” is the first successful tune that breaks through the album’s seemingly impenetrable homogeneous wall. It successfully veers away from the heavy riffage and rhythm section business that has earmarked the album thus far, and it’s probably the album’s strongest track. Catchy and melodic? Without a question, but it utilizes every element of its construction great results. The orchestrations that build into a crescendo during the bridge are an album high point. “Headlong Flight” is a return to the fast, concise riffage of before, but I think to much better effect. Released as a single, it made it to the Top 5 of Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks.
“BU2B2” is a short, minor-key orchestrated reprise of the earlier album track. A throwaway track, maybe, one that advances the storyline and is interesting in and of itself, but remains mostly inessential. I prefer the sensibilities of “Wish Them Well”, a brighter, more alt-rock’ish tune than we’ve heard before on the album (with the exception of “The Wreckers”, of course). The steadiness of the rhythm section and the harmonically pleasing chorus work in the song’s favor. “The Garden” caps the album off to a most pleasing effect, with Geddy’s reassuring voice sounding confident and melodic over Alex’s shimmering acoustic guitar and the swell of those sweet orchestrations.
The main element working against Clockwork Angels is the crummy brickwalled mastering, but aside from that significant detraction my only other criticism would be a sense of sameness among several of the songs. “Caravan”, “BU2B”, “Clockwork Angels”, “The Anarchist”, “Carnies”, “Seven Cities Of Gold”, and “Headlong Flight” seem to be cut from the exact same cloth. Yet there’s not a bad track in that bunch. The only song that leaves me cold is “Halo Effect”, but the rest of the album succeeds as a collection of songs that showcase Rush, late in their career, still spreading their wings (pardon the pun) and producing an overall fine album. While none of the individual tracks are absolute classic standouts in view of their entire massive catalog, the album itself acquits itself very well as a band still in perpetual motion, still making good music.
But oh, that distorted production… Eesh.