RUSH – Clockwork Angels – 2012 20th RUSH studio LP

RUSH - 'Clockwork Angels' - 2012 20th RUSH studio LPRUSH – ‘Clockwork Angels’  – 2012 20th RUSH studio LP Progressive perfection in a 66:06 minutes/seconds multiple part song suite, concept album. And a novel goes with it, of the same name, coming out just months later written by the, also famous like RUSH is, author Kevin J. Anderson – a good friend of drummer Neil Peart.

The first concept-driven RUSH album since 1978’s ‘Hemispheres’ half-of-a-concept-album length behemoth reared it’s Tarkusian head.(re: The ‘Tarkus’ album by Prog stalwarts Emerson, Lake & Palmer. There is no band to namedrop in Prog Rock more Proggy than ELP. Though RUSH guitarist Alex Lifeson is a universe divided in style to ELP’s Greg Lake. Lake played Bass guitar and  sang real good – which Alex Lifeson doesn’t and we don’t care because we love him! But Lake was relegated to playing an acoustic guitar and that’s what he is noted for in ELP’s story. And Lerxst Lifeson likes Heavy Metal/Hard Rock riffing/wailing. Though you will find a smidgen of the same pomposity inbetwixt RUSH and ELP if you include the 5th RUSH opus, 1977’s ‘A Farewell To Kings’. It’s frilly as well, in a good way.)

RUSH have seemingly come out of the shadows to rule the world, in just the two years between 2010 and 2012, mostly because of the documentary ‘Beyond The Lighted Stage’ that fleshes out the tight bond that these three men have had since 1974. Their shared humor and collective aim to get better with each album and each performance has directly led to the penultimate 20th RUSH studio LP, ‘Clockwork Angels’, as part of the band’s continuing career progressive onus. It is also helpful that they have played tons of near faultless shows and set album sales records in Rock Music that are only superseeded by THE BEATLES & THE ROLLING STONES. To say that this is a great album would be an understated, almost, lie. ‘Clockwork Angels’ is that good that I don’t know what superlative to use.

Much of the hyperbole surrounding this release has been deserved. The album has now become a novel, by sci-fi writer-extraordinaire Kevin J. Anderson, as well as an audiobook (read by Neil Peart, who turns out to be absolutely great at reciting a story – especially since he is the one responsible for birthing the concept, story, and lyrics for ‘Clockwork Angels’ with Mr. Anderson connecting the dots the way only an accomplished top-notch author can). RUSH have pulled out all the stops to make this latest album the greatest album. Though, that hallowed ground is reserved for the 6th RUSH LP, 1978’s ‘Hemispheres’. ‘Snakes & Arrows’, the preceeding RUSH (19TH) studio album, now seems like a lifetime ago though it’s only been five years since. ‘S & A’ had a good run with a live document in 2008 called ‘Snakes & Arrrows Live’, in which 9 of the 13 tracks on the album were done in performance. Fantastically, as RUSH usually progresses significantly stlye-wise every two albums, I can say for certain that ‘Clockwork Angels’ is a far cry from S&A. Where they managed to do a whole tour based on only two new songs and ‘Moving Pictures’ in it’s entirety 30 years later dubbed the ‘Time Machine Tour’ which could only have oozed forth – foaming like a witche’s brew from that bottle of Rocket Sauce that RUSH have a lot of, as Jack Black commented on in the Rush Documentary ‘Beyond The Lighted Stage’. That ultra full missile of longevity & magic turns out be an amazing combination.

The decision to bring strings into the picture spread liberally throughout ‘Clockwork Angels’ has mostly solved the artificialness that detractors of the band have complained about, concerning the use of keys/samplers/triggered parts. It is a utilitarian decision that frees up the guys on stage, resulting in a more enjoyable & even more intense show. RUSH have always been in favor of technology as an innovative means to diversify & progress their ideas.

‘Hold Your Fire’ in 1987 and to a lesser extent ‘Power Windows’ before it in 1985 were the supposed culprits in the RuSH album repertoire, as regards complexity & due diligence needed on stage to make it happen. So how is it that no less than four songs have made it each night (with one more to make five to switch off with), fearlessly(!), back into the set – all from ‘Power Windows’ on the 2012/2013 tour? Technology and plain know-how with a dash of experience has made RUSH masters of bringing out older songs, in general, and infusing them with an immensity of sheer power and a grand magnitude well-honed and worked on to be better and better with each passing tour. There have been more tours than albums as RUSH are true road dogs. Then there is the 8-piece cello & violin backing group: The Clockwork Angels String Ensemble onstage who are of an immense caliber. They really gave real catgut string support to just a few cherry-picked RUSH numbers (‘YYZ’) and virtually most all of the ‘Clockwork Angels’ songs on the 2012/2013 tour, that RUSH finished triumphantly before trapsing off to celebrate in the summer of 2013, all their victories.

It is a mystery that hasn’t been talked about, though –  not in the press nor by the band or it’s adorers – as to why ‘the stringers’, as Geddy Lee refers affectionately to the Clockwork Angels String Ensemble as, as to why they were not playing on the songs that actually used real strings, from back in the eighties decade, brought to bear in the live show. Yet as a big RUSH fan I deduced it was because they didn’t want The C.A.S.E. to suffocate the trio. RUSH fans pay to see the self-titled ‘three stooges’, all by their lonesome. RUSH, like ‘2112’ says, assumed control, & obviously are reluctant to give up their stage room wholly to any other musicians for the duration of a complete concert. It should be remembered that RUSH are the band that brought Taurus Pedals into hard rocking arenas, making it possible for the use of all four limbs by each band member to play a song, and in Geddy’s case his nose (or facial cheek) to turn the microphone when needed, to ‘the lighted stage’ – as a Barenaked Ladies bandmember commented on, in ‘Beyond The Lighted Stage’ RUSH film biography.

‘Caravan’ has been sweetened from it’s original 2010 raw single deal that saw ‘BU2B’ also premeiring; both difficult sounding , mechanized, quasi-industrialized numbers that succeeded, yet yielded to a nerve wracking manner in which the music was mixed. Not bad but not befitting the sound you’d expect from RUSH. The songs on the single were just plain noisy. The ‘Time Machine’ live recording of 2011 contained ‘live’ versions of these two numbers, and it was with careful & patient listens that I began to come around to warming to these somewhat cold sounding songs that begged for explanation or maybe I thought that Peart had finally travelled to some distant quasar or some alien planet where mathematical theses are made congruent as music; though not in the constellation of Cygnus X-1 for RUSH have ridden by spaceship there already.

When RUSH makes a new album it is always a case of having to adjust to a new curve in style they’ve thrown at the listener. There is one Peartian lyric that portends that ‘Time is a spiral, space is a curve’ – (1992’S 14TH RUSH studio album on the song ‘Neurotica’). Never content to make the same album twice; the opening bid is always the toughest. Who else but RUSH would dig back into their catalog and make a show opener, as was the case with the ‘Time Machine’ tour / DVD & CD, taken from an album that is not considered the cream of the crop and open with it. I speak of the song and title track for the 1989, 13th RUSH LP, ‘Presto’. These men are always challenging themselves and that is what makes their creative juices flow. And this is what keeps us fans on the edge of our seats.

The simplicity of a song like ‘Wish Them Well’, which according to the boys in the band, came along well into the recording sessions for ‘Clockwork Angels’ is offset by the complexity of the 2012 first single released from the album and preceeding the album’s release,’Headlong Flight’. ‘Headlong Flight’ hearkens us to partake headlong in the nerdy, headscratching question that goes – why does it sound so much like ‘Bastille Day’ from the 3rd, 1975 RUSH LP – ‘Caress Of Steel’, when it isn’t?. Thus it emancipates the song as a joyous rolling, rollicking rollercoaster ride; Speed Metal the likes that RUSH haven’t done in ages. Maybe I should point out that RUSH practically invented the genre of Speed Metal and the only other crony of this music at that time would be Motorhead (who made their eponymous debut LP in 1977).

‘BU2B2’ fleshes out the story and frankly is an outright dud with depressing lyrics. It is saved only by the fact that it belongs in the framework of the overall Clockwork Angels plot. A slow bluesy lilt carries it along and, thankfully, it is very short and part and parcel of a great album. These aren’t the yesterdays of RUSH albums past where the whole disc was kept well under 40 minutes.’BU2B2’is also very short in timelength, so it is over quickly and on comes the next number. There are 15 tracks but two cuts are the whispered lines of a character dubiously dubbed ‘The Pedlar’ who barely asks anything except one question: ‘What do you lack?’ Thus ‘The Pedlar’ 1 and ‘The Pedlar 2’. ‘BU2B2’ does manage to set the appropriate emotional setting for main character Owen Hardy’s melancholia after undergoing a lot of bad twists of fate in his life. The death of Captain Lochs from the sailing ship he climbed aboard after running from the carnival, at the hands of The Wreckers takes this quite naive yet respectful young man to the point of absolute disgust after seeing the unassuming  & quiet seafaring boss of the boat murdered by The Wreckers; these murdering pirates who call themselves proudly though with outright arrogance, The Free People Of The Sea.

If there is any song to draw an association with to ‘BU2B2’ in RUSH’s vast collection of tunes, it is ‘Losing It’ from ‘Signals’. Like in ‘Losing It’ a mournful violin bow carves a sinewy path wrought with tension & the exacerbation of a wounded soul’s plight. Yet I wish ‘BU2B2’ had been as craftfully constructed as ‘Losing It’ is, in providing a well rounded story as this 1982 RUSH song is still a splendid thrill ride 30+ years later.`

‘The Wreckers’ became the hard rocking song of the summer of 2012, there being four singles conjured from ‘Clockwork Angels’, a high charting heavy hitter whose mood evokes not-so-easily ‘Fly By Night’s ‘Rivendell’ at it’s most heartfelt 37 years later and a good few octaves down in the Gedster’s vocal register. Yet this comparison is a stretch of the imagination; though imagination is not something lacking in most RUSH fans who tend to be a very intellectual bunch; a much variegated group of musicians/writer/dreamers. Geddy Lee found the melody on a guitar he picked up that he boasted, which I am at a loss to paraphrase him, though the gist of it goes that it was essentially easily conducive to making up a good song with: It’s something called ‘Nashville tuning’, of interest to guitar players only. Alex was with him jamming and they exchanged instruments which illustrates why Geddy Lee was playing the guitar and not the Bass guitar. On record they swapped back to their usual instruments. (Wasn’t that a sight, by the way, to see Neil Peart holding a guitar in one of the hilarious RUSH visuals on the big screen, onstage? I thought it was. Though that was The Time Machine Tour of 2010/2011. Alex Lifeson however does play Bass guitar on his solo album from 1996 entitled ‘Victor’. Lifeson’s name doesn’t appear anywhere on the LP’s cover, though, as it’s a group effort and it has proved to be outside of some RUSH fans’ comfort zones. And that took a diversified approach by Lifeson to accomplish.)

‘Wish Them Well’ and ‘Seven cities Of Gold’: These two songs have never been played (from ‘Clockwork Angels’) onstage on the same night. Curiously, it’s one night of ‘Wish Them Well’ and then on the very next RUSH gig throughout The Clockwork Angels Tour it was ‘Seven Cities Of Gold’. RUSH succeeded in doing 10 songs of the 13 but only 9 in one given night. ‘Wish Them Well’, which almost didn’t make the cut, holds the distinction of having a Sly & The Family Stone ‘Dance To The Music’ underpinning to it so much so that the RUSH concert would nearly stop so that a few minutes before the song was to end it breaks into a funky little soft shoe dance thing. On the ‘Clockwork Angels’album it’s a different matter, entirely. The song doesn’t get goofed around with at all and concentrates completely seriously on the heartfelt message of sometimes you can’t change a person and you gotta say goodbye; just wish them well. The message of the song works with the Clockwork Angels characters and it also works without knowing about them. The message is universal and it is as straightforward as the beat. It has been a long while sing RUSH issued forth something as plain as ‘Wish Them Well’. It does makes for a nice deviation on a very long album which benefits from rhythmic change ups.

‘Seven Cities Of Gold’: Don’t expect me to pick favorites when every ‘Clockwork…’ song has something new and exciting to offer. ‘Seven…’ I can actually say is groovy in a 1969 sort of way. Jimi Hendrix comes to mind throughout. I haven’t heard this funkified sort of thing since ‘Kid Gloves’ from the 1984 RUSH ‘Grace Under Pressure’ album. Another touchstone in the RUSH backcatalogue would be 1989’s ‘Show Don’t Tell’ from the 13th RUSH studio album. There exists in the music that ragged, jagged rockiness of the western United States actualized in the stop and go nature of this song. The only slight problem with this song is that it’s looseness and jammed out feeling makes it into a longer song than it need be.

‘Headlong Flight’ is a showstopper as RUSH used to jam out like this back in the days when ‘By-Tor & The Snow Dog’, in it’s entirety, was a part of the setlist. The wah wah pedal is maxxed out like the erstwhile Lifeson of yore. Lerxst has a field day on this song. Geddy Lee delivers his most impressive howls on this one, also. In a way, once you know this song, you can’t wait to hear Geddy sing the final stretched out last line in the song: ‘I wish that I could live it all again’. It is sung with such emotion and lack of decorum that it can peel paint without Geddy having to screech. Additionally, it sure is nice to hear my second favorite album overall given a nod to. I speak of ‘Caress Of Steel’. Many RUSH fans swear by this album though it went down the tubes when it came out as the third RUSH studio album issued, way back in ’75. RUSH had retreated way into the Peartian labyrinth of free association yet, out of it, Prog Metal was birthed right on that very disc! That the album ‘2112’ would follow ‘Caress Of Steel’ is no mere mistake as it proved to be the practice punch for the punchdrunk full-on assault where ‘all planets of the solar federation’ were informed of their fate. RUSH have used their own extensive Heavy Metal backwaxing to make a brand new wonder in ‘Headlong Flight’.

‘The Garden’: Never has such a saccharine sweetened expose on the latter years of life itself been painted so poignantly into a Heavy Rock/Prog band’s repertoire. The purpose of life, as ‘The Fountain of Lamneth’ tried to explain in 1975 with it’s dry line: ‘Life is just a candle and a dream / Must give it flame’ updated in 1987 with the ‘Hold Your Fire’ album’s obsessive explanation in ‘Mission’ via – ‘A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission’, gave clues but not the final synopsis. ‘The Garden’ gives the final summation of a life worth living as one that a person will say in the waning years of his/her life, what ‘The Garden’ says. ‘I wish that I could live it all again’ though ‘some days were dark / some nights were bright’ (to quote ‘Headlong Flight’ not long before this song), in the end, life’s normalcy – peace & serenity – which have been well fortuned give way to reflection through a first hand account of our life story’s book; And the garden is tended & nurtured daily by this person who is grateful & happy to be a storytelling grandfather to all his grandchildren. He adventured, lived to see his dreams come true, weathered the storms, married the woman that he truly bonded with, and learned that love, respect and honesty hold the key to determining how to measure one’s life. It is the main character of the novel in ‘Clockwork…’ singing his swan song as the hours tick away.

‘The Anarchist’ has a dark, brooding character and the lyrics by Neil Peart really congeal nicely in painting this man-hellbent-on-spoiling-the-perfect-canvas as he dashes about blinded constantly by his own anger. Contrastingly, in the RUSH flick, ‘Beyond The Lighted Stage’ Jack Black talks about meeting RUSH and paints a disturbing yet very intruiging picture about meeting the ‘dark, brooding menace’ that is Neil Peart after not having been particularly affected by the meeting of Ged and Alex just a short while before. So it is no wonder that ‘The Anarchist’ is such a seething, scorching beast track of great merit. Never ever have I heard a man come to the fore of a song with his Bass guitar like I do with Geddy Lee in this number. Ditto, I have heard it, on an attempted clean-up of the over attenuated title track, ‘Vapor Trail’ from the 2002 RUSH 17th studio album, ‘Vapor Trails’:  So this tactic has been parlayed a decade hence by this dynamic trio.

I think it’s obvious that there exists a marshall and authoritative bent in Peart’s overall disposition. You may think, as Neil’s friend and writing partner, Kevin J. Anderson does. Anderson thinks that Neil Peart has no ‘brooding menace’. So is it mere drama created by those who know of the man but haven’t met him & certainly don’t know him?

I have juxtaposed Geddy’s Bass playing vs. Neil Peart’s darker nature for a deeper understanding of how this song, ‘The Anarchist’ works; why it works & how unique it is in both mood & texture in an existential way so far beyond the RUSH norm. Usually, the interplay of Geddy & the rest of the band will feature equally each member for the whole of the tune. The chorus of ‘The Anarchist’ has the fiend in the spotlight, lapping it up as he is being chased down and ultimately feels that he will never be forgotten for his insidiousness. The Anarchist is a stressball of negative energy. The Anarchist likes chaos. Owen Hardy, paradoxically, likes to have fun and puritanically seeks to fit in in a world that doesn’t seem to be quite right with the ability to control people in the heavy hands of ‘The Watchmaker’. The fact that the Clockwork Angels book is weighed down by Owen Hardy’s staunch concentration as he has the Watchmaker’s manipulative sayings glued in his mind so much that he is always harping on an inner dialogue that – like the old adage (and US TV show) ‘Father Knows Best’ – conversely, to Our Hero it is The Watchmaker that knows best. Because of it we have to suffer hearing the same things twice every so often & that is the thing about the Clockwork Angels novel that makes it cumbersome. Yet the Clockwork Angels music does not effuse any repetition at all, rather it’s moves along at a sprightly pace. ‘The Anarchist’ song, is a slayerous beast and is located just in the right place of the Clockwork saga to do maximum damage. The resonating factor of ‘2112’ and it’s outrageous, liberating objectivist ideal is in this alternate steampunk world still carrying an Ayn Randian theme of ‘individualism’. No one puts that persona forward more than this villian, ‘The Anarchist’. Yet age has made Neil Peart understand the failings of trying to catfight the system. Worse than the growling of The Necromancer (the RUSHian character of the ’70’s with magic prism eyes), is The Anarchist who comes replete with an alter ego with an equally absurd name of D’Angelo Mysterioso. This is prime loco in the coco territory as Neil twists his pen like a scalpel for a maximum impacting  maniacal bent, that implores you to trust that The Anarchist is one dangerous dude. A good thing is that Neil Peart doesn’t go for the jugular with a crass suicide solution a la ‘2112’s guitar worshipping dude, who many indentify as ‘The Starman’ himself from 1976, to overindulge our minds three-and-a-half decades on from that groundbreaking 4th RUSH album. It’s just as well as now RUSH are so influential that, had they made such an indeed crass move, to have a character commit suicide it would have had the critics looking to start a real Bastille Day by lining up Dirk, Lerxst & Pratt on the chopping block!

‘Clockwork Angels’ is to be applauded for it’s youthful risk-taking, freeform dive back into old RUSH sci-fi/fantasy/magick songwriting territory for three Heavy Metal dudes all who’ve rung in their 60th birthdays along the 2012/2013 Clockwork Angels route that extended into the U.K. and select points in Europe. The first leg in America & Canada included two shows being filmed for an upcoming DVD/(CD? – dunno). I would have thought the band would have waited for Europe like they have done in the past, choosing Germany in 2004 & The Netherlands for the S&A tour a few years later. So like The Time Machine Tour being captured in Cleveland Ohio, (which is the same city as the 2011 officially, (finally released) ‘ABC 1974’ RUSH live-in-concert LP locale,(RUSH superfans already know this recording as the bootleg ‘The Fifth Order of Angels’), I guess we are going to hear an American audience again. Yet as far as the tour detour part of my review of this clockwork extravaganza, RUSH co-headlined with KISS at the 2013 summer Sweden Rock Festival – that featured a cast of at least 100 bands. That is supposedly to be captured for a DVD – (maybe CD, probably) – yet there is scant little details about the festival’s recording, so it’s to be found out somewhere down the pike.

We can all count on ringing in the 2014 official R40 on New Year’s Eve at the stroke of midnight. (For us RUSH superfans 2013 will go down in RUSH history as the unofficialy contended R45 year (for argument’s sake RUSH did start in earnest in 1968),that brought the long-awaited though controversially-enshrined Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction for the iconic trio bringing into sharp contrast the unusual goodness aura that surrounds our champions RUSH as they hold fast to their humble roots despite selling albums on a par that puts them third just behind The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

In music, as well as the entire entertainment field, there are points awarded for being the last men standing. RUSH have stood tall for five decades nigh on five years for half of a century.

Neil Peart wrote that ‘we each pay a fabulous price for our visions of paradise but a spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission’, on the song ‘Mission’ from the RUSH album ‘Hold Your Fire’ which I mentioned in part already but it bears repeating and saying it in full. These words seem to sum up all that has brought RUSH the success they rightly deserve. ‘Clockwork Angels’ becomes a very deep album once the novel by Kevin J. Anderson is read, at least two times. I may have been critical about it but since the lyrics and story are by Neil Peart of RUSH, it becomes as much essential reading as a RUSH album’s lyrics sheet does.

Kevin J. Anderson has written ‘Resurrection Inc.’ which he secretly wrote back in the 1980s as his fantastical accompaniment to ‘Grace Under Pressure’, the RUSH 10th studio album. That’s ten albums ago. Since then, Kevin J. Anderson fulfilled his dream by dedicating that book to RUSH and sending along with the novel a heartfelt letter to Anthem Records that somehow made it’s way to Neil Peart’s all-consuming gaze. That’s where it was intended to go in the first place. It blossomed into a friendship that would one day, as promised between Neil and Kevin, accomplish something big for these guys who obviously share a love of words. And it was all as simple as Alex and Geddy talking with Neil about ‘Did we ever do a concept album?’; to which the answer was a definite ‘No’. Thus the band donned their Progressive Metal hats and delved back into the land of Cygnus and By-Tors to deliver what really must be heralded as a RUSH magnum opus. Clockwork Angels is a 66 minute song. Well over an hour of twists and turns that begins with an airship ride and touches down with the The Garden’s easy, slow slide. The slide into a happy retirement for Our Hero, Owen Hardy.

The electric guitar solo that Alex Lifeson does is so cinematic in ‘The Garden’ to close the album, that you can easily close your eyes and see the imaginary movie credits running. Neil Peart actually has brainstormed with Clockwork Angels, to the point where he mentions doing a Broadway musical rendition of it. Personally I would like to see Clockwork Angels II. Owen Hardy’s world is a place worth going back to. Kevin J. Anderson has given us a world that most of us are now asking lots of additional questions about. Some us RUSH fans want more Owen Hardy adventures.

Neil Peart says in the Afterword section of The clockwork Angels novel that he wanted for this world he created with author Kevin J. Anderson, ‘- for it to not be a dystopia… rather a nice place. And who wouldn’t want to visit Crown City and see the Clockwork Angels?’

‘Clockwork Angels, spread their arms and sing / synchronized and graceful, they move like living things / Goddesses of Light of Sea and Sky and Land / Clockwork angels, the people raise their hands / As if to fly / As if to fly’- Clockwork Angels, the song – 2012

I don’t know of any human beings who haven’t had a dream in which they were flying. It is the ultimate expression of freedom and the primal,intrinsic want in each one of us to simply spread our metaphorical wings and get on our way quickly. To disengage from a situation. To turn the page. Which reminds me, just how many songs are referenced in the Clockwork Angels novel and what are those songs? Could someone make a complete list? Even the red faced Owen Hardy does his RUSHspeak, (and here’s an example) in the novel: He says ‘I’m nobody’s hero’. He is being argued with by the persuasive and manipulative Anarchist, and the lowly man is starting to really grate on Our Hero, Owen Hardy. At that point in the book I expected Mr. Hardy to start throwing punches. The Anarchist is really, really annoying and he is a bona fide stalker, among his other unsavory guises. This happens at the point in the novel where all hell breaks loose.

Clockwork Angels is a lot of fun to read whether you have the album playing in the background or not.

I don’t know of any band that has released an album that coincided with a novel to accompany it a few months later, either.

It takes genius. It also takes what ordinary men can’t and won’t do.

That’s why RUSH have The Professor – Neil Peart on drums and lyrics the Musical Scientist that is Alex Lifeson on guitars and the inimitable multitasking wizardry of Geddy Lee as Master of Cermonies on Bass guitar, keyboards, and lead vocals.

It seems to me it’s chemistry. Or the updated version with all the symbols involved in Clockwork Angels makes me say it’s alchemy.

Alchemy is Magic made real. And magic is hard work, sometimes.

At other times, it really is magic.

– Rich Castle