Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Album Review: Clockwork Angels

Clockwork Angels is the 20th studio album by the Canadian band Rush.  It was released in the summer of 2012, reaching #2 on the U.S. charts and #1 in Canada.  It was promoted by a world tour that, as of this writing, is still ongoing.

The band's first studio album in five years, Clockwork Angels is a concept album that mixes a modern progressive rock sound with themes and styles reminiscent of classic Rush masterpieces.  Though the band is famous (some might say "infamous") for their grandiose concept music of the 1970's, the fact is that 2012's Clockwork Angels is the band's first true concept album.  Their epic, "rock opera" music of the 1970's was always limited to individual tracks (such as 1979's 18-minute tour-de-force, "Hemispheres") and never included themes that covered all the songs on any one album.  The album 2112, for instance, had a 20-minute song of the same name on the front side of the original record, but all the songs on the B-side were unrelated to it.

Rush, circa 1975, in their "grandiose" days.  Alex Lifeson (left), Geddy Lee (right), Neil Peart (center).

Thus, Clockwork Angels is the band's first and (so far) only concept album, a collection of twelve tracks all linked together by a single theme.

Typical of Rush's intellectual and philosophical tendencies, together with their tastes for science fiction, Clockwork Angels plays on a modern genre of music, art, and literature known as "Steampunk."  Steampunk is a popular sub-category of science fiction that typically fuses a 19th century industrial setting of steam-driven machines and gadgetry with a science fiction or alternate universe theme.  Imagine, for instance, a 21st century still driven by the technology of the 19th century, and you can get an idea of what Steampunk tries to convey.

An example of the Steampunk-inspired art accompanying the album. Illustrated by long-time Rush collaborator, Hugh Syme.

Through it's twelve tracks, Clockwork Angels tells the story of a young dreamer's search for self-actualization in a dystopian clockwork universe ruled by an oppressive Watchmaker.  In the opening track, "Caravan," the narrator is boarding a steam-driven airship (a "steamliner") to escape his rural home and find his future in the alluring city.  As his travels and adventures are related song-by-song, the narrator encounters all the highs and lows of the human experience: success and failure, romance and broken love, security and vulnerability, belief and disbelief, hope and disillusionment.

In a unique twist for modern rock bands, the "story" of the album was actually novelized by sci-fi writer Kevin J. Anderson, in collaboration with Rush's drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, and released in September of 2012.  It reached #18 on the New York Times Bestseller List.  I read the book; it was just okay, and I would have a hard time suggesting it to anyone who wasn't a sci-fi reader and a Rush fan.  But that's not, by any stretch, a critique of the album.

The music of Clockwork Angels is very guitar-centered, with a slew of solos and growling riffs that fans of Rush's music are certain to enjoy.  The pacing of the individual songs varies, of course, but overall, the album has a very "driving" feel to it: a feeling of forward progression helped along with lively bass riffs, rhythmic guitar chords, and, of course, immaculate (one might say "clockwork") drumming.    

The first two tracks, "Caravan" and "BU2B" (which stands for Brought Up to Believe) were released in digital format in 2010, a kind of "teaser" for the album that would come along two years later.  Both are heavy and fast-paced, with "Caravan" detailing the narrator's journey away from his mundane home, and "BU2B" describing his struggles with religious belief in a benevolent God (symbolized by the "Watchmaker" in the album's universe).

The title track, "Clockwork Angels" is an epic song with many musical layers, ostensibly describing the narrator's experience with the divine guardians of his world, but clearly speaking metaphorically about the deep human drive for worship and spiritual awe.

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 if to fly.  

This picture really has no relevance to this review, but it just had to be posted.

The album's fourth and fifth tracks - "The Anarchist" and "Carnies" - continue the narrator's story as he encounters subversiveness (embodied by the "anarchist") and then finds a job working in a carnival.  These songs deal with themes of discontent and disillusionment, pointing towards those people in society who are perpetually dissatisfied and driven by greed, jealousy, and anger.

"Halo Effect" is one of the few songs Rush has ever written about love and romance.  This is a topic that Rush has intentionally steered clear from over the years, due to a general perspective that love songs are sappy, banal, and give unrealistic perspectives on human relationships (this according to an interview I read once with Neil Peart - sadly, I don't recall the source).  The band delves into this topic with "Halo Effect," as part of the ongoing human story of the narrator.  Typical of Rush - contrarians to the end - and fitting with Peart's comments about why the band typically doesn't do love songs, the song is about the illusion of "true love" and how "being in love" blinds people to reality.

What did I see, fool that I was?  A goddess with wings on her heels.  It's shameful to tell just how often I fell in love with delusions again.  

"Seven Cities of Gold" has the narrator searching for a mythical lost city, and deals with themes of the all-too-human tendency to chase impossible dreams, finding only disillusionment at the end.  This song has a fantastic opening bass riff by Geddy Lee that just growls in your chest before being picked up later by Alex Lifeson on guitar, making for a powerful melodic line.  The song is underscored, as always, by Peart's (seemingly) 8-handed drumming.

Track number 8 is called "The Wreckers" and is one of my favorites on the album.  Lyrically, the song discusses the frailty of human life and how easy it is to find your world turned upside down.  The song's title characters appear as pirates in the accompanying novel, and (like the anarchist before them) they symbolize life's destructive forces.

All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary of a miracle too good to be true.  All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary to everything in life you thought you knew.  

This song is made even more poignant when you know lyricist Neil Peart's personal background: in 1997 his only child - a teenage daughter - was killed in a car accident on a Sunday evening while returning to college for the start of the fall semester.  Less than six months later, his wife of twenty years died of cancer.  Peart, quite literally, found his entire world in shambles around him.  The band did not write, record, or perform for nearly five years.  Eventually, Peart remarried and had another child, but the song's final line is a heart-rending statement that seems drawn from that tragedy:

All I know is that memory can be too much to carry, striking down like a bolt from the blue.

"Headlong Flight" is, in my opinion, the best song on the album, and probably the overall best Rush song since 1987's "Mission" from the Hold Your Fire album.  At more than seven minutes, "Headlong Flight" is the longest song on the album, and it is an absolute masterwork of modern progressive rock.  Hard-hitting and fast-paced, the song features guitar work by Lifeson that threatens to peel the skin from your face, drumming that illustrates why Peart is the best in the world, and vocals by Lee that probably represent his best performance in decades.  Like their radio classic "Freewill" from 1980's Permanent Waves album, "Headlong Flight" includes a long instrumental that is, in essence, a three-part solo.  No other band that I know of can pull this phenomenon off with such masterful precision.  My words don't do the song justice.  You've got to listen to it.

The very first time I listened to "Headlong Flight," on CD in my car, before the song was even over, one phrase was going over and over in my mind:

Instant. Fucking. Classic.

The album's tenth track is a short reprise of "BU2B" called (fittingly enough) "BU2B2."  At just over a minute long, the lyrics are written in the form of a pantoum - a type of poem where the second and fourth lines of each 4-line stanza are repeated as lines one and three in the next stanza, and the final line of the poem is the same as the first line.  Peart first toyed with this type of writing on 2007's Snakes & Arrows album, in the song "The Larger Bowl: A Pantoum."  "BU2B2" is a sort of dirge, describing the narrator's loss of religious faith and his growing disillusionment with life.

"Wish Them Well" picks up where "BU2B2" left off, with the narrator shaking off the depression resulting from failures, regrets, and injustice, and deciding that the best way to deal with those who treat you badly is to simply move forward and "wish them well."

The grudges you've held for so long.  It's not worth singing that same sad song.  Even though you're going through hell, just keep on going.  Let the demons dwell.  Just wish them well.  

The album's final song, "The Garden," is another instant classic.  Incorporating everything from strings to piano, it is a ballad that includes acoustic as well as electric sections.  The lyrics focus on finding inner peace and self-actualization through the tending of the garden - which itself is a metaphor for one's own life and loved ones.  The song is beautifully arranged, and contains some of Peart's best lyrical work.

The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect: so hard to earn so easily burned.  

The future disappears into memory with only a moment between.  Forever dwells in that moment.  Hope is what remains to be seen.  

I rate this album a strong 10 out of 10, with no throw-away songs.  Each track has its place in the story, providing coherent lyrical content that not only carries the story along, but doubles with poignant references to the human condition.  The music is sublime and well-orchestrated, with the band playing at the absolute height of their powers.  For Rush fans especially, but also for anyone who enjoys modern rock with meaningful lyrics and skilled playing, Clockwork Angels is a must-have.   

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