Friday, April 19, 2013

RUSH: Clockwork Angels album review

On the occasion of the long-overdue induction of Rush into the Rock & Roll hall of Fame, I present my review of their current album “Clockwork Angels”:

In their 44-year (and counting) career, Rush has amassed 24 gold records and 14 platinum (3 multi-platinum) records; placing them third after The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the most consecutive gold or platinum studio albums by a rock band.  Their 20th studio album, “Clockwork Angels,” could very well be their best yet.  I give it 9 out of 10 stars – and I reserve the right to increase that rating.

Clockwork Angels” is an ambitious concept album that fires on all cylinders and dramatically delivers an entertaining emotional story with the surgical precision that Rush fans have come to expect.   The concept is simple, broad and universal: an idealistic young man takes a literal and emotional journey.  Rather than create epics songs as they have in the past (2112, Hemispheres), Rush created an epic album with each song illustrating a high point of the man’s journey.  The album’s 12 tracks are the 12 most important chapters in a story that likely contains 20+ chapters.  For those who want to know the complete Clockwork Angels story, Novelist Kevin J. Anderson, a friend of Neil Peart, will release a novelization of the album later this year. 

Starting with their 1996 album “Test For Echo”, Neil Peart’s lyrics took a decidedly heavy turn - more so following the tragic loss of his daughter in 1997 and wife in 1998.  The lyrics on 2002’s “Vapor Trails” and 2007’s “Snakes And Arrows” feel heavy, meandering, detached and in some cases joyless.  Conversely, the lyrics on “Clockwork Angels” feel fresh, tight and multi-layered.  Neil Peart’s drumming on Clockwork Angels is better than ever thanks to his studies with Freddie Gruber  and the direction of album Co-Producer Nick Raskulinecz.  Ho-hum: Alex Lifeson’s guitar playing and Geddy Lee’s Bass playing are as stellar as ever. 

The following is my track-by-track analysis, including songwriter notes that might only interest a few:

“In a world where I feel so small / I can’t stop thinking big”
One of two tracks released in June 2010, it sets up the story nicely: In a steampunk world, a boy watches steamliners rolling by and dreams of leaving his farming village and making it in the distant city.  Hard-driving and fairly straight-forward with a funky 1:30 instrumental in the middle, “Caravan” sets up the album perfectly.
This is technically the first single from the album, released in 2010.

“Blind men in the market / Buying what we’re sold”
Released with Caravan in 2010, “BU2B” (Brought Up To Believe) was remixed and a new intro was added for the album version.  BU2B presents the mindset of the society – life has been pre-planned for everyone by the loving Watchmaker and you get out of life what you deserve as long as you blindly conform. A dark slash-and-burn song, the heavy guitars in the verses contrast with buzzing, dissonant guitar sounds in the chorus. 
*Songwriting Note*: Peart wrote the song as a series of quatrains in which the first line of each quatrain is the 2nd line of the previous quatrain.  Works fine for the first 2 verses & chorus, but the last 2 verses had to be re-arranged when the song was completed.  Still, it’s an interesting lyric form.

“You promise every treasure to the foolish and the wise / Goddesses of mystery, spirits in disguise”
High above the heart of the city square we see the angels of light, sea, sky and land assuring the denizens that “everything will turn out for the best”.  Clocking in at a trim 7 ½ minutes, the title track of the album begins with a guitar part that had me thinking of “Cygnus X-1” and “Hemispheres”.  Dissonance in the vocal melody called back to those songs as well but also added tension to the narrative. 
*Songwriting Note*: The Bridge of the song is a variation of Proverbs 3:5  from the "Old Testament".

”The lenses inside of me that paint the world black / The pools of poison, the scarlet mist, that spill over into rage”
We are introduced to a new character – a terrorist who blames his life’s failures on society and plans revenge. The song’s intro knocks you down: thunderous tom-toms, driving descending guitar riff, funky bass, then the bass melody knocks you out.  The song circles around and inside the Anarchist’s mind -  not to make sense of his actions but to illustrate commitment and motivation.  The guitar solo on this song reminded me of Alex’s guitars on Grace Under Pressure.
*Songwriting Note*: The verses carry the same rhyme for 4 lines, the chorus rhymes lines 2, 5 & 6 (a repeater line) also lines 3 & 4 rhyme.

“Sometimes the angels punish us by answering our prayers”
Our protagonist is working in a travelling carnival when his path crosses with that of the Anarchist leading to an unfortunate outcome.  The song opens with a heavy, HEAVY guitar riff evocative of “Working Man” - I wanted more of that riff. There’s a lot of nice things in this song that I wanted to hear more of – including a cool jabbing synth riff – that I wonder if this song was originally twice as long to accommodate all the great parts.  A good song that made me wanting more.

“So shameful to tell / Just how often I fell / In love with illusions again”
A short interlude to the narrative as the young man muses on a girl in the carnival he fell for who reeled him in only to ultimately reject him.  Musically this song is a bit of a pallet cleanser – a short, light ballad detailing yet another instance where the young man’s perception is proven terribly wrong.
*Songwriting Note*: There is no rhyming scheme and there is no chorus - a musical interlude serves as a bridge.  The changing refrain “What did I ___? / Fool that I was” at the start of each verse serves to tie everything together.

“A man can lose himself in a country like this”
Our protagonist hears the legend of the seven cities of gold that lie past the desert.  Enduring a parched desert and snow-covered mountains, Cibola always seems out of reach.  The songs starts out with a very funky bass riff and has an atmospheric guitar solo in the middle. 
*Songwriting Note*: The chorus rhyming scheme effectively uses the suffix “-ation”  The second half of lines 1 & 3 of each verse repeat the same line, while lines 2 & 4 rhyme both halves of each line (4 rhymes total) with relevant imagery of the journey.  Simple & effective.

“All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary / Of a miracle too good to be true”
Our protagonist is on a sailing vessel that is distressed during a storm, when the boat steers toward what appears to be a safe harbor.  As the ship breaks apart on jagged reefs and is plundered by locals, our protagonist is the sole survivor.  This is the 3rd single from the album.
The music for this song came about when Geddy was fooling around with one of Alex’s guitars that had been set to “Nashville tuning”.  After Geddy wrote the chorus and verse chords, Alex grabbed a bass and wrote the bass part. 
*Songwriting Note*: Nashville tuning is replacing the 4 low strings (E A D G) on a 6-string guitar with lighter gauge strings set an octave higher than usual.  This is usually done by taking the higher strings from a 12-string set.

“Some days were dark / I wish that I could live it all again”
Our protagonist reflects back on his adventures, and despite enduring some tough times, he wishes he could do it all over for the fun of it.  This is the 2nd single from the album.
This is the song that “old Rush” fans would enjoy the most.  It’s a non-stop out-of-control jam.  The lyric “I wish that I could live it all again” came from Neil’s drum teacher and friend Freddie Gruber who passed away in 2011.  The drum work on this song is insane!

“Belief has failed me now / Life goes from bad to worse”
A dark cloud is over our protagonist as he reflects back on his adventures again and this time he feels despair that things are not all that great living outside the orderly universe of the Watchmaker, but he makes the best of what he has left.  This is a very short, story-filler song.
*Songwriting Note*: Like BU2B, this song is a series of quatrains.

“Thank your stars you're not that way / Turn your back and walk away”
Rather than try to change or waste energy on people who are bitter and vengeful toward him, our protagonist decides to just walk away and let them go without even asking for an explanation.
The lyrics apparently sprang from Neil Peart’s own experiences with people once considered friends.  It’s a good hard-driving song, but the message in the lyrics carry the song.

“The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect / So hard to earn, so easily burned”
Sentimental and heartfelt, this is a song about reflection and the meaning of life itself.  The final song on the album is possibly the best song on the album.  Starts out with shimmering keyboards and strings, with acoustic guitar entering as the verse starts.  The drums do not enter until after the chorus – it’s a great build to the highly emotional song.  Say what you will about the tone of Geddy’s voice, but he nails this song perfectly.  Alex’s solo for this song is amazing!   Awesome, awesome song.

For all those “Old Rush” Rush fans – THIS is an album to check out.   
You might actually like it.