The single releases of “Caravan” and “BU2B” would precede the release of “Clockwork Angels” proper by a whole year, with the entirety of the “Time Machine Tour” in-between (and where the singles would first be shown off live).  While the band have certainly never been slouches in the studio, they seemed to really be taking their time this round, making sure everything was perfect before the album would see available to the public.  Nick Raskulinecz (again in the producer’s chair) would push the band to new limits and new lengths, with Neil in particular almost completely re-inventing the way he records drums.

The more news would be released about “Clockwork Angels”, the more it would became apparent that the band was getting ambitious with their music and their lyrics on this one.  While the band had certainly done albums with very tight “themes”, they hadn’t done a proper concept album since “2112”, and “Clockwork Angels” was shaping up to be just that.  The “story” of the album eventually became so fleshed out that the band hired science-fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson (yes yes, I know, he ruined “Dune”, moving on) to draft a proper fictional novel in conjunction with the album’s release.

At this point, I should confess something: “Clockwork Angels” was the reason I started these Rush reviews in the first place.  Oh sure I was a huge Rush fan before its release, but “Clockwork Angels” is simply…brilliant.  The breadth and scope of the album is spectacular and epic, but tight enough where almost no track is wasted.  It’s not only easily the band’s best work since their hiatus, it may arguably be in the top five best Rush albums of all time, right alongside “2112” and “Moving Pictures”.

Writing about “Clockwork Angels” has proven a challenge for me though, as the album and release itself has been so dense I’m not sure where to start or how to approach it.  The pre-release materials, the album liner notes, and the novel itself feature so much of the in-album “story” that it would be gauche to not mention it.  That being said, any album by any band needs to stand on the music.  Any ancillary materials like liner notes or a novel (or a comic book) are fun extras, but are nevertheless incidental.  I will briefly summarize the “plot” of the album (and the book) for you now though:

A young farm boy (named Owen Hardy in the novel) sets off on a caravan toward Crown City seeking his fortune.  Crown City is ruled over by The Watchmaker and his army of Regulators (alchemist priests using coldfire for power and light), who keep everything running (including the weather) with mechanical precision.  In Chronos Square, the heart of Crown City, people gather to worship the Clockwork Angels (Land, Sea, Sky, and Light) at the grand Cathedral of the Timekeepers, who encourage their worshippers to believe that everything will turn out for the best.  After all, why would something good or bad happen to you if you did not deserve it?

Our hero finds work with a traveling carnival in the Square (and a hopeless romance with one of the acrobats), but is soon falsely implicated when a wild Anarchist attempts to demolish the Cathedral and tosses to the detonator to him.  Fleeing for his life, he takes up as an alchemy miner in various locations, but is later ship-wrecked and is left the only survivor.  Feeling beaten, victimized, and betrayed, our hero later finds peace when he takes control of his life, puts the strife of his past behind him, and settles down his own gentle garden with a family and comfort.

While not going too much deeper, I will say that Anderson fleshes that outline out more with Owen having more encounters with The Anarchist and The Watchmaker, the two of whom break into an all-out war.  He also sprinkles in lyrics from Rush’s entire catalog into this world’s conversation and parlance, some subtle and some not (and honestly it reminded me of how I approach “Eddie Van Helsing” a bit).  For hardcore Rush fans and general steam punk fans, I’d give it a read.

That aside, what struck me about the general summation of the story is how much of it parallels Neil Peart’s life up until now.  The humble farm life of Owen mirrors him being born to a tractor salesman in Canada, and then later setting off to find his fortune as a professional drummer in England with little success.  The Carnies are clearly a reference to him working at a carnival as a teenager (cover in Rush’s early song “Lakeside Park”).  The Wreckers and his subsequent loss of faith can be seen as a metaphor for the loss of his family (especially since his daughter Selena died in a car accident).

Really, the entire album can be taken as a culmination of everything Rush has done up until now.  It rocks hard, but it’s also tender and at times grandiose.  It has a concept behind it, but even if you don’t follow it you can still enjoy the music.  It’s everything and anything the band has been up until now.

…So let’s stop babbling and cover the songs themselves, shall we?

The album starts with the clanging train bells of “Caravan”, metaphorically and literally starting off slow before picking up steam.  One of the things that’s delighted me about Rush’s post-“Vapor Trails” output is how they’ve re-emphasized big riffs without losing the musical dexterity they gained during the Synth Era.  It also has killer lyrics, with the fantastic opening line: “In a world lit only by fire…”.  The chorus also sums up Neil and Rush’s classic modus operandi: “I can’t stop thinking big”.

“BU2B” made me jump in my seat when I first heard the single release, having some one of the biggest riffs and most in-your-face production I’ve heard from the band yet (though thankfully without the clipping issues on “Vapor Trails”).  The album version adds a new twist with an almost Wild West remix at the beginning before launching into the song proper.  The whole thing is so huge it feels like the world is coming thundering down, reaching it’s proper crescendo during Alex’s solo.

But these are merely introductions, preludes if you will.  The title track could properly be considered the “overture” of this rock opera.  And I use that term purposefully because Alex’s playing and the production on this track have the high-energy jangle and epic sweep of a Pete Townshend classic, no doubt intention by hardcore Who fans like Rush.  Even Alex’s processed, stuttering tones (produced by the Guitar Rig 5 program) recall the sequenced synths you’d hear on “Baba O’Riley”.  Even the acoustics in the middle (after Alex’s epic solo) recall “Pinball Wizard” to an extent.  An absolute masterpiece of a song and the perfect overture for this album.

Things get more menacing on “The Anarchist”, with a sinister rhythm that almost mimics a flamenco or Indian beat.  This track is probably where I should mention something that I completely missed my first few times listening to this album: the strings.  At first I thought they were merely a high quality or warmer sounding synthesizer performed by Geddy (who had favored a mellotron for the brief keyboard parts on “Snakes & Arrows).  But nope: Rush and Nick Raskulinecz hired a proper string section and wrote proper string arrangements for this album!  They even brought the string section with them on the recent tour, the first time Rush had played and toured with guest musicians!  All I can say is that it’s a creative way for Rush to add atmosphere without keyboards, and it adds to the majestic, epic sweep of the album.

But back to the song: concerning the lyrics (and this is probably a stretch), but I can’t help but wonder if Rush was inspired somewhat by the Wall Street bail-out, the recession, and the Occupy movement when writing this song.  While The Anarchist himself is far from a heroic character, what he opposes isn’t much better, exploiting the masses and exercising unnecessary control from literal towers of gold.  At the same time, his indignation comes from envy, not altruism.  He sings: “I lack their smiles and their diamonds/I lack their happiness and love/I envy them for all those things/I never got my fair share of.”  There are lots of shades of gray from his point of view, and even though Neil is a former Randian, it’s nice to see him not presenting a cut-and-dry approach on the issue.

Of the big riffs present on the record, “Carnies” is one of the biggest thus far.  When the pre-chorus is reached though, Alex’s digital processing creatively mimics the sound of a twisted carousel, presenting the picture of a grotesque carnival.  Even before our hero is framed for the Anarchist’s crimes, all is not bright.  Even within sight of the angels he feels restless and dis-sastified.  “Sometimes the angels punish us/By answering our prayers”.

Things turn more tender on “Halo Effect”, with the gentle acoustics and swelling strings, which approach a (dare I say it?) Beatles-esque tone at times.  Even though it’s a song about heartbreak and unreciprocated affection, Geddy sounds almost seductive singing it, having come a long way from the awkward lad who wrote “In The Mood”.  The strings match the intensity of the guitars when they distort, and Alex gets a sweet mandolin solo to close things out.

A real star on “Clockwork Angels” is Geddy Lee’s bass, and on “Seven Cities of Gold” it takes center stage before Alex’s huge riffs make their entrance.  There are several songs on this album that truly recall Rush’s earlier days, but they’re written and played with the skill and verve of almost forty years of experience.  With the thick bass and liberal sprinkling of Hammond organs, this track is pure prog rock at its finest.

“The Wreckers” is a bit different from the other tracks on this album, and even other Rush tracks in general.  There’s no big riff or huge distortion on this song.  Instead of grinding, the song jangles, even adding some U2-like delay during the verses.  The drama on this track comes from Geddy’s voice and the intensity of the strings, crescendoing towards the end when you get the sense that Owen’s ship has crashed.  Of all the songs on “Clockwork Angels”, this is probably my personal favorite and I was delighted when it was released as a single.

“Headlong Flight” was a song I had a hard time writing about for a while.  I’ll admit the first time I heard it (in sequence with the rest of the “Clockwork Angels” tracks, rather than the single release), I didn’t really think much of it.  But on repeated listens, and the more I absorbed the themes and plot behind the album, I began to enjoy it for this reason: it’s the climax of the story, and is appropriately apocalyptic.  In the book, this is where the forces of The Watchmaker and The Anarchist finally collide, and Owen decides to think for himself rather than let them lead him along.  Concerning Neil’s lyrics, what I find unique about this track is that while he’s wishing he could live his life again, he doesn’t want to do things differently.  Even with all the pain and heartbreak, he wants to live it again with the character and experience he gained from those events so he can really appreciate their impact.

I will say from a musical stand-point, Rush throws everything at this track.  Ever since their return, Rush seems to have at least one track on each record where they just go for broke (“Main Monkey Business” being an example) and “Headlong Flight” is one of them.  Geddy’s bass sounds huge, his voice is in perfect form, the riff is reminiscent of classic Rush (like “Bastille Day” on steroids), and Alex brings the house down with his epic wah-wah solo.

“BU2B2” isn’t so much a song as an interlude, a reprise if you will.  Like his voice sounding surprisingly seductive on “Halo Effect”, Geddy’s vocals are surprisingly despondent on this track, singing about how “Belief has failed me now”.  With the only instruments being the string section with some analog synths at the end for atmosphere, there truly is no other Rush song like it.

Like “The Wreckers”, the guitars on “Wish Them Well” brightly jangle as oppose to sinisterly grind like the heavier tracks on this album, though there is a bit more bite here.  While a good song, I admit it’s not one of my favorites on the record, though I appreciate the message in the lyrics.  Rather than getting angry at things in this world you can’t control, the best you can do is find your own peace-of-mind and wish others the best.  It’s a mature conclusion to reach, and one I think we all can appreciate.

The album closes with “The Garden”, which again is another song unlike any Rush has done before.  The strings swell again, Geddy’s bass thump gives way to gentle plucking, and Alex has his simple folksy acoustic guitar.  The lyrics are heart-breakingly beautiful, with the theme of “time” coming back around (which the band also covered rather tenderly on the “Time Machine Tour”), particularly with the lyric “It is what it is and whatever/Time is still the infinite jest”.

I confess I got quite emotional listening to this track, for a specific reason: this could possibly be Rush’s swan song.  There’s nothing to indicate specifically that the band would be retiring any time soon, but all the members are over sixty now and can’t put on epic three hour shows forever.  It’s something I don’t want to think about, but it’s out there.  So if this is truly the last Rush song to be released, what note are we going to end on?

As the keys of a piano are gently plucked, before Alex’s soaring solo, we get this:

“Hope is what remains to be seen.”

…Well there we have it.

BEST SONG: “The Wreckers”

BEST LYRIC: “The future disappears into memory/With only a moment between/Forever dwells in that moment/Hope is what remains to be seen”

MY RATING?  Essential