Music Preview: Rush’s Clockwork Angels

Posted: May 23, 2012 by Brian in Music, Music Review
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Rush - Clockwork Angels

Album art © 2012 Roadrunner Records

When a band is well into the fifth decade of its career, with its members pushing sixty years of age, they’re usually relegated to the nostalgia circuit—you know, playing sold-out shows to aging baby boomers at outdoor concerts with one or two other “retro” acts, and coasting on the success of the back-catalog. If such a band does dare to try to record some new material every once in a while, it’s usually a pale, weak shadow of the band’s glory days.

Not so the veteran hard rock trio Rush, who have spent almost forty years stubbornly walking their own path through the changing wilderness of the rock ‘n’ roll world.

Here in the 21st century, music is a disposable commodity, instantly downloadable in bite-size single-track portions for instant gratification and just-as-instant obsolescence. The album as a long-form statement with lasting value is a thing of the past. But while the music industry has “fought” the digital revolution for the last decade by retreating into a cynical corporate turtle-shell and truculently continuing to churn out product, Rush is gearing up to do something so “uncool” it’s awesome: On June 12, they will release their nineteenth studio album, the concept-driven Clockwork Angels, with a novel of the album’s story to follow later in the year.

Three tracks from that project have already been released to the public, and based on those I actually have a pretty good feeling about this…

Despite the fact that their lineup has been exceptionally stable—bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson first formed the band as teenagers in the late 1960s, and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart replaced the band’s original drummer (the late John Rutsey) shortly after the release of their self-titled debut album in 1974—their music has been anything but static. It has always been one of Rush’s obvious musical priorities to keep evolving, from the Zeppelin-esque proto-metal of 1975’s Fly by Night to the full-blown progressive rock of 1978’s Hemispheres, from the new wave sheen of 1984’s Grace Under Pressure to the huge grunge-tinged grooves of 1993’s Counterparts.

Rush 2012

L to R: Peart, Lee, Lifeson

Rush released “Caravan” and “BU2B”, which will be the first two tracks on Clockwork Angels, back in 2010 in support of their “Time Machine” Tour, while “Headlong Flight” (slated to be track #9) saw the light of day on RollingStone.com this past April. Those three songs seem to indicate that even though all three of these guys will turn 60 years old within the next eighteen months, that drive to keep pushing forward continues unabated. The ballsy but textured hard rock roar that Rush has been growing into over the last twenty years (after spending most of the 1980s working with a less-intense, keyboard-heavy sound) appears to be more intensely focused than ever, with the inherently massive riffs and grooves magnified to inconceivably gargantuan proportions by the epic production of Nick Raskulinecz (back again in the co-producer’s chair after working the same magic on their last album, 2007’s Snakes & Arrows). Check out those turn-on-a-dime corners when the drum groove enters on “Caravan”, or the way the opening riff of “BU2B” sinuously weaves its way through the stomping drums, like a fat snake avoiding the feet of a stampeding elephant herd. Lee’s busy bass is just as melodic as ever, able to carry a riff all by itself, while Peart continues to earn his reputation as one of the most justly revered drummers in all of rock music.

But for my money, the true standout on these three tracks is Lifeson, who plows through massive riffs, textured backgrounds, and frenzied solos alike with a ferocity unprecedented even for him. If these three tracks are any indication, Clockwork Angels will be, like Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien or Metallica’s Master of Puppets, the kind of album cited by the world’s best guitarists (and bassists, and drummers) twenty or thirty years from now as the reason they play guitar (or bass, or drums) in the first place… if it can find its way into their hands and earholes, that is. Sadly, I worry that as good as this new album is shaping up to be, the bulk of its audience will be Rush’s long-established, fanatically loyal fanbase, with little hope of the messed up, niche-oriented thing that passes for today’s music distribution system exposing new people to it.

It’s been known for some time that Clockwork Angels will be a concept album (an album on which all the songs contribute to a single storyline or idea). For me, though, the most exciting part of the project was announced back in February: Peart has collaborated with his longtime friend, veteran best-selling science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson, on the storyline, and Anderson’s novelization of the album will be out in September.

This isn’t the first time Anderson has combined his successful writing career with his musical tastes. After making a pretty good name for himself both with his own works (such as Assemblers of Infinity, which was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1994) and his work with others (he’s been Brian Herbert’s co-author on a bunch of Dune prequels, and has authored or co-authored a huge number of novels for licensed properties like Star Wars and The X-Files), he teamed up with progressive rock keyboardist Erik Norlander to form a band called Roswell Six, who created CDs of original music to accompany Anderson’s Terra Incognita trilogy of science fiction novels.

Now he’s doing the same on a larger stage, it seems. Anderson describes the album’s storyline:

“In a young man’s quest to follow his dreams, he is caught between the grandiose forces of order and chaos. He travels across a lavish and colorful world of steampunk and alchemy, with lost cities, pirates, anarchists, exotic carnivals, and a rigid Watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life.”

So the story sounds right up my steampunk-loving alley (“I have stoked the fire on the big steel wheels/Steered the airship right across the stars,” sings Geddy on “Headlong Flight”) and the multimedia aspect shows that Rush is still pushing boundaries. They’re not just dropping occasional one-offs for the short-attention-span set on iTunes, but challenging their audience to go along with them on this large-scale journey.

All the early indications are the journey’s gonna be more than worth it.

Check out the three tracks that are out so far:

Caravan:

BU2B:

Headlong Flight:

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