Am I the only person to find it odd that after 18 albums and 38 years of being one of the biggest and best progressive acts in the world, Rush have only just got round to creating their first ever, fully fledged concept album? It seems like something they were born for (and it born for them), and yet here we have Clockwork Angels, the 19th studio album from a band still trying something different.
There’s always been some kind of thematic link between songs on Rush albums, so it’s not as if we’ve ever had 10 completely disconnected songs like on an AC/DC album. From the theme of power on Power Windows to the discussions of personal faith on Snakes & Arrows, there’s some kind of message that’s being put forward, and a certain mood that arises because of that. In fact, you could say a concept album isn’t really that much of a difference for Rush, it’s just that they’re putting stuff into chronological order for us.
It’s a wonderful little story too. The focus is on a young man, stifled by his small-town life working on a farm who dreams of escape. He manages to escape that life, travelling to magnificent cities through exotic landscapes. He takes in some breathtaking sites while bumping into a few characters before tragedy befalls him, which causes him to contemplate a few things before he finds a little bit of solace. That solace might be tending to a metaphorical garden, but we can forgive Neil Peart a little moment of wordiness, right? What’s neat about this concept though is we’re placed squarely in the steampunk world in Peart’s mind in the first and second songs; that little bit of context goes a long, long way in the remaining few songs as you’ve already got an idea about this world. In addition, the final couple of tracks seem detached from the actual adventure of the protagonist, so there’s a nice bookend feel to the story; we get a prologue, introduction, middle, conclusion and epilogue out of Peart. It seems that having a story feel to the lyrics, rather than the personal touch of Vapor Trails and Snakes & Arrows, has led to Peart writing some of the best of his career so far. There’s a simplicity to the words because the detail is in the story; the world, the landscapes, the monuments and the people contained within, rather than the words themselves.
It’s a good job the music is just as stellar as Peart’s lyrics and concept, otherwise Clockwork Angels wouldn’t have half the impact it does. There are times when Rush are simply on fire. “Headlong Flight” doesn’t just bristle with energy, it explodes out of the starter’s gate and continues along a manic musical path for the remaining seven minutes, “BU2B” is the heaviest and menacing sounding Rush song you’ll hear this side of “2112” while the title track twists and turns at every possible opportunity. Rush haven’t sounded this invigorating since Power Windows. Then there’s “The Wreckers,” a deceptively upbeat Lifeson riff gives way to a dramatic and chilling passage of David Campbell composed strings, which lend a certain gravitas to the song (the lyrics demand it though). It’s all very thrilling.
As good as it is to hear the band rock out, the melodies on Clockwork Angels are the icing on the cake; the parts of the album you enjoy the most. There are some serious arena-filling singalongs on Clockwork Angels, the chorus of “The Wreckers” being one of them. The whole of “The Garden” is gorgeous, and there’s a simplicity to “The Anarchist” that leaves you humming its main melody hours after the album’s finished playing.
If there is a reservation about Clockwork Angels, it’s the slight return to the alt-rock sound that characterised Counterparts and Test For Echo. The three lead singles: “Caravan”, “BU2B” and “Headlong Flight” suggested the band were going to join Mastodon and others’ new progressive rock parade, but the rest of Clockwork Angels moves away from that. Could that more simple and dare I say it, uninspiring sound take away from the epic nature of story? It’s a question I’ve not really finished pondering just yet. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, just a little unexpected.
Nevertheless, Clockwork Angels is a highlight of Rush’s career. It’s modern sounding, and everything seems to fall into place; the lyrics, the concept, the music, the band chemistry, even the booklet artwork is great. Clockwork Angels isn’t just about a band who are trying out a concept album for the first time. It’s showcasing a band full of energy, life and ideas. More importantly, it’s a band looking towards their future rather than their past, and that’s pretty exciting.