Artist: Rush

Album: Clockwork Angels

Rush — singer/ bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and lyricist/ drum collector Neal Peart — have made albums since 1974, which I think warrants a bit of background for newcomers, until that set of asterisks below. There’s a constant element of Rushness to their sound, but they’ve rush_clockwork_angelsgone through some large stylistic changes. They began as a shrieky hard-rock band. At first ripping off Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath stomps, they quickly evolved towards 13/8 time signatures, drum solos, album-long stories, and Ayn Randist political fables delivered with the cockiness of defiant 15-year-olds. Keyboards and glossier guitar production entered their sound with 1980’s Permanent Waves, and for three years they had a series of massive (in my opinion terrific) hits. The Spirit of Radio stitched twiddly slow-evolving synth intros from the Who, lyrics modified from Simon & Garfunkel, and a bridge from 3rd-hand rumors of reggae into a grand anthem. Free Will, Red Barchetta, Limelight, and Subdivisions made classic-rock staples out of shifting time signatures. Tom Sawyer made 4/4 towering and novel.

1982-87 saw their songs getting icier, more synthetic and abstract. But Lee’s voice started to deepen and refine, and by Presto (’89) and Roll the Bones (’91) Rush were a pop band: capable of dazzling riffs, capable of out-playing your favorite band and proud of it, but a pop band, melodic and graceful. Peart, the former lyricist of such lecture-like fantasies as the Temples of Syrinx and By-Tor and the Snow Dog, wrote sensitively about teenage insecurity, a suicidal friend, the improbable events involved in any two lovers finding each other, and how “I’m not one with a sense of proportion … I’m just improvising … I radiate more heat than light”.

Then they gave up the synthesizers and became, I would argue, a sort of heavy metal band. Metal or not, they made two albums of thundering, riff-intensive, densely layered pop songs: most notably Counterparts (’93), almost a theme album about the challenges of learning empathy, an apology for youthful Ayn Rand worship without naming her. But then came a multi-year hiatus when Neal Peart’s wife and daughter died within a year’s span. On his return (for Vapor Trails (’02)), his lyrics were vaguer, more evasive — for which I blame him not at all. The band’s music was leaner and fiercer: the riffs aggressive, the solos rare, the “tunes” more like bluesy meandering.


In 2012, following two albums of that, came Clockwork Angels. It has been widely hailed as their best record since their glory days, usually meaning 1977-81. I’ll agree, if I’m allowed to define their glory days as 1989-93. Produced by Nick Raskulinecz — a Grammy winner known for work with modern-rock radio bands like the Foo Fighters, Evanescence, and the Deftones — it’s 66 minutes of loud, impeccably polished and up-to-date power-trio rock songs that, if rather uniform in the grand scheme of things, do an excellent job calling attention to the details of individual performances. (Vapor Trails fought awful, blurry production: professionalism has its uses.) Atmospheric synthesizer and delay-pedaled, tremolo-pedaled guitars set dramatic openings for many songs, and those synths (and perhaps actual bowed strings a couple of times?) do more background service during the songs proper than in any Rush album for 20 years. All attention, however, is centered on guitar/ bass/ drums. Lifeson’s solos are back; they’re tuneful enough. Geddy Lee’s bass playing — his agile quick-fingered runs, his little turns towards funk or spaciness, and his sheer attempts to crush you — may be the most impressive it’s ever been, which means it’s pretty near as impressive as *anyone* has ever been. Neal Peart still takes, and talks about, his drum lessons, and while he’s omnipresent here, he finds a wide if subtle variety of ways to push the songs along.

Most of the vocal melodies still seem, to me, wandering and interchangeable, but the many-segmented Clockwork Angels itself puts together several soaring ones, and both Brought Up to Believe and the Wreckers are quite hummable. As for a more typical track here like the Anarchist, I hum the bass and guitar parts, and those synthesized-strings faux-snake-charmer bits. I’ve learned that while melody is central for me, and the vocals are where I first turn for it, I’m happy to find good wordless ones; Rush‘s Clockwork Angels strews ’em throughout. Lee’s bass playing can be foreground for me; his singing can be background, in which context it’s strong, flexible, and pleasant.

Which will be a “Wait? What?” claim for many fans, because Clockwork Angels is a story album. It’s a philosophical quest in a steampunk universe, in the course of which our narrator leaves his childhood small-town still half-believing in a planned, properly-slotted order for everyone. He experiences awe at his capitol city’s (yes) clockwork angels, “Celestial machinery” that “Span the sky in clockwork arcs, hint at more than we can see”; but he’s restless. He joins a carnival, falls in love, loses love, searches for gold, is captured by pirates. He disdains pre-destination and has failed at individual glory; his final conclusions are in favor of forgiveness and trying to lead a small, kind, worthy life focused on the personal choices he can control. It’s a far better story than Peart was writing in the 1970s, certainly.

If he was a good enough writer for it, who knows how high I’d’ve ranked this record? But if you’re going to create a different world, teach us what it’s like to believe in it. William Kotzwinkle’s wonderful the Ants Who Took Away Time, a picture-heavy book that my 6- and 4-year-olds adore, conjures a clockwork universe with humor and absurdity but utter commitment. Ray Bradbury and Dean Koontz and Genevieve Valentine and Erin Morgenstern and even Doctor Who have made carnivals seductive, magical, and spooky. Treasure hunts and pirates have been fantasy staples for centuries. Peart’s narrator gives us little sense of the appeal of any of this. In particular, since you and I and everyone around us believes it’s our job to find our own way — even the fundamentalist Christian browsing the self-help section and paying a dating site to help “find God’s match for you” does — I would love to have a song from *inside* the belief that wisely-programmed machines will put us on our correct course. Instead we just get the rejection of it. We’re told it’s a journey for the narrator, but it’s sure as heck easy for us.

So I’m not here, ultimately, for the words (though they’re well above average, don’t get me wrong). Clockwork Angels is, to me, 2012’s most potent demonstration of the power and melody a guitar, bass, and drum set can bring. I write about rock music; you can assume I appreciate that sort of thing.

– Brian Block

To see the rest of our favorites, visit our Favorite Albums of 2012 page!